Thursday, August 19, 2010

Does the guy in the latest Hammy's commercial remind you of somebody?

I recently shot a couple of spots for Hammy's Pizza that I'm really happy with, and not just because they gave me the opportunity to create a character based on someone I know and no, I'm not going to go into more detail than that because maybe you know him. Hell, maybe you are him.

Let's just say that I feel as if I've exorcised a tiny, little demon in shooting these spots. Which, in the world of advertising, is quite an accomplishment.

Anyway, wanna see? Here's a link:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why most advertising sucks. (Part 5)

Every once in a while, somebody says what I want to say better than I could have said it myself. Today's example comes from Bob Hoffman, CEO of Hoffman/Lewis advertising. 

Bob writes one of the few blogs I regularly follow, called 'The Ad Contrarian'. Here's what he says about why advertising is so crappy:

Like most sensible people, here at The Ad Contrarian world headquarters we do our best to avoid advertising.

This keeps getting harder and harder.

Despite all the witless proclamations of new age marketing gurus about the death of advertising, advertising isn't just growing, it's metastasising.  Every click of a mouse brings us at least three ads. TV watching is at its highest level ever. Every person wearing a hat or a t-shirt has become a walking billboard.

Things that used to be just helpful have now also become advertising carriers -- ticket stubs, museum maps, dry cleaning bags, milk cartons...

You can't swing a dead media planner without hitting an ad.

And while advertising has gotten bigger and bigger, it hasn't gotten much better.

I'm not one of those old guys who thinks that there was a golden age of advertising (or music, or movies, or literature) in which everything was brilliant and that everything since then has been crap.  I believe that most advertising (and most music, movies, and literature) have always been pretty lousy, and today's lousy is no worse than any other era's lousy.

The reason most advertising (and artistic endeavors) are lousy is not that people set out to create crap. It's that creating something good is really, really hard. And there are very few people who can do it.

The idea that we are all creative and that if we just free ourselves from the stultifying shackles of society we can unleash a torrent of creativity is juvenile nonsense. Creativity is rare and precious. Many seek it. Few have it.

With all the amazing advances in technology and communication, you would think there might be some concomitant blossoming of creativity. But there hasn't been. Not in advertising, not in music, not in art, not in literature, not in movies.

Maybe that's why our industry has become obsessed with technology and media. There have been impressive, sometimes startling, leaps of innovation and inspiration in these areas.

But, sadly, the "content" is just as crappy as ever.

Friday, August 13, 2010

I'm looking for seven- to nine-year-old boys and no, I'm not a perv.

I'm not a terrorist, either.

You know that camera rig I mention occasionally? The one I've been working on for almost a year? Well, I finally got it to do what it's supposed to.
Most directors, when they come up with something as potentially mind-blowing as this, they shoot a test. But I think we can all agree I'm not like most directors. I have to go and do something spectacular. Like a piece that involves a big cast, a ton of specialized equipment, intricate choreography, a porn star, huge lights, smoke, wind, and a crew of at least 15.
Could be fun. Could be a disaster. 
To raise the stakes just a teeny bit more, I'm going to need some seven- to nine-year-olds to be in it.
The good thing about working with seven- to nine-year-olds is that unless the acting requires them to do something that seven- to nine-year-olds don't normally do, you don't need a seven- to nine-year-old with a ton of experience. In fact, brains, demeanor, and enthusiasm are way more important than any kind of training. 
Which is why I'm posting this on my blog. 
If you know of a kid in the Portland area who might be interested in getting a taste of acting, let me know. Send me a headshot or a picture, along with stuff it might help to know about him: how old he is, whether he has any acting experience, how long of an attention span he has, his height, weight, and hair color. You can send it all to If you hit the spam filter, just try and convince it that you are indeed a real person. 
We're aiming to shoot on the 24th and yes, we'll have all sorts of things in place to make sure that the kids are not abused or distressed in any way. 

Can't say the same for the director.

