How to Build a Director

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Participants: Jeff Baron, EP and Joseph Kosinski, director, Anonymous Content; Maddi Carlton, EP, HSI; Jules Daly, president, RSA Films; Dan Duffy, EP, Hungry Man; Michael Digirolamo, EP/partner and Steve Orent, managing partner, Station Film; Jim Jenkins, co-founder/director, Ralph Laucella, co-founder/EP, and David Shane, director, O Positive; Kerstin Emhoff, co-founder/EP and Paul Hunter, co-founder/director, Pretty Bird; Dave Meyers, director and Frank Scherma, president,

What types of directors have you found to be most successful in building? Is there a particular demeanor or way of thinking that you see in the types of directors that make it in this business?

Kerstin Emhoff, Prettybird
Kerstin Emhoff, Prettybird
Kerstin Emhoff: I always look for strength of vision/creative point of view and ego. I have met brilliant creative people that come off as unsure or undecided that I never could see making it as directors. Everyone around them senses that, from the crew to other creatives, and every decision is second-guessed and watered down. It's that same ego that can get them in so much trouble as well. It's very difficult (maybe impossible for some) to dial up or down their ego level, but it is necessary not just in advertising but every type of filmmaking. I guess that's where I come in. I'm good at adjusting the ego dial.

Frank Scherma,
Frank Scherma,
Frank Scherma: I look for people who are passionate about what they do, for directors who are conceptual and are forward thinkers—they know a good idea and they know how to make any idea better. [They have] strong opinions about how they want to do it and enough common sense to understand how to collaborate. The day of the asshole is gone.

Jules Daly: Flexibility is a necessity. Also, be prepared, do your homework. This has been proven to me by some of the "more seasoned" directors who have always come to the table completely prepared and educated in the process.

Jeff Baron: I'd say the directors we're having success with are traditional filmmakers
Jeff Baron, Anonymous Content
Jeff Baron, Anonymous Content
who have the ability and understanding to work outside the traditional paradigm. They're curious and tend to bring a unique POV to the process. These guys all have their eyes on the prize. Because we are also involved in feature production, we feel we prepare them for that next level. Kosinski is the perfect example of that. His earlier work for XBox Gears of War certainly opened the door to features and probably single-handedly helped in securing Tron 2 for Disney.

Steve Orent: Knowing I will be working very closely with a director, it is important to genuinely like him/her and feel comfortable with him/her. Most of my builds have been with former creatives that I've had a prior relationship with, but I've managed to have success with a few filmmakers as well. I think when you first start it's important you're both really listening to one another. I also think it's important that the director allows him or herself to let go a bit and trust their instincts. I like working with easygoing, but internally intense directors who are driven to succeed but willing to listen and grow together as a team and company.

Michael Digirolamo, Station Film
Michael Digirolamo, Station Film
Michael DiGirolamo: Over the years, the directors who have been successful are the ones who have paid attention to story, art direction and cinematography. Sometimes, you can't catch the magic on the reel, but it comes from the director and ultimately carries over into their work. You instinctively know if he or she gets it, and sometimes that's enough for me.

Ralph Laucella: More than ever, new directors have to bring something special to every script. Once they have an interesting approach, they have to write their treatment, revise their treatment, pull the right visual reference and do two or even three calls. The type of directors who succeed in this climate are the resilient ones.

David Shane, O Positive
David Shane, O Positive
David Shane: There's so much tedious sameness in advertising and I think the people who have the best chance of doing work that stands out, of doing the stuff that's really memorable—are the people who stand out in the way they think. All the rest of it, the talent, the ability to work with others—while really important, pale next to the fresh way they think.

Maddi Carlton: I don't believe there is a particular "type" that guarantees success. At the
Maddi Carlton, HSI
Maddi Carlton, HSI
end of the day, the most important factor is still talent. That being said, [still important are] enthusiasm, commitment, a positive outlook, willingness to listen and to be collaborative, respect for the contributions of others—so much of winning assignments these days requires the ability to articulate a position, and to build a consensus in support of it. Directors can't be prima donnas anymore. Another key to winning projects these days depends on the director's ability to solve problems, to put the most on the screen that they can with diminishing resources.

Dan Duffy of Hungry Man and friend
Dan Duffy of Hungry Man and friend
Dan Duffy: Decisiveness, confidence and a collaborative attitude. New directors need to have a clear vision of themselves and be able to define that vision to agencies considering them. They need to be able to pitch their ideas and sell them to the creatives and producers across the table.

What are the most important skills you, as an executive producer, bring to the table in developing a director?

Emhoff: Patience, honesty and the ability to shamelessly pitch like William Shatner.

Scherma: Deciding which projects to do is incredibly important. It's about the creative choices we make, which projects a director chooses. Working with directors so they understand what advertising is about. You have to listen but also be strong in your point of view.

