- NEW YORK
Pete Johnson, who’s EVP, executive creative director at Deutsch NY, quipped that though he had never directed before, “a lot of directors I worked with would probably argue that’s not the case.”
Whatever the interpretation of his hands-on exploits as an agency creative, Johnson recently settled into the director’s chair officially for the first time on Better Half, a short film he co-wrote and co-directed with veteran commercial helmer Adam Jones.
The idea for the personal project was hatched while ECD Johnson and his long-time friend and colleague, director Jones, were collaborating on a commercial shoot in Vancouver, B.C., awhile back. Johnson recalled sitting in a lobby one rainy day in a Vancouver hotel when Jones showed him a newspaper article he found online about a Kansas man who robbed a bank with the intent of getting caught so he would get prison time to escape life with his wife.
“We started talking about it,” recalled Johnson who was inspired to write a longer version of the story, rooted in the New York scene. From this sprung Better Half as directors/writers Johnson and Jones tapped into Joe Calabrese, EVP, director of integrated production at Deutsch NY, to begin assembling a team to help bring the film to fruition. Done independently of Deutsch, the film still enjoyed the support of the agency which provided varied resources, including access after hours to an in-house mix facility. Donating their expertise to the project, which was two years in the making, were shops including Cosmo Street Editorial with its Tom Scherma serving as editor, JSM Music with an original score, and The Mill which contributed visual effects work.
Additionally Calabrese, exec producer of Better Half, reached out to former creative colleagues Geoff Edwards and Keith Cartwright. The three worked together some time ago at what was Chiat\Day, San Francisco, which later became Cutwater. Edwards and Cartwright, along with fellow professionals Kwame Taylor-Hayford and Jayanta Jenkins, are founders of Saturday Morning, a nonprofit organization dedicated to opening up entertainment, media and advertising industry opportunities spanning employment, storytelling and education for African-Americans. With the help of Saturday Morning, an infusion of talent made the crew on Better Half more than 50 percent African American.
Calabrese said the crew members brought on board via Saturday Morning were integral in making Better Half, with a number of them since hired for projects out of Deutsch and its in-house production unit, Steelhead. Calabrese noted that Saturday Morning proved to be a great conduit to new people who demonstrated their talent on the short and merited return engagements.
Better Half tells a wacky story about 40 years of co-dependency, leading to a husband (portrayed by Tom Mardirosian) robbing a bank to get away from his better half (Ronnie Farer). He hopes to spend the rest of his life in a better place, namely jail, but he receives a sentence that he didn’t expect. Johnson and Jones’ comedic chops and people storytelling skills are on display in this short, which runs about 20 minutes.
Johnson noted that his experience on Better Half, for which he also served as an EP, was an eye-opener on several fronts. First he and Calabrese have a track record working closely together, with an underlying urge at times for one to do the other’s job. “I want to be a producer. He wants to be a creative director,” smiled Johnson, observing that Better Half afforded him the opportunity “to learn about the other side,” getting a clearer picture of the yeoman duty taken on by Calabrese to help realize a project.
Similarly, continued Johnson, “In the advertising industry we have an idea and send it out to a production company...and magic happens. We did on Better Half firsthand (what a production house does) and saw that it’s not magic. It’s a lot of work. The experience gave me even greater respect for what our vendors and partners do.”
Calabrese concurred, noting that Better Half was done for “a fraction of what a commercial would normally cost,” akin to the cheaper and scrappier mode often asked of suppliers in the world of social. Better Half, he said, gave him a deeper “newfound respect for what our partners do on the production side.”
Asked whether Better Half whetted his appetite for directing, Johnson said that while it was hard work, he enjoyed it. Rather than having an idea and handing it off to a director to realize it, Johnson found it gratifying to keep the ball this time and transform what was in his head into a finished film. It was an opportunity, he related, “to stretch your legs, to creatively push things, and think about your skillset in a different way.”
He and Calabrese thus now bring a broader perspective to their duties at Deutsch.
Meanwhile Johnson, Jones, Calabrese, et al, are waiting to hear back from numerous film festivals about Better Half gaining wider exposure on that circuit. Better Half has already been accepted to the SOMA Film Festival in New Jersey and the New Hampshire Film Fest. Unfortunately, the SOMA event, slated to begin next week, was postponed due to concerns over the coronavirus.
Johnson added that Better Half has helped open another prospective filmmaking opportunity. He and a partner have written a feature screenplay which is in the final rounds of consideration at MGM. Helping to open the door at that studio was Better Half, which provided a taste of what Johnson could do and piqued curiosity over what else he had in the hopper.
Here’s the trailer for Better Half: