- Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017
Scott Corbett first came to SHOOT’s attention in 2006. After first establishing himself as a freelance copywriter with tours of duty at shops such as TBWA\Chiat\Day and David&Goliath, Los Angeles, Corbett made a successful transition to directing, spurred on in part by inspired spec work for Altoids and the Outdoor Life Network. On the strength of these efforts, including Altoids’ “Jockey,” Corbett earned inclusion into SHOOT’s 2006 New Directors Showcase. “Jockey” introduces us to a man whose 12-foot tongue is tied to a wooden horse that’s been mounted by a jockey. To the vocal strains of Edith Piaf, the jockey unashamedly whips the man’s tongue while riding the inanimate horse. The dark, offbeat comedy spot demonstrates how curiously strong those Altoids mints actually are.
Fast forward to day and Corbett, now on the Station Film roster, has a diverse body of work as a commercial director, including a Cannes Silver Lion-winning Pizza Pops campaign out of Canadian agency Cossette Communications. Recently he’s helmed campaigns for Pier 1 out of The Richards Group, McDonald’s for Moroch, and Gain from Leo Burnett. Earlier his viral Nike short Barbershop starring footballer Mario Balotelli led to work with other sports celebs including NBA star James Harden and two-time Masters golfing champion Bubba Watson.
Station Film has also supported work beyond the ad arena for Corbett, producing Good Night Butterfly. Written and directed by Corbett, the short recently premiered at the Asian American International Film Festival in New York City. Corbett is no stranger to short film fare. His first directorial effort back in the day, the comedy short Small Emergencies, played the fest circuit and won a merit award at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Good Night Butterfly is a contemplative period piece about loss and longing in the troubled, destabilizing year of 1965. After her father is killed during the Watts riots, a young Chinese woman moves in with the Jewish family who owned the store where he had worked.
“When I started writing this story, what interested me was the way people relate to one another after experiencing loss. That kind of connection--the recognition of someone else’s pain on an unspoken level--is more profound to me than the fickle, often superficial nature of romantic love,” said Corbett. “The film is ultimately about the bittersweet memory of something lost. The idea was for the story to feel like it’s being remembered, made up of moments that time has heightened or discolored or erased.”
The crew behind Good Night Butterfly included DP Jeff Venditti, editor Bob Mori, two-time Emmy-winning composer Stephen Thomas Cavit, and colorist Alex Bickel. The film builds a striking world through immaculate attention to detail in all facets--from the cinematography and score to the costuming and set design. “From the beginning,” related Corbett, “I wanted to make a film that was an immersion in the ambiance of Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. Not as a documentary record, but as an elusive unobtainable creation of the mind.”
Meanwhile among Corbett’s latest commercialmaking endeavors is a comedy campaign for Würkin Stiffs out of Fallon New York. Spots center on what an unkempt shirt collar attracts--including vampires who can relate to the look. Another spot finds an office worker with shirt collar unintentionally spread finding himself immersed in a 1970s’ disco vibe. A fellow worker with his shirt collar neatly reined in provides an antidote--the Würkin Stiffs magnetic collar stays, a product that first appeared on the TV show Shark Tank.
SHOOT: Your short film Good Night Butterfly made its premiere at New York’s Asian American International film festival this summer. It is a window into a very volatile time in our history, circa 1965 Los Angeles. What attracted you to this era and what inspired the story?
Corbett: I found early on in my commercial directing career that I liked to mix up eras in my work to create something that felt slightly heightened. For some reason, I tend to gravitate to the color palettes of the ‘60s and ‘70s. I just like those colors a lot. I’m color obsessed. I think about it nonstop. How it affects mood and tone and emotions, whether it’s a :30 commercial or a 20-minute short film. That and wardrobe and art direction.
Good Night Butterfly came out of those obsessions really. I was shooting a McDonald’s campaign in a house in Ladera Heights [Calif.] that was literally frozen in time from 1963. It was like stepping into a time capsule. I fell in love with the place and kept imagining all the stories I could tell there. At the same time, I was binging on Wong Kar Wai and asking myself how I could bring the themes and moods he explores to an East meets West LA story. So I guess you could say it was inspired by a house. Haha
SHOOT: Your art direction, production design, costumes and styling for Good Night Butterfly help create a very authentic feel for the short. Talk a little about the research that went into this.
Corbett: We didn’t end up shooting in the house in Ladera Heights. It was no longer available. But we found a better one. The street it was on was freshly paved and the house and the neighborhood looked like they hadn’t really aged since they were built. It looked like a new neighborhood of that era versus a “vintage” house from that era. It’s a tiny distinction but one that I applied to everything, from the picture cars to wardrobe to production design. Everything needed to feel new versus “retro.”
