Reflections On DGA Spot Nominations: Award Firsts For Ridley Scott, Spike Jonze, Mark Molloy, Dougal Wilson
Ridley Scott (photo by Lorenzo Aigus)
And a ninth career commercialmaking nod for director Fredrik Bond
  • LOS ANGELES
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This year’s field of nominees for the DGA Award recognizing Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Commercials, unveiled earlier this month (SHOOT, 1/6), is marked by career firsts--even for a pair of veteran directors, Sir Ridley Scott and Spike Jonze, who are no stranger to Guild honors.

Scott, of course, is among the industry’s perennially most honored filmmakers. But amazingly, his nomination this year for Hennessy X.O.’s “The Seven Worlds,” produced by RSA Films for DDB Paris, is his first career DGA Award nod in the commercials category. It joins his other four DGA nominations for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures for Thelma & Louise in 1992, Gladiator in 2001, Black Hawk Down in 2002 and The Martian in 2016--not to mention his receiving the Directors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.

“The Seven Worlds,” as well as a Turkish Airlines spot for Anomaly Amsterdam, both in 2019, were Scott’s first ad projects in 18 years. A shortened :60 version of the Hennessy piece debuted during the 2019 Oscars telecast. And a trailer promoting the Turkish Airlines film graced last year’s Super Bowl telecast. And of course, the Super Bowl became the marquee platform for ambitious advertising due in large part to Scott’s seminal “1984” commercial some 35 years ago introducing the Apple Macintosh computer. The Orwellian tale, among assorted other tour de force spots, made Scott’s recent return to commercialmaking a welcome back to hallowed ground.

Last year Scott told SHOOT he was drawn to Hennessy because it dovetailed with his self-described penchant for “creating worlds.” Complementing the idea that “Each drop of Hennessy X.O. is an Odyssey,” the film is a creative interpretation of each of the seven tasting notes, described by Hennessy’s Comité de Dégustation as illustrations of Hennessy X.O’s taste and feel: Sweet Notes, Rising Heat, Spicy Edge, Flowing Flame, Chocolate Lull, Wood Crunches, and then Infinite Echo.

“I was attracted to this project because I was inspired by the potential for art and entertainment to bring this story to life,” said Scott who was given the freedom to interpret the magnificent seven and create accordingly. 

The seven notes, envisioned as individual worlds, are brought to life through wondrous and extreme physiography. The director leaves it to the viewer’s imagination if the film occurs in the future or the past, in reality or in a dreamscape as he takes us through vivid scenes offering snapshots of each world.

Scott’s film depicts the gathering of shimmering golden liquid, human figures walking in the shadows of bronzed giants, androids coming to life through spicy synapses, beings gliding through a fiery atmosphere and meditating peacefully among levitating rocks while lush woodlands are stirred by invisible spirits. As the film culminates, we see the worlds co-existing in an omnipresent nebula.

Spike Jonze
Jonze too broke new DGA Awards ground this year. Not only was he nominated in the commercials category for the MJZ-produced “The New Normal” for Medmen from agency Mekanism and Squarespace’s “Dream It” but also in the Variety/Talk/News/Sports--Specials competition for 2019 on the basis of Aziz Ansari: Right Now. This gives Jonze a rare hat trick career accomplishment, having earned DGA nominations in the feature, commercial and TV disciplines. Jonze now has five career DGA nominations, including three for commercials and one in 1999 for his feature film Being John Malkovich. Jonze won the DGA Award last year for Apple’s “Welcome Home” spot.

The Jonze-helmed “Dream It” for Squarespace features Idris Elba lip syncing to a rendition of “Que Sera Sera” as he envisions the different careers he could have ranging from boxer to astronaut, chef and fighter pilot.

“The New Normal” for MedMen, a cannabis retailer with operations across the U.S., depicts the complex history of cannabis, also known as marijuana, among other names.  The commercial chronicles society’s evolving perceptions of the plant, from pre-prohibition to the modern industry of today. While looking back through America’s history, from George Washington’s hemp farm, to Reefer Madness propaganda, “The New Normal” takes the audience on a journey through the injustices of the past and a hopeful view for the future. Jonze and actor Jesse Williams (Grey’s Anatomy) collaborated on writing the film, and saw to it that much of the commercial’s cast and crew had a personal real-life connection to the plant. Those individuals included military veterans who use cannabis to treat their PTSD, a former NFL football player who uses it as a substitute for opioids, victims of racial profiling and those who work in the emerging industry.

