The Directors Roundtable

Creativity sits down with some of the brightest directing vets and newcomers.

By Published on .

Our panelists, assembled last month at L.A.'s Viceroy Hotel.
THE PLAYERS: Peter Care, Bob Industries; Nicolai Fuglsig, MJZ; David Gordon Green, Chelsea Pictures; David Kellogg, Anonymous Content; Zach Math, Diane McCarter Productions; Mike Monello of Haxan, Chelsea Pictures/Campfire; Rocky Morton, MJZ; John O'Hagan, RSA; Joe Public (Adam Cameron and Simon Cole), HSI; David Shane, Hungry Man; Baker Smith, Harvest; Charles Stone III, Brown Bag Films/Believe Media; Rene Villar-Rios of Vogel.Villar-Rios, Believe Media

C: Do you do this sort of thing often -- talk to each other? Baker: No, we generally like to stay by ourselves.

Simon: We're kept apart on purpose.

C: I'm surprised nobody's started a fight yet.

Baker: We're all sniffing each other's crotches. Or it just me?

Peter: Is that on the record?

C: So did any of you read the questions? To begin, were there any issues that resonated with you, that you think are especially important right now?

Simon: I just wondered how much we all really need to know. It's almost like the more you know about the the politics and the process, the more confusing what we do becomes. You lose what it is you're actually there for. It's kind of like the less you know, the better.

David S.: I think daring to not know is a useful tool sometimes. It does open you up to things that possibly wouldn't have come if you overprepared. Now, after a few years of doing it, I'm more willing to choose deliberately to not have it all figured out.

C: You mentioned process. On the creative side things get lost from the process of trying to please clients and everything else -- is that as big a deal for you guys?

Simon: The process feels sometimes like a bowl of clutter you're trying to make sense out of. Just think, where's the art of it? Art isn't in the clutter of things, it's more in the purity, and we're all desperate to go back to the pure thing. It's what they're getting from us.

David S.: The distillation of the idea.

C: So do you think advertising is art?

Simon: No, it's culture. It's a mixture of things, whereas art is more pure. There's too much handover to be art, that's just my opinion.

C: How hard is it to remain divorced from all the influences? Do you have to be an asshole?

Simon: An asshole is old school. You can't be an asshole anymore.

Charles: What's an asshole? I still hear stories about the tyrants, and the cats who run a set with fear, especially in features, but [in advertising] does the client think you're an asshole because you're trying to fight for what you believe in?

Baker: I think we're talking the tyrant. I don't think you can be that guy, at least in America.

Simon: Agency creatives now are so close to being directors with what they know, whereas they never used to really know what we were doing. How many ex-creatives are here? Anyone?

(David Shane raises hand.)

Simon: Did you know all that while being a creative, were you picking up on all of it?

David S.: I don't think I was. I think it was a mystery to me, and I sort of fell into this.

Baker: 40 years ago, directors were still editing their own stuff and then it turned over to the agency and suddenly, they're writing it, going off into production, and then you're back in an editing room. So [creatives] are crafting it even further than we are. It's almost like a mini film school for them.

David S.: It is true, the editing room is so critical. It is the final rewrite. You do begin to see where everything either works or doesn't work.

Adam: Do creatives even want us there?

Baker: I think so.

Adam: I'm not so sure sometimes. Do you think?

David S.: I think there's a point especially initially, where they welcome the director's cut. But there's a point where the ugly political realities set in and one last opinion is just not welcome.

Baker: The onus is on us, to get in earlier and not two days after they've started cutting.

David S.: On some level, we're to blame a little bit because there is sort of an entitlement culture now. We've sort of seeded the edit, we're going from job to job. It's largely our fault. I think it would be great if we could put into the language of the contract that we get a cut.

Rene: Everyone should get a directors cut that's for sure, one or two days after the shoot, like you do in Europe.

Rocky: Why would they not want a director's cut? Because they could get something that they perhaps haven't thought of themselves. In England, they will insist on a director's cut. I've lost jobs in England because I didn't have time to do a director's cut.

C: How often do you do director's cuts?

Rene: In Europe every time.

Rocky: In America, probably three-quarters of the time.

Baker: That's pretty good.

Simon: If you think it's going to go on your reel, you do a director's cut.

Baker: They ask me all the time, "Who would you like to cut it?" That doesn't always work out. Absolutely they want your input. I think it's maybe not so much that they don't want us around. A lot of times it's a function of our schedules. Agencies can't afford, from a time point of view, to give us two days to go in there and screw around without them.

Simon: They want their baby back. It's like a surrogacy.

Peter: They need the baby back because they've got some boss who hasn't been around for three weeks who has some arbitrary comment about taking out all the close-ups because somebody somewhere wants all wide shots.

David S.: Do you tend to find that as a problem as a general rule, the creative director coming in at the 11th hour and paying really little or no attention to anything you and the creatives have been doing?

Rene: It's not so much the creative directors, it's like the marketing guys from the clients.

David S.: I think it could be anyone, really anybody with a different agenda. Rather than just worrying about the smartest idea for the job, they're worried about how the client's going to react to it.

Rocky: Do you remember the dotcom boom, the incredible creativity that came out of that because you'd have a 27-year-old running a multimillion dollar company? There was no middle management, trying to manage whether it fitted the creative profile of the corporation.

C: Does it all just come down to fear now -- from the agency and the client?

Charles: It's in music videos, it's in features. You know, as long as someone else is giving us the money to create, it's always going to be that.

Baker: This has happened to me a couple times over in Europe where actually, you're introduced to the client so early in the process, which historically for us it's like, "Oh God! The Client!" Now I feel like I want to meet the client right away.

Charles: I'm amazed that the agency will even approve my interpretation of something. We'll get into the production and they haven't presented to the client my version. It becomes this weird bastard thing. And you know when you get on set, the client's like, "What the hell?"

David S.: "Why are you lighting the dwarf's head on fire? What are you doing?"

Simon: We're always talking about how agencies demonize the clients a little and then we meet them at the preproduction meeting and they seem great, they've been to film school and they know more about it and we're like, "Why were you putting the fear of god in us about this client when he understands what we're talking about?"

Baker: Yeah, but there's the flip side of that. I've been privy to some client-agency relationships where the client may show you one face but then show a different one to the agency.

John: It's like how the relationship you have with your grandparents is always a really good one, but with your parents it's always antagonistic. And sometimes they're saying stuff about their parents getting on their nerves and you're like, "Grandma and Grandpa aren't that way!" It's sort of that type of thing.

C: Mike, you're working on an Audi campaign right now that's really elaborate, that must require a lot of client care and attention.

Mike: I've been kept pretty far away from the client actually. I don't have a lot of these problems because we go directly to the audience everyday. The project I'm working on now is a three-month interactive narrative that takes place online, kind of a combination between a story and a game. We also have these live events where I have actors who are improvising in a live scenario and real people playing the game who come in and play a role. I have no control over them once we start. It's myself and two other writers, and we're publishing audio, we've done ten short films, and it's been very different than commercials. We got the job February 1st, and it was just like, "Go!" The story is non-linear, you actually go inside an intranet, characters are emailing each other so you're privy to their private correspondence, recorded phone calls.

Baker: That's fantastic!

Simon: (To Peter) What did it feel like coming back to commercials after doing your film, which was really good, by the way (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys).

Peter: It took me three or four months to get a job.

Simon: We're always so pleased. I know three directors right now who are doing features and we're like, "Bring it on!"

Baker: I'd hire agents actually for all of you guys so you can get features!

C: David (Green), how about you -- you started on the features side. After already doing critically successful films (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow) how's your experience been in commercials?

David G.: I also make my living also as a screenwriter, and the commercials for me are kind of a fun way to try new formats, experiment with technology, work with new crew folks, kind of see what's out there, kind of keep in the groove of things between gigs, because the features take a while to develop.

David S.: How do you guys find the experience of moving to features? I sometimes think if I worked actors on a feature the way I worked them in commercials, they'd be a little puddle of bile on the floor by the end of the first day.

Peter: I was doing little short films before I did music videos and commercials, so when I did my first film, I kind of erased about 20 years of work and went right back to being a film student, directing friends who were untrained actors, and that worked really well for directing kids.

David S.: So in a way you almost let go of some of the tools you bring to commercials.

Peter: Yeah, absolutely.

David K.: For me, I did a pretty big studio movie that a lot of people got involved in (Inspector Gadget). In a way, it's like making a billion commercials, back to back every day. At least with the studio there were a lot of politics, a lot of writers. 50% of the time it was a pleasure creatively probably, but it's a little bit of a test of how many curve balls you can handle.

Simon: In commercials we're speeding up the actors all the time. Often in performance it's the bit before they speak, and the bit after they speak is where the message is, and the dialog is just the muscle and we never have time. We're always cutting. So when we do a feature, it'll be amazing to let the film have its own organic pace.

David S.: I agree with you 100%, especially in comedy/performance. The comedy is so often coming from what's under the surface. You need the time to let it breathe. It's sort of our responsibility to work the script, to make it economical enough so you can have those moments. It's so nice when you get a script that does have space for the actors to act. It's like a little miracle.

