America's Favorite Director

Everything he touches turns to comedic gold, so how come Bryan Buckley isn't laughing when he's asked how his first feature is coming along?

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Buckley: "To me, advertising is just the greatest thing in the whole wide world."
Bryan Buckley had just come back from shooting a Pepsi spot with Britney the day I shared a Subway sandwich and a couple of sodas with him in his cramped corner office on Broadway, just where SoHo turns Canal Street-seedy. We agreed that we would talk about the craft of directing. We both had an hour, but we stayed for three. It doesn't happen often. Trust me.

I was so stunned -- by Britney, not the Subway -- that I clean forgot to press him when he claimed "this Britney spot would be different." He had just told me what a trooper she was, though, and it's not as if the dance-formula spots are her fault. But, Bryan Buckley, Pepsi and Britney? Right now anything is possible in Buckley's soaring career. Voted No. One commercials director in Creativity's first annual survey of the American advertising industry ("A real honor," says Buckley), he is the hottest name in U.S. commercials directing. Spike Jonze, and, arguably, the Traktor gang are currently his only real competitors for the crown.

Since he quit running his own ad agency, Buckley/DeCerchio, to direct, and burst on the scene with the iconoclastic ESPN SportsCenter series of documentary-style spots, together with then directing partner, Frank Todaro, his credits are almost as innumerable as his imitators. You will have seen his work since. It ranges from the stunning "When I Grow Up" Monster.com Super Bowl spot to the E*Trade series starring its infamous monkey, FedEx, the crazed internet users for Pac Bell, Nike, and the more recent Citizens Against Terrorism and Busby Berkley-style Oxygen spots. There's so much more. In particular, there are recent spots for London agency Mother, first for Dr Pepper and more recently the Egg bank. But Buckley, one of the best-known commercials directors in the world, has never shot overseas.

In fact, he tries to shoot as much as possible in New York, his adopted home of the past 15 years. It's one of the reasons his directing partnership with Todaro split up in 1997. Todaro wanted to do features, and Buckley found himself contemplating another seven months or so out of a year shooting on the West Coast.

It led to Buckley's leaving Radical Media and hooking up with the Wieden & Kennedy creative Hank Perlman and his line producer, Stephen Orent, to form Hungry Man. "My intention is always to keep production here in New York," says the floppy-fringed Buckley, with characteristic intensity. "I love the community here, the feeling, the sense of family. The texture New York can bring to work from castings, locations, etc. We used to get forced to L.A. because agency creatives wanted to get away from creative directors looking over their shoulder, or they wanted to go swimming at the Four Seasons. Now, the chief driver west is effects, particularly stunt work and other practical effects. You can get into a very bad situation with local people here in New York. There's a couple of people here, but only a couple. If something goes wrong or they're unavailable, you're in trouble."

Buckley acknowledges that L.A. has the edge on "stage stuff," but is an ardent fan of New York locations, arguing that we all feel we have seen every L.A. location before. Trying to make New York part of the character of his work, trying to put an edge to his reel, is in part why he set up Hungry Man in the city. "New York is real, and it's about interpreting what's real out there," he continues. "It's the same thing with casting. Just take the subway and you get exposed to great fashion, to characters, to dialogue. Go to L.A. and you need to cast a homeless guy, there are 50 people that show up because that's what they do, homeless."

In truth, although Hungry Man has been hugely successful in commercials, with Perlman, John O'Hagan and Buckley himself all thriving since '97, this arena was only one that the company targeted. It also had film and television aspirations that, to be blunt, have not come to fruition. Why? It's the only time his responses are less than fully confident. "We shot a couple of pilots, but . . . film and television has been a terrible process. But it helps us broker so many more deals with talent. It's really Hank's bag."

It's also the case that despite being unquestionably one of the super A-list of commercials directors, he has failed to get his own much-cherished movie ambitions off the ground. More specifically, a personal project called Fingerbox, which he has perennially redrafted only to have the financing fail to materialize at the last minute. Last December the plug was pulled the day of Hungry Man's stylish Christmas Party. "Every year I go through some hell on my script -- it's now rewrite 16 or 17," he concedes ruefully. "I got through my undergraduate years, now I have my master's degree of pain, and soon I can move on to my doctorate. This company can get $2 to $3 million for 60-seconds in commercials, but to get $8 to $12 million for 90 minutes . . . "

Buckley then perks up, noting that the night before he had been at the Tribeca Film Festival's tribute to Francis Ford Coppola: "God, it was inspirational. But, here he is, one of the greatest directors that ever lived, and he can't get financing for a film." But surely Buckley is offered scripts? "I see lots of stuff - especially big action films, Michael Bay-type stuff. But Sexy Beast or Being John Malkovich, they're freakish scripts. I don't see those. If you're going to go the movie directing route, you have to really believe in it. It will take so much out of you. It's two years of your life. Doing anything for the money is a mistake."

Buckley can, and does, talk about the whole Hollywood game for hours, describing putting together a movie as "the world's biggest Rubik's cube" (a reference that shows his 38 years). "The politics, the crap. You would not believe..." he says -- as if he is the first to have told us! So, it is easy to see that when he says, "To me, advertising is just the greatest thing in the whole wide world," it is clear he means it. But perhaps more curious is his explanation of just why he believes advertising is currently more interesting than movies, music video and television. Buckley appears to be the only man in advertising who believes that the dot-com era was actually good for the industry and, in particular, for creativity. He doesn't buy the consensus idea that the wacky creativity for creativity's sake and emphasis on noise and entertainment above all else has to some degree discredited the industry. Instead, he argues that advertisers are now willing to take more risks, not fewer; that they have been forced to make their work more entertaining; that before the dot-com era, creativity appeared to be the preserve of a select group of advertisers: FedEx, Nike, Pepsi, Levi's.

"The world order was not threatened," argues Buckley. "If you look at the work now it has definitely been freed up. Is there more breakthrough work now? No, but there's not going to be because a lot of stuff has already been done before. You look at print. Print has been dead for 15 years! I came upon that myself when I had my own agency. Everything had been done before."

Well, it's a theory. I'm not sure I totally buy it, given the recession-induced nervous caution that is so evident among so many client corporations -- and understandably so. At Buckley's level, or Jonze's or Traktor's or Dante Ariola's, there is no shortage of daring work. But, my, how he works to keep it that way. Buckley is a disciplined and disciplinarian director who clearly earns every cent of his huge day rate. He has a very clear view of how he should approach a shoot, and of what a director's responsibilities are. "Whatever spot you decide to do, a creative team has busted their ass to get it through. Their livelihood depends on its success, especially now," he says. "Creatives depend sooooo much on our opinion. Marketing directors put their asses on the line, too. I don't want someone to get fired because he took a shot and I took it a little too far," he says earnestly.

"I'm not a big go out and party guy," he continues. "Neither with my talent, nor with my agencies. I kinda like a little bit of distance. Like, I want them to have a sense of respect. Commercials directing is a total sport. It's 100 percent about game day. It's about total discipline with night-before planning. Focus is everything if you want to see the kids," he says referring to his wife and three children with whom he lives on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "It's a different kind of discipline as a director. You show up with your storyboard, your game plan -- and then you have to adjust when the shit hits the fan. So you have to pre-empt and think things through in advance."

So, when this most dedicated of directors says adamantly that he will not do treatments, you know it is not down to laziness -- in fact, the opposite. "Film is such a process, that there is no way that you can predict exactly what that process will be," he says. "You can't know until you're immersed in it. It's so hypocritical and a monumental waste of time. If the person doesn't trust you, you don't want to work with them anyway. With a certain elite group of agencies it's a personality thing. Can I work with that person?"

Buckley says top directors end up working for the Wieden, Goodby, Fallon, BBDO, DDB, BBH, Mother set because, ultimately, at agencies like that there are clients or creative directors or someone who will put their stamp on a piece of work and sell it through. At lesser agencies, he says "nine out of 10 times the project dies. If a brand hasn't been great for 20 years at one place, for 99 times out of 100, it's unlikely to be great the one time you do it."

Inevitably, then, directors like Buckley work with the same creatives over and over. He has a special relationship with BBDO's Gerry Graf and Dave Grey; Steve Pearson and Tom Miller at Goodby; and Jan Elliott and Luke Williamson at Mother. He has also worked with Mullen a couple of times, and for PentaMark. There's over half a year's work in that list alone.

