Of all the reels I’ve been shown over the years, I can think of only two that made such an impression I can still remember where I was shown them.
The first was in Director Nick Lewin’s office, that was Howard Zieff’s reel.
The second was in the boardroom of a small agency I used to work for called Edwards Martin Thornton, that was yours.
Howard Zieff was terrific.
When I was starting out he was already doing great work, it was some ritzy stuff, all about the execution of the idea.
He did a print ad for Utica Club beer, terrific ad!
You were born on the same day as me, but a bit before, two days into the Chicago World’s Fair, what was Chicago like in those days?
Wow! That’s my birthday too.
You’re a Gemini like me.
Well you know we’re both two-faced?
It’s true, I was born at the start of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, but I’m not a Chicagoan, I was born in Ohio.
Sounds like something out of a Sinclair Lewis novel.
My father died when I was eight years old, heart attack.
My mother was a very strong woman, thank God.
I was very fortunate, she was very strong-willed, she said ‘Now you’re not going to go to a trade school, you’re going to get your degree’.
So I went to the Chicago Art Institute.
She was absolutely right but for all the wrong reasons, she said that’s the way you get a job, but when I got there it opened up a whole new world. You look back at these things that happen to you and think; “Boy, how lucky I was to have met those people.
If I’d had my own way, I’d have gone to that fucking trade school.”
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A cartoonist, doing comic strips like Chester Gould, this was the forties, a high time for comics.
In the thirties and forties he did some terrific work, but then, I don’t know whether he got bored or what? But all of a sudden Dick Tracey was going to the moon, it just went down hill from there.
I’m lucky I didn’t do it, I’d be stuck with one character.
What I loved about commercials was that each one was different.
I wasn’t stuck with one character, people would say “Didn’t you put actress Clara Peller under contract?” And I’d say “Absolutely not, if I did I’d have to use her and she may not be right.’”
Who were your early influences?
When I was fifteen years old I got a book ‘The New Yorker Magazine 25th Anniversary Annual’, all their stuff from the very beginning. Oh my God!
I think I wore that book out, those cartoons were so great, all those characters were straight, underplayed.
You take from this, you take from that, I was influenced by so many people, and so many things, I think that’s true of everybody, but then you make it your own.
How did you end up in an ad agency?
At art school you didn’t think about getting a job, you thought about being in some garret or whatever.
But in my final year I took an advertising course and started thinking about getting a job.
When I graduated I went to someone who placed Art Directors, or potential Art Directors, called Doug Smith. Later that same day he called up to say he already had a job for me in a studio.
About two weeks later he called again saying a guy from Y&R would like to talk to me.
I didn’t know what a Y&R was, it meant nothing to me, so I said ‘Thanks a lot, but I’ve already got a job’.
Talk about early stupidity.
Another week later, Doug calls again and says “This guy would really like to see you.”
So I went to see him.
Not because I was interested in that job, but I felt a responsibility to Doug who had done all the work.
Well, I got hired, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
What was Y&R Chicago like in 1956?
It was small, but my Creative Director Sam was from New York (I don’t think they knew what to do with him in New York).
He was a great guy.
In those days Art Directors worked in chalk, I hated chalk, but Sam let us work in pencil, Indian Ink, wash or whatever.
Once you did something you’d have to defend your work, ‘what are you trying to say?’, etc, I learnt so much.
But in the area of film, the producer had complete control.
They’d take my storyboard and go to the West Coast and use some schlock outfit, turn it into crap.
I wanted to be involved in the whole damned thing, and people would say, even back then, ‘you’re not a collaborator Joe’.
But I loved it because you had our day in court, you can see the whole thing through, when you got done you could say ‘Yeah, I did this’.
Sounds great, why leave?
Well, Clinton Frank did schlock work, but a new Creative Director had taken over, he called and said ‘come over, we could do some good stuff’.
It was true, I was able to do good stuff.
How were you learning at this time?
I used to go to these Advertising Age seminars and what these guys were saying was just fantastic, they’d talk about integrity, ethics, y’know, they’d sound like Bill Bernbach, who was the shining light back then, Doyle Dane’s stuff was fantastic, still is, still works.
But I found out these seminars were like church on a Sunday.
At the seminars all us Art Directors would be really excited, inspired and talking about what we’d heard.
Then we’d get back to work and they’d be saying ‘yeah, that stuff’s good to talk about, but let’s get back to reality’.
Everyone talked a good game but when it came down to doing something, it was like ‘Whoa…they’ll never buy this!’.
The trick was finding people on your level.
In the beginning it was difficult.
Another call, this time Leo Burnett?
They said ‘you gotta come over to Leo Burnett Joe’.
So I did.
Worst decision I ever made.
You were an art director and that was it.
I had this little cubicle, I mean when I was at Y&R I had an office with a window looking down Michigan Avenue, and I was just an assistant Art Director there.
Also, I really wanted to get into the films and commercials, I’d tell people and they’d say ‘you gotta go down and talk to the guy running commercials’.
I’d go down and talk the Head Producer and he’d say ‘We’re the ones doing all the creative work anyhow, if you wanna do TV it has to be through us’.
I kept being told ‘You know Joe, it’s not a revolution, it’s an evolution, and you gotta be part of the group, the team, it’s collaborative’ and all that bullshit.
That division of labour, or whatever you wanna call it, was bullshit.
Although in those days most art directors weren’t really interested in film, they wanted to do their print, which was fine, but I wanted to do film.
Do you remember the first time you encountered the creative revolution?
There was no creative revolution!
It was a small group of DDB off shoots, like Mary Wells, who did some interesting work.
No one else was doing that, mainly it was Ogilvy and Leo Burnett and all this boring stuff.
But I can remember seeing VW and the Ohrbachs ‘You don’t have to be Jewish’ ad; terrific!
So how long did you hit that wall at Leo Burnett’s?
Luckily I got a call from Bill Johnson, the Creative Director at JWT, they were cleaning the slate, getting rid of all these old people who’d been there forever, retiring them.
One of the best decisions I ever made.
Did JWT allow you to get more involved in film?
I worked on Chung King, they’d been using comedian Stan Freberg to write their ads, he’d been making a name for himself doing funny ads.
They called him in and asked him what ideas he had for the coming year, well, Stan said he’d need paying before he told them his ideas.
The thing went back and forth until eventually the meeting ended and one of the guys said to Stan ‘Keep in touch’, or something.
After he’d gone the Creative Director said ‘how would you and Dave like to have a crack at those spots?’
So we worked on the egg roll brief, we thought what is an egg roll? So we had this idea about ‘How do you eat an Egg Roll?’, set in a cocktail party.
I did the print too, and at the time you didn’t shoot food against a black background, it was about 1964, so we did the presentation and the client liked all the work, they wanted to run the test film we’d made, but that wasn’t possible because of the Unions.
They said there’s just one problem; the food should never be against a black background.
He’d hardly got done with that sentence when the account guy said ‘Oh no, no, no, we can change that to any color you want’.
He looked like a complete asshole.
It’s these things you come up against.
I couldn’t re-shoot the spot myself, I had to shoot it in Chicago with this real schlock studio, they had some kind of deal with the agency.
But I got everything lined up the way I wanted.
I then talked to the cinematographer who’d put a credenza in the background that was lit, and I said ‘No, that drops off, we light the people, we’re not selling the credenza here’.
Nice guy, but his lighting was terrible.
We were shooting a cocktail party and I wanted to shoot someone talking to someone else off camera.
So I cropped it tight, to leave it to people’s imagination.
We got the film back, he’d shot it wide.
So it was obvious they were talking to no-one, he was talking to himself!
He said ‘I just wanted to cover it for you’, I thought Jesus Christ!
We went in and blew it up, it ended up ok, but the color was shit, real schlock guys.
I guess it was my first foray into film.
Did you do any good TV at JWT?
No, no, no, oh my God!
I mean, you pay your dues.
I remember I did a lot of the Jello commercials, Jello is a pretty boring product, so the original idea was to go across the country and find real people who would recommend certain things to put in Jello that would make it more interesting.
I thought what I couldn’t do with that! It could be very funny.
Well, it ended up that what they really wanted was real people who looked like they’d stepped out of the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine.
