Quiet on the set

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There are more commercial directors out there than an advertiser or striking Screen Actors Guild member can shake a picket at. Despite the prolonged job action, most directors are ready and willing to work. But the most sought-after member of his profession, Joe Pytka, is not.

Mr. Pytka, one of the biggest names in the business, has ceased commercial work altogether since the SAG strike began five months ago. The director of such well-known spots as HBO's "Chimps" and Pepsi's "Joy of cola" spots decided to take a hiatus from his commercial directing jobs in sympathy with the SAG strikers. He believes the quality of his work will suffer if he is forced to shoot ads with non-union talent.


"My position is that I will not do a commercial that will run in North America, no matter what," Mr. Pytka said. "The last time the actors struck I did one commercial with non-actors, I don't know why. It was a long time ago. And it was such a painful experience. If you can't do good work, why bother? Most of my work is actor-based. It's hard enough to get the perfect performer for the part with all your resources there. Trying to function using non-union actors makes it impossible."


Kinka Usher, whose production company is called House of Usher, is another director who dropped out of sight during the strike. "The union actors are far more skilled and there is a shorter hand in working with the union actor. They are leagues better. There is no question about that," Mr. Usher said. "It's harder to direct non-union actors."

Other directors agreed using non-union talent is a problem, and said the strike makes it next to impossible to work in this country. Michael Bay, who left Propaganda Films in January to open his own production company, took time off from commercial shooting to direct the feature film "Pearl Harbor."

"I'm a director who loves working with actors," Mr. Bay said. "There is nothing better than mining actor gold, because that is what it is all about. It's not just about pretty images. It's all about getting this human quality that only a great actor can get you. You can rely on foreign talent for only so long. There's nothing better than working with a seasoned actor. Yeah, you can find breakout talent that is very natural, but you know what? It's like finding a needle in a haystack."

Currently in post-production on the film, Mr. Bay is now booking commercial jobs, including a Pepsi campaign for the international market that shoots in London and Prague for BBDO Worldwide, New York. He has refused several jobs in the U.S. because the advertising agencies asked him to work with non-union talent.

"One of the spots I turned down needed a lot of dramatic emotional stuff and that would just be too hard to lay on a non-actor," Mr. Bay said. "I'm also a feature director, and this is all about actors."


Mr. Usher, on the other hand, believes that despite the limitations, he does have some control over the process. "So much of what I'm looking for in a performance usually comes from me, whether it is a union or non-union actor," said Mr. Usher. "Performances that I am looking for, from an actor, are usually derived from my direction of that person."

Traktor, a five-man directing team whose work has included the oddball Miller Lite "Dick" spots for Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis; a poker-faced comedy CNET effort for Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore.; and the quirky "Jukka Brothers" campaign for MTV and Fallon, has taken on jobs which don't require much expertise from the actors.

"We've been taking on international jobs and we've gotten jobs with agencies in which, creatively, there is no need for major actors or performances," said Richard Ulf-vengren, one of Traktor's directors. "We've been very lucky. Traktor is well known for creating spots that do not always need character acting. We've done a lot of street casting in the past. We are not frightened to work with the non-skilled actors. Also, we do jobs in London, in other markets. We always have done scripts in other markets."

Mr. Pytka is not entirely idle. He's shooting a music video memorial tribute to John Lennon for Yoko Ono, in observance of the 20th anniversary of Mr. Lennon's death. He is also writing a feature film treatment about expatriate women artists in Paris in the '20s. He shot a couple of Nike commercials for the South American market for Wieden during the strike. Otherwise, he refuses to shoot a U.S. market commercial overseas or in Canada.


"That's insulting," he said. "An agency asked me to do a U.S. commercial and go to South Africa and Australia to shoot. I said, `Forget it, what are you crazy?' Why should I fly around the world when I can do it here better? The bottom line is that any director who tells me that their work is as good now as it was during the strike is full of shit. If you're willing to compromise your work for money, that's your problem. It's hard enough to do good work in this business now under the best of circumstances."

Mr. Usher -- well known for directing high-octane spots for Pepsi-Cola Co.'s Mountain Dew for BBDO and Taco Bell Corp.'s Chihuahua ads for TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif. -- returned to work recently and is booked for an upcoming Mountain Dew spot. He is currently shooting a non-union job for the California Milk Advisory Board in Los Angeles, and has just finished a campaign for TD Waterhouse and agency Post & Partners, New York, a job that was done under the SAG interim agreement.

"I supported the strike as long as I could, I took two months off first and did the interim job, and after I did the interim job I just waited around. Suddenly four months had gone by and it was time for me to get back to work," Mr. Usher said. "At my company I'm the only director and I've got to keep the whole thing going. "


While Mr. Usher said he is in "total sympathy" with the strike, "I've got a whole crew of people I've got to keep working. I was supposed to go to Canada with this job I'm doing now but I was very adamant in making sure the job stayed here," he said. "We have to be sensitive to [my employees and crews] as well. They were all suffering."

Like Mr. Usher, Mr. Bay expresses sympathy for the actors but continues to work. "I have a right to work. I've got to make a living. And I just wish that they can come to some agreement. I'm not on either side. There's got to be some sort of middle ground. If the advertisers insist on paying a low wage, you're going to get less and less qualified actors to do commercials. Let's face it, not all of them book that many jobs. These people go on audition after audition after audition, and they are lucky to book one out of 20. I don't think this is fair.


"I don't have a problem going to a foreign country to do international work, but I'm a big proponent of keeping production here in America," Mr. Bay added.

Some directors say the strike has done little to change their work habits, although they are shooting less in the U.S.

Traktor, a group originally based in Sweden which has been working in the U.S. for the past couple of years, during the strike has primarily been filming commercials abroad for foreign markets. "We've been shooting constantly . . . we haven't been stepping on other people's toes. As the strike goes on, we've just been doing other types of jobs, abroad and so forth. We haven't tricked the strikers at all," Mr. Ulfvengren said. Traktor, which is shooting an undisclosed job in England right now, is represented by the bicoastal production company Partizan.


For six weeks in the summer, Traktor directors were on vacation much like the rest of their countrymen, which limited non-union jobs they might have been offered. "We take on jobs abroad because we want to work. That's also a way to support the strike. Those jobs would never have come here anyway. That is our way to show some respect for the strike," said Mr. Ulfvengren. "Nobody believed it would go on for this long. There were a lot of people who thought it would be resolved a couple of weeks ago."

Mr. Pytka decided early on in the strike to drop out, but he admits he expected it to last only a few weeks.

"I didn't give a lot of thought to this at the start," Mr. Pytka said. "I thought the actors are going on strike, I'll be out of work for a few weeks and then we'll all go back to work." But they didn't, and now Mr. Pytka is wondering how much longer it will all take, but still he refuses to budge.

"I don't take the position of the actors or the advertisers, there is right and wrong on both sides. Emotionally, I probably stand with the actors because I come from a working class background," he said.

Mr. Pytka added, "I feel that anything that helps get the thing resolved is for the better. And not doing work will help get it resolved. I thought if there was a general strike in our profession, it would have solved this thing a long time ago. But now, since a lot of work is getting done anyway, and a lot of advertisers are filling the airwaves with commercials, the strike is just prolonged."


It's hard to determine just how many directors are impacted by the strike. According to the Source Maythenyi, the commercial production industry's "Blue Book" which lists directors and their credits, there are roughly 3,000 people who shoot commercials professionally worldwide. Only 1,261 of these are listed, however, in the Association of Independent Commercial Producers membership directory, which represents a more realistic number of U.S. commercial directors.

And many of them are still working. Several directors who refused to be interviewed on the record for this article were quick to note, like Mr. Pytka, that ads are still being produced. Few commercial directors are willing to admit in public that they are working while the industry is in the middle of the longest labor strike in its history.

"We're all working," said one such high profile director who now wants to avoid publicity and thus requested anonymity. "Everybody is out there shooting."


In fact, according to the Association of National Advertisers and American Association of Advertising Agencies' Joint Policy Committee on Talent Union Relations, at least 10,000 commercials have been filmed since the strike began.

Some directors claim the strike has brought benefits. According to several who wished to remain anonymous, the strike has allowed them to tap into new sources of non-union talent. And they say they have also discovered the ease of shooting in Canada.

However, Mr. Pytka was not shy about expressing the views he hears within the directing community.


"Most of the key creative people that I know that are really top-notch are worried sick about doing good work, especially for the Super Bowl. I haven't seen a good performance in a commercial since the strike began," he said.

"Sure, I've alienated some clients. If they don't understand my position, well, then, that's too bad. They are as much a part of the problem as anybody."

He also rails against strike-breakers. "Look at all the athletic stuff during the Olympics. Those athletes are all SAG members and they all did commercials for the Olympics, breaking their word and violating their contract. You have Michael Johnson and all these great athletes doing commercials for the Olympics. Lance Armstrong. . . . They don't even really need the money, but they did it anyway, intimidated by corporations. Do I care to work with those people anymore? Do I respect people who go against their contract? Absolutely not. Do I care about Lance Armstrong anymore? No.


"I'm not trying to be a do-gooder," Mr. Pytka said. "I have no regrets for what I did, and it's really shown me the true colors of a lot of people and it's put corporate America into perspective. I think they have suffered more than the actors have suffered, because they have, with money, forced people to violate their word and commitment. Lots of major people. It's heartbreaking."

So what's the mood like on sets these days?

"I think everyone is disappointed that the actors and the advertisers haven't reached an agreement," Mr. Usher said. "There is tremendous disappointment and frustration in everybody. You can hear it in everyone's voice: `Let's get back to work.' "

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