The road to success in the ad world often has some twists and turns, and that’s surely the case with Portland-based commercial director Aaron Ruell. Currently represented by Sanctuary, with a wide portfolio of spots for clients such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Charter, Aaron brings stirring pathos and whimsical comedy to the table with equal skill. But Aaron’s no one-trick pony – his diverse skill set includes dabblings in photography and acting(you may know him from his role as Kip in the cult comedy Napoleon Dynamite). Aaron recently made a viral splash when he brought back the character for “Kip’s Tips” (Instagram @kipstipss), a series of tongue-in-cheek videos about life in quarantine.
Zack Seckler: You’ve been working for years as a director but you started out as a photographer. Let’s talk a little bit about that period.
Aaron Ruell: I started in high school. I had an inspirational photography teacher, Mr Claverie. I spent all my time in the dark room. I learned about how film was 24 stills in a second and that really piqued my interest. So I picked up a camcorder and started making short films. I kept doing both, but filmmaking really kind of became my focus. So photography was still very present as a creative outlet for me, but I never studied photography past high school.
I went to film school and became close friends with Jared Hess (who went on to write and direct Napoleon Dynamite), and we would always just kind of freestyle with each other with different characters, making each other laugh. I would do an impression of my brother that he really liked, and when he got financing for [Napoleon Dynamite] he asked me if I’d come on board to play that role. Then I was labeled an actor, which I was extremely uncomfortable with for years, because I was trying to get my break as a director. I had no desire to become an actor. In the ad world, any press that was done would always start with “actor Aaron Ruell tries his hand at directing”, or something.
What happened with the photography was: I shot the stills on the set of Napoleon, and then when we got into Sundance I designed the one-sheet based on the stills I had. All of a sudden my stills were seen all over the place, and I got approached to do ad work. I found myself with a rep and then started shooting some advertising work which coincided with the time where I was starting to direct commercials.
So when you were first starting to do some of this ad work was it like, “Oh, I want to hire the guy from Napoleon Dynamite?” Did you ever get any of that?
With directing, the answer is yes, but with photography, people tended to not connect the dots. I got my first cold call the year after Napoleon. So the first print campaign was for Granola Bars or something like that. I didn’t really go through the steps of protocol where I’ll show some Polaroids to the agency, get their feedback. I would just shoot and be like, “All right, I’m good here.” In retrospect I was just so lucky that people accepted that because I was just dumb.
Is Napoleon Dynamite still impacting you today?
Now it’s totally different. I mean, you can tell if a film has lasting power if it’s still around a decade later, and this film is 15 years old. Now I’m in a place where I love it, I can see how it makes people happy, and now it’s a multigenerational thing where parents have introduced it to their children. I think the last job I did kind of speaks to this. The agency had this graphic illustrator draw this really cool picture of Kip with the product that I was shooting for in Kip’s hands.
So tell me about Kip’s Tips.
So, when [the COVID-19 pandemic] went down, during those first couple of weeks, that transitional period was pretty rough for most, and it just seemed like people needed something to smile about. I’d seen all these celebrity Twitter drops. And I was like, “that’d be funny if Kip tried to count himself as the guy who knows how to get through this”. I ran it by my wife and she liked it, and then I called Jared Hess and he was into it, so he sent me Kip’s original glasses and a couple of the polos from the film.
There’s a lot of dialog. Is it improvised or written?
Kip is enjoyable for me, but I kind of lose myself in a weird way with that character. So it’s easy for me just to ramble because Kip is also sort of a rambler himself. If I mess up that’s totally ok because Kip would mess up. I would have main theme like recipe tips, exercise tips, crafting tips. Then it’s mostly freestyle.
I love the late 80s camcorder-type graphics that you put onto the video, all that static and chromatic aberration. It really adds to the effect.
That is all Hess. I did the first one and I shot it on my 5D and it was super clean and pretty. And then I passed it over to Hess and he said, “You look too good. We need to make it uglier.” And one of the other tips he was like, “Get up close to that camera so Kip looks weirder.”
So we started off talking about how you initially had no control over the phenomenon of Napoleon Dynamite and your role as an actor in that. So is this you kind of owning the character in a different way?
Yeah, that’s a fair statement. I think with time I’ve just grown so much more comfortable with my role in that film, what it meant to my career, how I was shaped from my experience. And as far as playing Kip, I think I’m much more giving. In the early days people would come up and give me a line. And the fans tend to know the film better than I remember it, so a lot of times I don’t even know what the follow-up line was. It just kind of felt monkey-like, you know what I mean? But I am in a place now where I love what that film means to people. I wish I hadn’t been so uptight about that in the early days, but again, the timing of it was tricky for what I was trying to do career-wise.
You had two short films that premiered at Sundance in 2005, right?
