Interview with Ambar Navarro

Los Angeles based film director and artist, Ambar Navarro

Scrunchie is starting out the new year strong with one of the bubbliest and brightest creatives based out of LA today, the multi-talented Ambar Navarro. Originally from the lone star state, Navarro captured a sense the sense of excitement and community within her local music scene early on before relocating to CalArts to pursue experimental animation and film. Combining her attachment to music with her talents behind the camera, Ambar has gone on to produce a multitude of projects and films that make up her lengthy CV.

From working with brands like Doc Martens, to collaborating with musicians ranging from Ricky Montgomery to The Paranoyds to Soccer Mommy, Ambar’s art is a vehicle that transports us into realms meeting somewhere between her own imagination and the vision of the artists she collaborates with. Be it music videos, photo shoots, or commercial work, Navarro’s work effortlessly stands out from the crowd of her peers with flying colors.

In addition to her work as a director, Ambar maintains an active artist’s portfolio via an array of multimedia works, installations, and the frequent appearances of a variety of Barbie dolls. Her latest stop-motion film, “My Dollhouse”, places some of these dolls in a murder house of horrors.

Scrunchie and Ambar exchanged both words and laughs in the following interview, discussing the director’s creative timeline, collaboration highlights, and of course, a special shoutout to San Antonio’s buffet style restaurant, Luby’s.

What’s your star sign, and do you feel like it reflects you as an artist? Why or why not?

I am a Libra. I definitely think the indecisiveness comes out when you’re directing. And you have to make up a decision on the spot. But it’s so tricky. Because you want to weigh out both options. And you’re like, “Well, I don’t know.” Because if we do this, we can do that with. Like, I don’t know, it’s so annoying. Sometimes you just want to see it. But yeah, I think that probably comes out and then probably wanting everyone to be happy, or make everyone like you. So you don’t want to upset anyone, like you don’t want to upset the artists, you don’t want to upset your crew. So you feel the stresses of that come out.

You have a shop, Fuzzy Freaks, where you sell handmade hairy pins of different pop culture icons. If you could choose one hair icon, who would it be and why?

I’m a really big fan of Sparks. And they don’t really have the hair for it. There’s another Mexican punk singer. Her name is Alaska. And I tried so hard to make a pin work for her. I like got them printed paid for them. And spent hours just working, it just wouldn’t work. And it made me so sad. There’s like no high res photos of her from the 80s. I also really tried to make a Veronica from Heathers pin. Like at the end of the movie when the bomb goes off, and her hair’s all like crazy. Yeah. I also printed one of those paid for it. And spent hours. Those are the dream ones, I think, Veronica and Alaska. I’m still trying to make them, every now and then I’ll open up the photoshop files.

So your website says you studied at California Institute of the Arts— if you could share one tip from your studies or experiences outside of school to budding directors/artists, what would it be?

I would just say to take advantage of the facilities. Because once you’re out, you’re kind of on your own, and you lose the privilege of renting equipment for free. I mean, you’re paying tuition, but the equipment is free, and just the space. It’s just crazy that every weekend I’d go to the film cage and check out like, at the time, I didn’t know, but you know, anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 worth of equipment and you just haul it away with your little film card and you’re like “Oh, I’m gonna go shoot something” and you don’t even think about it. And then when you get out, you’re like, “This tripod is like seven grand alone.” Or sometimes like $20,000 for a tripod, and you’re like “What?! I used to kick that thing around all day.” You don’t realize how expensive everything is.

A still from Ambar's "My Dollhouse" experimental film
A still from Ambar’s “My Dollhouse” experimental film

Soon, your “My Dollhouse” stop motion experimental film will be debuting! What can you tell us about this project and what it means to you?

This was a film I made during this artist residency that I had. It was in Chinatown, the theater was started by one of my CalArts teachers. She was probably the most influential art teacher that I had at CalArts. And she runs an experimental puppet theater, which is really cool. This museum had donated this really old dollhouse to her, like seven years ago, and she sent me a picture of it. She’s like, “Oh, look, I got this doll house, if you ever want to do anything with it.” I was like, “Oh my God, yes. We have to do something with this dollhouse.” And there’s like an email chain that’s literally like six or seven years old that I have with her that’s continued over the years, like, “When are we going to shoot the dollhouse?” It’s been this thing.

And the dollhouse is massive, I mean, I want to say weighs maybe 200 pounds. So it’s not just something that I can go pick up whenever. So it lives at the theater in the basement. And when the residency came up, it like, “Okay, we have to shoot this dollhouse now.” So, I got the residency and at the same time, I had gotten the Ricky Montgomery video. So I kind of stopped because it was like, “Oh, no, I have to do two things at once.”

And the Ricky video was a pretty like big experience. So I ended up having one day total. The residency was two weeks. But because I had the Ricky video, I couldn’t go there. And work on it as much as I wanted. But I had one total day. And we just went for it. Me and my collaborator, Max we basically just hardcore…I think we got there at eight. We probably left at like three in the morning. And we just went kind of crazy. We had like a Bolex that we shot stop motion on. And then we had two 60mm cameras. One of them broke in the middle of a shot. It was pretty crazy. I literally had very little time to think about it and work on it.

I kept wanting to not make a horror movie, because I was like, “Oh, a dollhouse, and dolls, murder is too obvious, too many people have done it. But the house was just so creepy. Like, they just have to die in it. I don’t know what else can happen. It’s not super cute, it was old. It had weird old props in there and weird wallpaper. It just had to be done. I just kept thinking about Black Christmas, the 70s sorority horror film. I was just like, “I’m gonna make all the girls get killed by the house in weird ways.”

I just wanted it to start, I didn’t want to have this story buildup, like why they get killed. They kind of just all start getting killed. It’s like if you skip a horror movie to the action. Like when you rent a monster film, you just want to see the monster, you don’t care about anything else.

In a bittersweet goodbye post to your favorite craft store, you mentioned that you are not a California native! Where are you from, and what brought you to California? What do you miss most about your hometown and what do you love about where you are now?

I’m from San Antonio, Texas. One thing I miss about Texas…. The first thing that comes to mind is the food, I guess. I should say family, but I’ll say food. There’s this restaurant in Texas called Luby’s, and most people don’t like Luby’s, but I like Luby’s. It’s a buffet, it’s mostly aimed at children and senior citizens. It’s really mushy food, which I’m really into. But anyway, it’s a buffet and you get your tray, I always get the fried fish filet with two sides of macaroni. It’s just comfort food. Anytime I go to Texas with someone I force them to have lunch with me there.

Anyway, Calarts brought me to California. When I was in high school, I skipped my junior year. So I graduated in three years, and I wasn’t one of those ambitious high schoolers who knew what they wanted to do. I applied to zero colleges, I refused to take the SATs, I didn’t want to do anything. I ended up working at an art house Theater in San Antonio, which still exists. I was trying to find some college to go to, and I kept looking up experimental film, I didn’t want to go to a traditional film school. CalArts popped up as experimental animation. I felt like there was no other school for me. It was the only school I applied to. It’s funny because I didn’t want to move to California, I didn’t love California to begin with or have some California dream or something. But now that I’ve lived here for ten years, the best thing about it in my opinion is the music community and the art community and the film community. Everyone here is doing their thing. It’s nice to meet them. Even though it’s a competitive industry, everyone is so different it never feels like you’re really competing. No one’s exactly like you, where you’re like, “This person took my thing.” Everyone’s from all over the place, you get to meet everyone basically.

Specifically with the music community, this is coming from someone who doesn’t make music and is not a musician. So my experience is probably different from an actual musician, but I don’t feel that it’s very cliquey. Like film is cliquey, or the art world is very cliquey. But for music, I don’t really feel that way. Being at shows, it’s still awkward but you can go up to people in the crowd, it’s sort of a bar or nightlife environment. But when you’re at an art gallery opening, it’s bougie and really fancy and that to me is very intimidating. The music scene, I think it’s easier, it’s easier to work with a musician than a filmmaker. Like I’m not trying to make music, and they’re not trying to make this film.

You have an extensive resumé encompassing all of your work, from commercial work, to music videos, to various mediums of art, to portraiture. How have you grown to find your niche in each of these areas and make your work feel authentic to you despite the type of assignment you’re working on?

