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An Interview with Houston Coley

I'm going to admit a fact that might be disturbing to some: I have never actually watched a single Marvel movie. However, I have watched all of Houston Coley's videos about Marvel movies. Yes, I probably would have gotten more out of them had I actually watched the films, but I consider it a testament to Houston's capabilities as a storyteller that his videos manage to be enthralling even to those who aren't familiar with his subject matter.

But when I am familiar with what Houston is talking about, the experience of listening to his commentary is even more rewarding. His thoughtful remarks on class warfare in Knives Out, Parasite, and Us really moved me-- bringing to light the ills in our cultural milieu that these films were born out of. And the video that he made with his girlfriend, Debbie Macíková, about The Queen's Gambit is such a beautiful appreciation of the series, delving into every aspect of what made the show great, as well as what made it relatable to them personally.

Perhaps what I admire most about Houston's work, though, is that he doesn't limit himself to just discussing movies. One of his more recent videos is an in-depth evaluation of the importance of fantasy encyclopedias and art for art's sake. The videos on his joint channel with Debbie, Letters from Two Planets, are part love letters and part poetry reacting to our current environment of isolation-- really arresting meditations on love amidst a pandemic, the shortcomings of technology, and finding hope in trying times.

Even when he is talking about a movie, as Houston himself says, it's never just about the movie. It's about the philosophy that drives the movie, or what the movie means in the larger context of art, or how the movie reflects society, etc. His videos feel less authoritative and more like a jumping off point for discussion-- they invite conversation and community, which is what is most inspiring to me.

Who are your inspirations and what lessons have they taught you?

One huge inspiration would be C.S. Lewis, and The Inklings as well, which was the collaborative group of writers, with Lewis and Tolkien and many other writers of their time. They're a huge inspiration to me in terms of creating community and discussion around ideas that really matter. That's always been something that's very important to me. In the modern day, a few theologians that I love are N.T. Wright and Andrew Peterson, who is sort of a theologian and sort of a writer.

When I started my YouTube channel, I was definitely following in the pattern of NerdWriter and Every Frame A Painting. You start by imitating people and then you develop your own voice. I think now one of my biggest YouTube inspirations might be Joel Haver. I followed him before it was cool, before he suddenly got a million subscribers. I find his authenticity really endearing. He wants to make filmmaking accessible to people, and wants to promote the idea that anyone can make movies at any time, you don't need a huge crew.

I'm leaving out all the big figures like Walt Disney-- he's a massive inspiration to me. There's plenty to be said about how he was probably very greedy at times and capitalistic. He might have been anti-Semitic, though I think there's evidence that he wasn't. But as a figure, I find the things that he did very inspiring. I have always loved theme park design and the idea of these utopian ideals. I love the way that Walt Disney and people that worked for Disney thought about how we create spaces that reflect beauty and that draw people closer into community and closer into enjoying life. I really enjoy place-making.

Growing up J.K. Rowling was a massive inspiration to me. Not so much now. But as a kid I wanted to be a writer in a big way, and I was inspired by J.K. Rowling and Tolkien.

What work are you most proud of?

Some of the things that I'm the most proud of are things that I wouldn't even say are my best work, but I'm proud that I made them. Longbox Breakup was the first short film that I ever made. And it's not great. It's fine. It's kind of amateurish at parts but I was sixteen when I made it. I'm proud that I finished it and that it's as good as it is. I made it with a crew of sixth graders so it was very low budget and I was working with a lot of limitations but I'm proud that it works as well as it does. In a similar vein, I wrote a fantasy novel when I was twelve years old that's like eight-hundred pages. Looking back, it's not great and it's very derivative. But I wrote an eight-hundred page novel when I was twelve! I'm proud that I did that, I think.

I would say that the piece of art I'm most proud of making recently has been the Letters From Two Planets videos that I made with my girlfriend. They were born out of really strong emotions, and born out of wanting to make something real. We're still separated by the pandemic-- we've been separated for over a year now --and all three of those videos were an attempt to capture those feelings, and an attempt to make something real and tangible that reminded us that our relationship existed, that we are still together even though we're apart. That's one that I'm not ashamed to say I'm proud of. I think it's legitimately good. That is because of her, she's so empathetic in the way she shoots things and edits things.

What was your fantasy novel about?

