- Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016
You never forget your first time. It’s a universal adage that also applies to earning a coveted Directors Guild of America (DGA) Award nomination. And first-timers were prevalent in this year’s field of DGA Award nominees, accounting for three of the five directors vying for Outstanding Achievement in Feature Film and four of the five in the Commercials category.
The feature directors breaking into the DGA circle of nominees are: Tom McCarthy for Spotlight (Open Road Films); Adam McKay for The Big Short (Paramount Pictures); and George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Bros.). Joining them are a pair of four-time nominees: Alejandro G. Iñárritu for The Revenant (Twentieth Century Fox), and Ridley Scott for The Martian (Twentieth Century Fox). Scott was previously nominated for Thelma and Louise in 1991, Gladiator in 2000 and Black Hawk Down in 2001. Iñárritu won the DGA Award in 2014 for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). He was also nominated for Babel in 2006. Iñárritu won the DGA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Commercials for P&G’s “Best Job” in 2012.
On the commercials front, the four first-timers this year are: Juan Cabral of MJZ for Ikea’s “Monkeys” out of Mother, London, and Lurpak’s “Freestyle” from Wieden+Kennedy, London; Miles Jay of Smuggler for ESPN/AT&T’s “It Can Wait” out of ESPN Creative Works; Andreas Nilsson of Biscuit Filmworks for the Comcast/Xfinity spot “Emily’s Oz” via Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, New York, GE’s “Time Upon A Once” for BBDO NY, and Old Spice’s “Dad Song” from Wieden+Kennedy, Portland, Ore.; and Steve Rogers, also of Biscuit, for Nike Golf’s “Ripple” and Nike’s “Snow Day,” both out of Wieden+Kennedy, Portland.
The remaining DGA spot finalist is Tom Kuntz of MJZ who has six career DGA noms. This time around, Kuntz is in the running for Old Spice’s “So It Begins” from Wieden+Kennedy, Portland, Heineken’s “The Chase” for Wieden in Amsterdam, and Clash of Clans’ “Revenge” out of Barton F. Graf, NY. He won the DGA Award in 2009.
SHOOT connected with Cabral, Jay, Nilsson and Rogers shortly after they were named DGA nominees. Rogers said of his first career nomination, “Being recognized by the DGA is important for any director, irrespective of what form you are working in. It’s a big deal. More than anything it validates the decisions you make each day, the choices you take, the things you leave in, leave out. It affirms that something you are doing is heading in the right direction whatever that may be. You don’t do it because of these things, but these things give you the confidence to go further and be able to make decisions with greater certainty—and certainty, or the illusion of it, is definitely reassuring.”
Regarding the biggest creative challenges posed to him by Nike Golf’s “Ripple,” which delves into the life of star golfer Rory McIlroy, and Nike’s “Snow Day” in which famed athletes and celebs have a play day, Rogers observed, “The thing about these two projects, irrespective of the fact that they are both for the same brand, was how different they were. ‘Ripple’ required a lot of research, of delving into the McIlroy history, of retracing the places and people and experiences that Rory had. We had access to his family and friends and the actual places where he grew up in Northern Ireland which certainly helped so that we didn’t have to cheat things. It was actually a wonderfully enjoyable experience in a great town with great people who all believed that it could be good. ‘Snow Day’ was a totally different beast, a behemoth that required me to put aside my aversion to shooting on stage. The difficulty with that particular piece was shooting an Eastern winter in L.A. in July. I also wanted it in camera, which resulted in us constructing an entire working class, suburban street over three stages. We needed to be ready to shoot in any direction at any time because of the availability of the athletes, which meant that we had to be ready, with every set, from the get go. Obviously the availability of athletes is an issue with this type of piece, and as much as we would have liked them available to us most of the time, the reality is that you end up with one or two athletes for very short periods of time so it became a very complicated, logistical exercise. Hopefully you don’t see the pain.”
Director Jay’s second job since joining Smuggler last year was a short film for ESPN and AT&T, “It Can Wait,” which tells the story of Fletcher Cleaves, a promising high school football player who shortly after being awarded an athletic scholarship to attend Lambuth University sustained serious injuries in an automobile accident which left him a paraplegic. Right before the tragic collision, it turns out the driver of the other vehicle was looking down at a text message on her cell phone.”
On the strength of a 90-second version of It Can Wait, a six-minute short, Jay landed his DGA nod. To do justice to Cleaves’ story—it’s now six years later and he is moving into his own apartment to lead an independent life—Jay blended elements of documentary and fiction, recreating the past and chronicling the present. Jay explained that he’s drawn to this hybrid approach. “I tend to shoot real-life stories in a cinematic way to get closer to the emotional core. I’m also interested in shooting fiction stuff that seems so real that it has a documentary feel.”
Jay noted that a key to telling Cleaves’ story was going initially with a misdirect. “We see this kid who is an underdog. We see him working so hard to better his life. At first it feels like a sports genre story about attaining a dream, in this case a college scholarship, through effort and perseverance. Then it’s all swiped from him in a brief moment. But we don’t center on that moment. A lot of these anti-texting while driving campaigns spend so much time on the crash. Things build toward the crash. What really means everything, though, is everything before and after the crash. That’s where you uncover the human story."
To be recognized by the DGA, your peers, for telling that story is both flattering and humbling, said Jay.
MJZ’s Cabral takes us to the kitchen in his two DGA entries. Lurpak’s “Freestyle” is a combination of food and music. “My treatment was Jimi Hendrix in the kitchen,” recalled Cabral. “I wanted to make this preparation of food in the kitchen like a live performance, a live music jam of food, getting into the heads of chefs, mixing colors, flavors, taste buds. My hope is that this spot makes you want to go and dance into the kitchen, even if it’s just to get some bread and butter, to throw flair into doing even that.”
“Monkeys” has those inquisitive mammals jamming in an Ikea kitchen placed in the middle of the wild. The monkeys explore the kitchen from top to bottom, and side to side, opening drawers, making a mess, trying to make cappuccino, “smiles all around,” said Cabral. The spot was a return engagement for the director on Ikea for agency Mother. The prior collaboration yielded “Beds,” a breathtaking spot that scored Gold at Cannes, among other awards. With the bar set high, Cabral was a bit wary about revisiting Ikea until he saw the brief. “Monkeys in a kitchen, discovering it—there wasn’t a lot more written than that. It appealed to me as different and fun, shot in a refuge [in Costa Rica] where they take care of monkeys and release them into nature on a daily basis.”
Cabral was surprised by the DGA nomination. He was in London when he got a phone call from MJZ president David Zander. “I thought it was a Happy New Year phone call,” recalled Cabral. “Then he told me it was the DGA Award and explained what it means. It’s very special, something I feel good about. I haven’t fully processed it yet but it kind of affirms that I’m okay at what I do and to keep on doing it.”
For Biscuit’s Nilsson, selecting the commercials to enter into the DGA competition involved “a simple method: send in the three spots that I liked the most and was creatively and technically most pleased with from last year.”
One of those entries, “Emily’s Oz” for Comcast/Xfinity, illustrates what a blind person sees in her head when she “watches” her favorite movie. The :60 brings to life The Wizard of Oz according to Emily, a seven-year-old girl who was born blind. We see her vision of what such iconic characters as the Tin Man looks like, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow and Dorothy herself. Featuring a voiceover by Robert Redford, the spot promotes Comcast/Xfinity’s accessibility services, including a talking guide created so that the visually impaired can independently search for and find movies.
Nilsson said of “Emily’s Oz,” “This is probably the most difficult job I’ve done because it didn’t play by the traditional rules in the creative process. It is a sincere collaboration with Emily and we didn’t move ahead with anything until we had her agreement on the direction we were taking. It was only possible with a client that was actually willing and brave enough to let this happen in the right way.”
Old Spice’s “Dad Song” has moms lamenting while dads rejoice via song about their sons coming of carnal age. Parents are spying on their kids, hidden in the background as their boys turned men court young ladies. One mother, for instance, is lodged under the ice of a skating rink as her son and his date skate over her. That scene posed a unique creative challenge for Nilsson who recalled, “I remember it was hard to get one of the moms into the frozen ice. We found the toughest lady in the Czech Republic to do it. She had a day job in a fish fridge and was the only one we found that could handle the cold. She said ice was her preferred element to live in and that she was considering opening an ice hotel in the small town of Sychrov after the shoot. It was also hard to get Czech actors who didn’t speak a word of English to lip synch to the song. Next time Old Spice should do a song in Czech and shoot it in LA with American actors.”
And Nilsson’s GE spot shows the virtues of looking at challenges from a different perspective—hence the title “Time Upon a Once.” This off-kilter POV, such as being upside down to view situations differently, has been embraced by GE to spur innovation, and is humorously depicted. Nilsson said of the piece, “It’s mostly all in-camera and we tried to make it as simple as possible. But when playing with wires like this, there is almost the human element that sometimes becomes tricky. It’s easier for actors to do their work when they are not hanging upside down. I guess that’s a rule that can be applied on any kind of profession.”