Friday, August 6, 2010

How you buy often indicates how you make

Apizza Scholls –– truly magnificent
pizza in Portland, Oregon

The other day I was talking with a producer buddy of mine about pizza. He buys the cheapest pizza he can find. And he prides himself on using coupons to save even more. 
Another producer I know insists on going to the most expensive pizza place in town. It's good. But I'm not convinced it tastes the best.
As for me, I like pizza. A lot. I lived in New York and developed a taste for wood-oven pizza like what you get at John's. The pizza I like to get is in a place with formica tables, in a part of town surrounded by bars and tattoo parlors. I don't find the area particularly scary, but some people do.
What does this have to do with filmmaking? Well, it's interesting.
The cheap producer makes things the way he buys them. He's always looking for a way to save a buck, and doesn't see the point in spending money on a better camera, the really good dolly grip, or the brand-name cookies for the craft services table.
The profligate producer is what we call a "star fucker." He hires the most famous people he can find and if nobody's more famous than anybody else, he'll go for the person with the highest rate. If there's an expensive piece of equipment out there, he'll not only find it, but figure out why he has to use it.
And then there's me. I'm looking for the unique. The expressive. The solution that helps me to evoke the feeling I want to create. If it's expensive, I'm happy to spend the money. But if it's cheap, I'm even happier.
The interesting thing is that by and large, none of us has enough money –– ever –– to do a job "right." So you would think that the cheap producer would be at a distinct advantage. And sometimes he is.
But the star fucker producer isn't exactly starving. Because he speaks with such conviction about the stuff he thinks has value, he's often hired to pull off a job where a mediocre piece needs something to make it work better.
As for me, I feel fortunate in that my taste is distinctive, but not necessarily expensive. Sure, I need certain equipment to achieve the look I want, but I know enough about every job on the set that I don't need to rely on somebody with some mystery talent I don't understand to deliver it.
Who's going to do the best, ultimately? Who knows?
You might think it's the cheap producer because he's always the least expensive option. But the quality of the stuff he creates tends to be minimal.
You might think it's the guy like me because I'm generally somewhere in the middle, yet the pieces I deliver are consistently distinctive and extremely high quality.
Frankly, I think it's the star fucker. Because most people –– in any profession –– are insecure. They prefer to hire and trust the person with the aura of authority.
I should probably rethink my approach.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Old Spice guy, part II

Did you realize that the Old Spice guy is African American? 

I did. But only recently. 

This is relevant. First of all, because I'm old. And second because I grew up in the South. So I'm keenly aware of the prejudices I've worked so hard to overcome. Or at least I used to be. The fact is, the man's race wouldn't have even occurred to me except that I overheard someone describing his dark skin the other day –– and not in any disparaging way.

And even though I'm speaking for myself, I think it's pretty clear from the chatter that this campaign has generated that I'm speaking for the vast majority of people who have seen it. There is no uproar. Sure, there's controversy. Anything this popular is bound to have its share of detractors. But when I was coming up, the negative comments would have had more to do with the man's race than the advertising's message.

Ten years ago, a campaign like 'The Man Your Man Could Smell Like' would have been considered audacious had it starred an African American. Twenty-five years ago, casting like that would have been inconceivable. 

Today –– and I know this because I've spoken to some of the people who work at Wieden + Kennedy –– Isaiah Mustafa got the part not because he was black and not in spite of the fact that he was black, but because he was the right person for the role. Period.

I'm not an idiot. I know we still have a lot of racial stuff to work out in this country.

But we've come a long, long way. 

Friday, July 30, 2010

Aw, Mom! Squid again?

After having spent the last three days in Galicia, I can tell you with absolute confidence that the people there aren't like you or me.

We ate squid at every meal. Until the last lunch before we hit the road, when we had pizza. Pizza with tuna.

Seems to me, if people in another part of the world have totally different tastes in what they eat, they might have similarly different tastes in what they watch.

I know, check me out. I said similarly different. 

Sunday, July 25, 2010

How to write better than I do.

I just finished the first leg of my epic flight to Portugal and even though I got off to an inauspicious start, what with my flight being delayed for ten hours, so far things have actually been quite good. Mostly because I used the little extra time I had to find a good book and discovered a writer who creates the kind of imagery I wish I could.

The book is 'Pipsqueak' by Brian M. Wiprud. 

Here's a sentence from page 82, describing a room: "There was enough headroom to bone up on your model rocketry, though they'd opted to use the extra space to keep the velvet industry solvent via curtains billowing down from the apex to the floor."

