By STEVE POND
LISTEN UP: Murro says directing commercials, such as a recent spot for DirecTV (above), and a feature like 300: Rise of an Empire (below) exercises “two similar, and at the same time very different, parts of your creative brain.”
The late spring day is bright and cloudless in the foothills about 20 miles north of Los Angeles, but the setting is confusing. Off a lightly-traveled freeway that heads towards the desert, and down a dirt road that runs through a seemingly uninhabited area of rolling hills and scrub brush, sits what seems to be a small and totally incongruous suburban community: a dozen houses arranged on a cul-de-sac in the middle of nowhere.
But this isn’t a community, it’s a backlot for the use of film crews that need a suburb but don’t want to use the real thing. And today, director Noam Murro’s crew has moved into the neighborhood, where they’re on day nine of a 12-day commercial shoot for DirecTV.
When the commercial finally airs, though, you won’t see the hills or the brush or the phony suburban houses. Murro, a two-time DGA Award winner for commercial direction, has erected a huge green screen on the backlot, where an actor in shorts and a football jersey is suspended from wires and will eventually appear to be flying down a city street while watching DirecTV’s NFL Sunday package on his cell phone.
This kind of effects work is right in Murro’s sweet spot. His commercial reel includes CGI-heavy commercials such as hyperkinetic war scenes for EA’s Battlefield 3; a city in flames for Jameson Irish Whiskey; a TV-watching troll for DirecTV; and the basketball player Kevin Garnett carrying dozens of people on his back for Adidas. And now he’s directed his second feature with the upcoming 300: Rise of an Empire, the sequel to Zack Snyder’s graphic-novel-inspired action film about a group of Spartans holding off the Persian Empire.
“Noam knew a lot about visual effects before he made that movie, but he’d never say he knew everything,” says Craig Pinckes, who has worked as Murro’s 1st AD for the last three-and-a-half years. “But he came back from the movie saying, ‘I know everything about effects now.’ And he does.”
Murro laughs when he’s told about Pinckes’ comment. “Everything? Well, when you make a movie of that size and scale, you learn to tackle a variety of things. It was pretty much the cutting edge of what you can do with effects, on a larger scale than I’d ever seen before.”
When the release of the film was moved from the summer of 2013 to March of 2014, Murro had time on his hands—and when he’s got time on his hands, he heads right back to the commercial world where he got his start. “I don’t view long form as a higher thing,” says the 51-year-old, Jerusalem-born director during a break. “I like to not go completely mental in between projects, and commercials give me a way to exercise my brain. They aren’t a time-killer for me—I love them and believe in them. You really are exercising two similar, and at the same time very different, parts of your creative brain.”
On the set, Murro’s creative brain is telling him that the actor needs to be more casual and blasé as he’s extolling the virtues of DirecTV while sailing down the street. “I want you to be completely dry,” he says after the first take. “No emotion at all.” After another take, he decides that words alone won’t get across the casual attitude he wants. Murro huddles with his crew and asks if they can flip the actor on his back, so that he is sailing down the street feet-first, as if lounging on a couch.
This poses all sorts of complications, some good (the character will now fend off a bus with his foot instead of his hand, which will be a better gag) and some problematic (the wires holding the actor are far more likely to get in the way of his face). But then, the commercial itself is already complicated, part of an elaborate group of eight DirecTV spots featuring normal-sized main characters and their eight-foot-tall best friends.
“Most directors would hire a guy who’s seven feet tall to play the big guy,” says Pinckes. “But Noam will come in and say, ‘No, we’ll just scale up using effects.’”
LONG AND SHORT: He won a DGA Award in 2012 for the Heineken commercial “Handlebar Mustache.” (below) A still from the spot.
To Murro, it’s no choice at all. “There might have been an easier way to do it, but not in my mind,” he says. “Part of the aesthetic was to make it feel like normal people sized up, not to hire a giant. That would have changed the whole body language.”
As a result, the two main actors can never be shot at the same time. One is shot on a set first, and then his pal is shot in front of a green screen, with the cameras moved 25 percent lower and 25 percent closer to make the second actor appear larger. Each shot is made up of three separate setups put together using plates. “There are complexities to taking something out of scale and then creating the sense that it all merges together,” explains Murro.
While the crew figures out how to execute his idea and turn the concept upside down, Murro thinks about the new world in which he flourishes—one in which TV viewers can fly down the street and a war on the Persian Empire can be staged in front of a green screen.
As the tagline of one of his Adidas commercials put it, “Impossible Is Nothing” in Murro’s universe. “I often think, ‘Is that a good thing or a bad thing?’” he says of the slogan. “If you want to look at it philosophically, it’s very interesting that everything is possible. You want me to show you New York City underwater? Sure, let me show it to you. You can do that in a reasonably convincing way, and within means. But it’s not necessarily a great thing that anything can be done visually. Maybe in the past you’d have to think a little harder about what you were doing.”
