The Perlorian Brothers, self-described as a “conceptually-driven absurdist duo,” are Canadian-born commercial directors with a unique gift for intelligent quirk. The Perlorian moniker, seemingly derived from Japanese cat photography, is as charmingly bizarre as the teams’ directing work. Acoustically reactive belly flab and fully clothed showers are par for the course. Their spots for BBDO, Goodby and Wieden have been on the Super Bowl, won awards and earned the affection of creatives worldwide.
Zack Seckler: How did you get into advertising?
Perlorian #1 (long dash) — Good luck. Good timing. Bits of good help along the way.
Perlorian #2 (short dash) – Soaking up popular culture as 7 year olds during Saturday morning commercial breaks on Scooby Doo and thinking: “This sucks! Why is advertising so insipid? We could do this way better! Or better yet, we could subvert it and turn it into some kind of corporately-funded absurdist art project!” We’ve since learned why advertising’s so bad, but that only makes us try harder.
What was your first break after leaving the agency, was it “Prison Visitor” for Vim…? How did your career progress after your first break?
— Yup, probably. People liked the Vim spot and it won awards. But we did a handful of jobs before that. And every job we pitched and every job we won felt like a break. Just being able to pitch on spots and write treatments and think about making them and then being able to make some. And having a chance to work with production designers and effects people and wardrobe stylists and dps and editors. We weren’t film school guys — we were ad guys — so all the process and all the talent of the crew made every step feel fresh and exciting.
– Vim was a good exercise in taking something that was, in terms of its comedic structure, just a tricky reveal: mom’s not really in prison, she’s in the tub cleaning, but it feels like prison. The thing we did that we’ve done countless times since was to play hard against the gag — to not look for comedians but instead to cast very serious dramatic actors (the mom had actually won an award playing a female inmate on Canadian television) and directing them to give earnest and sincere performances that aren’t conscious of the comedy. Playing things this way can elevate what could be a cheap gag into something that’s more like absurdist theatre. And we find that way more satisfying to watch.
What did your previous role as creatives at Ogilvy & Mather teach you about working with ad agencies? Any particularly valuable or unique lessons that could inform other directors out there?
— Just that you need patience. You need to not get bogged down in the muck. You’ve got to keep your focus. You can be nice and stubborn at the same time.
– But most of all it taught us that making great work is hard. And that a great idea is only the beginning of great work. And that a great idea is nothing if it’s not executed with love and care and style.
In hiring and working with directors during your agency days, what did you learn that you didn’t like about other directors? What knowledge did you like that you took with you?
— Likes: passion, sense of humour, attention to detail. Dislikes: laziness, bad taste.
– We watched one directing team agonize over the shirt and tie the actor would wear. It was fascinating and confusing how much they seemed to care. We saw how it made a difference at the end. So we learned a lot from that. We watched another director insist that one actor wear rubber gloves for no real reason at all. We liked that, too.
We learned that the only thing you really do as a director is make decisions. So be decisive. And make sure you make the right decision (most of the time).
You guys did this piece “Bessies: The Idea”…a wonderful piece of visual satire about the agency creative process. When you know that the agency creatives have been working on the concept for 6-12 months and they’re a bit jaded…how does that knowledge affect your approach to winning to the project? How does it affect your interaction with he creatives?
— We often say on the first call: you’ve been living with this idea for 3 months, 6 months, 12 months, whatever, and we’re being asked to turn around a treatment in four or five days. So we’ll use the first call to listen. Tell us what you’ve learned. Tell us what you know. Tell us what you care about or don’t care about. Tell us what’s not on the page. It’s the Canadian way to treat the first call. Less talk. More listen.
– And then let us do our thing. Let us take the information you’ve given us and let us think about it and then let us tell you the kind of spot we would like to make. It’s usually very clear to us how we would like to make the spot. And the best thing we can do is come at it with passion and enthusiasm and point of view. We can only approach it how we approach it. We can only be who we are. But hopefully that’s why they’ve come to us.
How do you describe your creative taste? Has it changed much over the years?
