For almost twenty years Jim Jenkins has directed some of the most memorable comedy spots of his generation. He’s been engaged to direct for scores of global brands including AT&T, Bud Light, FedEx and Snickers. He’s also been endorsed by no less a figure than Martin Scorcese, whose enthusiasm for Jim’s directorial work led to collaborations with Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro; his stated ambition is now to work with the entire cast of Goodfellas, including the extras. Jim’s distinctive brand of visual storytelling along with his birth of production company O Positive has made his one of the most recognizable names in advertising.
Below, Jim discusses comedy, celebrity, and why production managers have a slightly easier job than sewer divers in Mexico City.
Zack Seckler: What was your first big break?
Jim Jenkins: Probably the first time I worked with Martin Scorsese. At the time, AmEx was the primary sponsor of the Tribeca Film Festival. I had been directing maybe two or three years at that point. I didn’t have much of a reel. I still have no idea how I talked the agency into giving me that job.
People always ask if it was intimidating to work with him. The only intimidating thing was thinking, “This is the beginning of my career, and if this thing sucks, no one is going to think it’s because of him.”
Fortunately, the spot was a hit. More fortunately, Scorsese liked it enough to have me back to direct that AT&T commercial for him. I think that’s what eventually got me the opportunity to work with Pesci on one job and De Niro on another. My goal is to work with everyone who’s ever been connected to Goodfellas, including the extras.
I grew up with being exposed to a lot of different types of it, and I’ve always been drawn to it, and I don’t think anything sticks with people like a funny unexpected spot.
Tell me about starting O Positive. How did that happen and what was the process for starting your own production company?
We started O Positive for a few different reasons. One was personal, because I wanted to be home more. But also because I wanted a place where directors could work more collaboratively. Directors aren’t really in touch with other directors at most production companies. You’re kind of your own little world. I like working with directors. I like when our directors send me scripts and ask for ideas or send me treatments. There’s no reason why directors can’t talk with each other and help each other. You just need a certain type of director to do that. You need someone who is generous with their ideas, and who isn’t jealous of something else another director is engaging on.
What year did you start it?
You can’t avoid them.
Do you do them yourself? Do you have people help out?
I have people assemble them. I still write my own though. The one thing I will say about treatments—and I begrudgingly say this to the producers—is that when you write your own treatments, you do generate thoughts you might not have come up with otherwise.
Any tips for writing a great treatment aside from having a strong point of view? Is there a process, a way you break down the boards, the scripts—any technique that you have?
I’m big on options. I’m big on just throwing things out just to see that an agency is open to options—other lines, other endings, other characters—that they may not have thought of. It’s good to know if other people are open to working that way. You can keep improving and trying things.
What’s the process for signing new directors. You guys have eight right now, and I don’t think you guys bring people on very often. What’s that process like and what makes you decide to bring on a new director?
Well, for starters, we like non-jerks. We’re small for a reason. Mostly, we want to work with directors we like, and who have humility, and work the way we like to work. In other words, you need a director who can think collaboratively—who’s open to other ideas that may not be their own. That combination of all those things, I would say, is a bit rare.
So what is your favorite out of the spots you’ve done for Bud Light? Or is that like choosing between children?
Hard to say, but if I had to choose, maybe the Super Bowl spot we did last year, “Ye Olde Pep Talk.” And there’s another one called “Wizard” that I liked a lot. Brandon Henderson and Karl Lieberman and John Parker at W+K/NY do terrific work on that campaign.
Where did you guys shoot that?
“Wizard” was shot here in New York. “Pep Talk” was shot in New Zealand. When I picked the location, we didn’t realize that a half-mile of road had to be built to get to it.
Can you tell me more about that?
Do I need to say any more? It’s a great location, a sheep farm in New Zealand. But the particular part we shot in that valley, there was no way to get our equipment down there. So that’s why the road was put in.
Like ¾ of a mile of road, yeah, with a base camp. You know, anybody who has had a career in production has insane stories to tell. I can’t say my stories are any more insane than anybody else’s. It’s stuff that’s just too crazy to make up. But, you know, as crazy as it gets, it’s not the director who suffers the most. It’s the production managers.
Of course, but it’s fun to be involved.
Yeah, it is. Not long ago I read a profile on that guy whose job it is to dive into the sewers of Mexico City. He’s been doing it for 30 years. Thirty years he’s been unclogging the main pipe in the sewers, where he’s found, like, dozens of human bodies and a few rotting horses. I mean, production managing is better than that, but maybe not a lot else.
Let’s talk about the FedEx band spot. Tell me a little bit about what you felt when you first saw the boards and how it came together.
BBDO New York has been good to me over the years. Their scripts are pretty much gifts to a director. I was fortunate to shoot over 50 FedEx spots alone for them. And the Snickers work was the same team—Greg Hahn, Pete Kain and Gianfranco Arena. They just come up with stuff that’s kind of bulletproof. Then it just becomes about casting it and shooting it well. We play with the ending and play with lines and do little improv lines on set, but the core idea is there. You’re never worrying about it working or not.
You’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the best creatives in the business. And I’m sure earlier in your career you worked with creatives who don’t have those kinds of star reputations. Do you notice a difference in working with creatives who are greener?
All I want is creatives who focus on the right things, and [good] creatives focus on the right things whether they’re green or not.
The fact is, making things funnier—coming up with a funny line—that’s hard. So I don’t care about what doesn’t matter, and I try to focus on what does matter. I really try not to get hung up on details that nobody is going to care about, like what type of vase this should be in the deep background. You’ve just got to focus on what’s going to make the spot more messed up and entertaining.
The industry has changed quite a bit since you’ve become a director. Where do you see things right now, and where do you see things going the next three to five years for commercial directors? How do you see commercial directors being influenced?
I mean, clearly broadcast is changing and fewer commercials are being shot, but I believe part of that is clients are forgetting what a good spot can do. A lot clients are afraid of standing out and doing work that gets remembered, and a lot of agencies are afraid of standing up for good work. I’m all for good content, but there’s still nothing that gets talked about or shared like an entertaining commercial. So I think the ‘death of the spot’ idea is sometimes pushed by people who maybe don’t know how to craft a good one, or the same people who get excited when some digital piece of theirs is watched for 1.5 seconds as opposed to the normal 1.3.
I mean, is the ability to craft and entertain a sales message ever really going to go away? If it does then advertising is over.
So how does that impact people that are on your level; the top people in the industry? Would you feel uncomfortable doing something for a smaller scope if the creative was really good?
I don’t think any good director would feel uncomfortable doing anything if the creative was really good. If something is really good, an idea is really solid then I think good directors would be lining up to do it.
Interview by Zack Seckler
Edited by Francis Carr Jr.