I went to art school in Syracuse, and when I graduated I became an art director. Then I got converted into being a writer. Tom DeCerchio and I started an ad agency together called Buckley / DeCerchio. I was just out of school, and I think I was 24 at the time. And then Frank Todaro joined us. Hank Perlman, who later became my partner at Hungry Man, was a creative at our agency as well.
Hank Perlman. Hank was the guy one hundred percent. Hank called me and said “Hey look, I have this NHL project for ESPN. There’s no money, and we talked to a few other directors, and no one thinks these spots can be done.” The idea was that a pro hockey player has a cold sore on his lip, and he’s talking about winning the Stanley Cup. Traditionally everyone drinks from the cup. Then we see other players and fans with a cold sore on their lip throughout the spot. Hank said, “Just show up to their practice, wait until it’s over and then run on the ice and you shoot the spots.” We shot 180 of those hockey spots for ESPN. Frank and I co-directed, and Hank wrote most of the scripts. After the shoot we walked around with a cold sore for over a year trying to get people to wear it.
I never went to film school, so I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I didn’t even want to tell anyone that I was a director for like a year. I felt weird saying it. It was kind of like, well, what makes you a director? It’s funny because our production company at the time, Radical Media, didn’t even claim we directed the ESPN spots. They gave credit to our DP, Robert Leacock. No one really thought we were directors, so it took a couple of years before I actually believed that was the case. The moment I said this directing thing makes sense was when I wrote a screenplay. I remember there was interest in it, and they wanted me to shop it around to directors. I spent 6 months writing the script and now I’m with a director like Chris Columbus, and he wants to shoot the film. The problem was I really didn’t want Chris Columbus directing my movie. I realized “My God, I should direct!” That’s when the light bulb went off. Maybe directing is a better path to take, it has to be better then handing something over to someone else.
There’s no such thing as usual prep. I mean it’s sort of usual prep. It’s more like never ending prep, you know? I don’t think you can prep enough. You always prep, and then you walk on set and everything you’ve prepped, of course, falls apart – from weather or actors not performing well or locations that are not cleared that you thought were cleared. There’s always going to be some disaster. Personally I work best when I am under pressure. So I like when things are sort of off, you know? I can’t stand slow shoots, because I think people react better under pressure. Their instincts are better, they’re sharper – everyone from the cameramen to the actors. I’m always looking at my team or crew like a sports team. Hopefully no one gets too comfortable. I think that’s really the key. You are always challenging yourself and everyone is challenging each other. Oh, and I’ve never sat down on a shoot. Ever.
You are constantly trying to discover the “aha” moments. Almost every shoot has an aha moment of like ‘We got it!’, or ‘We nailed it!’, or you’ve messed with a technique and liked the result. Commercials are about what comes out that year. The industry is always trying new things. You have to constantly reinvent yourself and constantly grow and create something new. There is always a new challenge or technology to experiment with.
I don’t know. I think it might be easier now. No one took me seriously when I started out. No one believes you know what the hell you are talking about, not even yourself. All of sudden realize you can do it. You haven’t gone to film school, and you haven’t shot a single thing in your life. You don’t even know how to yell action or cut. Seriously, you know, like when do you yell it? Different people would ask me what side the line was on, and I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. I mean I had no idea, and I would be like “Um, well…..” I got a film book a year into shooting, because people would quiz me on set. You’re like “God, I don’t know anything.” Then people are asking me questions that I had no idea what the hell the answer is. But ultimately, film to me was always about instinct. You can always hire people to give you the technical information, but no one is going tell you it’s time to move on to the next shot, or you don’t have this performance down yet, or what it will take to make the talent do something and get a specific result. All the books in the world aren’t going to explain that.
Learn to deal with adversity. When you lose a location and everyone thinks we’re screwed, or when your talent disappears you can’t panic or overreact. Anyone can shoot something when the situation is perfect, but how do you adjust to adversity and still come out with something great, and not dig yourself into the ground when you are in a bad situation? You are rarely going to have an easy day. It’s not going to happen, because all the odds are against you. So you can’t sit there and get pissed about it. You have to adjust.
Well, you know the popular thing for everyone to say is “Oh, it’s not what it was.” I think there is a great opportunity for doing great creative right now. The downside is that there is a need for content, but no one wants to pay for anything, and that’s created a difficult environment. So there are great, interesting, ideas out there with no financing and no way to pull them off. If you can’t hire the right actors, or the right DP, or whatever, the idea falls apart. It’s sad, because you want to shoot this great idea, and there’s just no money to do it.
I wrote Asad over the course of a weekend. It’s a story about Somalia and two young boys. The two boys who played the lead characters had never been to school in their lives. They had to memorize the entire script, which was extremely difficult. There were a lot of challenges with shooting the film, but when we wrapped the shoot we knew it was going to be something special. The Tribeca Film Festival programmed the film, and it won best short film there. Tribeca got behind it and helped promote it, and the rest is sort of history. It sort of blew up from there. Desmund Tutu did a huge address on it showing his public appreciation for the film and for what it had done for their country and the Somali people. It made all the hard work worth it, and the film brought a lot of visibility to the Somali plight. So the experience far exceeded anything I could have ever imagined.
With a narrative film you have to be so disciplined on character, on script and on execution. So you end up doing a ton of meticulous planning. We had to be even more efficient because of the limited finances and the limited time we had. Working out the story aspect of a narrative film requires incredible discipline.
The job of a comedy director is to assemble the best team and talent you can find. In theory, the director should show up and not have much to do the day of. It never works out that way, because there are going to be problems. Directing comedy for me personally is a total gut thing. You sort of have to feel it. You prep and you’re all set and you have the basics down and then you have to figure out how to get that extra 10%, and that comes out of the moment, you know, the spontaneity of the idea. And that applies to a shoot with someone like Conan O’ Brian or with an actor who is just starting out.
Yes. It was with one of the first things I had ever written. Tom and I co-wrote and sold a script to Columbia Pictures, and an agent wanted to represent us. Obviously, I was excited, and I told everyone that we sold the script and now we have an agent. A few days later I get a call from the agent and he says “Listen, Tom’s the real talent, and you’re not, and I’m not representing you.” We were both on the cover of Ad Week that month, and we were even in the New York Times. I remember walking into our office the next day being really depressed. The guy who you thought was going to be your agent is telling you that don’t have any talent. I was like “Wow, this sucks!” I’ve already told everyone this guy is my agent, so everyone’s like ‘So how’s it going??? How is the movie panning out?’ You’re like “Uh…Um”. It was a disaster.
That’s easy – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Director / Hungry Man