Regarding the DGA nomination, Nilsson shared, “For commercials there are a few awards that really make a difference and this is definitely one of them. This is an award that has a great history and one can look at the list of previous winners to see that just being nominated is something to be proud about.”
SHOOT earlier interviewed directors McCarthy and McKay about Spotlight and The Big Short, respectively, for our ongoing The Road To Oscar series of feature stories, prior to news of their DGA noms. (McCarthy also recently diversified into commercials with a Duracell job for ad agency Anomaly; he is handled by Park Pictures for spots and branded content.)
Several years ago when he was in the editing stages of his film Win Win, which he directed and co-wrote, McCarthy was approached by producers with the rights to the stories of The Boston Globe reporters whose Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation revealed cases of childhood molestation by some 90 local priests and the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of the abuse. “I was immediately drawn to the thumbnail version of the story,” recalled McCarthy. “An outsider comes to the Globe and picks up on a small story in the paper mentioning the Church’s possible complicity in certain crimes. He assigns a team of reporters to dig into the story. This circumstance of an outsider—who comes into the country’s most Irish Catholic city—sparking an investigation struck me as a great storytelling opportunity. The more I dug into the material, the more I saw this incredibly rich story of deep social relevance. I brought in writer Josh Singer to work with me on the screenplay and we dove in.”
Spotlight takes us through that process of investigative journalism—the good steps and the missteps—which for this story began in mid-2001 and extended through early 2002. The movie’s title refers to the four person Spotlight section investigative team at the Globe—editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and researcher Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James).
Beyond critical acclaim, Spotlight has elicited positive feedback from different circles. “Journalists across the country,” said McCarthy, “feel we’ve captured their world—and the importance of journalism to society at large...We’re also hearing from survivors and families of the victims who feel they were well represented by the film. They are the heart of this film. And the Catholic community has by and large embraced the movie. People are connecting to the movie for different reasons. We’re connecting with different people on different levels and what’s most exciting is that we’re unifying them through this story and the issues involved.”
Meanwhile McKay blended and unified comedy and drama to tell a true story that is humorous yet a travesty in The Big Short which is based on the book “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” authored by Michael Lewis. McKay also wrote the screenplay with Charles Randolph. Like the book, the movie introduces us to a small group of Wall Street outsiders who find themselves ahead of the investment curve when they bet against the booming, seemingly “can’t lose” housing market well prior to when the real estate bubble burst in the mid-2000s, triggering the global economic meltdown.
Some five years ago McKay read Lewis’ book and became fascinated with the inside story of the 2008 market crash. It’s a story that McKay aspired to tell in a movie yet on the surface he didn’t seem likely to make the shortlist to direct The Big Short. After all, McKay is best known for his comedy chops, most notably his ongoing collaborations with Will Ferrell. McKay was head writer on Saturday Night Live where he met longtime producing and writing partner Ferrell. The two went on to connect with Chris Henchy to launch the comedy website Funny or Die. Director/writer McKay and writer/actor Ferrell have also teamed on such feature films as Step Brothers, Talladega Nights, The Other Guys, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and Anchorman 2.
Yet McKay’s brand of humor, even at its silliest, often has political elements dating back to SNL and his work as a founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe. He has written for TV projects such as Michael Moore’s The Awful Truth. Still McKay acknowledged there had to a bit of a leap of faith for him to get The Big Short gig, He credited Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, particularly Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner who oversee the company’s development and production slate, with taking that mini-leap.
McKay shows his acumen for drama and character-based storytelling while injecting some of his signature humor into the story, on select occasions breaking through the fourth wall to reach the audience with inventive cameos that tap into celebs to explain financial matters which banks would prefer to keep complicated. For instance, McKay deploys chef/TV host Anthony Bourdain comparing leftover seafood to toxic financial assets. McKay recruited Bourdain for the scene after reading his memoir “Kitchen Confidential.” “He [Bourdain] tells readers that they should not order seafood stew because it’s where cooks put all the crap they couldn’t sell,” related McKay. “I thought ‘Oh my God that’s a perfect metaphor’ for a collateralized debt obligation, where the banks bundle a bunch of bad mortgages and sell it as a triple-A rated financial product.”
DGA feature nominees McKay, McCarthy, Miller and Iñárritu all also landed Best Director Oscar nominations. Scott did not as the remaining Academy Award nom went to Lenny Abrahamson for Room.
The DGA Award winners will be announced and honored during a gala ceremony on Saturday, February 6, in L.A.