Simon: Mind you, we've made ten-second commercials that drag.

(Laughter)

Charles: I find it fascinating to go from doing a 30-second spot to a 90-minute story, they're so different, but they're so alike.

David G.: I don't see a difference really, depending on your approach. You're never going to have enough time, you're never going to have enough money. It's always going to be the same kind of battle. You'll be sitting in the editing room wishing you had the shot you didn't get because the sun set, or whatever. I see it as you just figure out what your boundaries are, how you're going to approach it, what kind of budget you need and how many days you've got to shoot it. It's the same battles. I think in commercials there's more of a more of a political consideration because there are so many people involved in terms of putting it all together.

C: When you get a job in, are you looking at it like, "This is an amazing film," or does the quality of the ad idea enter into it?

Baker: When I started I did get excited because it was a cool idea, not knowing if it related to the product, but I think with that alone you're doing everybody a disservice to a certain degree. Now, it's the ultimate to do something artful and cool and be irreverent and still serve the product.

C: Like "Whassup?" Charles, was that a weird thing for you, to have your short turned into a huge advertising success for Budweiser?

Charles: I was amazed that we were able to keep some sort of integrity to the original film. At first I didn't want to turn it into a campaign, because I figured it would get fucked up or diluted. I was also nervous because it's four young black men screaming "Whassup!" and I was trying to be sensitive to stereotypes. I didn't want it to come across as shucking and jiving, but if the couch potato element could come across, which is what Vinnie Warren and the creatives who thought of the idea were able to do, great. But after a couple of the spots, to be honest, it just became survival mode, making sure it didn't get crazy. And once Jay Leno and Oprah and that shit started happening, it was like, "Run for the hills!" I'm still trying to get this "Whassup!" tattoo off my ass! Luckily I was already doing a feature (Drumline, Mr. 3000) as the campaign started to come about. I'm wondering, the stuff on your reel that you guys like, do you consider it your own?

Adam: When you compile your reel, you're cleverly putting on things that you believe might hit a certain target audience with an agency. Maybe there are a few spots I can say that about because I contributed something that I can identify, but it's very rare. To put a spot on your showreel that you're genuinely proud of, for all of us, I imagine is extremely difficult.

Peter: It depends on how you define directing. I've gotten to the point where the things that turn me on are completely abstract. It's nothing like "I put that shot together!" It's more like "That guy didn't even know I was turning the camera on him and I got that moment."

Simon: As a director you feel you're not recognized for those moments when you step back or let it happen.

David S.: It's true. On some level it's not a question of ownership or putting your own personal stamp on it. Some of the stuff I'm most proud of that I've done is where essentially, it's gotten out of the way of the idea, and stopped other people from imposing too much on the idea.

C: A lot of directors do talk about that idea of happy accidents -- how do you let that happen?

Charles: It's not calling cut!

Baker: I love to keep it loose, but at the same time, personally I board everything down to the pen on the table to be prepared. Then I can relax. If I get that, then I can go nuts.

C: Nicolai, don't you construct miniature sets for every single scene of your spots?

Nicolai: I need to see everything in a 3D perspective. I use toys, build these huge landscapes and bring it all into the prepro. With the client it really helps them see the whole thing. The whole crew knows exactly what is going to happen. They can see it, the whole aerial, all the blocking, where the cars are. And it makes them understand. So I think it helps them relax.

David S.: Can I hire you?

Charles: You must have the most amazing collection of Hot Wheels.

Peter: Any of you guys shoot without a board? Do they still let you do that?

Adam: How many people feel they have to get it down to the finest detail before they can go ahead?

Baker: I love it. I can't draw a stick figure but I've got this wonderful storyboard artist that I love. Obviously, sometimes it just doesn't work, but at least everyone, the actors, we can talk about it. Then when everyone's prepared, everyone's confident, then the happy accidents happen.

David S.: I think with actors you're trying to create a safe environment where they feel like they can make mistakes. You're not asking them to do the same fucking line tediously over and over again, you're trying to keep changing things up, keep changing the subtext.

Rocky: But if you're shooting an action scene or a very complex sequence with a bunch of actors -- you're gonna get hit by the door here, and fall over the chair -- you can't just turn up on set.

Rene: Do you guys, in your five or 10 or whatever years of working, find that you get put into a genre?

Simon: Reinventing yourself is so important. We worked for Goodby when we first arrived, so just at the end when Goodby was trying to do the slightly pushed, stylized comedy, we got known for that and did a lot of really good stuff for them. Then all of a sudden they switched to the documentary dotcom thing so we had to reinvent ourselves.

