Wednesday, July 18, 2018
  • Monday, Mar. 27, 2017
Spring 2017 Director's Profile: Derek Cianfrance
Derek Cianfrance
Commerce becomes art

What started out as a livelihood has become a lively art for Derek Cianfrance as underscored by his recent DGA Award win for Outstanding Achievement in Commercials.

Cianfrance, who’s with RadicalMedia, earned the Directors Guild honor on the strength of four entries: Nike Golf’s "Chase"; Powerade’s "Doubts" and "Expectations"; and Squarespace’s "Manifesto." The Nike and Powerade commercials were conceived by Wieden+Kennedy, Portland, Ore., while the Squarespace piece was out of Anomaly New York.

Cianfrance topped a field of commercial director nominees which also consisted of Lance Acord of Park Pictures, Dante Ariola of MJZ, Fredrik Bond of MJZ, and AG Rojas of Park Pictures.

"You have to maintain a sense of perspective about an award like this," observed Cianfrance. "At the end of the day there are a lot of people out there who make great work. The directors nominated this year are great artists and craftsmen. Their work is so well made. It’s tough to say one person’s work was or is the best. I don’t really subscribe to that as a film watcher or someone who enjoys art. Art isn’t sports. There is no clear-cut winner. You’re trying to execute concepts in the clearest ways for different brands. There are plenty of directors who do this masterfully and weren’t even nominated. Something you just get lucky to be recognized."

Cianfrance definitely feels fortunate in other respects that go beyond awards. "I’m lucky in recent years to be getting great concepts, to have my filmmaking process take hold in commercials, and to have my feelings evolve about the art of commercialmaking."

On the latter score, Cianfrance recalled years ago having to break open a piggy bank to get change to buy diapers for his then baby son. He had been struggling as a filmmaker, focusing on a feature project. Yet sobered by the prospect of being responsible for supporting a young family, he became more practical. "I took a job doing a commercial for a mortgage company or something. When I got to the set, I felt so rusty. And it all came from the nostalgic idea of keeping myself ‘pure.’ By being ‘pure,’ I wasn’t being as active as I should have been. I realized I had to get to the gym so to speak and start working out, start exploring, getting in shape to make film—whether a commercial or a feature. I learned all over again how to work with actors and crews. I amassed so many hours on set. At the same time when I got to make my feature [Blue Valentine], it was the living I made in commercials that saved me. I remember getting a call that we were $75,000 over budget on Blue Valentine and if we didn’t find a way to get that money by the next morning we wouldn’t be able to continue. My director’s fee on Blue Valentine was $75,000. The fact that I was doing commercials meant I could sacrifice my fee. I put my fee back into the movie. I still paid taxes on that fee so in essence I paid to make Blue Valentine."

But that proved to be a more than worthwhile investment. Blue Valentine went on to earn an Oscar nomination—Best Lead Actress for Michelle Williams—as well as Golden Camera and Un Certain Regard Award nominations at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, a Gotham Award best feature nomination, an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Williams’ performance, and a Dramatic Grand Jury Prize nomination at the Sundance Film Festival. Cianfrance has gone on to direct such features as The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) and last year’s release, The Light Between Oceans.

As his journey back and forth between commercials and features continued, Cianfrance started to see that both filmmaking disciplines could be truly artistic as his process for spots and longform became more akin to one another. He had a taste of that early on years back with his work on the breakthrough Battleground branded content series for Nike and Wieden+Kennedy. But he got a needed reminder of that fact with the lauded Dick’s Sporting Goods commercial he directed for Anomaly NY in 2013. "Every Pitch" took us inside a baseball game. A batter swings through a pitch and then the camera sweeps around behind the catcher and begins to go from player to player in the field, all of whom are making game chatter, offering motivation and strategic cues (like who’s covering second base in case the runner tries to steal) to their teammates. It’s a great study of the intricacies and beauty of the game as played by young athletes, not brand spokesman superstars.

Cianfrance recalled telling agency creatives that he knew little about baseball but that he loved the concept and saw it as being cut from the same cloth as a Western. "Every Pitch" was shot (by Peter Demin who won an AICP Show Cinematography honor for the :60) in one take with zooms, capturing inner workings of the game that lurk underneath what we see on TV. "We were able to pull the truth out about the inner game of baseball," said Cianfrance, crediting Anomaly creatives Taylor Twist and Mike Warzin with taking a leap of faith, opting for a director who wasn’t a baseball aficionado but who could bring his filmmaking process to get to the heart of a story. "I saw that my feature filmmaking process could be applied to commercials, to capture the truth of a story whatever it might be," noted Cianfrance. "That’s when I started to attract concepts that aspired to be more and I’ve been on my way ever since."

His DGA-winning commercials are in line with that, bringing an empathy which has resonated with audiences, a prime example being Powerade’s "Power Through" campaign, particularly the "Expectations" spot which includes a female football player who excels despite a nay-saying coach. Cianfrance cast real athletes for the campaign—in this particular case, a female defensive lineman for the New York Sharks, a team in the Independent Women’s Football League.

The director observed, "We all have felt moments of rejection and doubt. The Wieden+Kennedy creatives allowed us all to delve into those feelings, casting kids who had been athletes themselves. And the coach is not necessarily a bad guy all the time—imagine being someone who deals with all these kids dreaming to be something that most of them aren’t going to be. There are different sides here and the work enables us to explore people, their aspirations, how they interact. It’s the same sort of exploration I do in my movies, spending time with people, working with actors. I feel lucky and blessed to have been getting these opportunities in the commercial world. I love working with people, and commercials have given me the chance to delve into and to understand behavior, and to work with great creatives and artists as we explore all this together. We were able to make the Powerade work as pure and raw as possible—and you can only do that if you have an agency and client who are committed to going for it."