You’d end up with a commercial where the kids come home from school and say ‘Hey mom what’re we having for dinner?’ and the mom would say ‘We’re having Jello Brand Beef Mold’.
WHO THE HELL PUTS ‘BRAND’ IN THERE?
Then you’d have the end shot; everyone is sitting down, all dressed up, and the husband will say something like ‘Honey, you’re a GREAT cook.’, the Mom will then look at the camera, wink, then say ‘I have a little help’.
OH MY GOD!
I did a few of those in the beginning, but you keep pushing.
How did you make the break to being a director?
One day the rep of a stills guy got in touch saying ‘We’ll sponsor you if you help this stills guy get into film’,
I said OK, but I never want to be on his set, they said fine.
But it didn’t work.
The stills photographer had no idea of motion.
I built this one set in his studio, like a witches den, it was a real mess, he came back, saw it and said he felt I didn’t fit in.
Well, the rep, Marty, went with me, not the stills guy.
Marty was a good guy, an honest guy, but we disagreed fundamentally on one thing. He was interested in all the top creative directors, but I didn’t care about them, I was interested in the grunts, the art directors and writers, those are the people I wanted to work with.
I knew that if I was an Art Director and the Creative Director came in and said ‘Hey Joe, I want you to use this guy’, I’d say ‘Go fuck yourself!’.
He just didn’t get that.
So I bought him out three years later.
I didn’t have a pot to piss in.
He was saying to people ‘I give it a year’.
But I found a manager, someone I loved, who took care of the money and I went on from there.
Things worked out.
TV ads in those days featured square-jawed men holding up products to the camera didn’t they? What were you shooting?
Well, not quite, it’s true most of them were like that, but then you had Doyle Dane.
They were doing terrific stuff back then.
The one guy in the business I looked up to then was Bill Bernbach, it was Bill Bernbach, Bill Bernbach, Bill Bernbach.
Not just because he was successful, but because he didn’t insult your intelligence.
That was before Doyle Dane became big.
There were other people, like David Ogilvy, but I never liked his work, it appealed to snobs, the ‘Man in the Hathaway Shirt’, and all that bullshit.
Or Leo Burnett…with so called mid-western advertising, whatever that is? Down-home? It was very successful.
But I didn’t want to do that kind of thing.
So you move forward.
You win some, you lose a lot.
Which ad put you on the map?
The minute I saw the script I thought what I couldn’t do with that! Fantastic.
Because he was just starting the agency, he had no-one there yet, so I went ahead and later he sent up.
Then an Art Director who’d just been hired was sent to have a look at the set.
He said ‘OH MY GOD! They’ll never buy this!’.
But by this time I was like ‘Screw it, were going with it’.
He was like a dark cloud all over that shoot, ‘They’ll never buy this’, ‘They’ll never buy that’.
Then the clients came in, two Southern guys, and Southern Airlines had never made a commercial before, this was their first one.
They said ‘Well let’s have a look at what we got?’.
We showed them.
They said ‘Looks fun, let’s go with it.’
But it could’ve gone the other way.
If that Art Director had had power we could never have done that spot.
After that I decided ‘No more serious commercials, we’re doing strictly comedy’.
So I put just comedy on the reel, it was difficult in the beginning, people say ’Sure everyone laughs but no-one will remember the name of the product’, well that’s bullshit.
These things are seen over and over, so you make them so that you can watch them over and over.
Nine tenths of the ads that are supposedly humourous have a joke at the end, but once you’ve heard the joke that’s it.
To me it’s the telling of the joke.
I could never tell a joke.
I had a friend who was great at telling jokes, I used to get him to tell me the same jokes over and over, because what was funny was his execution of the joke.
The proof of that is the film ‘The Aristocrats’?
Oh my God!
It’s absolutely fantastic!
My wife and I went to an afternoon showing of that film, and we were sitting there and there were these people sitting in front of us saying ‘This is absurd, that’s really uncalled for, I mean if you can’t say something funny without resorting to that kind of language’.
Well, they became as funny as the film.
That film’s a classic.
