November 28, 2011

SCA Family Stories: Michael Koerbel and Anna Elizabeth James

Majek Pictures Founders Discuss Their Process


Many things can be said to introduce Anna Elizabeth James and Michael Koerbel. They are MFA students in the Production Division of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, they were speakers on the emergence of iPhone filmmaking at the TED@USC conference and they are successful entrepreneurs with their company Majek Pictures.

Anna Elizabeth James and Michael Koerbel

Their current commercial for Porsche is screening in movie theatres across the US and they recently sat down with SCA Family Stories to talk about their experience as students, their time with Porsche and why they don’t settle for “good enough.”

For more information on Majek Pictures please visit:

Tell me about the Porsche win. How did it come about? AEJ: Actually, the Women of Cinematic Arts Yahoo Group, it’s about 700 strong, always sends out things like this –contests and things – it came to the WCA Listserve and I forwarded it to Michael because at the time he was looking for a project and I thought it was perfect for him.

MK: She basically said, it’s called My Daily Magic, “You just live in this world. This would be perfect and plus it’s a fast car.”

AEJWe felt like we could win it.

This isn’t the first time the two of you have been in SCA’s news feed. Do you go after these things with a plan for your career or do you just pounce on everything? MK: We do have a game plan.

AEJ: We do. [laughter] If we divulge our secrets they won’t be secrets anymore.

MKI think the game plan is and – talking about SCA – is that, part of the reason you go to USC is that you’re provided opportunities and experiences and infrastructure and a support system and mentors that are the best in the world. I think both of our plans, when we got here, if not before, was to take advantage of every single moment. Every single opportunity. We do “pounce” on a lot of things but there is a plan.

We’re trying to get our company Majek Pictures off the ground. Ultimately, we want to be directing, producing and writing four-quadrant, tent pole, family films.

AEJ: We want to be known for pushing the boundaries of innovation and distribution but our signature thing is being in the realm of excellent storytellers. 

MK: The game plan shifts. It evolves. The plan is to always be a trailblazer or a trendsetter or to have people say, “of course Majek Pictures made that.”

Sorry we wandered. Tell me about the Porsche thing. MK They sent us to driving school in Birmingham, Alabama - all expenses paid. Stayed in the nicest hotel room I’ve ever been in my life. When you walk in the lobby, the Porsche logo is illuminated on the floor. They let us drive the cars on a racetrack. It was amazing.

When you were making the film, did you know you were working on something special? MK: My 507 was a similar concept only it was a story told through a mailbox and it ended very sadly. The Porsche commercial ends happy. Throughout my entire career here at USC, no matter what I do, people say, “You know, your 507 was so good.”

So, I started thinking about this on the plane ride on the way back. I couldn’t figure out the concept. I needed to get in the car – see what it feels like, what it smells like – which was great. They sent us down there and we were able to know the brand.

Flying back I was like, “You know what? Porsche is built upon nostalgia and heritage; it’s the sixty-fifth anniversary. They’re talking about Father-Son relationships.”

Left to Right: David Landry (actor), James, Koerbel, Jacquelyn
Zook (actress) and Eric Edmonds (producer.)

My father passed away last year so I was already chewing on these memories. I just started making a list and it dawned on me. I could tell this entire story through the trunk of the car.  And especially since the trunk is in the front, it makes sense, the car is literally watching time pass by.

When we started sending it out for notes. We always send things out for notes because you always want feedback. You have your very close circle of friends. The notes that were coming back were –everyone was just loving it – Anna and I thought, “this is magical. This is going to work.”

AEJ: What was interesting is that the older generation of mentors, who we love and appreciate, their notes came back saying, “you don’t show the Porsche.”

MK: Even after we won, the head of Porsche North America, she gives me a hug, she says, “Congratulations. What you did was a little different.”

I didn’t know what she was saying and she said, “You only showed the car for sixteen seconds.”

One of the other reps chimed in, “Technically, the car is in every shot.”

You’re hit on something that I hear over and over that your early student films follow you through your career. Shawn Levy, the director or Real Steel said that his 507s are with him with every film he’s done. Do you find that to be true? MK: Absolutely. What’s funny is that [Anna’s] 507 is where we found our lead actress, Jacqueline, who plays the lead.

AEJ: The opening shot is my five-year old scooping sand in a sandbox and he reveals her. We still put our cameras in unusual places.

MK: 507, 508, 532, all those classes. You get an opportunity to make mistakes. You also get an

Koerbel recieving the Porsche My Daily Magic award

opportunity to find out what works. What gag or plot device you can use to guarantee a laugh or to guarantee a reaction. My 507 and 508’s ingredients show up in a lot of places.

