Before a conversation with Richard Reens, one must surmount the challenge of picking from the dozens of topics in which Reens has considerable expertise.
After all, Reens has made a career out of taking award-winning still photographs, directing commercials for some of the most recognizable global brands, and directing narrative and documentary films. With a resume like that, it is difficult to even choose where to begin.
But, to start this interview? Reens gave some insight into the particularly fickle world of artisan hand sanitizer.
“The Grove Collaborative is a sustainable online store that has basically all the cleaning fluids, hand sanitizers, everything… I think they have Italian orange – or blood-orange-smelling hand sanitizers – it’s actually really good. And then the other place to get sanitizer, if you really want artisanal is from the oldest pharmacy in the world called Santa Maria Novella…”
As Reens rattled off his go-to spots for what, in 2021, had become one of the most in-demand products anybody could buy, we scribbled frantically in our notebooks so that we’d remember where to go next for our hand sanitizer. Reens laughed.
“You’re interviewing Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory,” he jokes.
Reens’s knowledge in this area only goes to show that everything he does, he strives to do well. Self-hygiene expertise aside, Reens also spoke to CreativeFuture about the early days of his career, where he draws his inspiration from, and his latest documentary short, Pant Hoot.
JC TAYLOR: Let’s start with the beginning for you, because I know that your father was a photographer. What was it like growing up with an artist in the household and how did that inspire you to get into the arts?
RICHARD REENS: Well, yeah that’s interesting. It’s only interesting because I never thought of it that way. Nobody thinks about “oh, what was it like having a celebrity so-and-so as your…” I don’t know, that was my only parent. And my father really was my only parent because my mother died when I was young.
He was very supportive and understanding. If you’re going to go into the arts for a career, usually you don’t get a ton of support from the family, and most people don’t get it. My family got it – but my friends were thinking: “What?”
And I still get this question: “Oh, you’re still a director?” It’s just the weirdest question to be asked. People don’t see it as a real job, I guess.
JT: Growing up, how did you feel about it? Did you have a half-in-half-out mentality or did you always know that’s what you wanted to do?
RR: I guess I didn’t really know until I was 10 or 11, and by then, I was pretty sure about it. Before that, I wanted to be a scuba diver or a policeman or something. Whatever I was watching on TV.
No, I guess I entered my first photo contest at age 10, and I was hooked since then. This was back before the digital days, so we were shooting on film. You had to make a choice if you were going to shoot in black and white or color. With a digital camera, even if you set it to black and white, you’re still capturing all the colors.
My dad wouldn’t even let me have color film until I could properly develop, print, and shoot black and white. It taught me a lot about lighting and stuff.
In photography, now they have all this Rule of Thirds and Fibonacci curve and all that. We didn’t learn it that way. I learned it like, “That sucked. That didn’t.” You learn what sucks and you don’t do it ever again, and that was what I was learning at age 12.
JT: You’re saying age 10 and age 12 – another thing that really strikes me is that your career started when you were very young. You were shooting for Neiman Marcus at 18!
RR: Yes, I shot their Christmas catalogue. That was my second job. The first job was the Neiman Marcus Pink Sale, which was bedding and linen. I was 18 – so yeah, I started pretty young as a stills photographer, and I didn’t get into motion until a bit later.
I grew up in New York City, so during high school, you sit there and apply to the colleges, and they have schools of visual arts. Pratt, Parsons, FIT– tons of great art schools in New York City, so I applied for their scholarships. They said, “Yeah, we’ll give it to you, but we don’t think you should do it.” Too bad! Looking back, it would’ve been nice having a degree, but it wasn’t necessary. I was already assisting very big names of New York photographers – including my dad – throughout high school.
Where you really learn is as an apprentice. You can learn all the technical stuff when you’re 10, and then you learn how to deal with clients and things like that when you’re a teenager, so then you’re pretty much ready to go when you’re old enough to vote.
JT: Tell me a little more about working with clients – because your portraits have this real sense of intimacy. Do you have a method of working with people to get them comfortable on a shoot? Is that something you’ve learned about? How does that creative process work?
RR: The intimacy comes from the fact that I really do want to hear what they have to say, I want to get to know them. I’m friends with almost all my clients. You have to be interested in whatever subject you are photographing or filming in order to have other people interested in looking at it. I mean, if you’re not interested, why the hell should anyone else be?
JT: When you first moved into filmmaking, what was that transition process like?
RR: Well, I resisted it at first.
When you’re on a film set, you realize that you are spending thousands of dollars every minute – if not every second – so you’re very, very conscious of your time.
I always thought, “Oh, those film people with their walkie-talkies.” I didn’t understand – why do they have so many people working on this? And now, doing a film, I know that there’s not one crewmember I could do without. I would give up extras that are in front of the camera before I would give up anybody behind the set.
But at that time, I didn’t know that yet. So, there was a bit of resistance. I didn’t want to do it.
And then, I promised a producer that I would consider it only to shut him up and get him out of there. But also, I don’t lie. I’m not going to sit there and say I’m going to do something and then not do it.
JT: You learned still photography on film. Do you have, like, a film-loyalty kind of thing? Because we hear about a lot of filmmakers that prefer shooting on film over digital or some that prefer vice-versa.
RR: I use whatever tool is necessary.
