HomeSocial Impact HeroesDanny O’Malley: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First...

Danny O’Malley: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker

Interview with Guernslye Honorés

Most of the people you make films with in the beginning will not be in the industry in a decade. It’s a survivor’s game, and if you’re left, you move up by process of elimination. Also the people who are left are often people you wouldn’t expect.

As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Danny O’Malley.

Danny O’Malley is a grammy nominated and James Beard nominated film director. Best known for his work on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, where he serves as executive producer and a director. Danny has worked filming with bands across the US including Tegan and Sara, The Rentals, The Decemberists, Kraftwerk, and more. His documentary, ‘States’, from Tegan and Sara’s release ‘Get Along’ was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Long Form Music Video. Danny made his mark in documentary television to work as a story producer where his work has aired on Netflix, Fox Sports One, and NBC. On Chef’s Table, Danny is a key driving force behind the character-driven storytelling that is the show‘s signature. Danny and his directing partner Alex Rivest PhD teamed up to change the way science storytelling and won the Alfred P Sloan development grant in 2017. That effort led to the creation of their first documentary feature CANARY, the thrilling film about the world-renowned climate scientist Dr. Lonnie Thompson who Harvard geochemist Daniel Schrag calls “the closest living thing to Indiana Jones. CANARY will be in over 150 theaters in September.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. If you’ve seen John Hughes movies like HOME ALONE, BREAKFAST CLUB, and FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, that’s what it was like. I grew up in a house of 4 boys and we all played sports. Though I liked sports, I was always drawn to music and movies. They’d give me feelings and a sense of place that I never had experienced. It gave me a sense that there was something out there in the world that I didn’t understand, and I wanted to understand it. My mom would drop us off at the mall and we’d sneak into R-rated films, and then go to the Barnes and Noble to listen records. I didn’t have much context on filmmaking, but through film trailers, movie listings, and Blockbuster video rentals somehow I found my way to a lot of the great films of the 90’s. In the 8th grade, I went to the BIG LEBOWSKI on opening day. I didn’t know who the Cohen brothers were, but somehow I picked films well. I never imagined filmmaking would take me on top of an 18,000ft mountain!

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

In high school, my family got one of those early 2000’s iMacs with iMovie. I started playing around with it and found that I had a knack for it. On school projects, I would do video projects because it was a way to have fun and get a better grade than I probably deserved. (My chemistry teacher Mr. Wurth was the only teacher to see through it and give me a B, which I respected him a lot for.) Then my junior year, I went to the guidance counselor’s office to talk about college, I said I wanted to go to film school. They told me “USC is the best film school” and I said “Ok, I guess I’ll go to South Carolina if I need to.” They then pointed out that USC was in California, which I was also fine with!! That’s where I ended up.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

I was working as an intern at a post-production house and the assistant editor had a lot of hustle and was always shooting his own stuff. About a year after that job, we touched base and he asked me to come work as a PA on a music video shoot he was doing. He shot three music videos in one day with two different artists. I worked the day, and sometime later, I got invited to go to one of the artists acoustic show at the Hotel Cafe. I remember the house being packed with people whispering “She’s going to be huge!” and “She’s so good.” Now, she was nice to me on the shoot and she was really talented, but I was a sensitive indie rock guy, and she was singing all these pop songs on an acoustic guitar. I was certain everyone in the room was wrong. Needless to say they knew something I didn’t and she was Katy Perry.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I’ve filmed rock stars, chefs, athletes, and I gotta say scientists are on another level. In our search for science stories, we’ve met scientists that have been kidnapped, negotiated peace treaties, saved species, fought corruption, and they’ve had to navigate all sorts of cultures and landscapes to do their science. On CANARY, we learned about Lonnie’s expeditions over the years, and I’ve never met anyone with more adventures or endured such challenging circumstances. He was one of the first scientists to go to China when trade was normalized with China. It is said that he lived at high elevation over 4 years, more than any other person on the planet. He discovered a whole field of scientific study and if he hadn’t pursued it, all that knowledge would have never been acquired. He really is a real life superhero.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Nothing happens in your career without other people making it happen. I was working an office job, where I was the one burning in names on screener DVD’s that got sent out. It was an anti-piracy measure, so that if that screener leaked on the internet, they would know where it came from. I didn’t know it, but I was terrible at the job. They pretty much asked me to leave. At the time I was taking piano lessons, and my teacher Lauren said she was in a rock band and they needed video editors for a project. So, I ended up working for the band The Rentals, and then Matt from The Rentals recommended me to Tegan and Sara. The project I did with Tegan and Sara earned me a Grammy nomination.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I heard Marti Noxon showrunner and TV writer on a podcast say “A good character is someone who’s fully committed to a bad plan.” As a storyteller, I find that a useful framing to get someone’s goals set against clear stakes. In Canary, Lonnie’s plan to take a 6-ton drill up a mountain in the middle of nowhere to do science was a crazy one, but he was fully committed. That combination always makes for a great story. As a filmmaker trying to tell original stories in Hollywood, I sometimes wonder if I’m fully committed to a bad plan.

