Directors to Watch: Aaron Ruell

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Aaron Ruell
Aaron Ruell Credit: Aaron Ruell
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When one imagines an Amish drag race, one buggy driver gets to doff his wide-brimmed hat for a blue headband, while the other exchanges his for yellow wrestling gear. The horses, too, get some extra gas (maybe) from wearing white Pegasus wings. Such is the world he conceived for Coca-Cola's controversial Powerade spot, out of W+K/Portland, which got pulled from the airwaves earlier this year when Pepsi went into an uproar for its questionable implication--that Powerade's lo-cal drink provided more fuel than Gatorade's higher cal one. (Coke settled with Pepsi and the spot was pulled.) Lawsuits aside, "Creating a very distinct world is very important to me," explains Ruell, repped out of �ber Content. "Those tiny things in the background make the spot good for the fourth time or the fifth time you see it."

The mild-mannered Ruell, who also happens to multitask as a photographer (see and an actor—you may recognize him as the nerdy Kip Dynamite in Napoleon Dynamite—seems to bring offbeat freshness to everything he touches. However, "it's not about creating these weird wacky sets just to say, 'Look how weird and cool and stylistic this is,"' he explains. "It's about creating a whole. The world may be a little askew, but since everything works together you don't question it while you're viewing it." As for the oddness of it all--because clearly, it's odd-- that sensibility is actually rooted in what was reality for Ruell growing up in his hometown of Clovis, a small agricultural community in central California. When directing a commercial he tries to recreate the "timeless" look that he found there. "I like to mix pieces in my art direction from the '60s or the '40s and the '90s and present-day stuff," he says. "To me that feels very real. When I go into people's houses, it's not all today."

Beyond his hometown muse, Ruell also lets the script lead the visuals. He recently shot a drab-looking but super fresh series of spots for McDonald's, featuring virtually static product shots of various Mickey D edibles having absurd conversations with each other. In one, a pair of Filet-O-Fish sandwiches on a stainless steel counter argue about the pronunciation of their name. One says repeatedly in a British accent, "Filet-A-Fish," while the other (American) sandwich snaps back, "No. Filet-O-Fish." Even with zero camera movement and one line, hilarious mini drama ensues. "I try to figure out what's the funniest part of a piece," Ruell explains. "With Filet-O-Fish, the dialogue was what was funny. Then you think, how do you couple the look with that? It's just one phrase so let's just show it as simply as possible."

Ruell got his start at Brigham Young University film school, where he directed two shorts that attracted attention at Sundance and got him work directing commercials. It was there that he also met Napoleon Dynamite scribe and director Jared Hess, who asked him to play the part of the awkwardly macho bro Kip. Ruell also directed the clever food-based titles for the movie. (His own name is written in green salsa on a colorful plate of nachos.)

Although Napoleon Dynamite earned him cult notoriety, "It's a love/hate relationship with that movie," he says. It took him a year to find an acting role that didn't smell of Kip--he'll soon be seen as a business man/computer thief in the upcoming film On the Road with Judas, written and directed by P.S. 260 editor and co-founder J.J. Lask. On the other side of the camera, Ruell has been shooting commercials for Kellogg's and music video channel Mun2 and next year will be releasing a book of his photographs. "The fact that I've got this big book coming out, I'm giddy about it," he says. "If I do a certain number of ads, I have to do a personal project in between, just for my own sanity. I still consider myself a punk-rock kid."
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