Baker: Thank god, right? Can you shoot the same cheeseburger for 15 years?

Simon: I agree, but I get why it's hard. If I were a creative I wouldn't want to work that hard to reinvent a director. I would want to go to the new thing.

Rene: I feel like from the beginning I've wanted to emphasize that we can do everything. Don't try to nail us down to one thing.

C: Zach, what about you, just starting out you already have a pretty diverse reel. How hard has that been to do?

Zach: I see it less as changing yourself to fit some sort of niche an agency's looking for, but more recognizing that things are changing in the world, seeing that what was going on in the '80s might not be relevant today. So whether it's because of what's going on in the advertising industry environment, or through your own interests, whatever the motivation is, I think it's a healthy thing for filmmakers to keep expanding and changing.

Charles: Does every director feel they have a firm understanding of what their style is? Especially in features, I'm always thinking about trying to be true to what really drives me.

David S.: I think you can look to push into new kinds of areas, but you always want to hold on to what you have. I'm always going to be more interested in indoor fireworks than big explosions. But if I look for a board that is more visual, I'm going to look for the human component in it.

C: Rocky, we're always struck by how you keep building on yourself. Is there a core thing that you're operating from?

Rocky: I think all of us here have our own idea of what we do, and I think that's why agencies come to the directors around the table. I suppose I'm known for comedy/dialog. I'm always putting in a sense of irony, or I'm interested in the absurd and the banal. I just recently did something that was purely dramatic and really enjoyed the challenge. It was a longer form and had an interesting script. But I can't put it on my reel, because you're watching this thing and you're waiting for the gag!

(Laughter)

John: When looking at a job, if you connect to the idea, that's always the first thing. Agencies look at our reels and someone said before we started this about how Adcritic has now made our whole careers naked, people can go in there and look at everything you've done. I find myself doing the reverse. I'm always curious who the creatives are. I go on Adcritic and try to check them out. Is it going to be a situation where they want to work together and make it better? It's not always easy to find out that information, but I think it does enter into the decision-making process.

C: A bunch of you guys do comedy. Have you noticed that lately it's gotten more and more bizarre, absurdist?

David S.: I agree. (To Rocky) I was a big fan of "Subservient Chicken," all the undertones, the weird sexual dynamic. The thing I object to, is the reaction shot to the absurdist thing, the slackjawed dumbass open mouth stare. Should we just legislate that out of existence right now? No more deadpan reactions.

Baker: To answer your point, I think it's just a natural evolution. Obviously our business is cyclical, and up and until a few years ago, we went to this sort of documentary comedy where it's straight. When I started Joe Sedelmaier had been king. Imagine how absurdist that was. Then it got to be real straight and then it evolved to let's just have everybody do nothing! Nothing is funny. Now, nothing's not so funny.

Rocky: There's funny nothing and unfunny nothing.

C: What have you've liked lately, comedy or otherwise?

Charles: That Nextel spot with the bees (Stylewar directed). The whole tapestry is so complete, the music is quirky and bubbly and weird. That's something I don't always see.

Rocky: Did anybody see the Pope watching TV right before he snuffed it? That was really funny. There was this fantastic image of him sitting in this elaborate chair, hunched over, and there's a flat screen TV right underneath the crucifix, twelve feet tall with J.C. like that (gestures), and the pope like this (gestures) watching telly. It was the funniest thing I've seen.

C: For the younger directors, what do you think is the most important thing?

Nicolai: I feel like you've just got to do something that you really believe in and hopefully you'll become memorable. I don't think I'm ever trying to do a job that I'm trying to get another job off of, of course, I'm also lying a little bit when I'm saying this.

(Laughter)

David S.: It's his own little internal dialog!

Nicolai: You've got to think of the reel, but I'm also in this business to learn. I see it also as the most well-paid film school you can go to. It's very competitive. It's fucking tough out there being a newcomer. So I think it's about trying to do as best as you can, listen to people that have been in this business longer than you have. I kind of disagree with what some of you guys said earlier. All these questions for me are very important as a young director. I would be dying to read comments from all of you guys. It could become a bible because it's a tricky spiderweb of bullshit, knowledge and stuff.

Baker: I think that's great, but there's no magic bullet. How I work is you just have to go with how you feel. That's all you got. Everything we say is great to learn, but completely irrelevant.