Of all of them, it's with London's Mother that he has experienced the greatest creative freedom, he says. And, particularly on a recent Egg shoot (in New York, of course) where he met the most un-client client you will ever get (Nick Cross, ex-Selfridges and BBH). "He's in his shorts and T-shirt and he's at the bank! Wow!" says Buckley, the innocent abroad rearing its head in him again. "Mother? Those guys are different. Their clients expect the outrageous. The agency just says, 'Here's the idea, now just go for it.' And this is for a frickin' bank! It's about total creative freedom. It's so liberating, as a director."

He does, however, admit that "the budgets are a killer" in the U.K; that the production company is under incredible budget problems "from the get-go. Gorgeous [Frank Budgen and Chris Palmer's London-based production company] comes over here to New York to get the money," Buckley continues. The money is here, but the trade-off is that there are a lot more nervous people around. Every time you work with Mother, you can't believe you get paid to do it. It's such fun."

Buckley is one of the more business-minded A-list directors. It comes from having had his own agency in his early 20s, and now his own production company. Unsurprisingly, he has very firm views on how to run it, too. He will not, for example, be drawn into internal competitive pitching between his own directors, describing the process as demoralizing and wasteful. Buckley, has been described as "difficult" or "tough," but he was nothing but earnest, intense, outspoken and charming in our time together. I am sure he is hugely demanding on set. And he is clearly not a man to do things by half-measures. Take movies -- he sees all of them. Everything. Night after night watching DVDs at home. Then take television -- he watches nothing. Well, in his words "zero." I give him a hard time about it. Is it snobbery? "I work in the TV business, but . . . it's partly being busy, and I watch tons of films or read a script. I totally believe in film. It's the lack of quality in television -- with the exception of HBO. To me, trends and what's going on in the world, you can read all about it in New York. I've not seen The Osbournes, but I will watch that because it's 'the thing,' and you have to get a sense of it. But to wade through the crap on TV, that's horrible. I grew up on M*A*S*H, but I only saw one Seinfeld. Now movies -- even if you watch a crappy one, it's great." Perhaps, I ask charitably, it's just taking his desire not to imitate to extreme defensive precautions? "I hate derivative comedy," he says, typically unequivocal. But when I ask him if Hungry Man's comedy-only persona rankles, it clearly does a little beneath the calm response. As he says, it's not a bad space to be in right now with so many comedy scripts about. It is a certain kind of comedy, however. "At least we stand for something," Buckley says, energized. "You don't set out to be edgy. There are certain things you like or find interesting. To me, that means not going down the same path again. It's to challenge yourself and the people around you. You have to take those small steps outside the comfort zone, because success makes you comfortable. You never want to blow it," he adds with emphasis. "When I miss a shot, I get so pissed. It keeps me up for days thinking about it. 'I can't believe I missed that.' "

Buckley says it bothers him when people think a director like him goes for "the edgy" or "cool," deliberately looking for the PR mileage, regardless of its appropriateness. "Believe me, when I had an ad agency, we went out looking for press. Now? We just send out the spots." So, which of his peers does Bryan Buckley think cool? Spike Jonze, "because he has done it on both fronts, movies and commercials"; Budgen is "wow, just amazing. Those two are as good filmmakers as anyone just now. Jonathan Glazer, too -- and he's such a nice guy." When he was "growing up," as he puts it, the top names on his list were Joe Pytka and Johns & Gorman.

Without further naming names, Buckley makes clear that one of his motivations is to not disappear like some of the most famous directors of the recent past. It is hard to see him doing so. The talent is a given, but he thinks about what he is doing so much; he cares about his clients and his clients' clients; he is a smart businessman; and he's not an ass. "Don't be an asshole!" he says giving me his survival guide. "Creatives then just wait for you to fuck up. Don't do shit work. Creatives get it in the wind, and they suddenly don't know you're 'the guy' any more. Maybe, just maybe, though, you might do something that isn't a 10 for a relationship."

It's highly implausible that Bryan Buckley might blow his commercials career. But will that be enough for this extraordinary New Englander with his unique eye? How important is that movie ambition? And how much does it have to be his own movie?

"It's a burning desire," he says bluntly. "And, especially coming off Coppola last night, it kind of has to happen. Even if I shoot it on videotape with my family as the main characters."

By then Buckley will have a Ph.D. in pain, but you know it will be worth it. For us, as much as him.

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