Reel Women

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Floria Sigismondi, Believe Media

Watching Floria Sigismondi's campy, stylish spot for Canadian department store Eaton's, it's hard to imagine that she could be the progenitor of the amputated, horned, and deformed mannequins adorning her photography exhibit in Soho. The woman who made her first splash in the directing world with her spooky Marilyn Manson videos has now fully emerged onto the spot scene, and while she might be toning down the spook factor for commercials work, her bold visual sense retains its edge. "I always try to take a job on if I find that there is something I can bring to it," says the Toronto-based Sigismondi. Given her background as a fashion photographer, she was a natural pick for Peterson Milla Hooks' Target campaign; her spots are colorful, busy, and crisp - though not nearly as dark or foreboding as her art photographs. One the other hand, her gothic tendencies are very much in evidence in her work for the Toronto Film Festival, a promo featuring partygoers with unsettling deformities - elfin ears, enlarged eyes, curly feet - ostensibly chosen from a vending machine of body parts. Her piece de resistance, however, is her Eaton's work, a project she describes as her "biggest risk" because up till then, she had no experience directing dialogue. The series of spots form a four-minute mini-movie about the store's founder, circa 1940, and two of his underlings, trying to find the Next Big Thing. After much panicking, the two young whippersnappers present their boss with a Broadway spectacular to push their concept: a season of aubergine couture. The spot is elegant, both homage to and parody of the Busby Berkeley/Technicolor age. Sigismondi, who has a hand in music videos and fine-art photography as well as hopes for feature film jobs, counts the relationships with agencies and clients as one of the most important aspects of her spot work. "I do commercials to get experience I can't get any other way, from working with equipment to the whole collaborative thing that goes on. I have a struggle with it, and it's difficult, but I'd kid myself to think that that goes away in a feature."

Nancy Bardawil, Crossroads

Nancy Bardawil began her career as a performance artist. "I did this piece where I had no legs and a giant metal hoop skirt; it was about femininity," she explains, sort of. "I had these legs I had carved out of styrofoam, with my real legs tucked under me. I'd talk to the audience and say `I'm not really sure if I'm getting this feminine thing right.' Then I would pull out a violin from my skirt and as I was playing this waltz my legs would spin around. I don't play the violin well, so it was kind of sweet." This kind of offbeat exploration of femininity also comes through in her music video work for the likes of Hole, Veruca Salt, and the Dixie Chicks. But it is mostly her training as a painter and sculptor that shines through in her biggest campaign to date, a series of branding spots for Portland General Electric. "They said, `We love what you do - do it,' " she relates. In one spot, small children run around a backyard carrying flashlights; the lights blend and flow over the black and blue of the evening to illustrate their renewable power. In another, a colorful windmill/sculpture turns in the backyard of a rural home; the art is so cool that it's worth listening to the bland voiceover talk about new forms of wind-generated electrical power. Bardawil's latest project was a little more unusual; she filmed a spot starring Heather Graham for a Japanese drink called Love Body that is supposed to make women thinner yet more buxom. Compared to the laissez-faire PGE group, Love Body (a Coca-Cola product) was a much more traditionally demanding client. "They had to have everything incredibly mapped out," she recalls. "They're very nice, it's just you're spending a lot of time talking about nothing." No matter how difficult the client, though, Bardawil relishes her spot work. "I'm a film junkie, and commercials are my practice playground."

Francine McDougall, Production League of America

On her first big agency shoot, Francine McDougall figured out how to handle the talent: flattery. GSD&M had contracted with Cardinals player Ozzie Smith for a Southwestern Bell commercial. "I'm a huge baseball fan," says McDougall. "I was so psyched about it. So we're at this high school baseball field where we're shooting, and he and I are in this classroom getting ready, and suddenly he just takes his clothes off and he's there in his underpants. And I'm like, Ozzie Smith has just taken his clothes off in front of me. I couldn't help myself, I told him, `You've got a great body.' " She sighs. "I'm such a geek. I even brought a ball for him to sign." Before her career as a sports hero sycophant, McDougall produced music videos in her native Australia. After she oversaw production of a short film that made it to Sundance, it occurred to her that she could probably direct, too. She soon came out with a short called Pig and followed it up with, among other things, a documentary about the history of the T-shirt for Russell Athletic and a film about subcultures of L.A. for PBS. Most recently, she directed the feature film Sugar and Spice, a dark comedy about a group of high school cheerleaders who rob banks to get money for a friend in trouble. McDougall's reel is a study in this kind of stereotype twisting. In a spot for Special K, she takes a retro tack with a fake plug for a doll called Diet Debbie who works out after every meal and claims to love celery. A promo for the Spice Girls vehicle Spice World features the Spice Girls, age 5, having a tea party and earnestly reciting the nursery rhyme "Sugar and Spice." McDougall's reel has quite a bit of overseas work on it, but she is now a true American, even learning to love L.A. "I grew up on American TV. I just always thought it was my destiny to be here."

