Howard Nourmand founded creative studio Grand Jeté nine years ago. He began as a struggling actor, declining the lucrative opportunities that awaited him at his father’s real-estate empire. “I always knew in my heart that I was an artist,” he recalls. Questions remained. What to do, exactly? How to do it, exactly? Howard defined his goals with a business coach. Today, he works with Oliver Stone and other media titans.
“Asking yourself a good question can empower you and change your life,” says Nourmand. “If you want to become a filmmaker, ask: How do I become relevant as a filmmaker based on my experience?”
Early in his career, Nourmand freelanced for most of the big studios. “Some of them produced amazing work and had really nice offices, but for the most part they lacked the creative environment I craved as an artist.”
“When I envisioned Grand Jeté I saw it differently. The places that inspired me were historical. The Bauhaus. The Charles and Ray Eames Office. The Group Theater. Edison’s Laboratory. Andy Warhol’s Factory. Vidal Sassoon’s Salon.
“These places had people working there who were down for the cause. The places thrived and were successful because they were built on inspiration and innovation. Grand Jeté feels different than the places I used to work because it has more heart.”
(Above: Savages working like savages. Howard Nourmand and Brad Mitchell creating the killer presentation.)
Nourmand’s studio is not the biggest in Hollywood. Despite that, it wins pitches against bigger firms. The vice-president of comedy development for ABC praised Grand Jeté for its motion-graphics work: “These opening credits are the best titles on our network.”
(Above: “It’s always a treat to see something you create get blown up big.” Advertising on Sunset Boulevard, across from the Roxy.)
“Big project or small, I expect greatness. It’s that extra sparkle. That’s what keeps us in the game.”
Nourmand integrates creative collaboration and mentorship in his studio. “My office almost always has an open door,” he says. “We all work side by side. I think it’s contagious, and when I’m inspired it shows up in the artists around me.” Part of his leadership strategy is to “infuse the whole team with enthusiasm. I tell stories, draw pictures, bring in books, and offer up an overall sense of playfulness.”
(Below: Graffiti research for Oliver Stone’s Savages.)
“I used to think it would get easier after I busted my chops. It didn’t ever get easier. It became a more elegant process, sure. After working at my craft for a little while I developed a sense for what is going to work. What’s next is to push myself as a director. Grand Jeté can be a launch pad for that. I’m very interested in directing advertisements and drawing on my design background for commercials.”
“When you’re working for a film director of Oliver Stone’s caliber you can’t miss a beat.
“His mind moves fast and you have to be on your toes at all times.
“I try to show up to our meetings ready for anything. I test myself before I go in to be sure I have the answers to the questions he might ask.
“You jeopardize everything unless you go all out with your preparation. At the same time, bringing in too much material can be overwhelming to someone who has so many creative choices to make.” Nourmand advises keeping presentations straightforward and flexible as a part of client service.
“On Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps I was initially asked to keep it really basic. I wanted to present what I was hired to design, but I knew sitting with Oliver was a rare opportunity. I gave him the straightforward presentation first, but later in the meeting, I revealed some much more elaborate ideas. This is a good example of how something that starts off small can turn into something big. The result in the film is one of my greatest achievements so far.”
(Above: Still-frame from motion graphics for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.)
There is a notion, often seen on TV, that if you go to Hollywood and you’re talented, someone will hook you up. I asked Nourmand whether this is true.
“I feel like I won the lottery because I come from a great family and grew up with so much love. I got a ton of support, but everything that I have to show for my design career came from hard work. More specifically, taking responsibility for my clients. Their needs are the most important thing to me. When you start from the bottom, anything is your big break.”
“When you put your soul into something, it shows. The word spreads and that’s where the breaks come in. People want to recommend you because it reflects well on their own tastes. It’s like when you find fresh, new music and can’t wait to share it.”
Scott Caan gave Nourmand his first big break. The initial film Nourmand worked on as a designer was a film Caan directed, called Dallas 362. “I grew because I was thrown into it,” Nourmand says. “I was determined to please Scott and prove that I was legit.”
I called Scott Caan for his take on Nourmand. “We used to skateboard together when we were kids,” Caan said, “and he had a half pipe in the backyard. We started surfing from that. We’ve been surfing together since the mid-90s.”
Caan continued, “I’ve been in this business for a long time, and I haven’t met many people as driven and as focused as Howie. It’s not easy to get him to do things for you because he refuses to do things half-assed. It’s what goes into being successful: there’s talent, persistence, and drive. And he has all of those things.”
Nourmand says, “Even though we are the same age he was like a big brother. Scott grew up faster than the rest of my peers and was already well on his way to stardom when we were still trying to figure out what we wanted to be.”
Caan has held a recurring role in HBO series Entourage, acted in the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy, wrote and directed the 2006 comedy The Dog Problem, and toured with Cypress Hill and House of Pain. Caan is also a photographer, inspired and trained by cinematographer Phil Parmet. Nourmand edited, designed, and wrote the foreword to the 2009 book, Scott Caan Photographs, Vol. 1.
“It had an impact on my career to see Scott take big swings. Being around him was and still is inspiring. He’s fearless and bold. He believed in me even when I was just a beginner. I was struggling to discover how I would begin to build a career with a creative emphasis.”
“I used to box,” Nourmand recounts.
“I had this dream last night that I was getting in the ring with Manny Pacquiao. I was all warmed up, my hands were wrapped, robe over my head. I felt, the only reason I can’t beat him is because I don’t think I can. I’m in the ring. Camera bulbs are flashing, and I light him up with a few jabs. But then I start to second-guess myself, and he just knocks me out cold.”
Nourmand sees two takeaways from that dream.
One: give yourself credit for holding yourself to the highest standard.
Two: recognize when you’ve got to believe in yourself a little bit more.
“I don’t want to limit myself exclusively to graphics. I want to expand my career and translate what I know into new mediums. Now I want to be a beginner again. Meaning, I’m willing to accept that I’m not going to flourish immediately as a director. As a designer, I feel like I’ve already climbed that mountain. If I don’t feel like I’m growing, then I don’t feel like I’m making any progress. Pushing into the next medium is the next leap forward,” says Nourmand.
(Above: Whetherly commercial shoot, still frames. With DP Kay Madsen and actress Nathalie Love.)
“Now I am ready to tell stories visually and spend more time behind the camera. I want to produce my own content, beyond adding the finishing touches on other people’s work. I want to tap into the storyteller within me and put more of my self into my work.”
For further reading
Nourmand’s studio: www.grand-jete.com
Apple spotlights Nourmand’s work as an example of what can be done with Final Cut.
FLAUNT magazine cover story: Money never sleeps, in graphics.
IFC.com Cannes review of Money Never Sleeps.
Variety article, I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale.