Oscar Nominated Director Bryan Buckley (Hungry Man) is an icon. He’s directed over 50 Super Bowl commercials. He’s won upwards of 50 Cannes Lions. He co-founded Hungry Man Productions. Adweek named him Commercial Director of the Decade in 2010 and Creativity Magazine chose him as one of the 50 best creative minds of the last 25 years. Oh yeah, and he never planned on becoming a director. Read about Bryan’s inspiring story and invaluable insights from our chat a few weeks back.
ZACK SECKLER: What initially attracted you to advertising and how did you start out?
BRYAN BUCKLEY: When I came up, my dad was in advertising, and my mom ultimately ended up in advertising and PR. So I kind of came from a family where advertising was part of our lives. So I was always going to go into advertising.
Coming out of school, I had a very strict game plan. My life was sort of figured out—I’m just going to get a job at Doyle Dane, I’m going to work for Roy Grace, who was at that point the creative director there, and also did a lot of the famous Volkswagen work. So I pursued him, and actually ended up getting a job at Doyle Dane and then leaving with him from there to go start his own agency. I got a job a Chiat after that.
I really wanted to have my own agency, so I went off and did my own ad agency with Tom DeCerchio, and pitched and won all this business, and this was all in my early twenties. All the other ad agencies were doing print ads. We would go in and push business; say we could do a television spot, and do it for nothing. And the client, of course, would go, ‘You could do it for nothing?’
We’d go around and we’d push ourselves. Like we did one at Snapple. To this day, ‘Made From the Best Stuff on Earth’ still exists in in their advertising and marketing. That was us, way back when.
We’d go up against bigger agencies and beat them. Like, they were finding that we’re brash, we’re new, we’re different. And this business lends itself to that. Where you get outflanked by everybody—and we did, ultimately, even at Snapple—was the politics. We were terrible at politics. We were horrible! Like, we didn’t play golf. We didn’t have an account team worth anything. And ultimately, that was the part that made me say, ‘I don’t want to be in this business anymore. It’s terrible. I just fucking hate it.’
I went into the business thinking I always wanted an ad agency, and here we had it. We were on the front page of the business section, one of the hot five agencies, and all these friends are calling—I was so miserable. It wasn’t an enjoyable thing. You start working, and you’re creating your own sort of nightmare, you know?
So then Tom left. He went west to direct. This guy Frank Todaro joined me, and we basically looked for a suitor to buy the agency and then get us out so that I could start a new career.
So, fast forward—once you started directing, how did that process go? And how did you go from just starting out, to directing, to being the quote-unquote ‘King of the Super Bowl,’ with all the dozens of spots you’ve done? Can you tell me a little about that period?
Well, when we were looking to wind down the place, a guy by the name of Hank Perlman was working for Frank and I at was what Buckley/DeCerchio at the time. Ultimately, Hank left and went to Wieden + Kennedy to work on ESPN.
So then Hank came back and said, ‘Hey, look, I got these ESPN spots.’ It was hockey at the time. He said, ‘No money, but I really think you guys could shoot these, and we could be like the old days, the three of us just on our own shooting stuff.’
I had no aspirations to be a director. So I was like, ‘Well, it’s better than doing nothing.’ I mean, I thought it was sort of interesting, but I hadn’t taken a film class ever in my life. So we jumped in, doing these hockey spots. We shot 180 of them. We’d just show up and shoot ‘em, and that was sort of my film school.
So from there, ESPN SportsCenter came on, and that was really the game changer. Hank brought that to us. We shot SportsCenter—the same team, me, Frank and Hank. The campaign became a phenomenon. They just stopped running it this year. It ran for 20 years!
Frank and I ended up splitting a little after the first round of ESPN. So I ended up sort of freaking out, because I hadn’t gone to film school. I was really insecure—like, I didn’t know half the shit. I just kinda had to learn it.
So how did you learn it? Was it pretty much just learning on location? Did you feel like you needed to know technical stuff that you didn’t know?
Directing is completely instinct. Like, it’s completely instinct. The amount of decisionmaking that has to happen—if you’re basing it on a textbook, it’s just impossible. You’re rewriting that textbook every single time you’re shooting.