I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

The first reason diversity is important is that film and TV create a lot of empathy. Having more voices in the mix is an opportunity for people to realize that most of us are driven by the same things and there’s more we have in common than what divides us. Second, there’s just a course correction Hollywood needs to do, because for decades they defined different cultures from a white POV. As a white male who grew up in an isolated and white neighborhood, I got those wrong signals on TV. I was so grateful to go to college in LA, where I met a lot of people from different backgrounds. My life experiences filled in the gaps that the movies didn’t. Hollywood is starting to change that for the better, but we have a long way to go. Finally, people love stories they’ve never heard before. Having different voices and perspectives creates new stories. The potential for great audiences experiences and business opportunities is very real.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Honestly, there are about 4 or 5 projects that I’m really excited about right now. My producing partners on CANARY, Adam Paul Smith and Alex Rivest PhD, and I have started a production company. It’s called End of the Road Films, and it’s based off of Lonnie from CANARY. He got to the end of the road in the film, and his adventure started where others would stop and go home. Our slate is full of ambitious, creative, and entertaining projects. We’ve got a podcast about doppelgängers, a rock doc from a great filmmaker, I’m writing a script. I can’t really let the cat out of the bag, but we’ve doubled down and are chasing projects that are unexpected and original.

Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?

When Alex and I set out to make CANARY, I could’ve done other things. I could have directed commercials, I could have made something about a celebrity, or could have taken a well paid position on a show I don’t believe in. Instead we risked a lot to make an independent movie, against the odds it’s showing in 140+ theaters across the country this week. There’s going to be people who know about Lonnie Thompson, his grit, his message, and have hope. I’m proud that I chose to do the hard thing.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.

  1. Support your filmmaker friends. You may be overwhelmed and busy, but take their calls, catch up when they are in town, watch their cuts, read their scripts, help whenever you can. They will help you one day too. When I was in the toughest part of the edit on Canary, the people I worked with all showed up and gave feedback to help make it come together. It really made a difference, and you’ll need that kind of support. When you’re telling a story no one’s ever told before, there’s no one who can tell you what to do, but people who give their honest feedback are very helpful.
  2. Most of the people you make films with in the beginning will not be in the industry in a decade. It’s a survivor’s game, and if you’re left, you move up by process of elimination. Also the people who are left are often people you wouldn’t expect.
  3. Character is the most powerful thing you can harness in a film. Shots, sound design, editing, special effects. None of it matters without character. When I went to film school, I found this frustrating. I’d say things like “Why can’t we make a movie about an idea? Or a story about everything!” Now that I’ve had to make things, I realize film is an emotional medium and if you don’t have a character, it’s going to be twice as hard.
  4. Get close to people who make things regularly. When I was starting out, I wanted autonomy and I wanted to be able to do my own thing. I pictured myself writing a screenplay and getting a small indie budget and making the film with my friends who were not yet working professionally on a regular basis. That held me back for years. It wasn’t until I started working in TV that I saw people who actually make stuff and you learn a lot… and fast! There are so many deadlines, talented people, and uncomfortable realities you face in working in TV that you learn much faster. There’s more feedback, more material to change your approach on, and more opportunities to reach an audience. The show that led to Chef’s Table which led to CANAR, was a Lifetime talk show. Don’t worry what it is, just start working with the people who are making things. You’ll figure out where to go from there.
  5. Success feels more like constant failure than you’d think. When you’re starting out you fear rejection, and once you’ve faced it enough, you realize that the road to good ideas is paved in your bad ideas. When I was young, I had a lot of ideas that I never followed through on because I was scared about rejection. Then when I started working in TV, you have to move so fast that you start looking for the things that aren’t working. Everything flips, and the things that you need to improve become the opportunities for you to make it better.

When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?

The story… the filmmaker, the financiers, the producers, my vision: they all are trying to unearth a story, and when the story really starts to reveal itself you need to get out of the way. So that it reaches the audience intact. When you impose something on the story, you can feel that in the film. On CANARY, our ending was like that, I thought I knew how this movie ended and tried to build it that way. I fooled myself. It wasn’t until I was deep into the process that I saw Lonnie told the same story about his daughter three times. I was like, why does he keep telling me this story? I realized that story was what the moment Lonnie’s life was building to.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I have a lot of lofty ideas, but unless we end our civilization’s addiction to fossil fuels all the lofty ideas won’t matter much, because we’ll be too busy dealing with the political, food, and cultural instability.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

I’m still trying to meet Stephen Spielberg. He mastered the medium and may be the best who ever lived. I’d love to learn from the best.

How can our readers further follow you online?

On Instagram and I’m thinking of starting a substack where I share things I learned about filmmaking. You can also check out for more information on the documentary CANARY.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Danny O’Malley: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.