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Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Tips o' the Week
(photo by David Riley)
There’s an excellent interview on KCRW's “The Business” podcast page with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, co-directors of “Ruby Sparks,” their first feature since “Little Miss Sunshine.” I liked “Little Miss Sunshine” a lot, and will certainly add “Ruby Sparks” to my Netflix queue, but one of the many intriguing things about the interview was learning that in addition to making quirky, successful, non-comic book features, Dayton and Faris have enjoyed a very successful career directing television commercials.
Yes, commercials, those incredibly irritating interruptions in programming that fueled the popularity of the VCR back in the Analog 80’s, and now propel sales of DVR devices like TIVO, which allow viewers to watch TV without being abused by relentless appeals to buy this erectile-enhancement drug, that feminine hygiene product, or the myriad exhortations to guzzle bottle after bottle of beer and thereby live a full, rich, sexually satisfied life.
There’s lots of cross-pollination within Hollywood below-the-line, where most veterans have resumes including feature films, a wide variety of television shows, TV commercials, and the always-odious music videos. Although many directors start out in commercials before moving to features, few manage to keep one foot firmly planted in each arena --and at that, Dayton and Faris have been notably successful.** Indeed, their ability to create quality commercials provides them sufficient income to maintain their household (which includes children) while immersed in the long, all-consuming endeavor of producing and directing a feature film.
I spent nearly twenty years doing commercials -- some of which were clever, many routine, and a few real stinkers -- and the experience led me to appreciate those few really good ones. A commercial is just a very short film that must effectively communicate a very specific idea and/or emotion over the course of thirty or sixty seconds – and if you think that’s easy, you probably haven’t tried it. When well written and produced, a good commercial can be a real pleasure to watch.*
To my mind, a good example is this spot Dayton and Faris did for Volkswagen a few years back, which melds the ethereal music of Nick Drake with gorgeous visuals to communicate the heady joys of youth bordering on adulthood: four kids driving in a car at night under a full moon, experiencing the magic of a moment and trying to hold on to it. That they’re almost certainly doomed to fail doesn’t matter. We know damned well (but are unwilling to admit) that sooner or later the car will run out of gas, those kids will get hungry, one of them will fart in the back seat and another will have to pee. That golden moon will go down, the wonderful song will end, and the spell will be broken as the cold, solitary darkness of reality closes in...
But none of that matters in the fantasy world of commercials, where the real world is never allowed to spoil the moment -- and what a moment that commercial manages to capture. When I watch that spot, the weight of 40+ years lifts from my shoulders and I feel young again as the deep longings and uncertain hopes of youth flood back... and suddenly I’m in that car with those kids -- I am one of them -- driving under a fat yellow moon as Nick Drake croons into the night. Like them, I too want to keep motoring forever into that dark blue magical night.
That's the power of film, and why we love it.
This spot doesn't particularly make me want to buy a Volkswagen, but that's beside the point. Like truly good poetry, a raucous blues guitar riff, or a well-executed triple-flip with two twists in full pike position (from the three meter board), the look and feel of this commercial pierces the heart of an emotional sweet-spot. Such distilled perfection doesn’t come easy, though, which is why I’m so impressed with the team of Dayton and Faris, who seem to do everything behind the camera very well indeed.
On a different note – and representing yet another form of cinematic near-perfection – comes a fascinating interview with Dean Norris, who plays “Hank,” the DEA brother-in-law of Walter White on AMC’s white-knuckle drama “Breaking Bad.” If you’re a fan of that show, you’ll want to carve out forty-five minutes or so to listen. It’s a good one.
Those are your Tips ‘o the Week. Check ‘em out...
* Whatever you think of Apple -- and I'm agnostic on that one -- you have to admit this spot (directed by Ridley Scott) is pretty fucking great.
** Ridley's younger brother Tony Scott remained active directing commercials even as he forged a very successful career producing and directing features. I've heard nothing but good things about the man in the wake of his shocking suicide, which rocked the film world in a big way. RIP, Tony...