Dan Mace: facing his fears
Dan Mace burst onto the scene as a bright new directorial talent. Success in commercials followed, ahead of a triumphant YouTube career and collaboration with a Hollywood A-lister. But fear, anxiety and ego led to depression, alcohol and drugs. Here, Mace discusses not only facing those fears, but how they helped him flourish.
South African director Dan Mace’s career has had many facets. He’s been a ‘hot young thing’ in the world of commercials; a filmmaking partner to Casey Neistat, who is one of YouTube’s most prominent and creative figures; a star on that same platform in his own right; a collaborator with a two-time Oscar winning performer and, now, part of the set-up alongside one of the most successful YouTubers ever, MrBeast.
The first time the fear kicked in was when I went to film school, because I was really shit.
Along the way, as well as huge success, there has been stress, alcoholism, mental health issues and strained friendships. At 33-years-old Mace had crammed a lot into his career but, at the heart of much it, is fear. Fear not just of failing, but of never being good enough to even attempt to succeed. “The first time the fear kicked in was when I went to film school,” says Mace, “because I was really shit.”
Mace’s initial introduction to filmmaking was in front of the camera, starring in a McDonald’s commercial when he was 14-years-old. Seeing the artistry, passion and camaraderie on set inspired him to get behind the camera and, initially, to go to film school. “The teachers were brutal,” Mace says. “At the end of the year you showed your films to a board of lecturers, and there was this one lecturer who was so horrible. I’d had enough by then and said, ‘You know what, those who can, do; those who can’t, teach!’. They basically said, ‘I don’t know if you should come back’.
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Above: Mace's introduction to filmmaking was as an actor in a South African McDonald's spot.
In 2012, at 22-years-old, and after a stint shooting videos for music festivals with a friend, Mace dipped a first, tentative toe into the uncharted waters of YouTube under the name Dan the Director. Fear was already playing its part because pressing the button to post the video “took me about a year because I was so shit-scared”. But the video itself was also a form of therapy because Mace admits to feeling depressed at that point in his life. “I was starting to realise that I had depression, and that’s when I realised filmmaking helped me speak [about] being present in the moment.”
He began working with other early YouTubers, and the previous fears of paying rent and buying food eased as the films they created – often about surfing – made enough money to support them. “I had nothing to worry about,” says Mace. “If I were to go broke I didn’t have much to lose, so there wasn’t a fear of failing in the financial sense, it was more that I just had to make ends meet.”
I was complacent, but also I was partying and struggling with alcohol and drugs.
From what was still, at that point, a relatively untested platform and somewhere you couldn’t yet build a directing career, Mace moved from YouTube to a company called Green Renaissance, which made films about nature and conservation. Working with an EP called Michael Raimondo, who he describes as his “first mentor and guide”, Mace says he learned a lot about conducting interviews and how to get someone to speak the truth.
The resulting films were both successful and lauded, which was a double-edged sword. “That was when I started to grow the beginnings of an ego,” says Mace, “because I had that first hit of views and people telling me I was great, people I had never met. Michael would tell me about making films for the betterment of humans, but I was kind of like, ‘Yeah, sounds fine, but I just want to be rich and known as an awesome director’. I remember him saying something which stuck with me for a long time. He said, ‘You’re worth keeping around just because, out of three films, one is brilliant’. And [those two failures] were because I was complacent, but also because I was partying and struggling with alcohol and drugs. But that comment hit me really hard, it was the beginning of me realising I needed to sort my shit out.”
Above: Mace's first foray into a solo YouTube venture started with this film. Press Play, Smile, which was also a form of therapy in the midst of his depression.
Mace checked himself into rehab which, he admits, didn’t work, but what it did do was make him realise that, as well as being a hindrance, fear could also help him. Specifically, the fear of losing the chance to be a filmmaker. He got back into YouTube, making videos about happiness, mainly in an attempt to ease his depression. “My goals kind of shifted,” he says, “from being rich and famous to just trying to not be depressed.”
I didn’t have any fear then. I was like, ‘I am the king! No one can stop me now!’. That’s when I got straight back into drugs and alcohol.
And then along came a gift. Or, rather, the film Gift. After leaving rehab Mace wrote a script about an African pantsula dancer riddled with fear and anxiety but who used those feelings to fuel his dancing. The film was really about Mace himself – “there was a lot of darkness and sadness, but maybe that’s what fuelled my videos.” He entered the film into the international Rode Reel film competition and won the special jury prize. Gift also attracted the attention of Janette de Villiers, the Executive Producer at South African production company Groundglass, who entered it into to the shots supported Young Director Award, where it also won, alongside another film he made that year.
“And then everything exploded,” says Mace. “I immediately signed with Groundglass and, at that point, agencies wanted to work with young directors. Janette was flying me to all these places, and we were doing all these TV ads and going to film festivals. I didn’t have any fear then. I was like, ‘I am the king! No one can stop me now!’. That’s when I got straight back into drugs and alcohol.”
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Above: Mace's short film, Gift, won him recognition and ushered in his career in commercials.
Mace was making good money, helming big budget, creative spots. He was a successful director but, by his own admission, less successful as a human. “I left Groundglass and I went over to Egg Films, and I was a terrible person. I didn’t care about other people’s feelings or what I did, I was advancing at the expense of others.” Mace’s career might have been blowing up, but so too was his personal life. His girlfriend, Gabi, now his wife, was increasingly worried.