You have to find that talent, you have to get in that session, you have to study that talent. You know, maybe they audition for one part, you take ‘em and put ‘em in another part, change what they read, and boom—the thing comes to life.
And I board everything. Twice. Once before we start, and once the night before I shoot. And if it’s a movie, you know—two thousand frames, I drew ‘em all myself. That’s the cartooning side of it, see if you can solve visual problems before you hit them.
I look at it as a sport: it’s preparation and it’s showing up, and then of course all that prep goes out the window when it starts to rain, or this happens, or that happens. You have to adjust your game plan, get back in there, and figure out how to make this thing work.
You actually have to bullshit your way through a lot. But you still have to be asking the questions—you’re both directing and observing at the same time, and trying to pick up stuff.
So fast forward to Hungry Man. It’s a humor/comedy-based production company. What’s your attraction to humor, creatively? And also, if you could, fold that into the reason you decided to start Hungry Man.
Well, humor is an essential component to get through life, right? It just is. I went through a lot of moving and craziness in my life growing up, and it was how I got out of all sorts of shit. Like it continually saved me from trouble. And I thought, if you can convey that sort of honesty through humor, if it’s in advertising, you find it actually makes people relate to the product more.
So, Hungry Man, it wasn’t us saying ‘Oh, we’re going to be humor-based.’ Hank and I came out of SportsCenter and ESPN, so naturally all the work that came in was like that. And then humor becomes your thing.
I’m curious what your views are on the industry right now. Is there something right now that’s not being done that you think is particularly prescient, particularly of our time?
Working with the UN years ago opened my eyes to a real problem, which was understanding other cultures. You know, we have this situation with the refugee ban basically being accepted by the Supreme Court, et cetera. It’s so disturbing and so counter to being an American. It’s sort of like we’ve reached this crazy state.
I think we created the problem. Meaning, between the media, the advertising world, the film world. Because we’ve created propaganda that is run counter to educating people in the proper manner. And the schools aren’t doing it anymore. They don’t have the financing. It’s affecting the way the nation thinks. We’re getting all our education through items on the Web, or getting it in films, or what have you. So, how do we educate? How do we open people’s minds to understand what’s really going on? I think we’ve hit that critical stage. We have to be more responsible in our messages overall. That Super Bowl spot I did this year, you know, the attempt was there. There was a message.
So now, as we’re talking about more serious stuff, I want to talk to you about your feature film, Dabka. It’s such a fascinating story in itself, creating a piece in-country, with local talent. Tell me about the process of it, where the idea came from, and then about producing it.
Alright, so—about 2011, I was working on a Microsoft project, and one of the clients was on the board of the UNHCR. So this project came up separately when she was on the board of the UN. A lot of nations were cutting their payments, and no one was taking the refugees out of the camps. So they’d been doing these docs about what’s going on and how they’re helping, but nothing’s moving the meter.
So they said, ‘Look, you’re from the advertising world. Would you be willing to come in and give your take on how to change this? We have this great situation with Luol Deng, who’s a professional basketball player with the Bulls, and he’s a Lost Boy of Sudan. He’s going into Kakuma and then on to Sudan for the first time since he fled, and you would document his arrival. And the NBA is tied in, they’re going to give away a basketball court once he gets there to Kakuma and this refugee camp.’
We’re like, ‘Well, that sounds great.’ We got into the camp early, into Kakuma, northern Kenya. It was insane. The camp was built for the Sudanese during the civil war. The Sudanese are returning back to South Sudan, but the Somalis are coming in en masse, because there’s another camp which was overrun, so they needed to have a second camp. This was the second camp.
When they were coming in, we were interviewing them, and fell in love with the Somalis. They were so funny and gracious, they took us to their homes. It was incredible. And I knew nothing about Somalia, except for, you know, piracy, terrorists, Shabaab, and famine.
So, as Luol landed at the camp, he comes off the plane and BBC is on the plane with him. They sent their team to do the documentary, too. They double-booked the doc without telling the BBC or us—they didn’t think that both were going to show up. So we’re shooting Luol coming off the plane, and there’s the guys with the pressed khakis and white shirts behind Luol with their cameras, and they were going, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ And Luol was like, ‘I don’t want to be doing any of this shit. I’m just trying to get home.’ In terms of the basketball court, he didn’t want to give it away, because he’s like, ‘These people need a lot more than that! This is ridiculous!’
But BBC, we got very close with their team. I was talking to them about Somalia, and they go, ‘Look, we can’t get in there. It’s uninsurable, and we’re not allowed to be in there.’ CNN is the same way, because the reporters were all getting killed. So we were going, ‘Wow, that’s crazy! So no one’s even in there?’
So anyway—came back, finished the doc, got it out there. Unfortunately, everything got completely watered down and no one watched it. Like, it had 1,500 hits on YouTube. It’s a complete, utter disaster. And meanwhile, I’m sitting in New York reading a story about how UN workers in Somalia are getting killed when they’re dropping off food rations. They’re being killed by al-Shabaab, who doesn’t want anyone to have the food. They’re even killing people who are trying to take the food. And it was such a bleak outlook this reporter was writing for the Times—like, ‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.’
So I just got fed up. That weekend I wrote a script for a short film called Asad. Asad was basically a day in the life of a boy in Somalia, and then instead of doing it as a doc, I did it as a narrative. Then we took that film down to Cape Town, South Africa. We found two kids who were refugees. Everybody in it was a refugee, and everybody in it was from Somalia. The two boys were completely illiterate and had to memorize a 16-page script. We trained them. It was a remarkable process. We went to a Somali area of a township down there, went to the chief, presented the script—you know, ‘We want to do this, and it’s a positive message’—and the community got behind it. They sent out all non-actors, and we did it.
I don’t want to break your flow too much, but I’m fascinated by directing non-actors. How was it casting them, and what was it like to get them up to your needs?
Well, it was sort of terrifying. Like imagine your turnout is a high school play. Who’s gonna show up for an audition? And what I did on that particular short—and then what we ultimately repeated for the feature—was you go into your recruitment community, you bring people in, and you don’t have them read lines. You just watch them move and talk; maybe improv a scene, or a situation, to see what their reaction skills are.
In the case of the kids, I didn’t realize that they were completely illiterate, because they went into South Africa as refugees at twelve and ten. So I didn’t realize they’d have to memorize the whole script! So that was another whole thing.
But you go through that process, and then what you do is you have them audition, freewheeling it. Then you start to say, ‘Okay, now here’s the actual line.’ And if you’re doing it in Somali, then I need translators. I wanted everything scripted, I didn’t want improv. We needed it to be exact. I didn’t want to have it where they’re saying something wasn’t accurate to what really had been said. So I had two translators.
Then, from there, block out the play as if I was shooting it in this big space. I wouldn’t have time when we started shooting to tell them where to stand and how to turn and what to do, so we literally, as if you did a play, did all of that workshopping, so they knew exactly where to go. So the day of, when we’re out by a beach, or have fifteen minutes to shoot the thing, they knew exactly how to turn, where to go. You know, the Somalis are wonderful people, but they also go, like, ‘I gotta go to work.’ Like, ‘What are we doing? I gotta leave.’ I’m like, ‘No,’ and they’re like, ‘I have to go. Bye.’ And that’s it, it’s over! It’s not like I’m going to call the union, or call your agent!
So we did all that, and we learned a tremendous amount on the short.
The reference book—because we were shooting in South Africa, there was no material out there to find, except for a book called ‘The Pirates of Somalia,’ by Jay Bahadur. I’m reading this book, and I made my whole crew read it on the way down to South Africa so we would be accurate. I finish it and go,’ Why isn’t anyone filming this book? This is crazy!’
He wasn’t a journalism major, but he had done a paper on Somalia in school. He was like, ‘I’ve always wanted to do something on Somalia,’ and then the piracy thing hit, right then. So he cold-wrote and got a response from a guy who would turn out to be this guy Farole, who was the son of the president of Puntland. And he said, ‘My father would love you to come over here and report on piracy. No one’s coming over here.’ Fly over and tell our side of the story, and you’ll live with pirates for six months.’ And he did it by himself. Goes into Somalia and ends up living with pirates.
And that’s what Dabka is about, right?
Yeah, exactly. That’s what it’s all about. And then ultimately, he interviews the head pirate before he takes the ship to Captain Phillips’ ship. That’s how he got published, because he had the only writing that existed prior to that, and nobody was publishing him up until that point. And the rest is history.
