The Hard Sell: How Directing Commercials and Behind-the-Scenes Footage Led Me to My Feature

Sure, the conversations overheard on the sets of feature films and the sets of commercials tend to be about different things: “Where’s the product in this shot?” vs. “What are the character motivations here?”

But the biggest difference between making commercials and feature films is time. Not just in regards to the length of the deliverable, but the time you spend in creating it. Commercials are conceived quickly. You probably spend less than two weeks (sometimes a couple days) talking about it, and then maybe you have one day to shoot it, and a week of revisions in post.

Movies are different. Some big studios movies are on a rotisserie, with the release date out before a first draft is created, but even a rushed movie often takes years of work. Indie films take even longer. If you’re looking to make the leap into indie features, like I did with my feature Hard Sell, then plan to spend three years working in some capacity on your first movie. Does the idea sounds daunting? I suggest you look at the initial steps you need to take to get the ball rolling, rather than the scope of the overall project. Then along the way you’ll take a million steps and eventually crest the mountain without ever really realizing how long it took you (until that annoying friend at the bar inevitably reminds you).

There’s no formula for transitioning from commercials to a feature film, but this is how I did it. I went to film school at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, where I won an opportunity to be mentored by acclaimed photographer/commercial director Matthew Rolston. (Rolston went to ACCD and created a scholarship that gave a student the opportunity to be mentored by him for a semester.) The chair of the film department selected a handful of applicants to present their work to Rolston; I was one of those few. Rolston seemed to gravitate toward my photography and saw promise in some short films I had created. I was chosen.

During the mentorship, Rolston invited me on set to experience the ebb and flow of the chaotic advertising environment. I eventually asked him if I could bring a camera on set and conduct interviews with people in different departments, as a learning device for myself. He accepted my proposal and so I went on my way, shooting and editing these two-to-three minute behind-the-scenes videos with my small Canon Mark II camera. Rolston loved them so much he started pitching me to clients, selling them on the idea that “the ‘making of’ is just as important as the product.” We formed the company R-Roll together.

Because of this new company, the mentorship didn’t just last a semester, it carried on for four years. I must have shot dozens of these videos before I got the opportunity to direct commercials of my own. Clients liked the “making of” so much they started wanting that voyeuristic, down-and-dirty aesthetic to be incorporated into the actual commercials, and that’s how I started landing my first commercial gigs. The first one was a joint music video/commercial for the iconic Redbury Hotel in Hollywood, where a band comes and spends a wild night in the hotel. It was sexy, it was fun, and most importantly it left a small production footprint. The video drew the attention of The New York Times who wrote a feature on the project and my youthful approach. Jobs snowballed from there: I shot commercials that looked like my BTS videos, some that looked like surveillance camera footage, some that  appeared to have the talent filming themselves in first-person.

All the while, I had been working on a script of my own—Hard Sell. Feature films were always the goal; that’s what I grew up watching and that’s what I wanted to be a part of. Finally, in 2013, I felt like my script was ready to be produced. (I had no idea how to get it produced, but it was ready.) I decided to put together a Kickstarter campaign to create some visual assets that I could eventually use to help get funding. All good campaigns have a cool video, and I made my video in the same style as my commercial work. Somehow I managed to persuade my childhood screen crush, actress Jennifer Love Hewitt, to go on camera and speak kindly of me. I had worked with JLH for two years shooting behind-the-scenes videos for her television series and she was a fan. I also had Rolston endorse me in the video.

In one month’s time I had raised $14,275. The successful campaign on Kickstarter served as good publicity too. People whom I hadn’t spoken to in years now knew about my movie and that I was passionate about making it. During the long, onerous journey of getting my movie financed, I received an email from a friend, Love Hewitt’s manager: “What do u think about Chenoweth for the mom?” I.e. Emmy- and Tony-winning actress Kristin Chenoweth, playing the pivotal role in my movie of the protagonist’s mom.

Chenoweth was another client of this particular manager. The year before, that same manager hired me to shoot behind-the-scenes footage of Chenoweth’s concert tour. That video became a hit and was featured on Perez Hilton. I didn’t know at the time, but Chenoweth, having liked the way I portrayed her, had told her manager if I was ever doing anything on my own she’d love to be a part of it.

Kristin Chenoweth in Hard Sell

Kristin Chenoweth and Skyler Gisondo in Hard Sell

I don’t mean to gloss over the fact that financing was a day-to-day grind, but I’m grateful for the opportunities I had along the way that lead me to carrying out my dream.

Commercial work helps you strengthen your craft. It helps you develop concepts and execute ideas on a budget. It also help you to get acclimated (almost) to the high-pressure atmosphere. But mainly, by continuing to put work out there, you organically create bonds with creative people that you can call upon when the time comes (that is, if you’re not a douchebag).

I learned through my experience in commercials that the director really sets the tone of the atmosphere on set. If you’re neurotic on set, the crew will be neurotic (which can be annoying). If you’re having fun on set, the group will joke around on set (which isn’t always a great thing). If you’re a dick, people will be too scared to effectively do their jobs (that’s bad). It’s a balancing act. Feature films place the director as the leader of a band whose members have just met and who all are forced to hang out for a month (not just one day, like commercials).

So: Show up early. Don’t be a douchebag. Always deliver. MM

Hard Sell opens in theaters and on VOD and Digital HD on May 20, 2016, courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

2 Comments

  1. Dennis Hill

    May 23, 2016 at 8:53 am

    Always good to hear fellow alum talking about their experiences and referencing Art Center.

  2. Randy M.

    May 19, 2016 at 11:15 am

    Great article!! Your words are so inspiring. Often you hear people talk about their dreams and goals but my hats off to you for making yours a reality. Congrats on the film! Can’t wait to see it- HARD work SELLS.

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