Do you see what he did there? Not simile. Not metaphor. Description. Description with personality and a sense of humor. 

For that sentence alone, Brian M. Wiprud gets to hang out with Michael Chabon –– whose books are full of stuff like that –– preferably in my back yard, with me pouring wine and listening and I mean that as an open invitation to the both of them. 

Any time, guys. I'll be back from Portugal on the 2nd. 

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Why most advertising sucks. (Part 4)

One of the greatest tragedies of the advertising business is that there's very little training. People with raw talent are generally indulged, exploited, and eventually promoted into positions of managing the next round of talented people, with no consideration given to how they'll lead. 
I know. I was one of them.
Some of the guys I came up with are now running the creative departments of the largest and most powerful ad agencies in the world, and I guarantee you that it's not because a single one of them had management training. Whatever any of these people know about leadership, it's what they learned from books or developed on their own. 
Some of them –– and I speak from experience –– didn't think it was important to read any management books or develop management skills.
As a result, lots of ad agencies are populated top to bottom by people who might be brilliant at coming up with ads, but crappy at bringing along people, developing others' ideas, or interacting with clients or others in the agency. Not all of them, mind you. Just way too many of them.

It's a shame, really, because good ideas –– like talented people –– don't spring fully formed into the world. They need to be, well, managed. 

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Old Spice guy reminds me of an elderly, female comedienne


Back when I used to do stand up comedy, one of the things I learned that was really effective was what's called a topper. That's when you follow up a strong punch line with another thought that's related and funnier.
Are you familiar with Mrs. Hughes? She's a stand up comedian –– a really good one –– who happens to be a grandmother. She has a joke that goes something like this: “People ask me all the time what's the secret to a long, happy marriage. Well, I can tell you the secret to a long one.”
(That's the punch line.)
“It's children.”
(That's the topper.)
She follows this formula over and over throughout her act and it's what makes her so damn funny.
Which brings me to 'The Man Your Man Could Smell Like'.
As I've mentioned before, the initial spot was brilliant. With its unconventional structure, dead-perfect delivery, and beautifully choreographed effects, it was the advertising equivalent of a really great joke. And kudos to Wieden + Kennedy, they came up with a topper that makes it even better.
The topper uses Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, where people can send messages to the Old Spice guy, hundreds of which are "replied to" in individual "spots".
It's not only a brilliant extension of an advertising campaign into social media, but it also happens to be perfectly consistent with the brand personality the ad agency established.
And up to this point, I'm not saying anything that thousands of reporters and bloggers haven't already said. There is an important conclusion to be drawn, though, that most of the rabid fans of social media seem not to have noticed: The phenomenon was created using conventional broadcast advertising and the role of social media was to extend it.
Could 'The Man Your Man Could Smell Like' have been created using anything other than broadcast advertising? No. And that's important.
Advertising isn't going away. Social media isn't going away, either. And while the two camps often like to cast this as a war between two competing paradigms, the reality –– proved by Wieden + Kennedy, is that they are actually two parts to the same, emerging paradigm.
What Wieden + Kennedy did with this campaign was execute in both realms flawlessly. For that, they have my vote as Company Most Likely To Move Marketing Communications Into The Future.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A story about a fish. Let it be a lesson to you.

A couple of years ago my parents, like a lot of elderly people, suddenly took to cruises. And in order to share their new-found love, they insisted that my wife and I join them on one.

My wife and I, just so you know, are more accustomed to kayaking the headwaters of the Amazon than standing in line at the floating buffet, so when we got an opportunity to take part in one of the "activities", we jumped.

We went snorkeling.

It's not that I'm bragging, but I've done my share of SCUBA diving. So the buoys they put up to mark the edge of the 12-foot-deep "safe zone" didn't keep us in. Before you knew it, we were free diving out past the jetty.

It must have been about 35 feet deep, but I have pretty good lungs so I had no trouble making it to the bottom and spending some time there. And that's where I saw the fish.

The fish was huge. About six and a half feet long, just hanging out above a depression in the sand. And he was beautiful.

So beautiful that I couldn't help but swim up at him, taunting him with silly "fishy fishy fishy!" grippy motions I made with my fingers as I came at him.

After the second time, I made my wife come down and take a look.

