NO-FRILLS PHIL;PHIL MORRISON IS NOT THE MAN FOR A VISUAL FEAST, BUT HE CAN DIRECT PEOPLE, PUPPETS, SOCKS, YOU NAME IT, WITH A FINE-FOCUSED MAXIMAL MINIATURISM
ACCESSIBLE. NOT SLICK. REFRESHING. HONEST. THESE ARE all words that creatives use to describe 27-year-old Phil Morrison.
Not surprisingly, they also apply to Morrison's commercials work, a collection of spots ranging from several marginally slick Nike campaigns, like "The Ice Man Cooketh," to work for Fresca and AM PM stores that reveal a more offbeat indie-film bent.
A spot for AM PM, for example, relies solely on unadorned closeups and earnest dialogue-a couple of Morrison trademarks. In it, a teenage couple has a heart-to-heart outside an AM PM mini market. "You're only gonna buy Cokes," the young blonde says supportively to her boyfriend. He nods. "No Fritos, no beer, no Hershey bars. No junk food." He nods again and gets out of their beat up Maverick and walks into the convenience store. "Be strong," she pleads. "I love you." Of course, when the guy comes back to kiss her he has junk food on his breath.
"The understated performances make for a kind of quirky believability that comes from a filmic rather than a commercial sense," notes Joe Baratelli, the RP&A art director who worked with Morrison. "This is what makes Phil's work seem more real."
"I'm really into miniaturism and taking a micro look at people's lives," explains the New York-based Morrison, who signed with Epoch Films last year. A transplanted Southerner whose lingering accent can't help but add to his unpretentious appeal, he adds, "For me, it's important that commercials convey some understanding of human nature and people's vulnerabilities."
In a pair of Fresca spots for Fallon McElligott Berlin, Morrison treats those vulnerabilities with what copywriter Glenn Porter describes as the "appropriate amount of weirdness" for a brand whose popularity peaked in the 1970s. In one-yet another commercial that takes place in a convenience store-a young slacker plays pinball while salivating over a babe buying a Fresca. Overcome by his attraction, he too goes to buy a Fresca, only to be interrogated by the curmudgeonly old clerk who rightly questions the sincerity of his purchase. The last frame shows the poor guy asking a kid if he can "score" him some Fresca. Similarly, in a second spot, a young girl sitting in a diner gets grilled by the waiter for ordering a Fresca only because a hunk at the counter is drinking one.
Though humor plays a big role in Morrison's miniaturism, it can't be what he calls "big-funny," over-the-top antics that run "counter to human nature." Instead, Morrison's bigness is more of a physical energy, as illustrated in a series of commercials for Nike turf shoes. All of the spots take place in a tiny elevator and center around a manically annoying bellhop who insists on regaling indifferent hotel guests with football highlights. In an attempt to demonstrate some great moves by Detroit Lion Barry Sanders, one spot shows him literally diving-hat and all-through the legs of a very tall and very blase male guest.
"Phil doesn't do frilly-looking film," notes Wieden & Kennedy art director Andrew Christou, who's worked with Morrison on the fancier but similarly improvisational "Ice Man" campaign that features NBA star George Gervin as the host of a cooking show. "Even when he's being playful, his work is still intellectual."
Christou adds that he "would never hire Phil to shoot an ultra-produced campaign and would never bid him against a David Fincher or Mark Romanek, who have more aesthetic sensibilities." Nor would Morrison ever compare himself to someone like a Fincher, Romanek or Jeffery Plansker-whose cool Prudential spots he particularly admires. All three, he says, "are much more capable of creating a visual feast."
Not that Morrison is effects-phobic. The main attraction of his "Lil' Penny" campaign with the Orlando Magic's Anfernee Hardaway happens to be a precocious puppet, a wiseass mini Hardaway created by those effects gurus at Colossal Pictures. In the funniest spot, the pair watch a glittery Hardaway hawking sneakers on the tube; the puppet cracks that "Spike Lee must not have been available."
However, Morrison wants to make clear that "there's nothing 'posty' about the spots; everything is done in-camera." And although he "tries hard to make things look good," Morrison is more attracted to "an amateuristic homemade style where people just ramble on and on," one that is drawn from directors like Robert Altman, Jonathan Demme-early films like "Melvin and Howard"-and Todd Haynes, whose most recent film, "Safe," is about a woman who is allergic to the 20th century.
A North Carolina native who grew up in Winston-Salem, the same hometown as W&K copywriter Stacy Wall, Morrison moved to New York after high school to attend NYU film school. Then, even though he cared more about "checking out rock bands" than making movies, his talents as a director didn't go unnoticed. In particular, Morrison received a lot of attention for his short film, "Tater Tomater," an Altman-inspired piece about a North Carolina cafeteria worker who has a life-changing epiphany. Shot in Winston-Salem, Morrison humbly describes his first effort as a "clunky, modest little movie," yet, in addition to several student awards, "Tater" was shown at the Sundance Film Festival and on "American Playhouse" in 1989.
Still more interested in music than filmmaking, Morrison's first job out of school was as a booking agent for underground bands, many of which he later ended up directing videos for, including Sonic Youth and Superchunk. It was Morrison's friends who finally pushed him to get more serious about his film career, including one, then an assistant for Martin Scorsese, who helped him land a similar job with Robert DeNiro at Tribeca Films.
Aside from the usual celebrity perks-hanging out at the "Goodfellas" premier, for example-DeNiro supported Morrison taking time off to direct low-budget rock videos, which he also produced along with a friend. While working at Tribeca, Morrison also connected with Wall through family friends. When Wall found out he was directing videos, he handed Morrison a low-budget campaign for NBA Hoops basketball cards. The shoot led to a series of similarly smallish assignments at the agency and an eventual break to co-direct Ikea's docu-style customer portraits campaign with Roger Tonry.
In 1991, Morrison finally quit his job at Tribeca to pursue commercials full time. After a flailing freelance period, he landed at the now defunct King Horse Films, started by ex-Deutsch producer Tricia Caruso. There, Morrison shot several odd jobs, including a series of spots for a Christmas shop in New England.
A year later, Morrison signed with Luna Pier Films, where he shot an equally odd collection of work, including a Wheaties spot with Michael Jordan for DDB/Needham/Chicago, Clorets with "Seinfeld" star Michael Richards for J. Walter Thompson/Toronto and a Toyota commercial for Saatchi & Saatchi/L.A. In late 1993, he moved to the now defunct Optic Nerve where he shot both the Nike work and an MCI Direct campaign for Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer.
Morrison, who still shoots a small percentage of music videos-his latest are for Juliana Hatfield and Yo La Tengo-also shot the "Ultimate Frontier" sock puppet spot, the best foot forward in the new Snapple campaign for Kirshenbaum & Bond (see the Mini Review on page 4).
His only immediate goals are, like Morrison himself, anti-slick: to "shoot good stuff with people"-or puppets, as the case may be-"talking, because it's so rare that a commercial considered good is dialogue oriented. It would be nice to maintain that and still make things a bit snazzier," he adds, "because these are