“ART AND COPY”‘S DOUG PRAY By Alicia Van Couvering
Documentarian Doug Pray has made films about grafitti artists (Infamy), an iterant surfing family (Surfwise), Seattle punk scene (Hype!) Hip Hop DJ’s (Scratch) and truckers (Big Rig), and now, with Art & Copy, he profiles the living legends of corporate advertising. Advertising has a complicated relationship to filmmaking — for one thing, many feature and documentary directors make a living doing commercials. The men and women profiled in Pray’s film have been responsible for most revolutionary campaigns of the ad business — VW’s “Lemon” and “Think Small” were by George Lois, who also provoked controversy with his Esquire Covers and was at the agency that did the infamous Lyndon Johnson “Daisy Girl” ad (which has been credited with Johnson’s election win); “Got Milk?” by Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein; Lee Clow of Chiat/Day’s Apple Computer campaign, advertising which is integral to the brand itself; sentimentalist master Hal Riney, whose voice you would recognize from every commercial that ever made you cry (and some, like Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning in America,” that might have made you scream). Phyllis Robinson empowered the women of the “me generation” with Clairol ads and took the 1960’s to the sky for airlines. Dan Weiden and David Kennedy took their Nike motto “Just Do It” from the published last words of an executed felon, and set about to make a campaign that changed how sports are played in America. Pray put the camera on these men and women not to provoke them into talking about corporate responsibility, but to expose, in the purest way possible, what their art is and how they think about it.
Filmmaker: How is this film different from your other films?
Pray: For one thing, here I was in these expansive, gorgeous, architecturally wondrous ad agencies in these super high-end apartments in New York City, which is a far cry from the trash infested alleys and truck stops of my previous films. I thought when I started the film that it was gonna be totally different — that any fans of my previous work were gonna think I’d completely jumped off a cliff to make a movie somehow celebrating advertising, as if I’d lost all of my indie cred in one fell swoop. With a lot of my films I was dealing with people who were anti-society, many of them are about artists and subcultures. But I started thinking how similar this was. These guys are doing all these things that we’re trained to believe are not in the same spirit as what true artists do – selling products, working for a corporation — but that it couldn’t be further from the truth. In their hearts and minds, these guys do think of themselves as artists, they do think of themselves as revolutionaries. Even if it’s for Coke or Apple computer, they are still seeing their role in life as trying to change people and change the world. And then you kind of go, well, all artists, that’s kind of their goal too. They want to move people, they want to express themselves, they have something to say.
Filmmaker: It seemed to me that you kept stopping short of indicting these people for working for corporations; it’s not a film about corporate ethics or the corrupting power of money. How did you draw that line?
Pray: I can honestly say, that question was the hardest part of making the movie for me – how far do we go, and how much will the public be interested in talking about advertising in this different frame. Because the only two conversations that have ever been had about advertising are, “I loved that Superbowl ad” or “I hate advertising.”
Filmmaker: What were some formal decisions you made to keep that balance?
Pray: One of my decisions was to add statistics [about the amount of money generated by advertising, against footage of satellite launches and billboard posting] – which is to try to take the movie to another level, one where I didn’t want the movie itself to go. I wanted to add that layer of information for the audience as a way of constantly reminding them that what these people do is huge. The results of these guys’ thought processes are affecting millions and millions of dollars of commerce. The film assumes that we live in this world of commerce, and talks about the advertising. The film isn’t asking if commerce is good or bad.
Filmmaker: That’s interesting, to make a film about the kings of this business, but not about the business itself.
Pray: I felt like, it’s really, really easy to make a film that trashes advertising. Nobody likes 90% of the advertising that’s out there – nobody. Especially not these guys. So it just didn’t make sense to do a movie where we go on and on about how bad it is and how corporate it is. It just made sense to focus on these individuals and let them say what they want to say. I just decided to keep it personal. Not personal for me, but about them. They can share their own doubts — one of my favorite lines is when Jeff Goodby admits that he won’t let his kids watch bad ads. I wanted [that idea] to come from them, not me. My job is not to reinterpret what they’re saying, but to expose who they are.
Filmmaker: How did the film come together – you were approached by The One Club, right?
