Brian Andrew Mendoza’s feature film directorial debut, Sweet Girl, starring Jason Momoa, is now streaming on Netflix. Brian has spent the past 10-plus years building a production company with his partner, Jason Momoa. They’ve produced three feature films (Road to Paloma, Braven and Sweet Girl) and collaborated on commercials with such iconic brands as Carhartt, Harley-Davidson, and recently Ball. In 2016, Brian released his commercial directorial debut Canvas of My Life. In addition, he executive produced the third season of Frontier. Brian and Jason are executive producing their first unscripted series, On the Roam, with Discovery +.
I have an “interesting,” yet not all that uncommon, relationship with failure – I’m terrified of it. I spent nearly 20 years chasing the dream of directing a feature film. It was an unconventional road, many times feeling like I was wasting my time. When the opportunity finally did come about, I was overwhelmed by thoughts of, Wait, can I really do this? What if I fail? And I would pose this age-old question to myself over and over again: Is it better to try and fail than to not try at all? But never more than in late summer of 2018, when I was faced with the opportunity of a lifetime. Even so, my fear of failure made me question if I should take it.
It all started in the driveway of my best friend, Jason Momoa. One of our friends, producer Jeff Fierson, with whom we had worked on the series Frontier, had brought us a feature screenplay, Sweet Girl, to produce with him and for Jason to star in. The story centered on a devastated husband who vows to bring justice to a big pharmaceutical company responsible for his wife’s death, while protecting his daughter. At the heart of the story was a unique and special father-daughter story set against the backdrop of an incredibly relevant theme: the pharmaceutical industry and its “pay-to-delay” controversy. The story also addresses trauma in a very unique way, and of course … there was a twist. So, we signed on as producers and Jason agreed to play the lead role of Ray Cooper.
Maybe for a millisecond, if that, I had toyed with the idea of asking to direct the film, but I knew it would be nearly impossible, given the budget of the film and my résumé. I had a few commercials and short films under my belt, but was positive those would never afford me the opportunity to direct a feature. The fact of the matter was, it’s incredibly rare for up-and-coming directors to be hired on projects of this size, and no studio, financier or producer in their right mind would let me do it for my first time at bat … At least, that’s what I thought.
Standing in Jason’s driveway, he and I finished up a conversation about potential directors for Sweet Girl. I knew I wouldn’t see him for a long time, as he was about to leave to shoot season one of See, so we hugged, said our goodbyes and then I went to jump into my truck. Out of nowhere, Jason said, “Why don’t you direct Sweet Girl? You should direct it.” I paused and the only words that came into my mind were, “Can I really do this?” My two old companions, doubt and fear, immediately reared their ugly heads again.
Jason has had my back from the first moment we worked together. When we were making our first film, Road to Paloma, I lived in a 69’ Airstream on his property, because I couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. When I told him I wanted to direct, he supported me as I made a very personal film about him with Carhartt called Canvas of My Life. To anyone who knows Jason, this isn’t surprising. This is a guy who will give you the shirt off his back, so on cue he affirmed his stance, declaring, “I’ll back you 100 percent.”
Even with that support, I couldn’t give a yes or no answer. (Hello, doubt and fear!). I think I said something like, “No one is going to let me direct this.” And I pulled away.
I won’t lie, I felt like I was in Dead Poets Society and Robin Williams was saying to me, “Carpe Diem.” The voice inside me was saying, “Seize the day. Seize this moment!” Still, I was afraid to commit. I was afraid of failing. On my drive back home, I thought about the film, about what my take on the story would be, how I would approach it. And that’s where my creative juices started flowing and worked to silence my two dark companions. I started to get really excited at the possibility, so I called up Jeff and told him I’d like to toss my hat into the ring to direct Sweet Girl.
I was confident Jeff would laugh at the idea of me directing, but I honestly was just happy with myself that I mustered the guts to pitch what I thought was an impossible idea. And lo and behold, there was no laughter. Jeff just replied, “OK, sure. Put a presentation together and come pitch Brad Peyton and me.”
