Pencil Him In

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Craig Gillespie, 35, moved to the States from Sydney, Australia, when he was 19 and he's been here ever since. But he can't quite shake the Down Under accent. "It's apparently impossible to completely lose it," he says with a multihemispherical twang. "A lot of people think I'm from Boston. It's a New York-Australian combo. Every time I'm at a casting session someone is trying to guess my accent, since they're all so into that kind of thing."

There's another Aussie trait he can't shake, nor does he want to - a sense of humor that may be somewhat peculiar to what used to be a British penal colony. "Paul Hogan is my comedy inspiration," Gillespie announces. Really? "No, not at all. He was just the Benny Hill of Australia. Didn't mean a thing to me." That's it right there. There's an Aussie style of humor, Gillespie explains, and "it's just very dry. There are two ways to tell a joke: You can be chuckling through it as you come up to the punchline, or you can be completely deadpan so the punchline just comes out of left field. That's the Aussie way; straightfaced delivery, you don't see it coming."

One thing we do see coming is Gillespie, on his third year with production hotshop MJZ, as a major commercials funnyman with a future. He was a 2001 DGA Best Commercials Director nominee on the strength of yock-infested campaigns for Holiday Inn Express and Citibank, from Fallon/Minneapolis, and broad, sight-gag successes for SBC and Goodby, Silverstein. His hilarious streak began well before that, however, when he was at Coppos Films, where his 1997 JWT/Chicago, Kraft Miracle Whip spot, "Man's Best Friend," was shortlisted at Cannes. This bit of inspired lunacy, in which a dog makes a sandwich for his master, was something of a mixed blessing, as Gillespie sees it. "That got a lot of attention, but not really the attention I was looking for, because it's so effects oriented. Dog humor would be a bad pigeonhole. I try to stay away from animals. I really didn't find my legs until H&R Block." That would be the following year, and this Y&R/Chicago campaign was also shortlisted at Cannes, as well as winning One Show Gold. Gillespie still has an H&R Block spot on his reel, which supplies the impetus for the photo setup seen here; a guy decides to do his own taxes, and over the course of several weeks becomes a deranged insomniac with a foam ceiling full of sharpened pencils. "Basically, I was trying to find my own style," recalls Gillespie, and with the Block campaign, he more or less did. "I can equate it to art school, where you study drawing and try to master various styles, then you develop your own. So I experimented with different techniques and studied the work of all the directors I admired at the time - guys like Sedelmaier, Fincher and Michael Bay during his 'Got Milk?' phase - and I finally found my own voice. I found that what I enjoyed above all was dealing with actors and comedic timing."

That art school reference isn't coming out of left field, Aussie humor aside. Gillespie was attending the School of Visual Arts in Sydney - "There was a tiny, dinky branch there," he was surprised to discover - and he won a scholarship to the New York flagship. Did he have an early interest in advertising? "Not really. I'd already dropped out of university in Sydney, where I was studying stuff like economics. Art school was about all that was left. It was a four-year scholarship to New York and every year I thought would be my last, but I ended up staying the whole way through. I started with illustration, moved on to graphic design, then on to advertising. It was a good school and I got what I needed and went right into advertising." Gillespie, in fact, put in a decade as a New York art director, starting at JWT and working his way through DMB&B, Ammirati & Puris and BBDO, finally landing at Deutsch - for eight weeks. "I was told I'd be able to direct stuff, so I went in as an ACD on Ikea. A lot of guys had gone this directing route in the past through Deutsch. What I wasn't told was that Ikea wasn't doing any TV for the next year and a half. That's when I shot the serious spec." Earlier, he'd shot the not so serious spec. "I actually was interested in directing very early on in my agency career," Gillespie explains. "It just took a long time to make it happen. Back when I was around 22, I used to shoot stuff with a producer friend, we'd rent cameras. A few years later I had four spec spots, 16mm handheld, two were comedy. I went to somebody at a production company, I was pretty excited about it. He watched it, he shrugged and said, 'I know 200 DPs who could do that for me.' So I made two more spec spots on 35mm, built sets, went the whole nine yards. They cost about $20,000, which was a lot of money to me. They were for a friend of mine who had a pizza place in Pennsylvania. Comedy, yes, but you want to cover all the bases: storyline, dialogue, performance. And I got signed after that." That was at the late Fahrenheit Films, which led to Coppos. We've all heard about the advantages of being a former creative when you get behind the camera; are there any disadvantages? "The only one might be, in the beginning people will say, 'So what? He was an art director last year.' But as you get away from that, it's all advantages."

As for the fairly momentous move from Coppos to MJZ, "it was very ironic," recalls Gillespie. "One week I was talking to [president] David Zander about joining MJZ and he was saying it wasn't a good time, he'd just hired some comedy guys. The next week I was bidding against [MJZ's] Rocky Morton on H&R Block, and I got it. Six months later I came to MJZ. And I'm very happy here, I have to say. I just have a fabulous relationship with Zander. It's great to have somebody's opinion that you can respect. We have very similar tastes and we both push just as hard on the projects that we care about. Probably half the shop is comedy now, but I think that's good. It's all just inspiration to me. And I've got good relationships with agencies that I love working with, like Fallon and Goodby, so it's like dominoes. They're great creatives, they work with great editors and music houses - it makes it all better."

Better yet, Gillespie appears to be scoring all over the comedy map, possibly rendering him niche-proof. He even has a frenetic Chevy car-chase spot, which he says was inspired by John Frankenheimer's Ronin, that looks like his ticket to an action feature. How does he characterize his work? "I just try not to get pigeonholed. I go for jobs that inspire me somehow, then I figure out the best way to execute them. I'm consciously trying not to fall into old routines. If your goal is to find the best way to tell this joke, you'll be varying film styles and camera moves and what have you, since the likelihood is there'll be a different best way for each project. All my work is varying degrees of comedy, but it's all comedy. I find it hard to take a spot too seriously. If it's just beautiful, for instance, it gets a little too self-involved for me. By the end of the spot, I'd have to make a joke of it."

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