Maggie Zackheim, Satellite Films

During the course of her photo shoot, Maggie Zackheim makes the following claims: she was born in 1987; her hobby is skydiving; she used to do interpretive dance about Jane Austen novellas; and her directing success can be attributed to "many, many blowjobs." Zackheim is the embodiment of her reel: funny, irreverent, and candid. Her biggest commercials work to date is a Coors Light campaign featuring somewhat dorky guys and their small pleasures. In one, a bunch of friends are sitting in a basement when one of their friends appears with a case of Coors Light. "Hey, guys," he says, "I got this Coors Light for my mother-in-law." "Good trade!" says one of his friends, and the group laughs manically for a moment before the awkward post-hysteria silence. She has also received attention for her Blockbuster videogame trainer spot, in which an overzealous, mulleted coach leads a bewildered protege through the finer points of videogames. Zackheim, though not yet 30, has a long and varied career in film. She began as an editor at a small documentary production company, then took an intern job with MTV's in-house promo department. Soon, she was promoted to producer, a role that included writing, directing, and producing her own promos. "MTV is a great place to learn. You can say you want to film your friends dancing around your living room and they'll slap a logo on the end and use it." After two years, she left to become a freelance director. ("You can only do so many spring break promos," she explains.) At Comedy Central and VH1, Zackheim began to create comedy shorts and to start encouraging her casts to improvise on camera. The loose, quirky humor of her commercials work clearly reflects her knack for letting her casts find a natural way to the punchline. "I have an affinity with comedians," she remarks, and starts laughing. "Hmm, I wonder why!"

Fatima, Tomboy Films

Most directors talk about their careers as though they've been called by a force from above. For the surnameless, London-based Fatima, however, directing is something that just happened to her. She got her start working for then-boyfriend Tarsem; when they broke up, she says, "I found myself in a situation. I couldn't really work for anyone else. People would say, `What do you do?' and I'd say, `Um, I'm a creative consultant.' But I'm used to the short form. I know about 30 seconds; I know about the minute." And so she became a director, beginning with a beautiful spot for Pommelato jewelry, a project she did without pay. She and her crew stayed in mud huts in Mali to film in front of the country's mud mosques, enduring not only the lack of amenities but, at one point, an angry local group stoning the cast and crew during filming. Her visual style has yielded work with Maybelline, in a mascara spot featuring a small feather that becomes a model's eyelashes, and recently a spot for a British candy brand in which the model shows off couture made from the colorful packaging. And, though she claims that she will not direct a feature because she "has no story to tell," she has also produced some excellent work with narrative. The best example is a commercial for the Special Olympics called "Susan Pipes," in which a young woman with Down Syndrome performs gracefully on the balance beam. For someone who didn't graduate from college (she was kicked out of Art Center at 19), Fatima cites an impressively diverse list of influences, including Schopenhauer, Brancusi, pornography, and "shit TV." "If you want to do a character study of a woman breaking down, watch Jerry Springer. You just watch the way the lips get going. I think you need to understand both the high art and the stuff on cable."

Nzingha Stewart, Propaganda Films

How long can you keep your game face on? At a recent shoot for ESPN, Sheryl Swoopes, Teresa Weatherspoon and a gang of WNBA stars found out just how long as they stood at center court in a warehouse studio, elbowing each other for position. Sometimes it wasn't as long as it took to get the shot. "They were so happy to just be together again," says director Nzingha Stewart. "It felt like I was at camp. All the girls are just there having fun and happy to see each other." Seriousness, however, was the point behind the half dozen spots Stewart recently shot with Wieden & Kennedy for ESPN. "Maybe because I'm a terrible athlete, I do think of them as more than just the girl next door," she says, explaining that she didn't want to go with the hometown hero hook that is often the obvious choice for women's basketball. "I do think they can do things that regular people can't do and that that should be celebrated. It's almost like I'm looking at goddesses out there." Thus the tag - "Basketball is beautiful" - and the campaign's reverent, photographic look. Stewart, 26, got her start as a director while a student at NYU. She interned and wrote treatments for directors like Hype Williams, Steve Carr, and Brett Ratner, while shooting low-budget videos on the side that eventually landed her shoots for big-time hip-hop acts like Rah Digga and Ol' Dirty Bastard. Since signing with Propaganda last April, she's shot safe-sex PSAs and Rock the Vote work for MTV in addition to videos for Common, Sunshine Anderson, and Isaac Hayes. But it was a video for Bilal's "Soul Sista," featuring black and white photography and statuesque nudes, that brought her the attention of Wieden and ESPN. "They wanted something similar to that," Stewart says. "Something photographic and sophisticated."

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