- Wednesday, Mar. 2, 2016
For audiences Peter Billingsley is perhaps best known for his work as an actor, most notably as Ralphie in the perennial holiday classic A Christmas Story (1983). But inside Hollywood he is better known as a principal in Wild West Productions, Los Angeles (in partnership with actor/producer Vince Vaughn), and as a director (the 2009 comedy Couples Retreat starring Vaughn and Jason Bateman) and producer (Iron Man, 2008; The Break-Up, 2006; Four Christmases, 2008, the Emmy-nominated series Dinner For Five and more). Billingsley’s exploits also include the TBS series Sullivan & Son, for which he directed six episodes over its three-season run.
In December, Billingsley added another bullet-point to his resume: commercial director on the roster of Committee LA, Los Angeles, a hybrid production company/creative content development studio founded in 2014 by directors Frank Samuel and Jeff Reed and executive producer Lauren Bayer.
Billingsley reflected on his career and the appeal of breaking into commercials and branded content as a director.
SHOOT: How did Wild West Productions first get started? What’s the backstory on your collaborative relationship with Vince Vaughn?
Billingsley: Vince and I have been friends for over 25 years. We first met when I was finishing my acting career and he was beginning his. I wanted to move behind the scenes, and I did that with a film called Made, which was directed by Jon Favreau following Swingers [which Favreau wrote], and starred Vince. I worked as a producer with Jon on a few more projects after that, including Iron Man and Dinner For Five, before starting Wild West in 2006 with Vince. Our first film was The Break-Up and we’ve been working together ever since.
SHOOT: What projects are you currently working on via Wild West?
Billingsley: We’re about to release a documentary called Prescription Thugs that we’re very proud of. We also just finished an episode of ESPN’s 30 For 30 doc series about the 1985 Chicago Bears team, airing around the Super Bowl; and Netflix released our animated series F Is For Family, which we developed with the comic Bill Burr. We also produced the sports interview show Undeniable With Joe Buck, which launched last fall on DirecTV’s Audience.
SHOOT: What attracts you as a director to branded content/commercials?
Billingsley: It’s all about storytelling for me, regardless of the format. I think the trick to creating effective ads and branded content comes down to storytelling, and that’s what I love doing. Selling a product in an entertaining way is a great filmmaking challenge and when it’s done well, it can be very rewarding.
SHOOT: Any directorial credits in advertising?
Billingsley: None yet, but I’ve been meeting with Frank, Jeff and Lauren reviewing a lot of opportunities and figuring out which best fit my style and schedule. I started acting in the 1970s and by the time I was 12 I performed in over 100 commercials, so it’s an area that I’m well versed in.
SHOOT: How have your experiences directing films and TV prepared you for ads?
Billingsley: As an executive producer/producer on many films, the marketing campaigns for them are something I’m always closely involved in. Few understand a film and how to talk about it effectively better than the filmmakers. Just like ads, film marketing is all about creating an impression in a very short time. How you sell a movie to an audience is very analogous to what brands and ad agencies do everyday. You have to cut through the noise with your message. It’s all about figuring out what you want to say and how best to express it--that’s the challenge, whether you’re selling “Iron Man” or Pepsi.
Also, feature filmmaking teaches you the art of collaboration. Nothing gets done in Hollywood by one-person, you need to work as a team, whether it’s collaborating with an agency’s creative team or with A-list actors, writers and DPs. You want to elevate and inspire each other. If you don’t how to collaborate, you’re not going to have much success in this business.
SHOOT: What do you see as your strengths as a director? Any specific advertising genre that you will want to focus on (i.e. comedy, lifestyle, dialogue, visual effects)?
Billingsley: I love working with actors, I’ve been lucky to work with some big name talent over the years, and I look forward to bringing that experience to advertising. There’s a common language among actors. Obviously, I’m strong with comedy, but I’m also comfortable with visual effects and animation heavy work too. Again, the challenge is always about the story, you have to get the story right first and foremost and that’s one of my strengths.
SHOOT: What drew you to Committee LA?
Billingsley: I’ve known Lauren and Frank for a long time and always been a fan of their work.
Frank is someone who over the years I’ve turned to for advice and assistance on numerous projects. When they launched Committee LA I knew wanted to be a part of it. Plus the business model of Committee appealed to me as well--they do a lot of things really well, which is essential for any creative company today.