It may not always be expressed so bluntly, but that kind of reservation is probably unavoidable for any actor who lives up to that hoary old Hollywood cliche and announces, "I really want to direct." And if the actor opts to direct commercials, that's just asking for it. Critics are likely to question not only qualifications, but motive, too -- the conventional wisdom being that actors use commercials as a pit stop on the way to directing films.
"We've seen a number of actors make one or two attempts at commercials and then quickly move on to doing movies or episodic TV," says Pamela Maythenyi of The Source Maythenyi, an ad industry database service. But let the skeptics say what they will; it is not deterring the current wave of television actors who, like Bourland, are making the leap to directing commercials. Two of the latest newcomers are Peter MacNicol, who stars on Ally McBeal, and Jonathan Frakes, the veteran actor best known for his role on Star Trek: The Next Generation. MacNicol and Frakes join the growing ranks of commercials directors with a thespian background. Then there are Nick Cassavettes, who just shot his first campaign for ESPN, and Rupert Wainwright, who began his career with starring roles in films like Another Country, and has since become a highly successful commercials director known for his work for Reebok and others. Other actors-turned-directors are Matthew Penn, who has starred in films and on TV, and has just finished directing spots starring Denis Leary for Quaker State; and Christopher Guest, the onetime Saturday Night Live and Spinal Tap star who has already carved out a successful niche directing commercials, including his mockumentary-style spots for ESPN. As this issue went to press, more names came up. Griffin Dunne, who starred in An American Werewolf in London and After Hours, has been spotted behind the camera on a commercial set, as has Peter Berg, an actor on the Chicago Hope TV series.
To nobody's astonishment, some within the commercials directing fraternity already have the knives out for the actors-turned-directors. "I don't think they're going anywhere in this business," says director Kinka Usher. "Show me one actor who's made it big in commercials, and then we'll talk." Tim Case, a partner in CMP, a production company, concurs. Experience in front of a camera hardly bestows the ability to operate well from behind it, Case believes: "I would probably represent my plumber before I'd represent an actor." His skepticism is shared by Steve Wax, president of Chelsea Pictures: "It's a bullshit trend. I don't think it's going to make even a flea-sized dent in the automobile of commercials."
But Guest, for one, has already had an impact with his much-admired ESPN work, shot through Moxie Pictures. And supporters of the 'act pack' -- including the commercials production reps who have been luring them into the field -- believe that they may bring a fresh perspective to commercials, plus an insider's knowledge of how to get the best performances out of actors. "These guys tend to have a real rapport with other actors," says Lou Addesso, president of Creative Film Management, which represents a number of actors who direct spots, including Cassavettes, Penn and Stanley Tucci. "They know how to push an actor and guide him toward doing the best work."
Almost all of the actor/directors make the same point. "A director has to know how to put an actor at ease, and how to use the fear that is felt by every actor," says Wainwright, who works out of Pavlov Productions. Frakes notes that "there's a shorthand among actors," which makes it easier to communicate on the set. Cassavettes believes that actors tend to trust other actors more, which becomes particularly important in commercials, "where you sometimes have to ask actors to do things that they might not want to do." In such situations, a director without an acting background might be more prone to bullying because, as Guest points out, "a lot of directors think actors are just a pain in the ass."
Until recently, not as much importance was placed on the quality of acting in commercials (the hammy cast-offs from soaps were only expected to get their lines right). It was understood that what really mattered in commercials, says Wax, was the visuals -- and for that, you'd be more likely to turn to a film-school guy than someone with on-camera experience. But Wax himself acknowledges that as commercials have increasingly begun to ape independent film styles -- turning to mockumentaries, quirky character studies and faux reality-based footage -- there has been a growing demand for richer, more subtle acting in creative spots. The act pack directors figure they're the ones who can coax those demanding performances out of their fellow actors. Wainwright says that quality performances by actors in commercials are more important than ever, yet often are underappreciated; in classic spots like Goodby's "Aaron Burr" from the "Got Milk?" campaign, and countless others, "everyone goes on about the idea," he says, "but the performances often are what really make or break the spot."
Some feel that the influx of directors with an acting background could have a positive effect by helping to shift commercials away from effects-driven styles, toward a character-based, performance-driven sensibility. Already, that seems to be a hallmark of the work so far by actor/directors like Wainwright, Penn and Bourland (who works at Random/Order and has shot for Pepsi and the Florida Panthers). Their reels feature offbeat characters and lively performances. Penn thinks that in emphasizing characters and acting, the actor/directors are more likely to produce commercials "with human characters in dramatic circumstances" -- as opposed to whiz-bang spots that, in Penn's words, "seem to have been made by a machine."
Of course, there's also good old-fashioned star appeal. SunSpots, the West Hollywood production house representing both Frakes and MacNicol, is positioning the new directors as star magnets. "In commercials, celebrities respond well to working with an actor they're familiar with," says Frakes. "I'm told that's the way I'll be pitched, which is fine with me." Addesso confirms that when Cassavettes signed on to direct his ESPN spots, it helped bring in celebrity performers like film actor Michael Rappaport. The star power can sometimes be used to try to dazzle clients, too -- though, as Usher notes, "when the clients are laying down big bucks, they want a quality product, and just hanging out on the set with Mr. Actor isn't good enough."
Penn says that the actors most likely to get jobs in commercials are those who have already demonstrated some directing chops. And that's true of most of the members of the current crop. Penn has an extensive resume directing episodic TV; Cassavettes and Wainwright both have feature films under their belts; Frakes has directed the Star Trek movies; MacNicol has helmed on Ally McBeal; and Guest has done it all -- writing, directing, and performing, on stage, in films and on TV. These directors are not looking to commercials to teach them lighting or the basics of handling a camera. "The main thing they have to learn," says Addesso, "is that you're selling a product."
Bourland didn't even have to learn that. Having appeared in some 200 commercials, he says he spent much of his time "eavesdropping on clients" and studying the tricks and techniques of Joe Pytka, Jeff Gorman and Leslie Dektor. "Those guys were my film school," he says.
Are actors mainly interested in directing commercials as a stepping stone to doing feature films? For some, that's true. Maythenyi and others point to the various hit-and-run episodes involving actors who've dabbled in directing commercials in the past. Henry Winkler, Steve Buscemi, Ken Olin and Ben Stiller all tried it (typically with unremarkable results) and quickly moved on to bigger game. But the current group seems intent on sticking around. "I emphatically don't view it as some stop-off on the road to somewhere else, such as a film directing career," says MacNicol. "Commercials direction simply strikes me as providing its own little world of potential creativity, with its own rules and its own rewards."