I guess that was the realisation that this was going to absolutely destroy my career.
It all came to a head before one big job when he decided to work on the treatment over the course of a weekend. Another director in the company had finished a vodka commercial and the brand had sent a bottle to each of the company’s staff. “I drank my one,” Mace explains, “and then, over the weekend, I eventually drank the others. Then it was Monday morning. I went home, had the pitch, and I was so out of it that I couldn’t remember what I had written. Then I lied and I said that the electricity in the house turned off. I closed my laptop and switched the lights off. That was the first time my behaviour had a repercussion, because I lost the bid and I got shown this footage of me from the office security cameras. I guess that was the realisation that this was going to absolutely destroy my career.”
It’s interesting, I say to Mace, that the realisation was not that it would destroy his life, but that it would destroy his career. He nods solemnly; “Maybe after the birth of my first child [Gabi is pregnant] that will change, but my career has always been the most important thing to me.”
Above: Mace with fellow YouTuber, Casey Neistat.
A second, successful stint in rehab ensued and that is when he met with Casey Neistat, who visited South Africa soon after Mace was sober. Neistat, a sometime commercial director himself, but, then, a full time YouTuber with a huge following [he currently has 12.5 million subscribers to his channel] invited Mace to New York so he could move back into the YouTube space. “That scared the shit out of me for two reasons,” says Mace. “One, I knew that I could have gone back to the production company to direct TV ads. And, two, I was so scared that I was going to screw up and return to just having a blowout, ruining my career and my opportunities all over again.”
I was so scared that I was going to screw up and return to just having a blowout, ruining my career and my opportunities all over again.
That didn’t happen. Neistat and Mace worked on around 100 videos together and although the relationship was sometimes fraught, because making a video every day was stressful, Mace found a new love for the platform and, after starting his own channel, garnered a huge following himself, with help from Neistat.
This was 2017 and, soon after committing to YouTube full time, Mace headed back to South Africa. From there his channel and his understanding of his audience grew. He started his own production company, JOE, created an amazing array of videos, began working with the Discovery Channel on a series that spanned both YouTube and terrestrial TV and, eventually, ended up in Hollywood collaborating with a two-time Oscar winner (whose name Mace prefers not to reveal) on a film, as well as working with Warner Bros Discovery to develop his feature debut.
Above: Mace worked in New York with Casey Neistat on his YouTube channel.
Fear was always present, though, despite the successes. Running a company instils its own worries, Mace admits; “It’s the fear of waking up every morning asking yourself, ‘How am I going to provide for my staff? Why the fuck am I doing this?’” But, from a YouTube perspective, the fear always lies in relevancy. “Once I got sober, the drugs and the alcohol weren’t the concern. I’ll always be an alcoholic, it’s just who I am, but I’m grateful for the other mental health problems I struggle with because they keep me grounded. The real fear is relevance, and that becomes more and more intense the longer you are in the YouTube space, because remaining relevant is exceptionally hard. There’s been a very small margin of YouTubers who have kept their relevancy and they’ve had to rebuild themselves. Like Logan [Paul], he just keeps getting cancelled and then somehow, is able to redeem himself and pivot into new ventures like WWE and [energy drink] Prime.
The real fear is relevance, and that becomes more and more intense the longer you are in the YouTube space, because remaining relevant is exceptionally hard.
Drama or scandal can keep a YouTuber relevant but one consistently successful member of that demographic who hasn’t attracted controversy is MrBeast, aka 24-year-old Jimmy Donaldson, who has over 200 million subscribers across his various channels. He is known for his hugely expensive YouTube videos, for giving away exorbitant amounts of money to people as part of those videos, and for his philanthropic activities.
The pair met when Mace and Neistat were invited to Antarctica by Donaldson. They got on well and Donaldson liked Mace’s work, his dedication and directorial professionalism. Eventually that led to a job offer, as Chief Creative Officer of a relatively new part of Donaldson’s business, Beast Philanthropy. This offer came, though, as the feature was moving to the next level. “It was a pivotal moment,” says Mace, “Jimmy and Darren [Margolias, Executive Director at Beast Philanthropy] were like, ‘Look, we want you to come onboard and try this out for a year’. So, I sat down and realised if I took this chance, I would have to turn down the feature, which would’ve absolutely platformed me in the traditional world. So, either the film or Beast Philanthropy, it couldn’t be both.”
Above: Mace's first video for the Beast Philanthropy channel.
Mace chose Beast Philanthropy and set about making an initial video for Donaldson about a South African orphanage the company was helping. It was a decision, though, that came with no small amount of trepidation.” It’s the imposter syndrome,” he says. “That’ll never go away. It feels like, one day, I’m going to get seen as a fraud.
But then, I guess, if that fear goes away, maybe I’ll become a shit filmmaker because I would stop caring so much. All in all, the fear - shit as it is - has definitely helped me learn. And as much as I would say ‘fuck film school!’ for putting it there, I have to thank it for making me feel like shit, because it’s the only reason I taught myself how to tell a story.”
All in all, the fear - shit as it is - has definitely helped me learn.
Solace, I suggest, could be taken from the fact that Mace employed his film school lecturer to video his wedding a few years ago, a turn of events that might be struck from a script for being too coincidental. But he laughs and says there’s no ill will towards the lecturers; “things have turned out ok.”