So Joe, here’s my three funniest films; W. C. Fields ‘It’s A Gift’, Pre…
Oh I love it!
I love Fields.
‘It’s A Gift’ is brilliant!
It’s interesting, Fields always repeated himself, but he’d tweak things each time.
The perfect Fields film is ‘The Bank Dick’, also ‘The Man On The Flying Trapeze’.
I got ‘em all.
I mean, Fields was brilliant.
Chaplin is considered brilliant, and boy he was.
I’d put him at the top…what I should say is that there’s no-one above him.
I love Keaton, The Marx Brothers, but when I look at Chaplin he did more.
With Keaton there’s ‘The General’, which is brilliant, the same with ’Sherlock Jnr’, after that there were moments.
Same with The Marx Brothers, ‘Duck Soup’ is brilliant.
But with Chaplin, his Mutual comedies, well, I laughed my ass off at them, then I look at his films in the twenties, brilliant!
And of course the highlight is ‘City Lights’, but after that there are only moments.
‘Modern Times’ had it’s moments, ‘The Great Dictator’ had it’s moments too, but he never really understood sound, he also talked too much in the later films.
The best moment in the ‘Great Dictator’ is silent, the bit where he’s dancing with the globe, brilliant stuff, but it’s silent.
A lot of my stuff is silent, like the Independent Life ads, but with a very straight voiceover.
All my voiceovers were straight.
Ok, next would be Preston Sturges and ‘The Lady Eve…
Isn’t it wonderful we can see those films?
I got all of Sturges’s films on Blu-Ray.
What’s interesting about Sturges is that his film ’Sullivan’s Travels’ is all about comedy, how important comedy is integral to our lives, but there wasn’t a funny thing in the film!
But ‘The Lady Eve’ is brilliant.
He had his little stable of actors and it was wonderful.
He also did a film with a silent comedian I left out earlier; Harold Lloyd, called ‘The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock’.
It’s about what happens to Lloyd’s character in ‘The Freshman’, (which is a brilliant film, really great).
But ‘Harold Diddlebock’ really isn’t that good.
He’d been great as the young go-getter in ‘The Freshman’.
But in ‘Diddlebock’ he was in his forties, late forties, that character just didn’t work, the character becomes pathetic.
The same with Buster Keaton, originally he worked for Joe Schenk, who was like a father to him, he left him alone and Keaton did some great work.
When Schenk left, Keaton was approached by Irving Thalberg from MGM, who said ‘You’ve gotta come over here we’ve got everything, all this great lighting equipment and everything’.
All of a sudden he had to present a script on what he was going to do.
Well, the funny stuff Keaton did had nothing to do with a script.
He could fall off a rock and it’d be funny.
But it’s not funny if you write it down.
He didn’t do much after that.
But Chaplin always owned his own studio.
I learned from that.
When I became successful a lot of the big studios on the West Coast, Fox and MGM thought ‘Hey, there’s a lot of money to be made in commercials, this guys doing fine’, so they came to me to buy the studio.
I felt like I was ready to be raped.
The money was terrific and everything, but I never wanted to be an employee again.
You wouldn’t be talking to me today if it’d happened.
I got to where I got because I had control.
It doesn’t matter how talented you are, if you’re not in the right set up you won’t do a thing.
Third would have to be a Woody Allen film, there’s so many, it’d be between ‘Annie Hall’, ‘The Puple Rose Of Cairo’, Manhattan’, ‘Love & Death’, ‘Hannah And Her Sisters’, ‘Play It Again Sam’ and ‘Midnight In Paris’.
He’s done some terrific work, there’s no doubt about it.
How about you Joe, what are your top three?
I can’t do that I’m afraid, there are too many.
I’ve been taking Sight & Sound Film Magazine since 1956, it was the first serious film magazine.
When I came to Chicago in 1955 there were no books out on film.
You gotta realize when I was a young man in my twenties the only way you saw classic films was through Film Societies, I belonged to a small one in Chicago, we got our films from the Museum of Modern Art, who were the first people to recognize film as a modern art.
We’d get these 16mm films and I’d take two record players and I’d score these films with my record collection, thirty-three and a third records.
I learnt a lot about music that way.