The work that’s on my website is a lot of personal work. And even with the portraits or photography, I still directed the shoots. I don’t really do photography where someone tells me what to shoot. It just doesn’t interest me. I’ve even had friends ask me to do headshots for them. And I don’t want to do it. Because I don’t want to just… I don’t know, it’s not my thing. Like go to someone who likes to do headshots. If we’re gonna do headshots, I want it to be a whole thing, like cool makeup or cool hair, or an outfit and a cool setting or something. As far as videos, I’ve been pretty lucky where everyone who I’ve worked with either gives me full creative freedom, or they have a very specific idea. And I like the idea. I think I’ve just been lucky that I work with a lot of indie people who let me do my thing. And then the bigger label people too.

I think what really gets me are like editing notes. So I had to just learn to start hiring an editor for certain videos that I know the label is going to give a bunch of notes for. But I kind of just always bring someone in between. I also have a producer for some of my videos. And yeah, I just have to separate myself from the label. And it’s still really hard for me to separate myself from the art like that still. I’ll still cry over a video. And I don’t know, it’s hard. It’s hard when people are like, “You need to care less.” There’s saying that’s like, “You need to care like 10% less,” or something like that. It’s really hard for me to not try to make it the best video that we can, so it’s nice when you have a producer coming on. I always like to think that their producer fee includes emotional labor because they have to keep everyone happy and calm all the time. That’s helpful.

I feel like I used to…when I was in art school, I feel like I used to always live in the past. This was a problem I had to overcome. But I used to always regret the past or think about the past or have that anxiety over things you did in the past. And then I feel like something switched over. And now I live in the future where everything I make, I want to make sure is gonna be good when I look back on it. When I’m making a film, there’s times where everyone is like, “It’s good enough.” And I’m just like “No, when we watch this in ten years, it has to be good.”

I don’t want to see the mistakes in 10 years. And it’s film, and that film is forever kind of idea, so you have to do it right. You’ll always go back and watch film. And it’s different than a live thing you attend, like you can always go back and rewatch the film. Not to sound egotistical, but I want to make sure I’m building a legacy. Not a legacy, because that’s really huge, but I just want to make sure I’m building good stuff. I just want to make sure it was the best thing I could have done at the time. And it really upsets me when people don’t want to put in the same energy, like, “This isn’t even my video, this is your video, you own the rights to my music video, so we have to do good.” I don’t know, I get it looks kind of crazy though.

I basically grew up going to shows, so meeting musicians has always been a part of it. My mom always shares a story that’s really embarrassing of when I was twelve and I went to see a band and I went up to the lead singer and asked for his email. She loves to tell that story and I’m like, “Stop.”

But so to go way back, my dad used to put on concerts and stuff in San Antontio, like when I was in the first grade. He would put on these sort of one hit wonder shows, like a Woodstock vibe. He would do these little festivals and bring all these bands, I think he brought Village People one time. I’m forgetting all their names right now. Since I was little we’d been going to concerts, we had parents that were very into music. All kinds of music. Not really parents that limited us. We listened to music that had cussing or sexual topics, we weren’t censored at all growing up. So I started going to punk shows when I was really little, like twelve years old. And I just fell in love with the punk scene. I loved how crazy it was. I thought everyone was so cool. So I’ve always been going to shows. So going to shows in LA just translated. I just got to meet a lot of musicians and get their contact info, or follow them online.

The first music video I made was for a San Antonio band called Hyperbubble, who were my friends. I’ve been seeing them since I was in middle school. They’re a lot older than me, probably like thirty years older than me. I made a music video for them that was stop motion. It was called A Synthesizer for Christmas. At the time, it kind of went viral on Vimeo, I forget how many views it had, maybe 200,000. At the time that was viral. I also realized how easy it was to make a film when the music is provided for you, because I really don’t like making sound. I went to CalArts with the idea that I was going to score all my movies, and I was very quickly like, “I don’t have time for this, and I don’t want to do it.” It all just came together. Luckily that video happened, and it happened because I grew up going to their shows. So it all goes back to music, and going to shows and supporting artists.