Yeah, we were at Sundance with Napoleon in 2004 and one of the producers financed the two scripts that I had. Both of those got into Sundance. So I went back there as a writer/director, and I had my feature script ready to go. I got approached to do commercials and videos, and took the opportunity right away because I had no money. It kept me really busy and created a foundation for me to be stable, and it coincided with prepping my feature. We got financiers for that. We had a great cast attached to it, then the film fell apart.
During that time directing spots just continued to get busier and busier and I was juggling print campaigns in between. And then I got approached to do a really cool project as an actor with a guy who had written a book and the film was based off the book he wrote. It was a very different role from Kip, and I liked the novel a lot, so we shot that film and the following year I was back at Sundance. Fifteen years later and still haven’t made a feature.
Tell me how you feel about that now, because I think, especially for folks who go into filmmaking through film school, the goal is always to make features. Are you burning to make a feature?
It’s interesting because at the time when I got into the ad world, around 2005-6, I missed the heyday of massive budgets. There was that period where you go from directing commercials to features. That was kind of over by the time I had entered the ad world. So when I got approached to do commercials, I still thought this might be a way to help me get to the feature. It didn’t go that way. I’m unable to juggle multiple creative projects. I have to put everything into what I’m doing. So if I’m constantly directing commercials I don’t have the creative space necessary to put into my feature. So how I feel about it now is, I’m a 40-year-old guy who’s a very realistic individual. I’ll give it one more shot. I’m going to write one more screenplay, give it my all, and if that doesn’t happen I’m facing the music on that, I think.
Let’s talk a little bit more about your directing process. You were in a feature as an actor, so you have a unique perspective. Has that impacted your approach to casting or directing actors?
Yeah, I’m very, very grateful for my experience on Napoleon. It’s affected my directing style. It was extremely beneficial in terms of the relationship that I’m able to establish with the actors. They smell it right away.
And then as far as how it’s affected the casting process for me: I’m a real people watcher, and so for me the most important part of casting is typically as they walk in the door to the moment they slate. That piece of time where I see who they are as an individual, the way their hands are in their pockets, the way they’re scanning the room, the way they’re touching their face. I’m always looking for somebody who fills the role without having to act, and the moment that they’re most real is when they walk in that door before they slate.
A lot of your work has a very specific visual style, and there’s some correlation there with Napoleon Dynamite, and the framing and the art direction on that film. How do you approach developing the visual world in your commercials, specifically your comedic work?
Jared and I both were, comedically speaking, on the same page with what we liked. And that was just the assumption that people made. “Oh, he’s the Napoleon Dynamite guy, so that’s what he shoots.” And so a lot of the work I got in the early days was very connected to Napoleon. And I love comedy, it comes very natural for me.
That said, the work that I was writing on my own is nothing like the comedy I was shooting in the ad world. I’ve always been a more whimsical, surreal sort of director. It tends to be a bit more dark. So yeah, there was a bit of a disconnect there. And as heavily visual as my early work was, the reason for that – all transparency – was the scripts were mediocre. I was trying to divert attention from that and elevate the piece. Had the scripts been solid I wouldn’t have had to do that, but that was honestly why I started off with that look, as heavy handed as it was.
Looking on the production company you’re now with, Sanctuary, I see some work that is reminiscent of that aesthetic, like the Charter spots. But then I see spots you’ve done for Coke and Lyft that have more of that dramatic tone. In a marketplace where director’s are often put into ‘boxes’ what’s it like to work within these different genres?
I think it’s always been tricky for my reps, because as you say, it’s much easier for them to say Aaron Ruell is a comedy guy. I was always just trying to fight against that. Then I had this transitional period where I was doing more visually driven work, and I’d get feedback all the time like “It’s really cool to see how you’ve grown and developed.” And it was meant in a complimentary way, but what they were seeing is closer to who I am. So it was a difficult balance. But what I hope comes through in both is sincerity. Whether it’s the Coke spot or whether it’s the Charter stuff, I’m always trying to make it as sincere as possible.
In the COVID-19 world we’re living in, it’s currently May 2020, what are your thoughts on how this is going to impact the advertising industry, and specifically, commercial directors?
I think things are changed now. I’ve gotten jobs in the past couple of weeks where you send the camera package to the talent and then direct remotely. It all just seems bizarre. I don’t know how you put your thumbprint on it, and if I’m going to be part of something that’s my goal.
I’ve heard that casting now from here on out will be actors just putting themselves on camera in their own place. So rather than casting facilities having to bring in hundreds of people for the first go-around, they will just edit that down.
I don’t even know, what does a film set look like going forward, for the rest of 2020 anyway? It’s definitely changed things and I think there’s got to be some sort of system in place for the next pandemic. I can’t imagine brands wanting to shut down again, or agencies for that matter. So it’s got to take shape in a different way. Exactly how, I’m not sure.
Interview by Zack Seckler
Edit by Tyler Peterson