Lunch With Bryan Buckley

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This is clout: The little Greenwich Village bistro known as Bar Q doesn't normally serve lunch, but they've agreed to open up just for Bryan Buckley. Perhaps the staff are aware that Buckley, a partner at Hungry Man Productions, is arguably the hottest director in advertising these days, thanks to award-winning work for E*Trade, Budweiser, ESPN and other clients. But if he's riding high in adland, Buckley is still trying to make a mark in Hollywood - where he has encountered his share of fickle studio execs and infuriating agents. Over Thai lobster stew, Buckley explained what it's like to be on top and on the cusp, simultaneously.

Buckley:This is a great restaurant. You really came up with the right interview format. What are you going to try next, "Tahiti interviews?"

Berger: Cool! I'll ask my editor. So you're between shoots now?

Buckley: I just finished doing Goodby's first work for Goodyear. It was totally different for me, because it's serious. So everyone's been coming into the office saying, "OK, where's the joke?" But I liked the challenge of doing a serious commercial - it's harder to take something serious and make it interesting.

Berger: For a long time you've been associated with humor and, in particular, a style of humor based on the early ESPN work. Is the mockumentary style of advertising played out at this point?

Buckley: Yeah, I think it's pretty much over. When we opened Hungry Man, we launched off the success of that documentary style, but we knew the window was a small one. I mean, people are judging awards shows and they see 500 documentary-style ads - and no matter how clever they might be, after a while everyone wants to move on.

Berger: But you'll still do your share of crazy stuff, I assume.

Buckley: I just did some work for Mother in London, for Vindaloo noodles. It's basically about how if you eat these noodles, it makes you shit in the morning. And all the spots have a guy screaming on the toilet. I had a guy actually shitting into an open beer cooler because he couldn't get to the toilet. Once I did that spot, I said, "OK, that's it - I've gone as far as I can go with toilet jokes, this is the ultimate." And I somehow felt cleansed by the whole experience.

Berger: Do you sense a movement away from that kind of wild advertising in the U.S. - particularly in light of the tough economy?

Buckley: I'm hearing the rumblings, from people developing work now, that there's a big pullback coming. We're going to see safer, more restrained advertising. The thinking is, you don't want to risk losing an account because of a toilet joke.

Berger: Do you have to be a prick to be a director? I mean, you hear all the stories about Tony Kaye and Joe Pytka.

Buckley: I think sometimes you turn into one, because people try to run roughshod over you. You need to take stands on things. As the director, everyone's looking at you for the answer. A lot of times you don't know - but you can't say that. You've got to just follow your gut and go forward. But I think intimidating clients or agencies or anybody can be bad. Because if you're a prick and you're unapproachable, then someone who has an interesting thought might be afraid to share it with you.

Berger: You did what some people dream of - leaving the agency rat race behind to pursue a Hollywood dream. How tough was that?

Buckley: I was running an agency and writing ads at the time, and then Tom and I - Tom DeCerchio, my partner at Buckley DeCerchio - sold a script. And it seemed so easy that we thought, "This Hollywood business is a joke." I mean, we made more money off that script than we could working for months in an ad agency. So we just took off. The game plan was to sell scripts, make a million dollars and live large.

Berger: Did you have any hesitation about giving up your agency at that point?

Buckley: No, because we'd reached a point where it wasn't fun trying to hold onto clients - especially then, at the end of the recession. It seemed like you could do great ads and yet there were so many things that could go wrong. We did good work for Yugo cars and suddenly they couldn't pay us. Then they said they wanted to pay us by giving us cars instead of money. Seriously.

Berger: That might not be a bad offer coming from Mercedes, but who wants a bunch of Yugos in the driveway?

Buckley: Exactly. But that's just the way things were going at that time in advertising. You'd bust your ass for some client, and they'd pull the rug out from under you.

Berger: So you went to Hollywood to sell your stories.

Buckley: Right, but I found that the story is not really the product in Hollywood. It is only one piece of the puzzle. You learn about the importance of the stars - who's attached to an idea, who wants to do it, what studio wants to distribute it. If you don't have those elements in place, your script is not going to get anywhere.

Berger: You were able to sell scripts, but what happened to them?

Buckley: After the first script was sold, it was put into turnaround and just died. Then we took our second script to the spec market, and it didn't sell. Then I got to the point where I was writing scripts on my own and able to sell them - but the problem was, your script gets sent off to directors who I wouldn't want to direct a Giant Carpet spot, let alone my movie. What you realize is that as a writer you have no control over anything. So then I figured maybe learning to direct might not be a bad thing if I ever want to get a movie made. And just at that time Hank Perlman called and we started doing the SportsCenter stuff.

Berger: As someone who once ran an agency, was it hard to start taking orders from agencies?

Buckley: It was an adjustment. Everyone always says, "Don't you miss coming up with the ideas yourself?" But I find that with the kind of commercials I work on, the idea is just the beginning. Not that I didn't enjoy coming up with ideas, but it's a hell of a lot better when the idea and the budget's been approved, and you know the spot's going to run in four weeks. It means you've gotten past the most difficult part of the ad business, which involves doing so much work that ends up on the floor.

Berger: Once you started directing spots, they looked at you differently in Hollywood?

Buckley: As a writer, I couldn't get my calls answered. My agent had lost interest in me, because I wasn't writing enough high-concept stuff. Meanwhile I started directing the SportsCenter stuff with Frank Todaro - and I used to send the tapes to this agent, but I could never get him on the phone. Then Jerry Bruckheimer saw our ads and we got a meeting with him. When my agent found out about this, he called me and said: "You did the SportsCenter stuff?" And I say, "Yeah, I've been sending you those tapes for a year." Then he starts doing the big song and dance about setting me up with a movie, and I ended up saying, "I don't think you're right for us now." This was the moment you always dream of alone in your room, when you get even with the people who ignored you.

Berger: But the Hollywood frustrations didn't end there. I understand with your first directorial feature (a low-budget documentary-style film), the studio changed its mind about the movie at the last minute - after you'd finished it?

Buckley: It was a documentary, and after it was done they said let's make it not a documentary - which was impossible at that point. It was Spinal Tap-ish - but now they wanted it to be like The Nutty Professor. What I learned from the experience is that you have to be really clear with the producer and studio people about what the film is and who the audience for the film is. And you have to say early on, "If this is not the movie you want to make, then I shouldn't be making it."

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