Pray: Yes, the producers approached me, they had seen my work and knew I had made films about artists. Nobody wanted to do a tribute film, or a puff piece on the ad industry. But I knew that I wasn’t going to make ADBUSTERS, the movie. And I love ADBUSTERS, by the way, I read it. But I was granted rare, rare access to these individuals, and I had a deep respect for the opportunity, and I felt the same way about the Pascowitz family or the graffiti artists. Some of these guys have been interviewed about particular campaigns, like Lee Clow has been interviewed dozens of times about the [Apple/Ridley Scott] 1984 ad, but never have these guys like allowed a camera into their home, or been asked to step back and look at the whole thing. Hal Riney had never done an interview like that in his life for anybody, in fact, none of these guys have.
Filmmaker: What were they like to interview?
Pray: I think they really enjoyed talking about their work on this level, stepping back and talking about what it all means. I love interviewing artists, I just love it, and these people are artists. My whole thing is like, “What is motivating you? Where’s this coming from?” One of my favorite lines in the movie is when Hal Riney says, ‘Well, I haven’t been to a shrink… much.’ And he gives this sly grin. And then he continues, ‘but the fact that I grew up in a home that didn’t have emotions…’ that propelled his work. If you look at his ads after hearing that you just can see, ‘Oh my god, this is one big therapy session. I’ve just bought Saturns and bought Bartles & James, because Hal Riney had a childhood with no emotion and he created the fantasy life that he wanted in these hundreds of ads. And I know that’s simplistic but it’s also so cool to realize that everything is human; architecture is human – the design of that shopping mall reflects someone’s childhood.
Filmmaker: What was your concept of advertising before you made the film?
Pray: I had two general concepts of advertising. One of them was a life long cynicism against it. The second one, which is diametrically opposed to the first one, is that over the last few years I have begun directing commercials myself. I realized that some of my heroes, like Errol Morris and Barbara Kopple, they all do them – I mean I had no idea that anybody that I respected would do ads and then I realized that everybody that I respected does ads, that’s how they maintain their documentary careers, so I started doing them. Then I realized that it’s an incredibly dynamic process, one that makes you so much better as a director – it’s like boot camp. The commercial work I have done is documentary style with non-actors, but you’re surrounded by an agency and a client who are demanding that certain things occur. And in a documentary environment, certain things just do not occur. On a commercial, you have to get a non-actor to say things you want them to say. It sounds so manipulative but it’s really quite the opposite — it’s about getting in touch with the truth of what they think and getting them to say it. You’re also surrounded by very skilled crew who can do exactly what you want. I thought I would hate it, but it’s usually really invigorating. And they pay you. There’s a terrible economic reality to doing documentaries; working on commercials has allowed me to make the films. But no one I interviewed had any idea that I do this stuff, because I didn’t want it to feel like I was doing this to get work.
Filmmaker: And certainly there is work being done in advertising that no one could afford to do in features, not to mention intensely creative, surreal work by filmmakers who just don’t work in long form…
Pray: It’s true – and it’s actually Rich Silverstein that says, ‘If you can figure out a way to still be creative and say things that you want to say, and yet do it in this weird situation where you’re actually pushing a product, that’s a pretty amazing thing.’ We really aren’t looking at the work-a-day people who are not enjoying their work and doing mediocre stuff, we’re looking at people who for most of their career have been able to connect [creativity and commerce.] They’re saying something, they’re being creative, they’re pushing limits, they’re taking risks, they’re doing everything an artist would want to do, and yet it’s for a product and they’re getting all this money to do it. You could say that completely changes the nature of it, but in their minds it doesn’t. And my whole trip on that anyway is like – who funds the art? Why is it any different getting money for a 30-second documentary from a huge corporation and [doing a feature on your own]?
Filmmaker: Well, one major difference is that if you’re doing something in the service of making more money, versus finding someone to spend money on a goal you already had, and often without the promise of getting it back. But it’s certainly complicated. ‘
Pray: There’s very little art in the world today that isn’t funded by corporate clients. The only difference with this is that they make no bones about it, they’re not trying to hide it: ‘Hell yeah, we’re selling soap.’ If there is an evil, what they all keep saying in the film is, ‘What’s evil is looking down at your audience and treating them like idiots.’ These guys do not like bad ads. It would be wrong if I made [what they do] sound altruistic — it’s just an interesting discussion, like, who’s funding Sundance?
Filmmaker: As you joked, this is the first Sundance movie with ads in it.
Pray: Right, I said to the audience before the premiere: if you think Sundance has gotten too commercial, you’re in the wrong movie.