And this, among other reasons, is why I love my wife. She came. And not just as an observer, either. She came at the fish as enthusiastically as I did. Both of us coming at him broadside, our arms out in front of us, crunching up our little fingers over and over like we were aiming to tickle a two-year-old.

When we got about five feet of Mr. Fish, I had a sudden realization. I recognized him. I'd seen his kin, although they'd never been quite that monstrous.


I gasped, grabbed my wife by the hand –– being sure to cover the engagement ring that –– even at that depth –– sparkled in a way that only a really expensive, flawless, colorless, perfect cut diamond could, and hauled her to the surface.

The barracuda never moved.

It could have. It could have taken off my wife's hand in an instant. It could have reamed me for having dared to enter its world. I think it was stunned by our –– my –– utter, complete ignorance of its power.

You're probably wondering what my point is. Well, I'll tell you.

This is my story. It's typical of the stories I tell, which often involve my doing something completely boneheaded but somehow managing to survive, whether it's hunting for an ATM in the slums of Buenos Aires or hiking up Half Dome with nothing more than a biscuit and a camera or climbing over the 20-foot fence at the Italian embassy in Tel Aviv to play tennis on their court.

We all have our stories. My father's stories all come down to how clever he is. My wife's stories are all about how people turn out to be surprisingly good.

I can't tell my wife's stories –– at least not with the authenticity that she can. And I don't want to tell my father's stories because I'd feel like an asshole for trying.

And here comes the part where this is relevant to film: You tell the stories you tell because they have meaning for you. And film is nothing more than pre-planned, structured, extraordinarily expensive storytelling.

What has meaning for me is the intersection of naive belief and responsibility. And if you look closely, everything I do –– every screenplay I write, every film I shoot, every story I tell –– is about that. Even my little tale about my exploits with the fish.

You don't need a dozen film credits to find out what turns you on, story wise. Think of your stories, the ones you tell the girl you're hoping to sleep with, the boss you want to let you off the hook for being late.

I'll bet that once you think of a half-dozen, you'll see a pattern.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Genius or stupidity? It might be both.

There's a rumor swirling around the blogosphere regarding a front-page story in The New York Times on June 9th about Chevy. I mean, Chevrolet.

Apparently, a memo was issued that week urging employees –– the ones that are left –– no longer to refer to their employer as Chevy. “We’d ask that whether you’re talking to a dealer, reviewing dealer advertising, or speaking with friends and family, that you communicate our brand as Chevrolet moving forward,” said the memo, which was signed by Alan Batey, vice president for Chevrolet sales and service, and Jim Campbell, the G.M. division’s vice president for marketing. (This is a quote from the article in The New York Times.)

The buzz in the ad world was that the "news" story was actually a crafty bit of PR, managed by Chevrolet's ad agency, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.

I know what you're thinking. You're wondering what a memo about a car company reported in The New York Times has to do with a blog about filmmaking. It connects, trust me, but just barely. 

But first, this.

Let's say Goodby managed to pull off a stunt like this. They're an amazing ad agency. It's not outside the realm of possibility.

If they did, they also managed to simultaneously blow a massive opportunity and take down a bastion of objective journalism.

Let's take those one at a time.

If you're going to get a story on the front page of The New York Times, is the "news" you want to communicate that you want people to stop calling you by your nickname? Or to put it a different way, isn't there anything more substantial you want people to know?

A brand is different from a name. The Gap is –– when you think about it –– an admission that something's missing. Frigidaire makes ovens. And Toyota has a truck named after Tacoma. So what? Would those brands do any better if they were called something else? (No.)

The name Apple has absolutely nothing to do with clean design, and if you're selling a line of upscale, urban, metrosexual clothing, you'd have a hard time coming up with a worse name than Banana Republic.

Besides which, it's not as if people don't know that Chevrolet and Chevy are two names for the same thing. The cars all say Chevrolet on them. And people still buy them, even when they call them Chevys.

So, yeah, it's the kind of thing Goodby might think of, but they'd be stupid to squander the opportunity on something as mundane as this.