When I was a kid, I always thought that the One Ring was the most boring MacGuffin in the world. Like, it turns you invisible? That's kind of boring. So my [MacGuffin] was called the magic helmet or something, and when you put it on, you could create anything you imagined basically. It's kind of like the Green Lantern Ring. You can put it on and whatever you imagine is created. But you can't destroy anything with it. The only thing you can do is create. So I wanted it to be a metaphor for art and beauty. I had all these other things that I had created for that universe too. One of the key animals in the universe that I made was called the Thunderbird. I didn't invent that-- it's like Native American mythology. But I was like 'This is the most cinematic creature ever, because it's a bird that has lightning all around it-- how cool is that?' The land in the book is called Mythica which speaks to how generic it probably was. But I enjoyed the things I created for it.

I really like how your videos have a very consistent tone, but you have a wide variety of subject matter. How do you manage having a distinctive voice without feeling too restricted?

That is the question. I'm still figuring that out. Only at this moment have I really reached a point where I've finally synthesized it into what I want. For the longest time, I sort of operated on a one-for-you-one-for-me basis with my videos. I would do a video I was really passionate about on something very niche, and then I would be like 'Alright, I need to do a video about a Marvel movie.' Because those would be the videos that would blow up. And I love Marvel movies! And I would always be passionate about those videos, but like, I made that video called How Disney World Inspired ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD. And that's probably my favorite video I've made on my channel. It's only got like 5k views or something. It didn't do very well compared to the time I put into it. It took like three months to make.

But now, I've finally reached a point where I'm trying to create a channel that's driven more by my personality and things that I like to talk about than the subject matter itself. I used to say, 'This is a channel that reviews movies.' But now I'm like, 'This is just a me channel, I guess.' I still try to tie things to current discourse. Like I did that video recently about the Snyder Cut, and I talked a bit about the Snyder Cut at the start, but really what I wanted to do was use that as a platform to branch off into a broader discussion about art and limitations. And that's where I am right now. In order to get any views, you have to talk about something people are interested in, at least a little bit. You can't just talk about random stuff that no one cares about. But what I tried to do is use current things as a platform for more conceptual discussions. I've never been at all entertained by YouTube videos that are like, 'I rate this film a 6/10.' Like, okay? I don't care about that. I want to talk about the deeper themes of the movie, or the cultural significance of the movie, or what we can learn as artists from the movie, or the spiritual aspects of the movie.

What's been the most transformative experience of your life?

Whoa! I mean, I have an immediate answer and I'm trying to think if there's a better one, but this is definitely the best answer. The most transformative experience of my life was definitely going to L'Abri, which is a place that I studied at in England about a year and a half ago now. I went to L'Abri at the start of the pandemic, before it was a pandemic, in February, and I had to return in April.

L'Abri is a Christian organization where people live in community with each other and talk about ideas and have the freedom to study and read whatever they want. Every lunch, anyone at the table can ask a question about anything, and you have a discussion about that question, which was so much fun. It has a really strong sense of community, and strongly values hospitality, and beauty in everyday life.

L'Abri was the most compelling evangelism I've ever experienced. And the chief reason for that was there was no overt evangelism. No one was trying to force Jesus on me, or cram it down my throat, or say 'This is why it's true and you have to believe it.' It was really just a place that I lived in community with other people, and saw the workers at L'Abri living out the gospel, and living out the teachings of Jesus, and the belief in Jesus, in everyday life, in very organic, real, beautiful ways. It was sort of a show-don't-tell kind of thing. I grew up going to Christian summer camps, and they're fine. But Christian summer camps tend to have what I call a mountaintop theology. It's like a sense of finding God and Jesus in these big, dramatic, bombastic moments, when the light show is going and they have a smoke machine-- this big event where everyone is crying or something. And there's room for that sometimes. But with L'Abri, they really value the spirituality of everyday life, things like doing the dishes together, and doing the laundry together, and yard work, and creating a garden together, having discussions about ideas together. Things that didn't feel like a mountaintop. They didn't feel that far away from normal life. Now, I've been able to take those things back with me, and it's stuck with me far more than anything on a mountaintop ever could, because it was something I could feel was real. I could see how God was working not just in the dramatic moments, but in the quiet moments too, in the rituals and habits of the everyday.