— Such a hard question. We like what we like. Sometimes it’s big and dumb. Sometimes it’s small and quiet. Sometimes it’s achingly intelligent. We like things with a point of view. Things that are a tiny bit off. Things that aren’t afraid to show the craft. Things that don’t take themselves too seriously. Things that fuck with you a little bit. Things that make you think. Things with puppets. Things from Argentina. Or Finland. Things with wigs. Things that make you think the makers really cared about what they were making.
– For the second part of the question: it’s always changing. Or maybe growing is a better word. We see something new or something we’ve never seen before and add it to the pile. An old movie. A new painting. A great commercial born from an unexpected idea and executed so effortlessly that it fills us with both jealousy and admiration.
How did your career progress?
– You have to be tenacious. You have to have talent. But mostly you have to have people willing to take a chance on you. Producers who believe in you. Creatives who are craving something new. But also tenacious.
You guys maintain a mysteriously entertaining public profile…going by funny fake names, obscuring your identity and even your name “Perlorian” based off an obscure reference to Japanese cat theatre. What’s the reason for the mystery? Is it to create intrigue, is it about branding…?
— Half cup of mystery. Tablespoon of intrigue. Sprinkling of anonymity. Dash or two of comradery. And a healthy shake of tomfoolery.
In an interview with Ad Forum Nik Sluijs and Joey Boeters said “we’ve never seen a director get so many (subtle and weird) expressions from an actor’s face, these guys know every trick.” So…what are your tricks?
— No tricks. Just choosing un-self-conscious actors with faces and features that delight us and then communicating with them on the day. Not being afraid of asking for different kinds of performances and seeing what happens.
– One “trick” is respecting the actor. We often run way behind schedule because we want to use that audition time to get the best of what each individual has to give. Casting is really hard, but it’s most hard for the talent. The process should never be like a job interview or some kind of sports team try-out, every actor is leaving their day job early and riding the subway to show up just to try to make your 30 second thing better in some way and we have to be thankful that there are so many talented people out there who are willing to go to that effort. A lot of times, if you just create a space where they can express themselves, actors can give you everything. Usually up until the casting callbacks you don’t really know if it’s going to be great or not. Casting is the crucible.
Can you describe a typical casting session for us?
— Not really. It’s never typical. But each session is a chance to see what works and what does not. What is funny and what isn’t. It’s not just going through the paces, it’s trying out as much stuff as we can.
– TV shows, movies and plays have read throughs and rehearsals. We rarely get that luxury. So we’ll hijack a casting session to turn it into a script workshopping exercise — kind of a road test of the material to help mould it into something that’s more effective and more authentic (and sometimes more weird).
What do you look for in an actor?
— Humanity. Honesty. Bad haircut. Small gap between the front teeth.
– one of the secrets to casting is being open-minded to the point where you recognize that a large percentage of whom a character is isn’t on the page, it’s in the human being that portrays them — being open to and embracing the quirks and qualities of the individual you cast and not forcing them to become some entirely preconceived notion of a character results in a hybrid of what you brought on the page and what the actor brings from simply being a person.
During a podcast interview for “Respect the Process” you mentioned being like “tag team wrestlers”…? Can you go into more detail about how you work together on set?
–We contemplate, confer, we discuss, we debate — but we rarely disagree. And this shared “vision” has been the key to our partnership. I suppose the word for it is “trust”. If Ian goes to talk to the dp, I know that he’ll tell her the right thing. If I’m running a wardrobe session — he knows that I’ll choose the right socks.
–And, so we’re just two people doing the job of one man.
– We’re like two individuals that are doing the things that one person ordinarly does.
What’s it like to be on set with The Perlorian Brothers?
— We try to keep the mood light and the energy high. We try and choose collaborators who are not only great at what they do but fun to be around. And we try and get as much good and interesting and surprising stuff as we can; and as little useless and not good stuff.
– We never go into a shoot day thinking that we’ll mess around and find some happy accidents. Not that spontaneous magic doesn’t happen — it often does — but it only happens because you’ve done everything possible to make things unfold in just the right way. This notion of improv ad-lib riffing while the shoot day clock is ticking might sound cool, but it’s a pretty risky way to do things. We prefer to do our riffing and our R&D in all the lead up moments (casting, working with art department, sitting with the talented agency creatives, sometimes even working with actors during wardrobe sessions).
