"I think Billy Wilder said that there are only 36 stories," Murro says. "It's just how you tell them. That's the same in advertising. The obsession with innovation is way overdone. The really important thing is the clarity of the concept."
We all know some commercials directors who will never exhibit the slightest interest in anyone's lives outside their own, let alone freely cite Mahler, van der Rohe and Billy Wilder, and ask their interviewer as many questions as they answer. Trust me on this. Noam Murro, director of the moment, is unique in the U.S. commercials business. Israeli-born, with a markedly European aesthetic, on paper he appears a fish out of water in the company of many of his peers. Except that Murro relishes the craft of commercials with a passion. He has a black sense of humor that appears perfectly suited to the prevailing advertising mood. What's more, he displays an attractive combination of enthusiasm and detachment. Oh, and taste too.
This has led to a recent body of work of which any director would be proud. Since the summer alone we have seen the category-busting PS2 campaign, a hilarious set of Dunkin Donuts commercials, the advertising return of Bugle Boy, and the first of the seminal U.K. Tango ads to be created by London's hottest startup, Clemmow Hornby Inge. Add to that, Murro is the director behind what many people regard as the spot of the year so far: Saturn's "Sheet Metal" from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. And now there is the latest E*Trade extravaganza. It's a hell of a run for a man with strong views on how he got here. Well, in truth, strong views on pretty much everything.
Murro left his native Israel in 1987 for the United States to finish his architectural studies. He quickly realized that not only was he not going to make any money, but he couldn't even go into a bathroom without getting upset about its design! A movie buff, he decided he wanted to be a director, and chose working in advertising as a very pragmatic (in his own mind) step in that direction. Thinking he might work at a big agency like Grey, because that's all he knew from Israel, he was hired by the tiny New York startup Goldsmith/Jeffery. "Gary Goldsmith [now executive creative director of Lowe] taught me a lot about thinking," Murro says today. "It was a small operation with lofty goals. I hardly knew anything about advertising."
It wasn't long before Murro began filming his own commercials, beginning with a series of intriguing spots for New York's Katz's Deli. He soon realized that he didn't need to have attended film school to succeed, and signed to HKM in 1994. "I am happy I didn't go to film school. The only way to learn is to watch film," Murro says. "I thought I could direct out of a mixture of dictatorial hubris and an addictive energy. Why are some directors successful and others not?" he asks rhetorically. "Anyone could learn the technique. But you have 18 hours on set, and a week and a half again in prep. You have to have a point of view, a clear vision." I am not sure I agree with his assertion that "film is music in a weird way. You could put my bar mitzvah to music and it would be good"; but it is possible to detect a precision -- both of timing and staging -- that is rooted in his musical and architectural training. And, of course, classical music.
Signed to HKM, his career took off as a comedy director almost accidentally -- Katz's, for example, was not knockabout humor. But, he admits, he rode the dot-com wave as well as the next man, with campaigns for the likes of Webvan, Allbusiness.com and Freeagent.com -- whatever they were. "I never thought of myself as a comedy director," he reflects. "It was never meant to happen that way. Everything is funny at the end of the day, and everything is serious. Look at the company-man commercial for Freeagent.com [in which a man works his whole life as a wage slave, collects his farewell clock and has a heart attack and dies on his way out of the building]; is it funny or sad?"
Murro's early successes included adidas' "Win" and the very earliest Fox Sports campaign for Cliff Freeman. The latter was shot on a shoestring, but created an enormous media buzz. He went on to shoot for Aiwa, Polaroid, Budweiser, Lexus and anti-smoking, among many others. His work is, he says again, "precise" to the opposite extreme of the way he lives amid total chaos "at home, in my car, my laundry . . . To a degree, beauty is the enemy of meaning, but I can't get away from it," he reflects, "but advertising has to be seductive. Before I retire or get unknown again I am sure I will go through a stage of being asked to shoot people putting butter on bread, or rubbing themselves in the shower. What do you say in these cases? 'Love that bar of soap'?