As for The New York Times' sterling reputation as a bastion of objective journalism, sure, an article about a memo requesting employees to call a company by its name is questionable material for the front page of such an august periodical. But a single editorial decision is forgivable. The damage that would be done if it ever became known that such a placement could be bought is irreparable. Is that a risk The New York Times would seriously consider taking? 

I doubt it. 

I mean, do the math. How many subscribers would you lose –– and how many advertisers would maintain the conceit –– if something like that were to become known? And how likely is it not to become known? A story like that screams PULITZER! I guarantee you, every single ambitious investigative reporter in the English-speaking world fantasizes about getting the scoop on the mother ship.

I may be wrong, but I say let's just chalk this up to a lapse in editorial judgement and move on. 

And now to the part where all this has to do with filmmaking.

Your reputation is based upon not just one thing, but upon your body of work. Goodby, Silverstein & Partners has earned a reputation for breakthrough advertising not for doing one ad or even one campaign, but for years and years of consistently creating breakthrough advertising. The New York Times has earned a reputation for objective journalism not for breaking one story, but for years and years of breaking stories. 

A single piece can't create your reputation. But a single act can destroy it. Remember that before you consider taking an offer to shoot 'Rambo XIV'.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Here I go again, picking on poor Wieden + Kennedy.

I feel like I need to start this post by backpedaling. Wieden + Kennedy is one of the greatest ad agencies in the history of advertising. They've done incredible work over years –– some of the most persuasive, iconic, spectacular advertising that truly moved the marketing communication business forward.

And no, I'm not just talking about the "old" Wieden + Kennedy. Last year's  Old Spice work is nothing short of spectacular. Their 'The Man Your Man Could Smell Like' spot defies conventional advertising's narrative structure and continues the brand's wry, post-modern take on both male sexual identity and advertising itself. The Target work has been extraordinarily well-targeted and beautifully executed.

But enough preamble. I'm here to take the unpopular position on probably the biggest piece the agency has produced this year: Nike's 'Write the Future' epic for the World Cup.

I hate it.

More than I hate their most recent Jeep commercial, which I blogged about on June 11th. And more than I hate the Dodge spot where George Washington rides into battle in a Dodge, which I didn't blog about, but railed against privately to anybody who would listen.

Sure, 'Write the Future' is beautiful. As a piece of film, it's an achievement on par with 'Lawrence of Arabia'. And even as advertising, it's powerful. But it's utterly, completely, absolutely the wrong message for Nike.

Remember when Nike came up with the line 'Just Do It.'? Probably not. That was back in 1988. That line crystalized a brand positioning that catapulted Nike to what it is today: A company that stands for individual achievement, pursuit of athleticism as its own reward, and disregard for convention. The brand positioning allowed them to execute a range of incredible work, some of it so powerful and iconic that many sub-campaigns could have stood on their own better than 99% of the stuff most agencies were doing. 'There is no finish line' and 'Either you ran today or you didn't' are two extraordinary examples.

Until now.

'Write the Future,' if you haven't seen it, presents a simple message: You're either famous and rich or you're a failure. And that's so exactly, completely counter to everything Nike represents that I cringe every time I see it. Frankly, Nike would have accomplished more for its brand if they'd run the exact same spot and put the Adidas logo at the end.

(I know, I know. Nike is responsible for the very celebrity its athletes purport to eschew. The premise, however, has always been that the fame seeks the athlete, not the other way around.)

Is this the demise of Nike? I doubt it. Too many smart people, on both the client and agency side, will realize that the piece, while magnificent, ultimately sabotages the fundamental message of Nike. I feel like the lone smart ass for pointing this out now, but I feel so strongly about it that I'm willing to commit, publicly, to the position that both Wieden + Kennedy and Nike will ultimately consider the piece a mistake.

That, or Wieden + Kennedy isn't as good as it used to be. Based on some of the other work coming out of there, that's a possibility I refuse to entertain.

Friday, June 18, 2010

See? Somebody else thinks I'm pretty swell (not you, Mom).

Brian BelefantIf you're not familiar with, now would be a great time to check it out.
Why? Well, they're the go-to resource for a ton of really talented photographers I'm honored to be among. But more important, they wrote a nice article about me.
Please check it out. The article. You can get to it via this link.
When you're done reading all about my exploits, take a couple of minutes to peruse the rest of the PDN site. You might find some inspiration. I always do.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

When is a boondoggle not a boondoggle?

