No Man is an Island

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Scott Messick has been directing commercials for Santa Monica's Atlas Pictures for two and a half years, but at the moment that's just his other job. He's the helmsman of the ratings destroyer known as Survivor, the only show that can outshout Regis Philbin. "When I shot it, I had no idea what a hit it would be," says Messick somewhat innocently. "I thought it would be a hit, I just had no idea how big a hit. It's one thing to have a hit; it's another to be an instant part of pop culture."

Messick is no stranger to pop culture. He's a seasoned TV pro with a heavy sports background whose producer/director resume includes NBA Entertainment, the '92 and '96 Olympics and MTV Sports, that proto X Games, hosted by Dan Cortese. "MTV called me in to revamp the show," Messick explains. "The first thing I did was hire Gabrielle Reece as a correspondent." Clearly, the man is possessed by genius. "That show made a lot of noise in the commercials world, a lot of people copied that style," he says. "The quick cuts, lots of music, lots of graphics." He also worked on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, "which was everything it was cracked up to be," he confesses. "I traveled the world and had plenty of fun."

It's fair to say things aren't turning out too badly for this guy from New Jersey who went to the University of Delaware, had no idea what to major in, took a TV class in his junior year and "found his calling." After college, he "worked at a local cable station and did the whole Wayne's World start," he laughs.

Now he's partying on big time. What's the secret to this Survivor success? "The first thing you have to do is give it a look from top to bottom," he says. "Then you have to direct everything that happens on the beach and decide how it's going to be covered. Then you have to direct the challenges where they compete against each other, which creates emotion, and you have to be on top of this. It's probably more important to cover the losers than the winners, because the winners just say `Yea.' The losers say `Boo-hoo' and have to deal with what they didn't get." Survivor is shot with almost every kind of camera and every film stock and video format ever made, and it's one hell of a study in logistics. "For the challenges, you have to plan all the coverage," Messick adds. "For the on-the-beach stuff, it's just about being there and being unobtrusive. You have to have good field producers who can follow the storylines and ask the right questions of the characters."

Did he have any initial doubts about the concept? "Absolutely not. It's so smart. It's all about this social Darwinism. You getting kicked out of a group. You being not liked, and told that you're not liked by your peers. The beauty of the show is you get to see what people say about you behind your back. That's the hook. It's not done in a cruel way, it's done as a game, and there's money at stake, which makes people wacky to begin with. I just felt really, really comfortable with it. I knew this was the kind of thing I wanted to do.

"The whole idea was to let the contestants turn themselves inward," Messick continues. "The people we put on the beach interact with the crew as little as possible. The big thing is the casting. We're looking for people who don't just want to be on television. They have to be who they are whether there's a camera there or not. People with strong personalities, who bring something to the table typecasting-wise. I'm very proud of the whole casting process. We have a really interesting cast, and it's being played out. People have their favorites and they're rooting for them. They're hoping their person doesn't get kicked off. And they're probably betting on it, too."

While this initial 13-show season rages on, you can bet Messick and company are gearing up for another, scouting Australia next, where a new cast will be (continued on page 54) dropped into the outback for another Nielsen knockout. This first go-round had a 39-day shooting schedule in March and April. "I had to drop commercials for six months to do this, but it was well worth it," Messick says. "When I dropped back in, we were in the middle of the SAG strike, so there's a skip in my momentum, which is too bad. You know the commercials business. There are like 7,500 people out there and only the top 40 actually work." So maybe the strike is just another opportunity to work with `real' nonunion people? "Yeah, I'm ready to take advantage of that, that's for sure," he chuckles.

Messick's Atlas reel kicks off with the Survivor open, logically enough, and while many of his spots are sports- or real people-based, he's got a bouncy, Gen-Y Skechers campaign, and even a quirky soliloquy for the Cable Operators of America, in which a cable thief nervously chatters away while messing with someone's satellite dish. There are some sports spots too, of course, including a real-people study of a triathlete for Reebok and a funny number for in which the Fogdog mascot-man saves a plummeting parachutist. "I started at Atlas as part of a division called Atlas Adrenaline that was extreme-sports oriented," Messick explains. "That's my original niche, but now I like the portrait stuff and the image sorts of things, for clients like the Gap, Banana Republic and Target. Young people looking cool, and off-balance frames. I don't really like typical framing, and my reel is driven by music. That's one of the personal touches that I bring to Survivor too, I think - the use of music."

So despite the prime-time prize, he still wants to make commercials? "Absolutely," Messick declares. "Survivor is just filmmaking, same as commercials. It's about delivering the story. In Survivor, you have to create something that's visually pleasing while holding the story together. It's the same thing in a 30-second spot, it's just on a smaller scale. What I like about commercials more than reality TV is you get a greater chance to be artistic."

But there's also a greater chance to be hopelessly pigeonholed. Will he be offered nothing but reality TV-type spots and sports shorts? "It's up to the industry to pigeonhole me," Messick shrugs. "I'm gonna try not to be." Nevertheless, Survivor "opens up a lot of opportunities," he admits. "There are a lot of copycat shows, and I've been starting to get some of those offers. It'll be interesting to see if any of them will be better than this." Then there are features. Messick was in fact signed to do one last year with Universal, a snowboarding movie, but it fell through. "And that was before Survivor," he notes. "My theory is it'll come back around."

In the meantime, Survivor could could run for years, right? "Absolutely. The Real World is in its ninth year." Would he do it for that long? "Absolutely not. It's too pigeonholey."

What a great problem to have, huh?

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