And then, the addendum to that is that I also met Debbie, my girlfriend, at L'Abri. So that's an even bigger reason why it was a transformative experience for me. Debbie and I will probably be getting married in a couple years, so it's definitely a big thing.

I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how your video essays helped you to develop your voice as a filmmaker?

I think I'm still at the period in life-- and maybe we're all at this period in life --where I still can't live up to the art that I love and the things that I know about how to make good art. I know the kind of art I want to make, what my influences are, what the movies I love are. I think I even know a lot about what makes a good story and what makes a good film. I've done all these video essays about filmmaking principles and what makes this movie so great and everything. But I'm still in a period where it's easy to talk about that stuff, but then you start making a movie. And you had control of something in your head, but as soon as you start making it, all these other factors start steering it. Maybe a good metaphor would be pretending to drive a boat when it's still anchored to the dock. You feel like you've got the hang of it and like you know how the boat works and everything. But you really don't know. I would say that my video essays have taught me a lot about what makes movies good, and why I love a certain movie. But I'm still learning, in a huge way, how to apply those things and how to balance control with the total lack of control that comes with making art, especially art with other people.

I know you started off making Lego videos. How does that inform what you do now?

I think about this a lot. I was actually talking about this with Debbie earlier today. When I started making Lego videos, I was totally not self-conscious at all, and not self-aware at all. I would just turn on my family's Mac webcam and talk to the camera for ten minutes and post that. Sometimes my sister would walk by and make faces at the camera. Sometimes there would be an absolute mess in the room behind me and I didn't care. When I started to go in a more movie direction with my YouTube channel, I started to make things so much more comprehensive and well thought out. I wanted to have everything perfect. And now, the funny thing is I'm actually trying to go back to my roots, in terms of being less self-conscious. These days I'm aiming to be able to just turn on the camera and talk. There's an element of still wanting to make the videos good, obviously. But I'm trying to reach a mental state where I'm able to just talk in an authentic way and not worry about the ums and uhhs and stuff like that.

I think a lot of times people my age and a little older, especially young filmmakers, started making stop motion animations with Lego. There's a big reason for that, which is stop motion animation teaches you all the basics of filmmaking that you need to know, but on a micro-scale. You're able to control more elements of it, and you don't need a huge crew or a huge budget. You can make it with your toys. I have a young cousin who loves Legos and loves movies. I always encourage him to make stop motion animation, because it's a great way to master things in a small way before taking them into this larger world.

You're very knowledgeable about film-- I'm wondering, how do you make your videos accessible to others who maybe aren't as well-versed in film theory?

Hmm, I hadn't thought about that. It's interesting because there's a real tension there. I always hate watching YouTube videos that talk down to me, that explain something that I already know, especially with storytelling things. Oftentimes, my goal is almost the opposite, in the sense that I want to make things where the viewer knows I trust them. I've often had people tell me that when I talk about internet culture, I often use the word 'we.' As in 'We all know this,' referencing memes that we all know about, or a story that has been relevant recently. I find there's a stronger connection with the audience if they feel like we're all on the same page. I feel like I know my audience well enough at this point, where it's like, you're all on Twitter, you all saw the stuff that happened this week. I don't need to explain that. But you don't want to alienate people by saying 'We all know this,' when they might not know that. It might be something I need to think about more. I think the key is still humility though. You want to say things in a humble way, and not in an elitist way. You don't want to alienate people by saying you should know this. But treating some things as common knowledge can build trust.

I really loved your recent video about fantasy encyclopedias. If you were to make a fantasy encyclopedia, what would it be about?

Haha, thanks! I enjoyed making it. This would not be me making up my own universe, but I have always wanted a good encyclopedia of my favorite places in Disney World. There are plenty of good Disney World guidebooks and things, but many of them are about how to ride the most rides, or get through the line faster, or the cheapest food. I just love Disney World because of the little places that are so special to me. Like the gazebo on the edge of Tom Sawyer Island where you can sit in rocking chairs. I love that spot! And I love the eating area at the top of the Japan pavilion at Epcot, where you can have ramen and everything. It's a really peaceful spot with koi ponds. I love the upstairs of the Columbia Harbour House in Liberty Square. I think that's what I would probably make, not really an encyclopedia of Disney World rides and things, but an encyclopedia of little, special places in Disney world.


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