Dream Teammate

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"I shouldn't have done this interview," says Chris Smith. "I can't sell myself." Somehow, the 33-year-old Michigan native has managed to avoid the ego bloat, even after directing Sundance stunners like American Job, and the hilarious American Movie, the 1999 festival's crowd favorite and winner of the Grand Jury Prize for a doc. He's already made a splash at the Toronto Film Festival with his latest (he's one of three co-directors), The Yes Men, which follows the antics of a troupe of pranksters posing as World Trade Organization officials.

Smith, repped out of Independent Media, has made an impact on Madison Avenue as well, directing memorable Gold Lion-winning laughers like Toyota's "Dog" and Goodby's documentary-style "Laurel Lane" PacBell camapaign, which demonstrated all the real-life charm and humor of his films. "I realize now it was insane to give me that job," Smith continues in his self-effacing vein about PacBell, his first gig in the commercials world. However, "Chris brought an honesty to the campaign," says Goodby writer Colin Nissan. "He captures subject matter in such intelligent and artistic ways with his documentaries, and that's exactly how he approached these commercials. And despite doing so many commercials since then, it's still how he approaches them." Indeed, today Smith's reel shows a seamless transition of his skills, with a feast of subtle, unaffected humor and spot-on casting, evident in work for Earthlink, Kia and even the '70s-style action spoof for Lee jeans. Most recently, he helmed BBDO's launch spots for Pepsi Vanilla, including one in which a dedicated but daffy duo are befuddled by a Pepsi machine apparently on the skids. "If a script makes me laugh, I just want to keep that integrity and try to make sure that I don't screw it up," Smith says. "To me a lot of my job is just not getting in the way."

Although Smith never set out to go into commercials, they've become part of a multifaceted artistic slate that also includes playing guitar in an outfit known as The Horn Band and running Internet TV station Zerotv (0tv.com), out of Bluemark Productions, which he founded with his creative cohorts in Milwaukee, his home for the last eight years. With outlets for expression all over the place, what Smith appreciates about advertising, oddly enough, is what many find its most cumbersome albatross. "On my own projects, I feel like I have complete control and can do as I like. But when I'm working on commercials, I really enjoy the collaborative aspect of the whole process - taking something someone's written and working with them to get it to where they want it to be."

Sounds like the typical nice-guy pose, but Smith's agency collaborators attest that in Smith's case, it's the real deal, and perhaps the best thing about him. "Before jobs are awarded we always hear from directors that they're collaborative, but the fact is, they rarely are," says Goodby's Nissan. "I think collaboration is a hard thing to learn. It's either in your personality or it's not. And it's definitely in Chris'. It makes working with him so much fun. You really feel like a team working together to try to make something great."

Such was the case during BBDO's Pepsi Vanilla shoot, which was a veritable production nightmare. "Everything that could go wrong did go wrong," Smith recalls. "We got rained out two nights, and had eight hours of rain on our weather day." Yet, ironically, "It was a really enjoyable experience. Nobody was freaking out. We were just looking at each other, saying, 'What else could happen?' You just stay focused and do your best, and I think we were all really happy with where we ended up - it was a unified effort from everyone."

"Everyone" is a well-worn word in Smith's vocabulary, self-promotion not being his strong point. "I'm terrible at conference calls," he insists. "I am, I'm really bad." BBDO ECD Bill Bruce, who worked with Smith on Pepsi, sees things quite differently. During their powwow, "The agency producer Hyatt Choate said he thought Chris had bugged my office, he was so in sync with the way I like to work with a director," he notes. "He was very thoughtful in his approach and in discussing different options. He listened, he thought and he responded. It sounds easy, but it's rarely done. I can't wait to work with him again."

Who wouldn't, when Smith believes, "It's just about trying to have a good time with people." But he's highly selective; "If I get on a call and it doesn't seem like we're clicking, I don't care how good the work is, I don't want the job. I'm very lucky that I've clicked with people who do great work and who I've worked with again and again. We have a really good time. That's half of what the job's about. I want to do good work, but it's equally important that it's an enjoyable experience for everyone."

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