Schiller's reluctance to admit his age may have less to do with humor than with the fact he's pretty new at advertising (he's been shooting spots for about three and a half years). But for a newish kid, he's doing very well. His work with Lowe & Partners/SMS on the Courtyard by Marriott campaign ("Never underestimate the importance of a good night's rest") won numerous Golds at the Clios, the One Show and Cannes. He also had the distinction of being listed as number eight in a top-10 of directors chosen by British magazine Creative Review in 1998.
Even before his SNL career, Schiller's life was laced with comedy. His father wrote for I Love Lucy, and young Tom would often stop by the set. Despite being utterly terrified of the red-headed star, it steered him in his current direction. Schiller can't remember a time he wasn't creating. "I always wrote things when I was little -- songs, ditties, little movies. I would put pieces of film together from UCLA's trash next door." At 16, he was able to work with real film, finding a mentor in documentarian Robert Snyder. Documentaries on Buckminster Fuller and Henry Miller followed.
Schiller insists he was also an apprentice for a dentist in Copenhagen for a year. He must have overdosed on laughing gas there, because the Danish stint preceded his 15 years at Saturday Night Live, where he created the ever popular "Samurai" series and various SchillerVision productions, including such SNL classics as "Java Junkie" and "La Dolce Gilda."
As for his foray into the commercials world, Schiller credits his production company, Five Union Square, with giving him a launching pad. He likes the fact the company is a smaller house, as he feels he'd be "lost at a big one." More importantly, he adds with a laugh, "They were the only ones who would take me."
And they're glad they did; he wins awards and business like there's no tomorrow. Ironically, that's partly because his often low-tech footage doesn't look like the stuff ads are made of. Schiller's so good that people often think they're looking at stock footage. Says Tom Gianfagna, a freelancer formerly with Lowe who worked with Schiller on Perdue Farms and Courtyard: "He's the Al Yankovic of video. No one shoots video worse than Tom -- that's a compliment, that's what he's all about."
The true beauty of Schiller's bad video is evident in Ameristar Casinos' "Chance, No Chance" campaign, via Goldberg Moser O'Neill, San Francisco; and also in the promos Schiller did for CBS, via Lowe, that look for all the world like genuine FBI surveillance tapes. His other signature is brilliant casting. In one Ameristar Casinos spot, "Spelling Bee," which looks as if it was filmed with a Handycam, the little girl that's faced with an eight-syllable spelling challenge is perfect in her vain attempt at smiling and keeping her composure in a time of public crisis.
Any other strong points? Why yes, says Bill Johnson, a creative director and copywriter at Campbell Mithun Esty in Minneapolis: smart creative thinking. Schiller completely improved on the storyboard of the "Lawn Boy" spot. "Tom gets your gag," Johnson praises. "He finds the little nuances that may seem small at the time but really make the spot." It was Schiller's idea to put an actual boy up on the spinning chalkboard.
Despite Schiller's inherent goofiness and comedic bent ("I keep trying to do drama, but it keeps coming out funny," he swears), he's a complete professional on the set. Amy Borkowsky, a creative group head at Lowe and the writer on the Marriott work, says, "He's totally quirky and a really fun kind of guy. So, it was a big surprise how buttoned-up he was at the shoot. He knew what he wanted and he worked fast. He had control of the set without being dictatorial."