Easy Riders

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Fortysomething Brits Adam Cameron and Simon Cole, better known as Joe Public, met with their privates out on a nude beach in Greece about 15 years ago - but don't jump to conclusions, they both have families. In fact, their meeting was part of a distinctly hetero rite of passage. "There were vast amounts of Icelandic college girls on the beach, and about 40 guys trying to get next to them, but the only one who had any success was an American windsurfing instructor," they ruefully recall. "So the two of us commiserated together and built a career out of it." Short of bedding Bjork and being the most acclaimed artist of your generation, this isn't bad, and quite a studly career they've built, too. Working out of Headquarters in the U.S. , the team is so busy these days they're doing everything from the latest AFLAC duck spot to an archly amusing celeb Tostitos campaign with the likes of Jay Leno and Little Richard. And that's not even their better work.

All this despite not getting a 2003 DGA Best Director nomination, though they were nominated in two of the last three years. "It's a travesty," they joke. "We'll be calling the DGA and we'll be questioning the whole procedure." No need to question Joe Public's procedure; as befits a directing team, they prefer to speak with one voice and, indeed, they seem to be two sides of the same coin, which is sure to be funny money. "Think of us as one unit," they suggest. "Better yet," they add with a chuckle, "think of us as Frank Budgen and Jonathan Glazer." The ultra hot spots analogy is becoming less farfetched every day, though unlike Budgen and Glazer, Cameron and Cole moved to the States three years ago with the express intention of cutting a broad comedy swath across the American commercials scene. "We always thought the mixture of our slightly surreal British humor and the smoothness of the American filmmaking style would be good for us - and it has been."

Indeed, Joe Public seem to be most happy admaking fellas, though they learned their trade almost by default. "There was no British film industry to speak of at the time we broke into the business," they explain. "All the talent that should have been in the film business - all the best writers, art directors and directors - were soaked up by the advertising industry. There really was very little choice. So we got into advertising and we discovered we thoroughly enjoyed it." Feature films, they insist, aren't yet on their minds. "If we did make a feature it would probably be a dark comedy," they muse. "We wouldn't go the Farrelly Brothers route; more like the Coen Brothers. We've been sent a lot of slightly cheap frat-style comedy scripts that scared the life out of us." In the meantime, they insist they're having a torrid affair with commercials. "From doing big car spots and closing down highways, like we just did for Toyota, to doing small left-field, subversive comedy, we love it all. " This ties in nicely with their Everyman name, which, they point out, is "the British equivalent of John or Jane Doe. Most of our commercials are about ordinary people and how they behave. We've always tried to blur the line between actors and real people, and we've always tried to make actors seem like real people." They started directing together in '93 and shortly made a name for themselves in the U.K. with a British Rail campaign "that used real people but put them in a stylized setting rather than a testimonial setting. We've always liked the idea of ordinary people in extraordinary situations. It's a theme that runs through most of our work. "

Yet, for all their populist appeal, there's a lot of hoity in their toity. Cameron majored in classics at Warwick University and Cole studied theater at the Royal Academy and went on to spend three years as the token male writer/actor/director in a state-sponsored feminist theater company - specializing, of course, in villains like strip club owners and wife beaters. "After three years the women became separatists and refused to work with men," he shrugs. Joe Public's humor is, naturally, quintessentially British, and though their U.S./Europe commercials split nowadays is running 80-20 in favor of the States, they must go back home, for instance, to do the kind of Monty Pythonesque McDonald's work - VO: "Don't spend hundreds of pounds on expensive carpet. Simply buy two small squares and attach them to the bottom of your feet." - that just doesn't play over here. "It's a darker sense of humor in England," they note. "Since the dot-com collapse, humor is in a difficult stage here. It's hard to push through darker, more surreal comedic ideas. The Brits just tend to have a more cynical, sarcastic approach to humor. God knows it's probably our history; our comedy is about misery. It comes out of misery and it comes out of the truth. That sensibility will always stay with us. To the British, when you get down to it, everything is about sex and death."

We can only hope the sex comes before the death. It surely does in Italy, where Joe Public went for their current reel leader, a stunning virtual music video for an internet video service called FastWeb, from Ata DMC, Milan, about a boy who spends his life with a box on his head - though it hardly cramps his style. "We've never done a music video per se, but we love this kind of MTV approach to advertising as much as we love the subversive, suburban comedy. And it was the perfect brief. That's all they told us: 'A boy grows up with a box on his head. What can you do for us?' That was the entire extent of the script. We get that a lot from Europe - just three sentences. They're happy to let you develop a core idea, or you can bang it around with them. In America, it's usually a bit more tied down in the process of an agency."

The odd thing is, one of their first great U.S. spots, Goodby, Silverstein's humongous "experimental" Cracker Jack package of '99, filled them with foreboding. "We became known over here for this and we thought we'd never work again after that. It aired on the Super Bowl and it was basically about a very large bag of the product." But couldn't it be argued that this is a variation of their beloved Monty Python's 16-ton weight? "Yes, but to us it was very close to slapstick." This is said with a snarl of revulsion. "It was a fairly high-profile campaign for relative newcomers, which was a good thing, but it got us off on that not very subtle foot." One imagines Joe Public's ideal Cracker Jack prize would be a mini book called The Art of Subtlety. Their idea of sublime comedic restraint is a man sitting catatonic in his backyard, wracked with guilt and remorse because he took his bank manager's pickle during a lunch. This is, in fact, one of their recent Chase spots, and while it's no laugh fest, it does have a certain understated ‚lan. But most Yanks would say it can't match wits with the Cracker Jack spot, after which "we were inundated with scripts about things falling on people," they shudder. "And that's the tricky thing about sustaining a career in American advertising; you do a spot with a big bag of popcorn falling on people and you're marked as good with physical comedy - and that's it."

But they have seemingly prevailed o'er the pigeonhole, with what they term a "slightly twisted blend of European sensibility and American technique. It was a struggle at first for people to accept that we're not about one particular style." Now, they just want to be "challenged with all kinds of different work - and not be criticized for it."

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