Independent Lens: Q&A with Art & Copy Filmmaker Doug Pray
What impact do you hope this film will have?
I hope it will encourage better advertising. Commercial communication is not going to disappear from our environment anytime soon. Ninety-five percent of it is terrible. Can it be improved? Made more inspiring? Funnier? More socially redeeming? Can it be effective in a way that goes beyond just selling a product? The people in Art & Copy believe it can be done, and have, at times, proven so.
What led you to make Art & Copy?
I was fascinated by the prospect of meeting a group of creative individuals who are almost entirely unknown (outside of their industry), and yet have influenced mass culture in a huge way. Kind of like having access to The Wizard of Oz.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making the film?
For some, the very idea of good advertising is oxymoronic. It was challenging to engage with such a controversial subject and discuss it in human terms, rather than default to vitriolic criticism.
Personally, I think the former approach has greater impact, but it hasn’t been easy to figure out how the film should play, and how different audiences will react to it. I also didn’t want the movie to end up as just a series of “talking head” interviews, which, early on, it was. So, inventing visual ways to keep us moving through the different characters and highlighting their work was creatively challenging.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
The film was born out of the fact that we already had access to this group of legendary ad creatives through the One Club (a non-profit advertising organization), so there was some trust to begin with. Otherwise, they were the same as any subjects I’ve ever worked with, and my approach is always the same: I try to get them to forget about the camera, to be themselves, and tell us why they do what they do, and why it matters.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
I would have liked to include more about print communication. I’m really into strong graphic design, fonts, and layout when paired with great writing. But TV ads are easier to present in film. Art & Copy also doesn’t deal with the internet or digital formats — the film isn’t a history lesson per se, nor is it an analysis of modern advertising. It’s only about the power of big ideas, and the creative process for getting there.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
The film opens on a shot of some ancient petroglyphs carved into a rock outcrop in French Guiana. The rocks are within a stones throw of one of the busiest communication satellite launch pads on the planet, also shown throughout the movie. I like connecting the fact that both reveal the same phenomenon: an innately human impulse for telling stories that move us. Commercial communication is created for commerce, but in a thousand years, anthropologists will just see that we kept telling stories to each other, again and again, whether carved in rocks, or bounced off mirrors in outer space to advertise Jell-O.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
Many have been inspired by the film, and my favorite responses have been from those who work outside of advertising who seem to get the underlying message that creative thinking can thrive anywhere, if one is allowed to fail and take risks. I’m also gratified by people within advertising for whom the film is a reminder of why they got into the business in the first place — to work in a super dynamic atmosphere, to be creative, to make an impact, and so forth. And then there are some who despise advertising so much in all its forms, that they can’t see beyond the topic at all and are angry that I’ve sought to humanize it. I don’t entirely disagree with their sentiments; it’s just a different approach.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
The money. Independent documentary features are just massive cash cows, like real estate and hedge funds once were … just kidding. In reality, feature docs are always much harder to make than we are able to recall when we get involved in a new one. A combination of amnesia, naïveté, and film-festival headiness propel us forward into every new film. The actual payoff is the creative work. I simply love being in an editing room at 3 AM and colliding formerly disparate quotes, visuals, and music into a movie scene that audiences will experience. It is a rush, and it is addictive.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
The decision was made by my producers, Mary Warlick, Michael Nadeau, and Jimmy Greenway, but it’s the first of my six features to be presented on PBS. I’m excited about the new and larger audience it will reach.
What question do you most get asked about the film?
A lot of people ask about the music. Almost all of it was written and performed by Jeff Martin, who also creates music as the band Idaho. I intentionally chose Jeff’s music because it set a gorgeous, moody, and thoughtful tone for the whole film. It took the entire discussion of creativity and the power of advertising and caused it to play out on a rather profound level, rather than the on the noisy and banal level with which people typically associate advertising. Jeff is an amazing musician and his contributions nicely combined with my other creative choices: Peter Nelson’s exacting and abstract cinematography, and Philip Owen’s editing. I was pleased to enjoy so much creative collaboration within a film about the same.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
I didn’t get anything else done. That’s what I love/hate about feature documentaries, they consume you. For us workaholics, that’s a blessing.
Any news about the people in your film since you wrapped?
About half of the advertising legends in Art & Copy were already retired, and Hal Riney passed away in 2008. Those who are still at the top of their game and continue to oversee some of the world’s most successful advertising agencies, such as Goodby & Silverstein, TBWA, and Wieden+Kennedy. The challenge for everyone in the field today is to embrace the new world of digital communication and figure out how to still tell great human stories in modern media, as they did in the past with print and television.
What are your three favorite films?
Aguirre: The Wrath of God
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
With affordable digital technology available to everyone these days, dozens of internet sites to share digital media with large audiences, and a film festival in every incorporated town in North America, there is no longer a giant money barrier between your ideas, production, and distribution, unless you’re dead set on only working in Imax 3D. My advice is to stop talking about films and go make them. Make a three-minute documentary about your neighbor’s cat and see what people think. Learning what audiences respond to, and practicing filmmaking as often as you can. It’s like writing: you have to practice it every day. Just having access to a pencil and paper does not a great novel make.
What food and drink sustains you during the filmmaking process?
Coffee. Vitamin B. Green Tea. Coffee. Repeated in that order.
Watch the Art & Copy trailer: