Backyard Productions

We make commercials and other brand-driven projects. The atmosphere here is one of happy collaboration, an approach that allows us to pinpoint our clients' needs and helps us refine creative ideas into award-winning work. Our philosophy is to take our work seriously but not ourselves. Solid.

Where did you grow up?

Well, I was born in Blytheville, Arkansas, but I’m actually a Texan. We moved to Texas when I was two years old, and I grew up there. It was a challenging place to grow up in the pre-internet world, because there wasn’t really all that much to do. I lived in a suburb of Dallas called Grand Prairie, and the most exciting thing it had was a wax museum. All we did were these repetitive activities like going to the mall, hanging out, watching MTV, drinking beer… So, I kept myself entertained by becoming an observer of people. I learned all I know about human nature by just watching people in Texas.

When did you know that you wanted to work in the film business?

I’m a child of the Star Wars/George Lucas generation, and I literally pored over this book that I think was called The Art of Stars Wars. It had all these storyboards, and they totally fascinated me. All of a sudden, I found myself drawing my own little meticulous storyboards, and I thought to myself, I’m going to do this for a living when I grow up. The other influence from my childhood that made me want to be in film was comic strips. I don’t mean comic books. I mean actual comic strips, like in the newspaper. When you look at those, they’re actually little storyboards.

Tell me about your first shoot. 

Well, it’s funny, because I kind of had three first shoots. I wrote my first commercial when I was about 21 years old and I was working at an ad agency. Then there’s the first thing that I shot as a director, but I didn’t get paid for it; I was doing it for my reel. Then, I had the first spot that I actually got paid for.

Tell me more about your first spec spot.  

It was for Google’s Nexus smartphone a while back. They wanted to do some content for their smartphone at the same time that I decided I was going to direct. I had already written this short film about a businessman who gets trapped under a vending machine. He’s sort of an unimpressive, mid-level manager, but once he’s under the machine he commands more authority, and then his whole career takes off. So, when Google was asking for content, I thought, this would be perfect. The manager could easily make it because he has the smartphone down there with him. So, I took that, rewrote it, and turned it into a five-part thing. Then I teamed up with a friend of mine, Greg Martinez, whom I knew from back in my agency days. He helped me put the production together. I shot it in an abandoned office space in Walnut Creek, close to San Francisco, but I imported LA talent, because I wanted to capture good performances. To this date, those were probably the most meticulous set of storyboards that I’ve ever done. I had to plan, plan, plan, because I had to pull off 108 shots in a couple of days, and it was all on my dime since it originated as spec work. Once Google expressed an interest in it, they said if you make it about our phone, we’ll use our PR machine to get it views, and I said okay. They didn’t pay a dime of it, but I got a lot of exposure for it.

How did you get your start?

The day I became a director was when I broke five ribs, cracked two vertebrae, and punctured my lung while snowboarding. It was a moment that turned my life. What led up to that was back when I graduated from school and got hired at an agency in New York called Cliff Freeman. I went to that agency as an art director. So, in my twenties, I was off shooting probably about fifteen commercials a year that I had written. They were all comedy spots. At the time, Cliff Freeman was the king of comedy advertising. They had these retail clients who were low on money, and used meagerly-budgeted TV ads to increase sales. We produced a sheer tonnage of funny commercials for them. I did stuff for Little Caesar’s Pizza, Staples, Coca-Cola and such. It was a golden era, and a lot of the spots I wrote won awards. The awards helped me get a better job and move up. So, then I landed at Goodby Silverstein in San Francisco, and I started writing spots for bigger brands like Discover Card, Polaroid and Got Milk. I wrote the first campaign for Netflix. Then I started creative directing, and with that you’re taking other people’s ideas and making them as good as they can be. Then after that, my business partner and I opened our own agency, Venables Bell & Partners. Some of our clients were Audi, Intel, Coca-Cola, and eBay. So, suddenly I was the guy who was running an ad agency that was billing over $225 million. It was great experience. I was overseeing thirty or more spots a year. I would probably log more days on set than the average director, and I spent tons of time in the edit room, but it soon became a bit repetitive. I had the snowboard accident around then, and a realization struck while I was lying in a hospital bed hopped up on painkillers. I realized that I was no longer the one out there producing great work, but rather the guy who spent all his time campaigning to the clients for great work. The reality is that, in most cases, clients don’t actually want great work. They want work that keeps their job secure. So, I left.

What do you think is more important in this business – talent, luck or connections?