Rene: One important thing I think to teach the kids that want to direct is no matter what, to be yourself. When you deal with an agency, any project, don't try to pretend to be something you're not, don't try to think ahead what they're going to like or not. Usually that works. All these guys here I think have stayed in the business for such a long time because they've been staying truthful to themselves. A lot of the bad commercials that I've seen I think are people trying to play a game.

Charles: Or mimicking.

Baker: Or doing a derivative of a derivative of a derivative.

C: Does anyone write their own treatments?

(Some say yes.)

David S.: I do, I spend a long time on them. It's a screening device as much as anything. On some level it's like a double-edged sword, but it's the closest thing you get to a contract, signed in blood.

Simon: How often do you go, "Look, it's in my treatment I'm not doing that?"

David S.: I will absolutely bring it up. The negative side of it is sometimes your ideas suck, you have a better idea, and things evolve and the agency holds you to the original. So I think there's good and bad in it. But I don't begrudge them asking for a treatment. I really don't.

Baker: I enjoy it. It's like blood from stone to write them, agreed. But then what I want to do gets passed up the chain so it's not like, "I thought he was going to do this." It is like you said a little bit of a contract.

Peter: I can't think about a commercial unless I'm writing it.

Simon: We never used to write treatments, just the last two or three years, right?

Baker: And it's evolved. They used to ask you to do it, now they don't even ask.

C: What about the conference call? What are the keys to a good one? Isn't the whole idea ridiculous, the agency basing their decision on your ability to say the right thing at the right time and not all creative people have the ability to do that?

David S.: It's entirely different from your filmmaking skills. I always try to wade right in before the agency downloads too much stuff from me because if we are on the same page I want them to know I'm not just shamelessly vomiting something back onto their faces. Sometimes if you get out there first, say your peace, your vision, you don't waste your time.

C: But then there are those stories where a director will go straight in, state his vision, sound like a complete jerk for doing so and get rejected for that. Both parties could be really smart. How important is rapport?

David S.: I think it's critical. You get a sense on that call if you're connecting.

Rocky: To me, it's all about gauging the agency on that call. For me it's very important to know that they're going to collaborate, whether you're going to work together on the project or they've written this thing and they've told the client it has to be this way.

David S.: Don't you find that the best creatives tend to be the most collaborative people?

(Lots of agreement.)

Simon: Do you guys do two calls? First call, let them speak and then you come back and give them a treatment? We will always do one call, and the creatives are like, "Where's your follow up call?"

Adam: We peak at one call.

Rocky: When I first started it was like one call and there was no treatment, and then with David Zander my partner we sort of said, "How can we get one over on our competitors? We shouldn't have just one call, we should do a first call, get down the information and see how the land lies, and then come back in with a second call, and then we should back it up with a treatment." I sort of feel kind of responsible now. But other people must have been coming up with it.

Baker: If it's kind of feeling a little weird and I like the project, I'll say, "Can I think about this?" That's the difference between now and when I first started. I used to think I had to have every answer on that first call. 16 years later, it's like, "Guys, let me think about this, now that I hear kind of what you're talking about." Don't be afraid to say "Can I figure it out?" I think they respect that.

Simon: It also depends if you've got a reputation for being difficult as well on the conference call and you can either relax them about that or. . .

C: Are you speaking from personal experience?

Simon: No, but I think the double act thing is intimidating for some creatives. They feel they can't quite control you because there's two of you. We're always to a certain degree adjusting for the fact that it's two. Maybe they feel slightly more confident that they can be heard if there's one. It's one of the hardest things to deal with. I think we are the longest running team. There's also Dayton and Faris, They're great. I don't know how they do the marriage thing. The fact that we don't have sex I think is probably why we've survived.

Baker: In 15 years not once? Come on, you're in the jungle, you're drinking fermented yak milk?

C: (To Mike) You guys are doing stuff that maybe represents where advertising is going, do the rest of you ever think about how your jobs will evolve?

Baker: Everyday. I've been doing this for 16 years in a certain way, and I'm completely fascinated with what Mike's doing and relish the opportunity to try something like that. I think it's just natural for our industry to move on, so I think everyday, how we can do something different, and have tried to pitch things to clients who up until now haven't really been receptive to it. Those walls are starting to come down, clearly. You'd be a fool not to think about it. I'd like to think that in another 16 years I'm still doing it or have the option to do it. For as much as we griped about it, I still think it's the funnest job one could ever have in their entire life. On a daily basis I walk into strangers' homes, look in closets, open up drawers and go wow! Look at that! I mean come on, don't you? I'm staying as long as I can. It's fun. We're still making stories, he's making stories. In many ways, we're actually getting where I think a lot of us wanted to go.

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