When you think today, young people have access to every film ever made, my God.
But I’ll talk to some of the students in film class, I’ll say ‘Ever seen Chaplin?’ and this young guy studying film will say ‘Yeah, I thought Downey was ok’,
I never understand that, I mean you’ve got everything available today.
How did you direct?
All my characters play it straight.
In an audition someone would come in and say ‘How do you want me to play it; straight or for humour?’, and I’d think right away that they didn’t really understand, you play EVERYTHING straight.
Watch ‘Being There’.
Oh my God!
What a classic.
Peter Sellars always played everything straight, one of the funniest guys ever.
The sad thing was, Sellars never realized just how good he was.
My God, he was brilliant.
Did you welcome clients on shoots?
Well yeah, it has to start at the top, I used to like the clients being at the shoot, I didn’t like functionaries being there who didn’t have any power, who had to report back to someone, things change on shoots, you want someone who has the power to go with it.
When I think of John Kelly from Alaska Airlines, he was on every shoot, he was wonderful, he was there about seven years, then he was made President of Alaska Airlines and some other guy came in.
It was OK at first because the shadow of John was there, but a couple of years in it started to level off.
Seven years is a lifetime in this business……
You have a very idiosyncratic taste in music.
Did Larry David steal your iPod?
I’ve read interviews with David where he admitted that the music from ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ was taken from a bank ad.
I’ve watched bits of it, it’s funny, but I haven’t watched a lot of it.
Larry David for me always seemed like an old Woody Allen.
They made a film together…Oh my God! It was so bad, oh my God!
Music is so important in film but you never hear it talked about that much, you see a critique of a film and they never mention music.
Imagine ‘The Third Man’ without that music?
Or ‘Lawrence of Arabia’?
‘He’s more like Jacques Tati than anyone I can think of, I can’t wait to see his feature films’ – Steven Spielberg.
I met him, he’s one of the few guys out there who’s not full of bullshit, he’s a very straight guy, a very good guy, I’m not what you’d call a big Steven Speilberg aficionado or whatever, but he’s a very honest guy.
Talking about films today, the guys I really like are the Coen Brothers, I love the Coen Brothers, They’ve stayed by themselves too, ‘The Serious Man’, Oh my God it was so beautifully done, there’s still great stuff being done……
Why no feature films?
Once I’d done ‘Where’s The Beef’, and ‘Fast Talking Man’ and all that, the William Morris Agency got in touch.
They wined and dined me and they said ‘Joe, you gotta be making features!’
They sent me all these scripts; ‘Hey, this is a fun script, real fun’.
That’s not what I did, I wanted a synopsis of the story and I’d take it from there.
They never got that.
I remember first discovering how Directors worked in the States, just handing over a big pile of film, rather than an edit.
You didn’t work that way?
No, when I came over to London to do my first job it blew my mind, they wanted my input, the input of the director.
They’d be ‘Well you’re the Director, how do you want to do it?’, it was fantastic, guys like Tim Delaney, who was just a terrific guy to work with…oh my God.
‘Velly Nice’ and the manic fiddle player are great, I love the Wendy’s ‘Russian’ ad.
Well I was presented with this thing ‘at Wendy’s you have a choice’,
Well first of all casting, now I didn’t want this thing, a Russian fashion Show to feature a lot of guys who looked Anglo-Saxon, so I had the casting director go to the Polish Consulate. I wanted that Slavic look, (A Woman commissar called Romania Anna Parker), so we got Poles, boy they looked like they’d lived, one was part of a Romanian Nightclub we had here.
So I got this big guy and dressed him up like a woman.
On the shoot we had this woman going back and forth on this catwalk wearing exactly the same thing, and we were doing the bit where it says ‘evening wear’, but then I thought ‘Hey, wait a minute, I’m gonna give her a flashlight’.
I hadn’t even thought of that before the shoot.
We shot it in a Country Club and I noticed on the ceiling were all these little stars, so I had someone get up there and paint them red.
So we really got the feeling.
It only played twice, everyone got upset because Gorbachev was coming over, so they felt he was being insulted or some bullshit.
‘Where’s the beef?’ really blew up….