It’s actually a combination of the three. It’s funny you mention those three, because I think it’s probably 50 percent talent, and then 25 percent each of the other two. For example, when I was putting together that shoot for Google in Walnut Creek, I told you that I hired LA talent in order to get great performances. Well, to be able to get LA talent down to a place like Walnut Creek, it’s not an easy thing to do. Essentially, I used every favor I had to make that thing happen. I reached out to casting directors I already knew, and a friend of mine at a production company covered all of the finishing. So, connections are important.  As far as luck goes, I think the ad world ended up being my film school for a little over 15 years. I probably learned the most from being on all of those sets, putting together the final spots, and seeing what worked and what didn’t. I was a pain in the ass of some of the most accomplished directors in the business when I was on set. So, I’d say my luck was getting to collaborate with so many different directors. I was the guy who wanted to direct and was getting paid to watch the best in the business do it.

Who influenced your style and technique?

It’s a mash-up really. It’s a mash-up of all sorts of guys. In terms of the feature guys who influenced me, obviously 80’s directors like Spielberg and Lucas, and then later I became a huge David Fincher fan. I just love his meticulous style and very, very intentional camerawork. Wes Anderson is another one. I love his compositions and his performances. He just has a funny eye, and I feast on everything that guy shoots. As far as commercial directors, I think Noam and Kuntz have a great visual sense. I also worked with Phil Morrison, and I really admired how he worked with talent. He has this exceptional ability to wrangle great performances out of people. He really connects directly with the talent to the exclusion of everybody else on set. But it’s a good thing. He did such wonderful stuff, and it was a real pleasure to observe him in action. I feel like Frederick Bond and Dante have a nice sense for putting a spot together and the shots it takes to tell a story. One guy I really respect is Rocky Morton. What’s interesting about him is his ability to adapt to any situation on set. He’s a problem-solver. I was on a shoot with him where we were straight up screwed, and we had to think on our feet. We had to figure out how to save this thing, but he didn’t panic and he didn’t want to simply throw out what we had initially planned, so I admired him from that moment on.

What do you think about the current state of the commercial industry?

Well, I think commercials are much more self-aware than they used to be, and I think mainstream entertainment has changed in the same way. A lot of the things that do really well on the internet and the things that my son watches are kind of parodies of other things, and they’re making fun of commercials’ conventions. I think it’s just this generation’s way of saying you can’t fool me. The classic spot of this decade, Old Spice – The Man Your Man Could Smell Like, is super self-aware. They’re not really trying to convince you that you’ll be able to land babes, or that you’ll be able to swan dive into a hot tub or ride a motorcycle because of this stuff. People today know that, in a lot of ways, advertisements promise a bunch of horseshit, and they appreciate the advertising that is willing to make fun of itself. The same applies to many comedy movies coming out today, like 22 Jump Street. That movie is very aware that it’s a sequel and a money grab, and it uses that as its humor.

What’s the most important attribute you bring to your projects?

It’s enthusiasm. There are probably a lot of people who are like this, but I think of myself as having an ON and OFF switch; I’m never really in between. When I want to do a project, and I’m committed to a project, I tend to bleed for it. I guess part of that comes from my ad agency background. You just see a lot of death and destruction in the ad business. You see so many great ideas get thrown out or get shit on or not be appreciated. So, it takes a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for a creative to take this fragile little idea, keep it alive and go through the gauntlet of the approval process. I think that level of enthusiasm is where I’ve found success. I was running an agency, and while I was extraordinarily successful, I was completely miserable once I’d promoted myself out of all the fun stuff I could get enthusiastic about. Now, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world, because I work solely on the fun stuff. I just can’t help but be overjoyed by all of the silly things I’m getting paid to do now.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming directors?

Edit your own work. I think editing is the foundation of good directing. It baffles me that directors get separated from the editing process here in the States. I do my best to insert myself into it. I always have it in my contract to take a digital drive of all the footage after each of my shoots. You have to be able to put this thing together that you crafted. There are so many decisions you make in the course of a shoot, some of which you don’t have time to say out loud to the people you’re shooting for. You make decisions in your head for editorial reasons.

What’s your favorite movie of all time?

It would have to be Raiders of the Lost Ark. A close second is Fincher’s Seven.

Have you seen anything lately that has blown you away?

Birdman. So utterly original. A lot of people have tried the “one take” convention, but it’s usually just a gimmick. In this case, it was so perfectly linked to the flow of the story. I actually forgot several times as I watched that it was still being used.


Greg Bell

Place of Birth

Blytheville, Arkansas


Director - Backyard Productions