What do you enjoy most about working for different artists and bands?

I always like to talk about how every artist or band has their own world. Mm hmm. So it’s always really nice and fun to be invited into their world. And then me wanting to you know, visualize their world out, I think that’s the funnest part. There’s certain artists who I think have a really, really cool world, and I think it’s cooler than who I am. So I’m always really excited to get in there and have the opportunity to do something with that. I think Avalon Lurks is a really good example, her world is so cool to me. It’s very Tim Burton slash Chicana, she’s half Mexican. And with her I get to play with different colors. She always has a moodboard ready to go. Not even just a moodboard, she’ll have a whole spread thing ready to go. And it obviously makes it easier for me. It’s just so fun being able to step into a movie. I think she has a really strong vibe. I think that also kind of like makes musicians more interesting sometimes, when they have a whole thing. It’s just really fun.

I always think about that. I can go off about certain musicians, they have it down, and I just love that. I appreciate the effort. Film is so much effort, and I want them to give me the same, so I love when they come with that and know exactly who they are. It’s really nice.

Is there a particular project you’ve worked on that you are especially proud of or that has a fond memory attached to it, something that makes you think “I can’t believe I got to do this?”

I think what first comes to mind is music videos. The first music video that I think comes to mind is The Paranoyd’s “Girlfriend Degree” video. We shot it at Jamie Nelson’s house, who’s this famous celebrity photographer, Gwen Stefani, Drew Barrymore, they all love her. She shoots really beautiful fashion and makeup. She’s really amazing. She let us shoot at her house, a lot of people have shot at this house. It’s an iconic music video location. Everyone has the rite of passage of shooting there. It was really fun. You interviewed them. The Paranoyds are super nice, I just feel like that whole day went really well. They were in slumber party gear. It felt very John Waters, that was really satisfying. I guess what made it satisfying to me was I had always really wanted to work with Barbies. I pitched the Barbies idea to so many people and no one wanted to do it. And finally on the phone with The Paranoyds I was like, “Okay, hear me out, can we have these Barbies?”.

I wanted to do a whole Superstar Carrie Carpenter reference with the Barbies. They liked it, and we did it. The shoot was four days, one day we shot at Jamie’s, two days we shot at my apartment, and the last day we shot the one Barbie at a park. It’s the video I’m most proud of, and it’s the longest video shoot. So one of the hardest working ones turned into the best video I’ve made.

I think playing with dolls is really fun. We were building all the sets in my apartment, which is really small, and Lexi from The Paranoyds came over to help us. It was one of those things were everyone was so tired they were delusional. Everything was so funny, we were so out of it. It probably wasn’t that funny, but it was so funny at the time. Staz sewed all the outfits, she had never sewn before. She would drop off Barbie dresses and they were all so weird. She was so proud, she sent a text like, “I’m ready to apply to the fashion institute.” The whole thing was so crazy, everyone just had a really good attitude. You know The Paranoyds, they’re all so funny. The three of them especially, they’re all so different and funny and have something to say all the time.

You are constantly collaborating with numerous people, both in front of the camera and behind it, to put out the best work possible. What are some of the challenges and benefits you’ve experienced as a director in the center of a collaborative production?

Being really picky about who I work with has been helpful. I’ve definitely gone against my gut feeling sometimes, where I know someone’s going to be difficult and then continue on and they end up being difficult. The main challenge is usually money. Normally, sometimes people want really big ideas, and you’re like, “We literally can’t afford that.” Like, sometimes people want special effects or CG, and that’s literally the most expensive field.

You constantly have to be teaching people lessons, and that’s a little frustrating. I don’t always want to be teaching people things they should kind of know. I have to constantly be sending these polite emails where I’m so angry, but I have to sound really nice. Mostly people’s expectations are really high for something that can’t pay for it. People aren’t aware how much labor goes into things.

Sometimes people want a prop, and it involves a prep day, which involves driving to multiple locations to get the materials, the experience of how to use the materials, days of building it. And people are like, “I’ll just pay for the prop,” and it’s like, no, you have to pay for the prep days and the build days. It’s constantly teaching people how much work goes into something and how to respect not just yourself, but your crew. Like, I’m not going to torture someone for you.