You two are on the forefront of using iPhones as a means of production. Can you tell me a little bit about that? AEJ: I read a post on Facebook from a high school friend who said "I believe the iPhone is the greatest invention of the 21st Century."

I think there’s something to that. We are working on a book called The Studio in Your Pocket, which will be touching on that.

I didn’t know you were writing a book. MK: We’re writing it because we get so many emails. It’s literally several a week – people picking up their phones and asking for notes on a cut.

The thing that’s been really interesting – the press – the angle that they’ve found that we didn’t even think about is that the iPhone is the accessible camera of this upcoming generation.

Majek Pictures wants to invest in these kids that are the next generation. Hopefully, a couple of those kids will be making amazing films soon.

AEJI got a text from a twelve-year old in the eight grade in Sacramento who I know from a friend of a friend.

She said, “I just went to career day at my school and this lady showed Apple of My Eye and said you can do anything with your iPhone!”

For those who don’t know, what is Apple of My Eye? MKApple of My Eye was the first film shot on an iPhone 4.

AEJ: Shot and edited and distributed.

MK: Right. We shot it on my Dad’s model train set. We created the Majek app. That’s when our company started showing up in mainstream press articles and blogs.

AEJ: The film still gets about five hundred to a thousand hits a day.

What do you think drives you two as filmmakers? You seem to have a unique entrepreneurial spirit, even for SCA Students. MK: Anna and I have this thing. We go back and forth. We’re very good partners because when I’m feeling down, she’ll be like, “what are you doing? We got to keep going!”

We have this phrase, “Do you want to be good or do you want to be great?”

AEJ: Good to great.

MK: We’re in a school with amazing filmmakers. We’re all good. We’re all really good but we want to be great.

AEJ: That’s the most painful thing. It’s when you have to go back to your producer and say, “It’s not right.”

MK: It’s when you go back to your colorist and say, “That bag? It needs to be a little more blue.”

AEJ: Or if you really don’t want to go get that right prop but you should.

MK: It’s the moment where you know in your gut that, if you do something, it will be a little better.  But I feel like that’s where a lot of people just think, “This will be OK.” Every time we feel that, we reach a little bit further and go for it.

AEJ: Also, if you don’t have anything to lose, if you don’t have anything at stake, you aren’t going to do your best.

I’m a mom. I have three kids and I have to take time away from them. There’s a point in your life that you hit where you can’t fail – too much is depending on it.

If you can put yourself back in the shoes of someone who is thinking about applying, what would you say to that person? AEJ: I would say that, no matter what, you can be exercising your storytelling muscles. Whether it’s writing or shooting or even just being a part of organizations that get your juices going. If you continue to do that, you’ll be stronger when you get here. If this is where you really supposed to be, you will end up here.

MKWhen I was first looking at the School, I didn’t think I had any chance to get in here. There’s this stigma – it is the best School in the world -  you feel like you have to have all these credentials… I guess if there’s any advice it would be, “If you love telling stories and you live in your imagination. If the world is this imaginative playground, you should definitely apply.”

AEJ: You’re probably a storyteller.

MK: Exactly. And story trumps everything.

AEJ: And don’t give up.

MK: If you really want it, really go for it.

AEJAnd be honest with where you really are.

The set of the Porsche commercial

With your life? AEJ: Some people get in and think that because they were accepted, it’s all going to happen but the truth is—

MK: --it’s just the beginning.

AEJThe process starts even before you get here.

What were you surprised with most when you got here? MKFor me, what blew my mind more than anything was the accessibility to this amazing pool of mentors. I think about John Watson. He wrote Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and I can send him a cut of the Porsche commercial at two in the morning and he will email me right back.

I didn’t think it would be this accessible.

AEJ: Everything I learned about directing actors –I mean – Jeremy Kagan’s class was worth the tuition alone.  Sheldon Larry too. There’s a skillset, a toolbox that I learned that I can’t even explain how much it helps.

MK: I expected the training and education to be top-notch but I never grasped that these would be working professionals that drive to school after being on set for fourteen hours. Also, you know, they love the students. Otherwise, they wouldn’t do it.

What’s next for you two? AEJ: We are still working through Majek Pictures to make our personal work stronger. I’m working on my first feature and Michael is working on a lot of things.

MK: I’m working on a Doritos commercial for a Super Bowl competition.  We cast ten 4-year-olds and dressed them up like hipster kids.

Is this the contest that [SCA Alumni] JR [Burningham] and Tess [Ortbals] won last year? MK: Yeah, talk about the connectedness of the SCA Family. How often to you get to email last year’s winners and ask them to look at a cut?

AEJ: It’s really good. I think it has a real chance.