Jules Daly, RSA
Jules Daly, RSA
Daly: Honesty. You have to tell them the truth, even though it may hurt. Patience, production experience and vision—for both a project and a director's career. But it's a total team effort here—every project starts with a discussion between the director, EP and sales team to come up with a strategy. Staying aware of what the competition is up to doesn't hurt with the preparation either.

Orent: Most important is to always be positive throughout the whole process! Some will dispute this claim, but I really love getting involved creatively and when a director invites me to participate, I willingly get involved. Sometimes I can suggest something they might not be thinking of. Also being a
Steve Orent, Station Film
Steve Orent, Station Film
former line producer and AD helps me teach directors what it takes to shoot an underfunded or overly ambitious project. I've always tried to teach young directors to be good producers so there are no surprises as we move forward. Full disclosure always every step of the way!

Carlton: The obvious ones are a commitment to the director's talent—of both time and money. Also, strong relationships with agencies to help open doors and create opportunities. But, more importantly, an ability to be a creative partner for the director—to help set goals, and clarify his or her creative vision and help them develop their own personal style, sometimes just by asking good questions. Lastly, it also helps to bring your own judgment, to push hard for particular projects and to stay away from the ones you know you can't achieve. The ability to walk away from a project is just as important as the ability to engage.

What are some specific examples of something you've done that has decidedly advanced a director's career?

Paul Hunter, Prettybird
Paul Hunter, Prettybird
Emhoff: Years ago Paul Hunter told me he wanted to get comedy/dialogue work. I told him he had to learn how to do it first. He went to acting and writing classes and it worked. So many people have said to me, "I didn't know that guy did comedy!" I think most of the time an exec producer says the things that no one else will to a director. It advances them. That trust is crucial.

Scherma: I remember when we had a big money job and a small brilliant job. I convinced the director not to do the money job but do the little job. He won many awards and it launched his career.

Baron: In Joseph Kosinski's case, we decided to invest in a spec spot for SAAB. It went a long way in showing the agencies how multidimensional he is, as well as what photoreal CG is capable of with car advertising. It changed the perception of him in the marketplace and agencies saw what he could do with their scripts.

Orent: Being extremely creative in getting every aspect of Harold [Einstein]'s (see page 34) Crest campaign to happen. It was close to not happening more than a few times, but we all kept pushing the cart up the hill until it was finished. Everyone involved in that project worked extremely hard and we were all rewarded when it won Gold at Cannes. What a tremendous feeling when you know you've done everything as a team to make something happen.

Duffy: The plan we came up with for Crispin Porter Bogusky's "I am a PC" campaign for Microsoft. It required a variety of international filming, coordinating talent in more that five different countries, all in a very condensed schedule. This created an opportunity to get four directors working with Crispin on this shoot. Bryan Buckley was the lead director, but Marcos Siega, Scott Vincent and Brian Billow all shot a bunch of stuff for those spots. Before this project, they hadn't gotten a chance to work with some of the key creative directors from Crispin. So it gave them the opportunity to show Crispin how they work, and already it has turned into more opportunities.

What doesn't work?

Ralph Laucella, O Positive
Ralph Laucella, O Positive
Emhoff: "Just do this spot, it will get you into this agency and you can build relationships." BOMB! They never forget that spot.

Scherma: Not telling [directors] the truth. Pretending that something they did was good. You need to be brutally honest so that they can continue to improve the quality of their work.

Daly: Never force them to do something they don't have a "hook on" or passion for. In my experience it will not be advantageous, for anyone involved, to force something upon a director.

Orent: Trying to build someone you don't believe in and trying to convince yourself they have what it takes.

Laucella: What almost never works is taking jobs for the relationship. It means nothing if the finished spot isn't great.

Carlton: It's important to create opportunities, but it's more important that they be the right ones. Each new project should give the director a chance to grow, a chance to play to his or her strengths, but also to work on skills that are new to their experience. It's a process, and sometimes it's a mistake to push too far too fast.

What's the most important thing to think about when putting together a director's reel?

Emhoff: Only put the best work on. Don't put pieces just to have more or have diversity.
Joseph Kosinski, Anonymous Content
Joseph Kosinski, Anonymous Content
It backfires. I am constantly reminding myself of that.

Scherma: I think about the concepts. Everyone wants to work with someone who works on great ideas, so it is important to have great ideas on the reel.

Daly: Short and strong. If possible, show their diversity. If their work is still being developed, then keep it short and show the best work only.

Orent: The reel is extremely important, but not everything. I have launched many careers without a single spot on the reel. You're selling the total package. What's the director's strength? What's their added value? You're also selling the production company and the reputation and executives behind it. This creates the package. More often than not, your early opportunities come from strong relationships because of that trust. Still, when putting a reel together I'm a firm believer in less is more. I would rather sell a director on one killer spot vs. one great and two mediocre ones. You need to instill confidence that the director is capable of greatness, not mediocrity.

Dave Meyers,
Dave Meyers,
Carlton: The reel should be, ideally, a comprehensive summary of the director's range of capabilities, but the most important thing is to cut through the clutter and make it memorable. This can be achieved by the inclusion of one killer spot, or it can be the overall takeaway. The best reel leaves you with the imprint of a director's originality—the "stamp" of who that person is as a filmmaker.