I knew that even though Jeff was a friend who knew my work and my pitch on the movie was coming together well, the odds were against me. It was still a far-fetched idea, but I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. I dug deep researching the pharmaceutical industry, adding my notes to the script, working out a new structure, introducing a new antagonist … I even put together a deck that illustrated how I would go about shooting the movie. I mean, I really went all out for it. I was determined that when I left that room, Jeff and Brad would know I had a strong, clear vision of this film.
And then the seemingly impossible happened: They said “Yes!” Sure, I had played out this scenario in my head, but that was just me day dreaming. Now, it was no longer a dream, it was a reality. Nearly 20 years after I had moved to Los Angeles, I now had a legitimate opportunity to direct a major Hollywood film. The next mission would be the hardest: to set the project up for financing and distribution. In order to do that, we would have to start by pitching all of the major studios and I would have to do exactly what I had just done for Jeff and Brad, only for a bunch of studio bigwigs and execs.
Anyone who works in Hollywood will tell you, if you can get a major Hollywood star in the room to pitch a studio, half the battle is already won. It seemed like an easy enough task, but Jason was shooting in remote parts of Canada and then was going straight into Aquaman’s global press tour. He had used his only days off to go to my wedding that October. (This was pre-pandemic; no one was used to pitching on Zoom calls.) We knew the best shot we had at selling this was with Jason in the room. When I caught wind that he would be in L.A. for half a day in early December, I called him up and asked him if he could do the meetings for Sweet Girl. Mind you, Jason hadn’t seen his family in months and outside of this half-day, he wouldn’t see them until after the monthlong press tour, so it wasn’t surprising and totally understandable when he told me, “You have to ask my wife.”
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, Jason’s wife is Lisa Bonet, who has been as supportive of me becoming a filmmaker as Jason has over the years. (For example: Would your wife let your friend (me) live in an Airstream on your property? Doubt it!) I understood what I was asking. For a moment, I didn’t even want to make that call. I knew how important family time is to them. I called up (doubt and fear rearing their ugly mugs again), prepared for her to say, “No.” Only this time, she said, “Yes!” Looking back on that moment and all the support I’ve received from Lisa, I should have known there was never a scenario where she would say “no” to me.
You know the rest of the story: Jason and I ended up selling the film to Netflix, who coincidentally was the first and only studio we pitched and gave us an immediate green light to go into production!
So, in conclusion … Doubt is a sneaky beast and can appear no matter what hurdles you’ve jumped over. Every time I received a call from Jeff, I was certain that he was going to tell me the studio still wanted to make the film, but not with me as the director. However, I also felt incredible conviction, and because of that, I was ready to fight for the film. I had been given an opportunity and I wanted to earn it. I was ready for battle, ready to prove to everyone who had backed me that they had made the right decision. Our crew has worked with some amazingly talented directors, so I knew I needed to come in everyday with everything I had.
And I did. Pre-production and production had some challenges, including the fact that my wife gave birth to our first child a week before shooting began. Nevertheless, our amazing cast and crew rose to the occasion to meet each challenge head on. (Except for the new baby – that one was all me and my wife.) The point is, the doubt and the fear of failure had drifted away and vanished from my psyche, and I thought, “I can do this …”
When I was in high school, my parents gave me a book of quotes and as I look back, I’m realizing some of these quotes defined my direction. One of them continues to stand out until this day:
It was this anthem in my head which made me determined to push that failure away from me.
As I’m now coming out on the other side of this project, I’m proud of how I faced those fears. I’m proud of the work I did and proud of the team of incredible humans who gave it their all, day in and day out, in service of this movie. And when my doubts briefly resurfaced, I harnessed them; they kept me sharp, kept me focused, kept me grounded.
Is it better to try and fail than to not try at all?
Featured image shows Brian Andrew Mendoza and Jason Momoa on the set of Sweet Girl; image by Clay Enos / Netflix.