But today, I honestly don’t know what you can’t do with digital that you can do with film. It’s so weird, you see these people posting “Oh, great, real film.” But they’re posting it on Instagram, which is a digital medium to view it in, and they have their image scanned, so it is a digital scan of the negative.
That takes away a lot of the other steps in between. It’s a bunch of BS! Look, I can put actual scanned (film) grain in a digital image. So, it can be incredibly accurate.
You know, if you think about black and white photography, a negative would have 50 shades of gray. That’s it. With digital, you have millions of colors and millions of shades. Yeah, there’s a lot of people that would really disagree with me on that, but I want to be able to get what I want to get.
JT: I think I’m on your side, too. I think people get too caught up in that stuff and lose focus on what the end-product is actually going to look like.
RR: Or the end-message. It’s like, “What are you trying to say?” You know? If you’re trying to say, “Hey, look at me. I’m shooting with film and I’m posting it on Instagram because I’m a 23-year-old influencer that really doesn’t know what that is but heard it was cool.” Then you’re just an idiot. (laughs) Sorry, not that all influencers are idiots. People who do this, it’s like, “Seriously guys. It’s still digital. It’s a scan.” You’re using Instagram or iPhoto to adjust the exposure. You didn’t do anything.
JT: Let’s talk about Instagram for a moment, because a lot of people say that it has changed the way we use or take photographs. Do you think social media has influenced that industry? Is it positive? Negative? What do you think?
RR: Well, I think it’s changed. It’s progress. It doesn’t affect me in a positive way, because anyone with an iPhone can take a really good picture now, and they can also make pretty good movies.
But I love technology. I love where everything is going. I always want to be able to take advantage of it, and I think it’s good.
JT: I want to talk about Pant Hoot, which tells thisthis incredible story of a survivor of the Burundi genocide that masters the pant hoot language – the chimp language – and is able to communicate in that language. How did that story first come across your radar?
RR: It was brought to my attention by Barbara Hollweg, who is the executive producer of Pant Hoot. She’s a wildlife photographer and she went to a chimp sanctuary, where she met Stany Nyandwi (who mastered pant hoot). This was about 15-16 years ago, and she was so blown away by him and his story and how he can communicate with chimps.
Stany and I still communicate every week or so on WhatsApp. He’s a sweet, wonderful human being, and he’s learned a lot of lessons because his life is working with wildlife on a level of intimacy that rangers and veterinarians can’t access.
JT: Well, it’s an incredible story. What was the experience like in South Africa?
RR: We filmed there for 5 days.
I got off the plane, went straight to “Chimp Eden,” and said, “Hey, let’s do some interviews.” We just dove into it since we had limited time. Some of the stuff that made it into the movie was all done on day one. Fresh off the plane.
And then, of course, you cannot make a movie that’s about chimpanzees without Jane Goodall being in it. She travels 300 days a year, so we caught up with her in Canada and spent a day with her.
JT: When people see the film, what do you hope they take away from it?
RR: Without being heavy-handed or anything, there’s definitely a conservation theme that’s in the movie. Jane Goodall talks about the choir of the wildlife, the natural sounds that she used to wake up to, and that the sound of extinction is actually the silence of extinction and that’s happening all around us every day.
Every day, we lose a thousand forms of life on this planet. Extinct. Gone for good. Not five, not 100. A thousand every single day. That’s 360,000 a year. That’s insane!
JT: That’s incredible.
RR: It is, and that’s including insects, plankton, plants, and also all of the other life that these creatures sustain. You must figure that there’s this huge chain that connects everything – how the forests are being cut down, the acidification of the oceans, all this stuff sustains life that we need to breath, to eat, to drink.
If you like chimpanzees, wouldn’t it suck if your grandchildren would never know what one was like? Not even in a zoo, you know, 50 years from now or 30 years from now? There were a million chimps last century, now there’s less than 300,000. That’s two-thirds gone.
JT: Well, that’s terrifying.
RR: But you know, Stany’s story is a lesson of love. After being separated from his family because of war, he found a family in the chimpanzees, and that helped take him away from the war and put into safety.
JT: You were only there for five days, but I am curious if you were able to learn any of the pant hoot language? I won’t make you do it.
RR: Oh good, thanks!
Not any more than what I know from the film. We would sit around at night after a day of filming, and Stany would tell us about the sounds of grooming and finding treasure and fighting.
Even the “last call,” the last thing before the chimps go to sleep. I could hear that every night because the chimps were one building over.
It is a seriously wild, primal sound to hear when you’re tucked in bed. The chimps would also wake up from a nightmare or something, you know? So, in the middle of the night, you could hear some chimpanzee screaming and then all the other guys are joining in saying, “It’s cool, we got your back, we got your back.”
But I couldn’t do pant hoot. If you look at the film, it’s not just vocalizations – it’s the body language, and Stany shows that pretty clearly. You learn that watching any animal. To watch a horse, their ears go back when they’re pissed off, when they don’t like what’s going on, or they don’t like another horse coming up next to them. When you see a dog wagging their tail, it doesn’t just mean they’re happy – it also means they’re nervous. You can see that. With a chimp, and with people, we’re all body language.
JT: After such a long and diverse career, do you have any advice for someone looking to work in the creative industries?
RR: Learn your subject and love your subject. Really, try to get to be their friend. I just listen. Listen and look and see and feel.
And I know that sounds new-agey, but it’s not meant to. You know? Be present.