"I don't know how long I will be able to sustain this," he says. "How long is the shelf life? It's actually more important to be timeless than innovative." It's an unusual thing to hear from a star name in an industry obsessed with supposed "cutting-edge innovation." "I think Billy Wilder said that there are only 36 stories," he continues. "It's just how you tell them. That's the same in advertising. The obsession with innovation is way overdone. The really important thing is the clarity of the concept."
Pushed on the subject of a little industry bitching that maybe the Saturn idea has been done before, Murro answers with a polite resignation that transmutes into a passionate distillation of what he believes in; a passion that betrays his Mediterranean roots. "I don't steal stuff; it comes from my heart," he begins. "But, everything has been done before. All advertising references something in culture. There is a big difference between being derivative and making a commentary on something, even by tone. My references are from art, from literature, from music -- not from advertising. Saturn is 100 percent original. When something gets the kind of attention it has, then there's bound to be some kind of disagreement. It became like an immediate icon. Maybe I think it's special because other people have told me that. But it's a clean idea simply done, and for a very conservative client. Given the process, and how hard it was to get there, it's pure," he adds. "It is a very lofty concept. We were really able to pull something off."
Murro's other big moment of the year to date was shooting his first work for a London agency, for Tango. It was the culmination of a process that began with the launch of Biscuit, his own production company, in 2000, after a short post-HKM interlude at Stiefel. "Starting Biscuit was either the smartest or stupidest business decision we ever made. I wanted the sense of control. Actually, that's partly not true, because you control less when you have to pay the bills. But there is something about it being your own voice. I wanted to choose the chairs I sit on and the color of the wall. It's not about ego, and I do not recommend it for everyone."
Murro claims no particular aspirations for Biscuit. "We just want a handful of directors and be happy and do our thing." (The roster currently includes Brian Baderman, Jeffrey Fleisig and Marcel Langenegger.) His "thing" now finds him regularly pitching for the same jobs in the "scary" company of Frank Budgen, Bryan Buckley, Dante Ariola and sometimes Spike Jonze. And then, briefly, earlier this year a linkup with MJZ did appear a sign of a far greater ambition. "The Propaganda blowup looked like it was really going to shake up the industry, but it didn't," Murro says. "Now, MJZ's only really for us to gain access to Europe. I find London very attractive," he adds a little wistfully. "It's an incredible level of sophistication and dry humor. And people don't get hurt, and it's still funny. That scares me here in the U.S. You can't show a nipple but you can show people being slammed at 150 miles per hour. There's got to be a fresher way here than all the violence."
In addition to London aspirations, Murro claims -- inevitably -- to be "close" to making his first feature. Accepting that the first movie is crucial in either becoming "one of them" or being out, he says simply, "I hope that my first feature will show no ties to the world I am currently working in." Murro has an extraordinarily healthy perspective on what he is doing and his ambitions -- perhaps because he never originally wanted to do this -- and he would swap it all to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic. "A movie or a commercial is not that important, it's not going to cure cancer," he says. "But, I can't even remember what I did two days ago, so it's a perfect job for my Jewish neuroses: 'Here, have a new problem.' "
Murro's current problem seems to be living in Los Angeles. Having tentatively suggested that listening to him speak, he might be better off living in New York, from where he moved to L.A. three years ago, it appears I opened a can of worms. "I have been educated by my advisors not to trash L.A.," says Murro, taking a pause. "But I can tell you: it's a shit, horrible place to live, where you have to get in your car to get a coffee. Basically, culture stops at Chicago. Imagine the fat, Jewish man surfing! It's so wrong for me to be here that you have to laugh."
And another thing about Murro is he's funny as hell, despite -- or perhaps because of -- his dark, obsessive side. But, despite his constant references to Jewish neuroses and his other issues, he seems the most well adjusted of any director. "There's this aura about directors. But, it's not about being mysterious," he says. "I used to look at pictures of Mahler and Mies van der Rohe or whoever. And they were smart and civilized. I do think that being nice and humble is part of the game; I am fortunate every day I walk onto a set. It's better than working in a bank."