Lee Hirsch, the director of the acclaimed, emotionally jarring documentary "Bully," will be turning his camera on an arguably more daunting task -- commercials. Riding high on the success of his powerful film, which documents the plight of bullied kids and their parents over the course of a school year, Hirsch has signed to the roster of Moxie Pictures, joining the company's roster of respected directors like Errol Morris, Wes Anderson and Cameron Crowe.
At this new commercials juncture Hirsch says -- believe it or not -- that he's finally found his home. "I've wanted to do commercials since I was 18 and PA-ing in New York," he says. "Working at Moxie has been part of mapping out what I hoped my future would look like."
Turns out that before "Bully," Hirsch lived in South Africa for a decade and had many friends who were young creative directors, including Jonathan Beggs, now a CD at Jupiter Drawing Room in South Africa and John Davenport, a CD at Ireland Davenport. "I was peripheral to advertising," he says. "I would sit and look at that work and be in awe." Hirsch adds that others like James Cooper, Chief Creative Innovative Officer at JWT and Joe Cianciotti, ECD at DDB, with whom he is working on PSA for the AD council, have been some of the ad crowd that are behind his transition to commercial filmmaking.
"Lee is an amazing director who really has a way to get inside a subject's head," says Dan Levinson, president at Moxie. "I think he would be great for all kinds of work that demand a certain reality, whether that reality is a global documentary spot, or getting to know a family in Kansas."
Hirsch got into a subject's head--and way beyond - on "Bully." The film skillfully sheds light on not just the suffering of the victims and the cruelty of their tormentors--but also how that cruelty is ingrained and perpetuated at the schools' administrative level and in broader society. The film was recently screened at the White House, just moments after President Obama announced his support for two anti- bullying bills currently in Congress.
Hirsch says he found his voice on the film because it was a personal project (he was bullied while in school) and also because he shot it mostly by himself, armed with a Canon 5D, sitting on the back of a school bus. Working in advertising, he won't have the same amount of control --but ultimately he believes it will open new doors. "It's definitely going to have to change the way I work," he says. "I've been in the documentary ghetto for a long time, and there have been lots of things I've wanted to do that I couldn't because of budgets and other limitations. It's going to be good to get that kind of freedom as well."
Hirsch's mission continued beyond the film, on "The Bully Project: 1 Million Kids," an effort to get a million kids into theaters to see the movie. At last count, just over 85,000 kids had seen the film, with sponsors and educators helping to organize "Bully" field trips.
The effort has drawn the ire of some Conservative bloggers, who question whether Hirsch -- and the Obama administration's support -- are politicizing the issue. Hirsch disagrees. "I've played a neutral game, politically," he says. The problem, he believes, is that central to the story of "Bully" is the story of Kelby, a young lesbian growing up in Oklahoma City. "That has been an issue that has blocked conservatives from being proactive about the bullying because they see it as a gay issue," he says. "But we have powerful conservative supporters for the film, including Rush Limbaugh and Mike Huckabee, who love the film. And by loving the film, they are loving Kelby."
Not that Hirsch is one to shy away from politics. in 2008, he founded, directed and produced "Local Voices for Obama," a project that included a series of ads that featured Obama supporters in swing states, which won multiple Reed Awards, which recognize excellence in campaign management, political consulting and political communication. Those ads -- which didn't have any involvement from Obama -- featured the same subtle casting brilliance and sensitivity, albeit on a smaller scale, that is part of what makes "Bully" such a success. For this election year, Hirsch says there has been interest in resurrecting Local Voices, "not from the White House, per se, but [from] high level people." On whether he'll participate, "I'm not opposed to it," he says. "But I won't do it for free again. Work should be valued, and I've paid my dues."
Hirsch's past work also includes music videos, including one for John Legend's "Show Me," and has also worked on other doc projects like 2002's "Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony," about the role of music in the South African struggle against apartheid, and 2007's History Channel special "Act of Honor," which he directed and produced.
As far as commercials go, Hirsch says dream clients would be J.P. Morgan Chase and Sears, both major supporters of Bully's One Million Kids initiative. But Hirsch says he is open to trying out anything, as long as it lets him explore his visual creativity, and features a strong narrative that stems from the characters, not necessarily from events. Even humor isn't out of the question. "Bully," for example, had shining moments of humor, despite its dark tone. For example when Alex, one of the victims, says, "Girls are like candy." It's a bittersweet moment that highlights his awkward adolescence, which is so normal but overshadowed by the terrible things he is going through. "I hope clients look to me for those little details and little moments," says Hirsch.