– Also, a comedy film set should be a happy, fun place. Comedy isn’t helped by fear, anger and bad catering.
How do you approach music and sound effects in your work? For example, the music in Glad “Embrace.” Klarna “The Fish.”
— In each of those cases, it was an exploration.
– Often times, and frequently when we get to be hands on with music, we’re seeking out partners that aren’t working exclusively in commercials. Other times we’re digging into some unexpected corners and trying on some scores that maybe wouldn’t be the first thing you’d put in a brief. We once cut a Subway Sandwich spot to an obscure 1930’s blues 78 by Blind Boy Fuller called What’s That Smells Like Fish. The lyrics were euphemistically inappropriate for a national family restaurant brand but the guitar picking had the texture and authenticity we wanted for our little story and the agency and client loved it and on the air it went.
Your set design often showcases a unique approach to color and visual form. Can you discuss how you approach / develop the visual qualities of your sets?
— I suppose a lot of what we do is in revolt against shitty looking comedy spots (and those ugly commercials we hated growing up). So we gather up references. We collaborate with location scouts and production designers and DPs.
But at the end of the day, it’s like all the decisions we make: we look for things that excite us. Locations, set sketches, colour palettes, props….
And then lighting, composition, blocking…..
We want visually stimulating, visually exciting spaces that will let us make visually stimulating and exciting pictures.
A lot of the work you do is in some way risky for brands, it’s not safe advertising. But advertising that takes risks is almost always the best work (both for audience and brands). Do you see any trends in the quantity or quality of risk taking in advertising right now?
— “What’s that smells like fish, baby?
Food, if you really wants to know
Smell like sardines and it ain’t in no can
Same doggone thing you chucked at the other man
What that smell like fish, mama?”
– I take issue with that question: good advertising, meaning advertising that gets noticed, is never a risk. So-called “safe” advertising is what’s risky. We’ve seen countless brands go under due to playing it safe or doing things the expected way that they’ve always done things, or doing what they think people want or what the high priced marketing research consultant report tells them is the formula for success. Succeeding in business is about having an entrepreneur’s conviction stepping forward is safer than standing still because you’re afraid of tripping and falling. Too many corporations make their marketing people afraid of falling, so they’re paralyzed and terrified instead of excited and motivated. And, sadly, that pathology has bled through to a lot of their agencies as well.
What do you look for when deciding on whether or not to bid on a project?
— For us, at least, it’s never the perfect, pure idea. You’re looking for the diamond in the rough or the core of a nice simple concept to build on. Things are often compromised and modified so much by the time we get to see them that sometimes the patient can’t be saved (and the agency would be best to set that direction aside and start fresh), but if we think there’s a way that what we do can realize an idea, we’re game to try.
– a lot of it has to do with hearing the creatives talk about their idea — what they see in it, what they love, what’s important to them, what they feel passionate about. If the discussion is about the concept, that can be very engaging and productive. If the discussion is about the client’s requirements for brand colours or product assortment and the idea takes a back seat, well, that can be a good indicator as well.
Do you still have to hustle as a director or do the plum scripts just land in your lap?
– What? It’s hustle 24/7 baby. This plum-scripts-in-lap career phase sounds pretty good though, can’t wait.
What resources do you use for creative inspiration?
– Google rabbit hole. Criterion Collection. Film-grab. Pinterest. Old issues of Popular Science. The shower. 1970’s kids shows on youtube. Watching local TV while on foreign shoots (Bulgarian Public Access TV) It’s anything and everything really.
What’s your typical day like when you’re not directing or working on treatments…
how do you pass the downtime?
– And weeding the garden (non-metaphorically).
What advice do you have for young comedy directors?
— Same advice as we’d give to any young director: know what kind of work you want to make. And then try and make it. Have a point of view. Be decisive. Don’t settle for things you know aren’t right.
–Have a vision and share it with your production designer, your dp, your editor. Make sure they understand what you are after.
– Don’t be afraid to say no. (everyone involved with leasing their creative talents to commerce should remember this power).
You’ve worked with creative people of all stripes, what traits make for the most successful creative?
— Cynicism. Strangeness, for sure. An unconventional way of seeing the world. Curiosity. Good taste. Hunger for greatness.
– And maybe a little subversiveness as well.