It was shot in Northridge [Calif.] and the original formica kitchen countertops had been replaced with marble ones after the earthquake in 1993. We fitted those with formica countertops for authenticity. I also had the girl’s traditional Chinese dresses tailor made for her. Beyond that, it was just a matter of immersing myself in photographs, magazines and music from that era, as well as watching contemporary period pieces like “Mad Men” and A Serious Man. The art department was great and put in a lot of effort and care into packing the house with all those little details that add layers and sell the era.
SHOOT: The casting also lends to a very authentic feel for the short. Were these actors you’d worked with before? Talk a bit about the casting process.
Corbett: I had never worked with any of these actors before, and it was a pretty drawn-out process. Particularly for the boy and the girl. Finding a young Chinese woman for the lead role of Shu Yi in Los Angeles was challenging. I wanted someone who was born and raised in China, but who had recently come to the States like the character in the story. After seeing dozens of young actresses, we found a recent UCLA drama school grad who had come here to study from Guangzhou and who struck the perfect cultural balance--that of a traditional Chinese girl and that of someone trying to find their identity in a new country. For the boy, it was important for me to find someone who didn’t come out of Disney casting, which tended to be the majority of the kids I saw in LA.
SHOOT: Good Night Butterfly is a big departure tonally from a lot of your commercial work such as your new films with Fallon NY for Würkin Stiffs. What drew you to the Fallon campaign?
Corbett: I liked the scripts from the start. The characterizations and the comedy were well realized on the page. They were awkward, absurd and funny. More like my earlier commercial work with Altoids and Pizza Pops. Like those, a lot of care went into making sure the absurdity was grounded in reality and played with restraint so the humor played more dry and ironic than comedic.
SHOOT: Do you prefer working in comedy or drama?
Corbett: With commercials, you typically have :30 to :60 to set it up and pay it off. So it’s perfect for comedy, whereas with film you have more time to explore characters and moods and emotions, which appeals to me as a storyteller. Commercially, I tend to like humor grounded in a filmic aesthetic. So I try to bring that to my commercial work when I can.
SHOOT: As a commercial director, what draws you to a project?
Corbett: Good writing. Scripts that are smart on the page but allow room for the director to bring something to it. I remember the first great scripts I received for a brand called Pizza Pops from Cossette Toronto. They were dark and charming and hilarious. The writing and concept were so strong I thought I had received them by mistake because I was just starting out as a director and barely had anything on my reel. I ended up getting the job and the campaign went on to win a Silver Lion at Cannes.
SHOOT: The advertising business has evolved considerably over recent years, and the lines between advertising and entertainment have blurred. How has this impacted your career?
Corbett: I think anything that allows a director to stretch their storytelling and filmmaking skills is a good thing. Being able to tell a story in :30 or even :15 requires discipline, but the looser time constructs of branded content and the internet are especially appealing to me because I like stories that take their time to set a mood and allow for character development.
SHOOT: What advice would you give to your young self in terms of pursuing a career as a director?
Corbett: I have a daughter who wants to be an animator, and I often send her a quote by James L. Brooks referring to Wes Anderson: “The possession of a real voice is always a marvel, an almost religious thing. When you have one, it not only means you see things from a slightly different perspective than the billions of other ants on the hill, but that you also necessarily possess such equally rare qualities as integrity and humility. It’s part of the package of being a real voice, ‘cause you can’t screw around. The voice must be served: all other exit doors, marked ‘expediency’ or ‘solid career move,’ are sealed over, and the only way out of your torment is genuine self-expression.”
If I could, I’d text that quote to my 14-year-old self.
SHOOT: What’s next?
Corbett: I recently wrote a feature script of Good Night Butterfly and have another script in mind that’s a little more fantastical that I’m eager to get started on. And of course I hope to work in commercials as long as they’ll let me. The media landscape is always changing and presents a lot of great opportunities from a branding and storytelling perspective.
Production for Trailer Station Film Scott Corbett, writer/director; Jeff Venditti, DP. Editorial Bob Mori, editor. Post Alex Bickel, colorist. Music Stephen Thomas Cavit, composer.
Client Würkin Stiffs Agency Fallon New York Charlie Wolff, creative director; Madeleine Trebenski, copywriter; Brittain McNeel, art director; Jimmy Wade, producer; Andrew Koningen, director of production. Production Station Film Scott Corbett, director; Caroline Gibney, exec producer/producer; Stephen Orent, managing partner; Kip Bogdhan, DP. Editorial/Postproduction Beast Merritt Duff, editor; Melissa Lubin, offline exec producer; Benjamin Algar, edit assistant; Scott Bravo, Flame. Color Company 3 Billy Gabor, colorist; Soraia Callison, exec producer. Music Production Rob Dennier. Audio Post Lime Studios Tom Paolantonio, mixer; Susie Boyajin, exec producer.