Commercials Provide “A Totally Anonymous Way To Practice”

Former AdCritic editor, Jim Hanas, provides interesting detail on Capote director Bennett Miller—at 39 the youngest nominee for this year’s Best Director Oscar.

While covering the advertising business, I became aware of Miller because of his commercials. Between The Cruise and Capote, Miller shot more than a dozen campaigns a year, all in a style that might surprise moviegoers. Working through Hungry Man—the production company behind comedic campaigns like ESPN’s “This is SportsCenter” and Careerbuilder.com’s monkey-based Super Bowl spots—Miller proved to be a master of a style of broad, jokey comedy that is sometimes known in the ad biz as “gags with tags.”
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While advertising might seem like a perfect proving ground for would-be feature directors, few commercials directors make the leap with much success. Big-screen directors crossover into commercials with impunity—Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, even the Coen Brothers have all directed commercials—but commercials directors rarely find success in features, either commercially or critically. Spike Jonze was the last commercials director to crossover with critical praise, with a 1999 directing nomination for Being John Malkovich.
Miller kept directing commercials and patiently waited for the right script, aware that, these days, a freshman filmmaker might not be offered a second chance. “As far as I’m concerned, [commercials are] a totally anonymous way to practice,” he says. “In that world, it’s not anonymous at all, but in the world that I had my eye on, nobody pays that much attention. To me, that was a comfort.”
The script, as we all know by now, came from Miller’s high school friend-and first time screenwriter-actor Dan Futterman. The pair, in turn, drafted another high school friend, Philip Seymour Hoffman, for the title role—a chain of events Miller calls an “incredible coincidence.”

About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative direction at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.