But his story is what I was interested in, so I really spent the time crafting his story. And then we got Evan Peters on board, and Al Pacino, and Barkhad Abdi, who was in Captain Phillips. And then we went about training. I used the exact same method that we did the previous time, down in South Africa.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming commercial directors?
Don’t do anything for the money. Ever. I mean, that was always, I think, the biggest—you have to do things because they speak to you. Like, whatever you do, it has to speak to you in some way, shape, or form. Because that’s the only way you can bring your voice.
I find this really interesting, about finding your voice. I used to be confused, like, ‘What does that mean, your “voice”?’ I never understood it. And then all of a sudden one day, a light goes off, and ‘Ah, I get it now.’
If you’re going to be successful, you have to find a way to put your voice in your work. So no matter what format, where it is, there’s something in there that feels a little bit like a piece of you. You have to put a piece of you into every piece of work. I don’t care what it is. Like, you have to find it. And if you’re determined, I’m sure it’ll find its way. There’s a soul to the work that’s part of who you are. It sounds weird, but it really does apply. Because otherwise you’re just shooting some thing. Like, it’s cold, and it doesn’t connect on a human level, because you haven’t put yourself into it. You don’t get anything out if you don’t put in.
And then, by doing that, you start to form a community of actors and—you know, from grips to cinematographers to producers—that all sort of share a similar worldview. So now you’ve become this weird team that you just connect with. It’s building a community; that community builds work. And then your success will come.
I think that if you try to pursue money, or pursue something that doesn’t connect with you from a moral standpoint, and you try to step outside of who you are and do it just to do it, you’re going to always be a failure. I don’t think you’ll have success.
What’s most valuable for building a reel spec spots, or short films, or—
No. Do not shoot a spec spot. Biggest waste of time ever. The short film I did had more impact on my career than any single piece of Super Bowl work that I ever did. By far. Like, it changed everything.
That’s Asad you’re talking about?
Yeah. It changed everything. Not only did it impact me in Hollywood, it impacted me in the ad business. Like, tremendously, in a positive manner. I think the short film, right now, is a very valuable piece of commodity. You can get exposure, whether it’s on the Web or a festival, more than ever. And you can keep your voice pure and true to who you are.
Let’s say you want to be a commercial director. Even there, it applies, because I can look at that and go, ‘This guy shot this great short, what if you did a branded content piece for me?’
Most of the directors, people who are shooting long format, are young, coming out of school, because there’s not enough money to pay a more accomplished director. So they’re gonna get some kid out of school and say, ‘Can you do a branded content piece?’ That branded content piece can then turn into a lot more.
You could do branded content, but the problem with just going straight ahead and doing a branded content piece is that you are going to be dealing with the restrictions, if you’re doing it for spec, that a client’s gonna apply to your ability. And that might ultimately make a lesser product.
Just an aside that I’ve noticed in the last six months is that the feature world is collapsing. Completely. It’s over. As far as theatrical release stuff, right? Celebrities have to earn income, and they’re losing a chunk of income out of movies. They’re not gonna get paid the same way they got paid. So really, for celebrities, commercial storytelling is a viable business that is going to continue to grow. So therefore, a short film, if it’s a cool innovative little piece of short work, even a celebrity could be like, ‘I want to shoot something cool. I’ll do this thing with this guy. I’ll give it a shot.’ Like, if you just do a commercial, there’s just not enough to work with there.
Say you do a great Doritos commercial, and you go shoot this spec and it happens—for the next job, you are gonna be competing against every commercial director there is. You might win because you did a great Doritos commercial, but there’s less commercial directors that are able to actually do a short film. You start asking for a short film from commercial directors and you’d be surprised how much shit you see. Like, it’s crap. And so, if you’re just coming out of school, why not start in a place that no one else is really succeeding? And you know there’s gonna be branded content in short film—like, it’s common now, it’s just all the time.
If you can hit that, then I think there’s the best opportunity, and you’re gonna have the ability to create something that could have a life at the Oscars, or could go all the way. Like, that’s amazing. You know, no ad’s ever gonna win an Oscar. Ever.
Interview by Zack Seckler
Edited by Francis Carr Jr.