A lot of people in the advertising business think of a boondoggle the way the Supreme Court thinks of porn –– they can't define it, but they know it when they see it.

I don't think it's that hard to draw the line.

It all comes down to responsibility. If you're doing something you honestly intend to help your client, you're not engaging in boondogglery. If you're doing something for your own personal gratification at the expense of your client, you are.

Take me, for example. I like to travel. So I'm extremely open to finding alternative destinations we can use to produce work for clients. Most of the time, the solutions I find are actually less expensive than the conventional solutions. So if I take a job to Spain and save a client $60,000 over shooting in LA (as I've done), that hardly counts as a boondoggle.

If shooting in Spain costs exactly the same as shooting in LA, money has nothing to do with the decision. If I want to go to Spain and the commercial wouldn't suffer from having been shot there, fine. That doesn't count as a boondoggle, either. As long as the end result is the same.

Where it becomes a judgement call is when shooting in Spain costs more than shooting in LA. And the answer is simple: Do you get more value from shooting there? Not just the "what shows up in the frame" added value, but also the other intangible stuff. Working with a talent pool that isn't overexposed, trying out a new crew, getting to sample the local cuisine. The reality is that for all the positives about shooting elsewhere, there are negatives as well, which I listed pretty extensively in my post on February 26th. I speak Spanish, but I speak English better. So while I can work with a crew in Spain, I'm working harder in order to do so.

On balance, if the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, and I mean mostly to the client because that's who your responsibility is to, then it's not a boondoggle. But if it's a way to make a client pay for a bonus you want to give an employee who's done a really good job this year, it is.

The bottom line is that work is work and vacation is vacation. You can love your work. In fact, you should love your work. But it's still work.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hope and the magic lottery.

As much as I want you to read my blog, there's someone else's you might consider reading.


It's Seth Godin, who is not only a lot more famous than I am, but a lot more prolific with his blogs.

He generally writes about marketing and technology, not filmmaking, but once in a while he posts something that is absolutely, perfectly relevant to you, Aspiring Filmmaker. Like this gem.

Read it, enjoy it, then come back.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The things we make, make us. What do you make of that?

Back before you were born, this was a different country. For a lot of reasons, but most relevant to this particular blog because people were defined by what they created. A butcher was a butcher. A mechanic was a mechanic.

Thanks to advertising, over the past 50 or 60 years that began to change. And today, people are no longer defined by what they make, but rather by what they consume. A butcher can be an Apple person. A mechanic can be a Nike person.

The marketing of four-wheel-drive vehicles is really emblematic of this phenomenon. Most advertise their ruggedness and durability, yet in spite of the skid plates, brush guards, and other accoutrements, by some estimates fewer than 5% ever actually leave the pavement at all. Except for the occasional shower they might have to endure as they cruise along the freeway, most spend their entire lives either coddled in the garage or shuttling along well-maintained roads from the covered parking at the grocery store to the parking structure at the office.

And yet, Range Rover drivers sneer at Ford Explorer drivers as somehow unworthy, who in turn sneer at people driving sedans.

So it's interesting that Jeep's new campaign is based on the line, "The things we make, make us."

You could argue that the "we" is ambiguous enough to refer to Jeep and not consumers, but the first spot in the campaign refutes that. The spot talks about Americans as craftsmen. All of us.

The spot is meant to be an anthem. To instill a renewed pride in American craftsmanship, with Jeep leading the charge. I can't tell you whether the advertising is going to work, but if it does it will mark an interesting development in the deepening of American consumerism. Because implicit in the advertising is a question: What do you actually make?

Middle managers, soccer moms, and salespeople are being told that they should buy a Jeep because, like them, the people who make it make things well. Upon even the most cursory self-reflection, those very consumers should realize that even if they believe that the people who make Jeeps can identify themselves as such (a specious claim if there ever was one), the vast majority of people who buy Jeeps cannot.

"Nice conference report, Bob. I can see you crafted it with pride," says one Jeep owner to another?

So for most people, buying a Jeep now means aligning yourself with what you are not. It's crossing the line from aspiration to appreciation, affiliation to fandom.

It's an interesting flag for Jeep to plant. My own hope is that it will fail. My fear is that it will succeed.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I don't get it.

My three-year-old daughter has been extraordinarily good lately, so my wife and I told her she could choose a treat. She dedided she wanted to see a movie in a theater. She wanted to see 'The Green Man' ('Shrek 3').

I was hesitant. After all, isn't Shrek a little mature for a three-year-old?

The movie's rated PG, which didn't assuage my reluctance, but on the way to the theater, we passed by a McDonald's, where all the Happy Meals feature the lovable green ogre.

Well, there it is. Happy Meals are made for kids. I know that because I used to shoot tons of Happy Meals commercials. So what if they're increasingly marketing tie-ins with movies? My feeling was that having their imprimatur conferred legitimacy on the film as something genuinely for kids.

The film itself was pretty benign. My daughter got a little scared toward the end, but she didn't cry or scream or even avert her gaze, so I guess we did okay. But one thing about the film struck me as odd. 

The soundtrack.

The music –– almost all of it –– was from the 1970s. One of the songs was 'Top of the World'. The original version. The one sung by Karen Carpenter.

'Top of the World' was a Billboard #1 hit in 1973, which means if you remember that song at all, you're not just way too old to be eating Happy Meals, but your children are probably too old to be eating Happy Meals. 1973 was 37 years ago. The fact that I remember the song is anomalous. I was young when it came out, and super old when I started having kids. 

If you were 17 in 1973, you're 54 now. If Happy Meals are meant for kids 12 and under, you gave birth when you were between 42 and 54. So what gives?

The way I see it, there are four possible explanations.

1) 'Shrek 3' is meant to have a dual appeal, to kids and their parents, specifically older parents.
2) 'Shrek 3' is meant to have a dual appeal, to kids and their parents, and nobody bothered to figure out that most kids don't have parents that are more than 42 years older than they are.
3)  'Shrek 3' is designed to occupy a really narrow niche –– appealing to grandparents who take their grandkids to the movies.
4) Everybody making the critical creative decisions on 'Shrek 3' is an old guy –– between 54 and 70. And is completely oblivious to the fact that their musical tastes are antiquated.

I'm going to go with #4. But only because I know that it's possible. I've seen Hollywood egos up close and for every executive who tries to manufacture a product to appeal to a demographic, there's another executive who doesn't give a crap about demographics and does what he knows is best. 

When Mr. Demographic has the power, you end up with a rap song being played over the end credits of a film in which it would be otherwise utterly inappropriate in order to broaden the appeal of the soundtrack and presumably, the film. When Mr. Ego has the power, you end up with 37-year-old songs being used in films that are targeted at people who have little frame of reference to appreciate them.

But I could be wrong. There could be another explanation. 

Anybody got one?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Directing... cooking... the same rules apply.

I've spent a disproportionate amount of the past eight months shooting out of town, and living in hotels, I've had a disproportionate number of meals in restaurants. Some of them quite frou frou.

And you know what? I've learned something.

The fancier restaurants used lovely ingredients and prepared them well, but most of them did something that pretty much spoiled every dish. They tried too hard.

Usually that meant they added just one ingredient too many. The smoked salmon appetizer had both goat cheese and chutney. The sushi-grade hamachi was seared, then slathered in teriyaki sauce.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Brian, what does a restaurant meal have to do with film making?" Well, I'll tell you.

Strangely, a lot.

Directing, like cooking, is about honesty. And when you get too tricky with either, what you gain in style you lose in directness.

Obviously, I'm not advocating bringing out a slab of meat (actor) on an unadorned plate (set), and leaving it up to the restaurant patron (viewer) to appreciate it in all its raw glory. What I am advocating is finding the best ingredients possible and combining them in ways that they work with each other –– ways that they emphasize each other's strengths without masking what makes each of them unique.

Take that a step further. You need a good recipe (script) and the equipment to prepare the meal (crew, equipment). And when all is said and done, the presentation should look appetizing (mise en scene, lighting) without creating expectations counter to what the meal can deliver. And each course (act) needs to work with the others, so that there's a satisfying flow from the appetizers (opening credits) to the dessert (denoument).

Or, to put it another way, if you have Meryl Streep performing Shakespeare, you probably don't need to shoot it underwater.