One thing I always try to keep in mind is that there’s people I’m not friends with. Like, The Paranoyds are my friends. I go to their birthday parties, I would invite them to mine, we go to the movies together, whatever, we’re friends. There’s certain musicians, where not in a mean way, but like, I’m not your friend. I don’t know you, and you’re asking me something when I’m a stranger. I don’t know. I maybe sound mean, but it frustrates me sometimes when I’m like, “I did them a favor, because we’ve been friends for six years, but I don’t know you.” I can’t just bend over backwards all the time for everyone. I would love to, but I can’t sometimes. I literally cannot.

I’ve definitely rushed props and set pieces in the past, and it just does not look good. And I’m like, “How could I have made this better?”. And it’s like, “Oh, right. If I had money to make this better.” Sometimes you have to throw money at the problem, like if I had an assistant or if we had more materials. Sometimes I’ve run out of materials halfway through and we had to use other materials that didn’t look good.

So, it’s constant, constantly teaching people. And I get really frustrated sometimes. I recently did a project where I send them the final and they never posted it. I kept being like, “Can you post this?” and they’d be like, “Can you resend the link?”. It happened to where I resent the link seven times, all in the same email chain. I finally put my foot down, I was like “I’ve sent this seven times, if you click the email chain it’s right there.” There’s constant teaching people, like “Just upload this!”. It’s right there, you just gotta click it! That gets me the most fired up. Certain of my friends are scared to ask me for things, they fear me. I’m always so fiery about things like this.

What are your biggest goals and aspirations for the coming year? Are you someone that’s into new year’s resolutions?

It’s really hard to make New Year’s Resolutions when Covid is happening. I want to have all these, and then I’m like, “Well that isn’t possible right now.” I was never into New Year’s Resolutions, but my mom is, and she has all these traditions that I hated doing when I was little, like writing them down on a piece of paper and then you would burn the paper. I don’t even remember, so many things. Like eating grapes. I was this really angsty kid growing up, I’d be in my room, and she’d bring me the grapes, and I’d be like, “I don’t want the grapes!”, so annoyed all the time. I didn’t want to write any plans down.

I think lately, because I’ve been wrapping up the year, I kind of have in my mind that I’m not gonna take on as many indie videos. I love doing indie videos, it’s my weakness. I’m trying to get better at saying no. There’s certain videos where they’ll tell me the budget, and I know it’s not enough, but I’m like, “I’ll figure it out somehow.” I need to get better at saying no to things. That’s probably the main goal, hoping to be even more selective. I don’t know, really. I don’t really have any huge goals or something. I think honestly Covid killed that side of me.

I have a planner, I’m very planner heavy. I always had a planner, I always used to write in it, and then once Covid hit my planner was empty. I think my brain is foggy and I can’t even see into the future that much. I have been working on a feature film script, so hopefully I’ll have more time for that. Even that… we were trying to shoot that feature last summer and obviously that was not possible. One of the more hopeful sides of it is that I hope I get to work with more of my favorite bands. I’ve been trying to work with my favorite band Sparks for a long time, and Covid actually ruined one of my favorite Sparks experiences. That was really sad for me, I didn’t tell a lot of people I was going to finally work with them and it got canceled.

My goals don’t sound very fun, I wish I could leave off on a more positive note. [Laughter]. I’m like, “I have no goals and no dreams.” I just want to work with Sparks, that’s the main point of this whole conversation. I would love to work with Sparks, I would love to work with Alkaline Trio or AFI. And The Distillers are a huge one for me. Just a lot of nostalgic bands that I’d love to work with. And respect my boundaries better. Meet more people. A big one is moving out of my apartment, which also isn’t that exciting. I’ve lived in this very small apartment for six years, and it’s gotten to the point where it’s bringing me down. Having a place that to be happy to come home to would be a huge relief to me. So that’s kind of a big life goal kind of thing. That seems realistic. I want to say travel more, but with Covid I have no idea if that’s even possible.

Be sure to check Ambar out on Instagram here, and her website here!

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