I didn't think you guys were still interested in me," Bob Giraldi quips to Creativity during a New York screening of his hit indie feature Dinner Rush at a Times Square movie house. Not interested in the man who directed Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video and shot Jacko in the infamous hair-on-fire Pepsi spot? Perish the thought. But that was the '80s. What has Giraldi done lately? At the age of 62, after some 2,500 minifilms in 30 years, he has a veritable maxifilm to his credit, at least by art house standards. Of Dinner Rush, Elvis Mitchell in The New York Times wrote, "He comes through like a champ . . . Mr. Giraldi uses all his skills commendably." The New Yorker's David Denby calls the movie "fast and sure without ever being slick," and dubs Giraldi "an entertainer - his movie has life and temperament, a Maileresque texture of appetite and hustle." Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly notes that Giraldi is "savvy enough" to treat the cooking scenes "not as the usual sublimated-erotics-of-the-kitchen yuppie food porn, but as a throwaway, taste-bud teasing joke."
"I'm always dubious because I'm a commercials animal," Giraldi says about reviews. "We usually don't get the benefit of the doubt, and get words like 'slick' and 'less than real' and 'less than artists,' which I don't believe. I think some of the finest directors alive today are from commercials - Ridley Scott, David Fincher. I'm just happy and proud that I got reviews that were so favorable without having to resort to blowing shit up." The comedy/drama meshes the adrenalized underbelly of New York's restaurant scene - a scene Giraldi knows intimately - with tension from the mob underworld, as Danny Aiello portrays a restaurant owner who attempts to untangle the conflicts that arise in his family trattoria-turned hotspot, appeasing complaints from his celebrity chef son Udo (Edoardo Ballerini) and sorting out the gambling missteps of his sorry sous chef Duncan (Kirk Acevedo). The script was penned by Chicago writers Rick Shaughnessy and Brian Kalata, who originally based it in the Windy City. Giraldi collaborated with the writers to fit the movie into his beloved New York food milieu. He actually got the script via his reputation not as a filmmaker but as a longtime successful restaurateur, he admits. Giraldi is a partner in dining meccas like New York's Jean Georges, Vong and Patria, as well as Prime in Las Vegas' Bellagio hotel. He also owns Gigino Trattoria, the New York eatery where he conveniently shot Dinner Rush.
Though his commercials cachet may not have had much sway in film circles, his whopping ad career was key to the film's success. For one thing, it helped to fund it. Giraldi, who shoots spots out of New York's Giraldi/Suarez Productions, put his own money into the project, since studios haven't exactly been banging on his door since his feature debut, 1987's underwhelming comedy Hiding Out, starring Jon Cryer. Dinner Rush was shot in just three weeks, mostly in the cramped confines of his restaurant. "If you learn anything after 30 years as a commercials director, you learn how to shoot quickly and in small spaces," he says. He shot with an all-commercials crew, and the film's gorgeous cinematography belongs to Tim Ives, one of Giraldi's frequent commercials DPs. "The only thing that was like trying on new shoes or a new suit is that the first couple of times I ran takes, I wanted to yell 'Cut!' after 10 seconds," Giraldi laughs. "But it just went on and on. I would shoot two-minute scenes, and once I got the hang of it, it was phenomenal. It was like an enema for me. My God, to be able to just shoot and watch performers perform!"
The movie sparkles most in its rich dialogue, often delivered by performers Giraldi enlisted from his commercials work. For example, Mark Margolis, who appeared in the 1995 "Kerouac" spot for Volvo, which features a husband reverently reading aloud from On the Road while his wife drives, adds a comically acidic bite to the film with his critically acclaimed portrayal of cantankerous art gallery owner Fitzgerald. Margolis attributes much of his success to Giraldi's direction. "It's kind of a beautiful way to work," he says. "Bob gives actors a lot of license, which allows us to improvise." Margolis notes that Giraldi captured some of the film's spiciest lines when the actors didn't even realize the cameras were still running.
In fact, Giraldi believes that finding "the great performance" is really the culmination of his career. Back in 1996, he told Creativity, "I've always felt the need to reinvent myself in my work, to stay contemporary and cutting edge, and therefore stay competitive." But on the heels of Dinner Rush's success, he's finally ready to admit that he's tired of keeping up with the Jonzes. "I've been around 30-plus years making television commercials and I was always faced with having to reinvent myself," he reflects. "I don't do that any longer. Now I want to concentrate on making my craft and my art the best I can make it. People know me well enough to know that if they have something they want that's a little honest, well-performed or well-cast, they can consider me."
That's not to say that Giraldi has completely sworn off technique or visual innovation. He recently completed five packages for Tylenol via Saatchi & Saatchi, the last of which he shot in hi-def. "I don't want to discount the look," Giraldi insists. "Please, I don't want to give the impression that I'm just here to make purity - because the art of the television commercial is not a pure art. It's a fractured, leaned-on art. I think part of our job is still to give something a fresh smell, a good coat of paint." Giraldi is indeed looking forward to his next feature, but he has no plans to renounce his advertising roots. "I've always said to people, 'Selling soap is not a job for a grown man.' But I've grown up, and then some, and I'm still selling soap, and I'm trying to do it as artistically as possible. It's just something that's in me and that I like very much. And if I make my next picture, or if I make five pictures, I'll always be connected in one way or another to the commercials business, because I enjoy doing it."
And what about competing with the new guns on the commercials scene? "I bid against them at times, and it's amazing how the older, more-established names start to fall by the wayside and new young directors come up. I've lost jobs recently to names I don't know, which is terrific. There should be a passing of the baton. Isn't the movie about the passing of generations also? My own life is about the passing of the generations. It would be terrible if I was the hippest old director walking around."