Framestore handled visual effects for “The New Normal,” which also featured the talents of Williams as an actor, Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young, and production designer James Chinlund whose credits include the recent Disney movie The Lion King.

First-timers
Other career firsts in this year’s field were earned by Mark Molloy of SMUGGLER and Dougal Wilson of Furlined. Each secured his initial DGA Award nomination. 

Wilson’s nomination came for AT&T’s “Train” out of BBDO New York, a :90 which combines elements from Westerns and family films to let viewers know they can get movies and more with AT&T unlimited plans. The film uniquely tells the tale of a Wild West train heist in two distinct parts--mashing together suspenseful live action followed by whimsical stop-motion animation to surprise and delight. It is the fourth installment in AT&T’s cinema series blending movie genres in completely unexpected ways.

The cinema spot featured the work of HouseSpecial (previously known as LAIKA/house), which handled the animation. In fact, the animation director on the project was Paul Harrod, who was the award-winning production designer on Isle of Dogs, the Oscar-nominated film from Wes Anderson. VFX house was Method Studios.

Meanwhile Molloy’s first career DGA nomination came on the strength of Apple’s “Underdog” film done direct for Apple’s in-house creative. The piece shows how a group of “underdogs” get by accident, literally, a meeting with a big corporate honcho to pitch their idea--a round pizza box--with only a brief stretch of time to prepare their presentation. They deploy different Apple products to bring their vision to fruition. Yet what makes the film special is that it not only chronicles their efforts but also delves into each person, showing us the delicate balance between their professional and personal lives, helping viewers to empathize and feel simpatico with our “underdogs,” all with a comedic touch.

There’s a little bit of underdog in Molloy when it comes to his perception of being part of this year’s field of DGA commercial nominees. Before coming from Australia to the U.S., he long viewed the DGA Awards as “a kind of beacon” signifying accomplishment at the highest level. “Getting noticed by your peers is especially kind of sweet. I’m unbelievably humbled by the other nominees. What the hell is my name doing up with those guys?,” he said, citing such luminary talents as Scott and Jonze. In fact, Molloy recalled that when he started to work as a filmmaker, he bought a DVD of Jonze’s work to study and as a source of inspiration. “There are a lot of industry awards but as a filmmaker to get nominated by your peers at the DGA is the one most directors strive for.”

Molloy credited his working relationship with Apple creatives with helping to build a collaborative trust that contributed to bringing a storytelling depth and human interest to “Underdog.” Thus far Molloy has directed four shorts for Apple, including the notable “Surprise” with agency TBWA\Media Arts Lab. Over the course of their teaming, Apple and Molloy have developed a trusting creative spirit, which starts up top, he observed, with Tor Myhren, Apple’s VP of marketing communications, shaping a nurturing environment where folks can come together and share ideas and experiences to develop content.

That developmental dynamic helped to bring a new dimension to a premise--a bunch of employees making a work presentation--that on the surface might otherwise seem mundane. Instead it resulted in a fun piece in which we care and root for the workers. Molloy noted that he and the Apple team would continually workshop ideas to tell the “Underdogs” story the right way. “We built a script together,” he said, noting that they were “actually on set still writing little scenes” in an ongoing effort to bring the humanity of the story to the fore.

Molloy also cited several other contributors, including DP Joost van Gelder, editor Neil Smith of Work Editorial, and Jodi Sonnenberg who handles casting. Of the latter, Molloy noted, “On paper we had a really strong script. When the right actors take that material and bring it to life, that’s when things really shine and people respond to things. So much of ‘Underdogs’ is in the casting.”

“Underdogs” marked the first time Molloy had worked with van Gelder. The director had been trying to connect on a project with the cinematographer for many years. Scheduling came together for this Apple piece. Molloy described van Gelder as “an amazing partner in this film,” citing the way the DP dovetailed with Apple creatives, his “wry sense of humor” and “the way he sees the world.” 

Molloy has worked with editor Smith several times over the years, finding him to be “a master” with “an incredible sense of timing...The way he composes scenes, curates images and brings them together is really phenomenal. I hadn’t done a lot of comedy before. Neil was instrumental in helping (support the comedic tone).”

In the big picture, a major collaborator for Molloy on all his work is Brian Carmody, co-founder of SMUGGLER. Molloy has been with SMUGGLER for some seven-plus years, having moved from Australia to the U.S. five years ago. Molloy said that SMUGGLER has been “instrumental in working with me, helping to build my team, helping me to navigate my way through the system here, investing in me to make better work. I have a very close relationship with Brian. He’s an amazing sounding board. When I’m not just sure about something, he’s my first call. I value the way he sees the world and the way he communicates. He’s someone I can reach out to and trust his judgment. He’s there when you need that clarity. He’s astute. I’m lucky to have him.”

Fredrik Bond
Departing from this year’s DGA Award theme of firsts was director Fredrik Bond of MJZ who earned his ninth career Guild nomination in the commercials category, this time for a trio of spots: HP Elite Dragonfly’s “Lighter Than Air” from agency MediaMonks; Coca-Cola Light’s “Take it Lightly” out of Stockholm agency Ingo; and Apple iPhone’s “Nap” from Apple’s creatives.

Bond said the honor of receiving a Guild nomination never gets old. “Over the years you might think it gets a little mundane but the truth is it gives me more joy, makes me happier and happier. This year to be nominated along with Ridley, Spike, Dougal and Mark is really special. These are four guys I look up to so much, especially Ridley who’s done so much, has proven that commercials are an artform, is so incredible and inspiring. It’s very special.”

“Nap” introduces us to a guy lounging in the backyard who can check his iPhone for messages, etc., in the most untaxing way due to facial recognition technology. 

“Take it Lightly” centers on a couple whose romantic relationship is seen from two perspectives via split screen, with one POV/orientation rooted in taking things lightly through life--the other from a not-so-lighthearted perspective. The contrast between the two sheds light on relationships and the role attitude plays in shaping them.

And “Lighter Than Air” depicts how light and literally gravity defying the workhouse HP convertible laptop can be for its user as she creates and innovates through the technology, breaking through one ceiling after another, rising to new heights--to the accompaniment of 2001: A Space Odyssey theme music.

“All three projects had a different approach. That’s what I love about filmmaking and our job,” related Bond. “You have a board, and a story to tell that enables you to challenge yourself as to the best approach.”

Bond said the Apple “Nap” spot was almost a one-take piece but careful consideration had to be given not only to the man cast in the piece but the environment in which he is pictured. The environment helps to “encapsulate the laziness of the guy,” as we see “this beautiful lawn, a utopia of grass. This is where this guy would live. The location had as much personality as the person we cast. They are equally important parts of the film.”

Meanwhile integral to the Coca-Cola Light commercial was the couple cast as lovers. “We had multiple chemistry tests between different couples,” recalled Bond. “We felt this couple had a great, unique chemistry” which helped as we took them on “an emotional journey.” The deployment of split screen to tell the story wasn’t part of the original plan but in working with the creatives at Ingo, showing the difference side by side that attitude towards life can make evolved naturally and made the most sense in terms of doing full justice to the premise.

“Lighter Than Air,” continued Bond, involved “a very sort of calculated process, very precise storyboards. Every frame that we drew was almost replicated exactly in camera. We filmed exactly what we needed. I don’t think there was a single scene that we didn’t use. It was a methodical process, one of those really proficient shoots that I love doing.”

Yet while distinctly different, Bond’s DGA Award entries share a common bond. “All these three projects instantly put an image in my head, getting me into plot, story, environment. They shared the commonality that they all immediately got me excited. When you see and talk about an idea you love, you start leaning forward. I’m sitting back and relaxed, and then suddenly I’m leaning forward. It’s that excitement and enthusiasm you feel as a director, being connected with something you love.”

This year’s DGA winners spanning features, TV and commercials will be announced and honored at the 72nd Annual DGA Awards on Saturday, January 25, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

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