Duffy: In some cases the directors are judged by the worst spot on the reel. It's important to only try to get work that will end up on the reel and to show the agencies the best work we can. It helps a great deal to build special reels—something that is easier now more than ever.

Dave Meyers: I thrive off of diversity and new things so I try to represent a diversity in the selections that go on the reel. You may see a documentary hand held job right next to a polished post-effected anthem spot.

Joseph Kosinski: Your reel should represent the type of work that you're interested in doing. Make sure it looks like no one else's.

Jim Jenkins, O Positive
Jim Jenkins, O Positive
Jim Jenkins: Always keep in your mind the type of reel you'd like to have three or five years from now. As grateful as I am for my career, I wish somebody had said this to me when I started out. As a young director, it is so important to always keep in mind the type of reel you want to build, and to avoid shooting thin ideas just for the sake of shooting something.

Shane: I try to always keep in mind how the whole thing plays as a piece. And to make it not just satisfying to watch, but surprising. Does it fuck with your notion of who I am as a director? Cause it's still the best way to define yourself and the work you want to do.

Directors, what's been the most important factor that has gone into building your career?

Paul Hunter: I worked several odd jobs as I was growing up. Stock clerk at a grocery store, McDonalds, trash sweeper at Six Flags Magic Mountain. The jobs sucked. But I was able to learn about people. I found myself in many situations where I was fish out of water. By the time I went to film school it was helpful with understanding character development and story. I took several still photography classes. Spent countless hours developing photos in the dark room. Understanding photography is key. It gives you a sense of confidence when you have to describe a feeling to your crew or agency.

Meyers: Always treating a job like it's your last. Push it to the best that it can be, even in the face of politics. The creativity is always more important then everything else and is always what's left when looking back.

Jenkins: Good creatives don't choose a director merely because they have a relationship with you—they choose you because they like your reel and your approach is the best for a particular job. They have to like you and like collaborating with you, but career longevity is really about staying focused on your reel, so you get the opportunities to see the best scripts.

What's the best decision you've made when it comes to your directing career?

Meyers: Listening. Listening to people has helped me grow, learn, and push my own abilities outside of the box I would otherwise be in.

Kosinski: Shooting spots on spec before anyone was willing to give me a shot, rather than waiting to be asked. I had to learn all aspects of production from the ground up.

Jenkins: The best decision I made was when I was first starting out, I didn't wait for good boards to come in, but instead sold work directly to those clients that didn't have agencies but still had production dollars. It was the only way to be getting boards I wouldn't have gotten otherwise.

Shane: The best decision I ever made early on in my career was to only take boards that I really connected with, that I was super passionate about and felt I could really plus. Writing a campaign directly for MTV early on, when no one would hire me, also helped. And probably studying acting, as much as anything else, helped me in doing the kind of work I like to do.

Hunter: The best thing I did for my directing career is taking acting and writing classes. Directing is about communicating your ideas. I found by taking acting classes it helped me develop a language to communicate to actors and my crew in clear way.

What one piece of advice would you give to directors just starting out?

Baron: Have thick skin. Oh, and don't buy that shiny new Porsche immediately after the first job awards.

Orent: There are currently thousands of commercial directors in the world. What's going to separate you from all the others? You have to be ultra-talented in more ways than one and you have to be better than everyone else. If you figure out how to do that you'll be a successful director. You can't rest on your laurels either because you're "a director"—work your ass off and when you think you've arrived, work harder. Never believe the hype, and, most importantly, have fun—they pay us to do this!

DiGirolamo: Have a strong point of view—stay close to who you are as a filmmaker and resist the temptation to say yes to everything. You only get one shot to be introduced.

Laucella: Keep your standards high and your overhead low. You can't accept lesser boards because you feel pressure from your EP to take them, or you need to shoot to make money to pay the rent.

Carlton: Be flexible and be patient.

Duffy: Don't sit back and let other people determine what you're directing career will be—determine that for yourself, develop a plan with your production team and stay involved in executing it. Being honest about what you need to improve about yourself is very important too.

Scherma: Always, always listen to your executive producer.

Kosinski: You've got to make your own career, build it with your own two hands.

Meyers: Just do it. Don't wait for anyone. It's the art of doing that people are attracted to.

Hunter: Shoot everything you can. Shoot it on video. Shoot shorts. Shoot spots. Write screenplays. Writing is key to finding your voice. Always put yourself in the ideas, whether it's your humor, your fears your belief. It's not enough just to shoot what is written on the page but [you have] to have a point of view. This is where all of the odd jobs and people-watching helped me understand how to take on ideas and turn it into something that speaks to people. It's all about communication and feeling. How does an audience feel when they watch your work. Are they insulted, inspired, scared? They need to feel something whether it's wrong or right. The biggest mistakes that I have made is playing it safe.
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