The strong but subtle type

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Michael Downing and his U.S. production company Harvest took a fateful leap when they decided to shoot a spec script that came their way. It was about a would-be skydiver, too yellow-bellied to hurl himself out of the plane. His buddy goads him to no avail, then tosses a case of brew into the blue yonder as bait. Seconds later, the airplane's pilot goes diving after the beer, as does the friend, leaving the chicken in a big pickle. Sound familiar? It's the Bud Light laffer that hit No. 1 on USA Today's Super Bowl AdMeter, which came as a huge shock to the director, who was surprised that the script even got to him in the first place, much less made it to air, never mind the Super Bowl. "It's ridiculous," sighs the Canadian-raised San Francisco native. "I really didn't think we were going to even get the opportunity, because it seemed like too good a script to really come our way."

Perhaps that's because while the spot reads as big and broad as you'd expect for Super Bowl fare, it's not exactly the type of work for which the 37-year-old Downing was known. Since he started directing spots out of Toronto's Radke Films a little more than two years ago, he's stirred audiences with his understated yet impactful performance work. Early on he turned out a subdued surprise on another spec-to-official spot, for Good Life Fitness, featuring a woman so frustrated with her dirty laundry she lifts her shirt to remove a stain with her genuine washboard abs. He then went on to make serious waves last year on a commercial for Science World, out of Vancouver's Rethink, featuring a boardroom of suits who play tonsil hockey in place of the typical handshake salutation. Downing's other quiet comedic touches are apparent on a Honda spot, about a parking cop who gets guano'd by environmentally grateful pigeons before he can ticket a hybrid vehicle, as well as commercials for Loyola Marymount University, featuring LMU hoops stars who go beyond the call of duty for their fans.

When Downing got to Budweiser, "It was a bit scary," he admits, "I kind of move away from anything that's too broad because I came from a background of really subtle performance. But once we got into casting, I approached it more like it was a documentary, just having the guys perform as if it was really happening, not like they were playing for laughs or making it like it was a cartoon. I thought it was a really great combination of more or less straight performances with a completely wacky concept." Moreover, the script at its core featured a precious performance opportunity he couldn't resist. "There's kind of a moment when the floor's pulled out from people and they're just sort of reacting. For some reason I find that point before they react, when there's confusion, particularly funny. It was just this really quiet moment, surrounded by all this hecticness and I thought that was brilliant. So when that script came in I thought, This is great! I immediately wanted to do it."

Downing's affinity for working with actors comes as no surprise considering his roots as a performer himself. Before directing, he had spent about six years heading a Canadian theater troupe whose work was rooted in the physical. "It's all very theoretical, but the gist of it was we took everyday movements and represented them in a theatrical context, with fragments of dialog." Downing eventually started to film his group's performances for publicity purposes, and his work actually made it to public television programming. That unexpected success inspired him to take film classes at night in Canada and later enroll at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. "I think I found my calling in filmmaking because it all just seemed to come together-all the different backgrounds in the visual arts, in theater, also a bit of photography," he says. "All these mediums seemed to merge perfectly in film and I really found a vehicle for my voice." His thesis film at AFI, Fine, another stirring example of Downing's skillfully slight hand with performance, went on to win the 2003 Student Academy Award. He got into commercials after longtime friend and fellow director Tim Godsall, at the time an agency creative, encouraged him to put together a reel. Soon after, Downing signed to Radke, which still represents him in Canada.

As for his personal approach, "I think what I did in theater has definitely translated into what I'm doing in film, where those interesting moments for me are when there's nothing said. My experience in theater was just really exploring subtext, and that's moved into commercials and my longer-format work. For me, the real text is the subtext." But when asked about his inspirations, Downing, who's currently shooting a Canadian Honda campaign, is quick to cite "Joe Pytka, Joe Pytka and Joe Pytka" (alluding to Orson Welles' quote about John Ford). A strange choice, considering his flair for the spare, but "I just love his clarity and boldness," he says. "I'm nothing like him, but I just admire his work so much and it's really inspiring to me."

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