For Murro, what he’s doing, at heart, is simple: He’s telling stories, whether they’re about customers of a New York deli or warriors of ancient Greece. His attraction to the form came while he was growing up on the East Coast—not in a family of filmmakers, but in a musical family where, he says, “there was always this idea of structure and time and words coming together."00
His route to directing began in architecture school, where he found design to be lacking in some vital elements. “I understood that architecture or product design was not what I wanted to do, because it was missing tempo and time and music,” he says. “The things that I was really interested in were missing. I thought, directing is the way I want to fulfill myself; it’s the most interesting way to go about my creative endeavors. And I got there, slowly.”
The road to directing did not go through film school, but through the advertising industry, which he thought would be “an interesting way” to get into directing. Working in the creative department of the Goldsmith/Jeffrey agency in New York in the late 1990s, he got to the point where he could direct his own promo films and commercials, starting with a series of spots for Katz’s Deli that caught the attention of the ad community. “I remember renting a 16 mm camera and shooting on black-and-white film,” he says of the ads, which used handheld shots to document a number of customers talking about their lives. “I got a tumor in the kidney which is malignant,” began an elderly man in one spot. “I got a hernia that’s as big as a watermelon,” said another. The tagline: “Real New York Deli Flavor.”
“They were very funny,” says Murro. “They were half-documentary, half-written, and things took off from there.”
As his commercial career picked up momentum, Murro founded Biscuit Filmworks, whose directors are responsible for some of the most creative commercials of recent years. Murro’s own work runs the gamut, from effects-laden extravaganzas to simpler stories: a mock horror movie to promote Olympus camera’s red-eye removal technology; a psychic kid delivering the punch line in a “Got Milk” spot; and the rock band Survivor ludicrously serenading an office worker who drinks Starbucks on his way to work.
“My goal is always to keep moving and to zigzag a bit,” he says. “You can’t draw a conclusion from one dot. But two dots is a line, so you just make sure that the line you’re drawing is the line you want to be on. Part of the challenge for me is making sure that there is a trajectory in terms of trying new things, and in the style and scope of my storytelling.”
Murro says he got to where he was shooting commercials more than 100 days a year at his busiest, and he and Biscuit grew in influence to where they would have more leeway in suggesting ideas to clients. Still, he admits, “There is no final cut in advertising. I can say whatever I want, but at the end of the day they’re going to do what they need to do.” Usually, he adds, an agency will come to him with clear ideas of what it wants from him. “You get a very specific project,” he says. “You can add some stuff to it, but they come to you for your interpretation of a very specific thing. Within that, there is freedom.”
One particularly noteworthy ad—and one of the ones for which he won the DGA Award in 2012—was another DirecTV spot, dubbed “Hot House.” Designed to showcase DirecTV’s ability to move shows from one room to another, it featured a fireman coming into a burning building to rescue a child—action that seemed to be taking place all around the TV-watching customer.
“If you look at ‘Hot House,’ it was quite a technical challenge,” says Murro. “There are two things at play there. One is, how do you create emotion within a short format like that? And the second thing is, how do you create the sense that you’re in the middle of a fire?”
Solving the second challenge required building a set that could withstand real fire and keep the actors—one of them a small boy—safe from the flames. The actual fire was then augmented with CGI to create more flames, and to create a background of the house collapsing around its inhabitants. “It was complex, and it was hot,” he says of the shoot.
As he developed the commercial trademarks that put him at the top of the advertising game—clean storytelling, twisted wit, an ease with special effects—Murro also thought of using the directorial skills he’d developed on longer projects. “I think it was always a part of my trajectory as a director to do long form,” he admits. “From a thematic point of view, it’s like the difference between writing a novel and writing a poem. They both use words and a typewriter or a laptop, but it’s a different discipline.”
He made his first feature, the romantic comedy Smart People, in 2008. Afterwards, he toyed with directing the latest installment of the Die Hard franchise, A Good Day to Die Hard, but instead opted for 300: Rise of an Empire. The film follows the groundbreaking style of the original, which made heavy use of performance capture and graphic-novel-like settings, but it isn’t a true sequel to the movie since virtually all of the heroic Spartans had died fighting the evil Persians. The new film takes place at the same time as the original 300—fifth century B.C.—and follows a different group of warriors, an alliance of Greeks, as they fight another arm of the Persian military on the open sea.
“The first one was incredibly successful at defining a genre that we hadn’t really seen before,” he says. “The challenge here was how you go into it again.” The answer for Murro was to turn to the art form that first inspired his interest in storytelling. “I think taking something like 300 and finding a new way to operatically say it, while keeping a tie to the old one, was very interesting. CGI wasn’t an issue for me—it was more the question of how you aesthetically and thematically come into this world and offer something new. How do you give it an operatic scale, so that it feels like there is an evolution and we aren’t just milking the cow again?”
He was helped, he says, by the fact that whereas 300 was set in a confined space, with the band of Spartans trapped between a rock and the sea, Rise of an Empire takes place on the ocean, “which gives you whole different issues as you have to negotiate the fights, the space, the scope.”
The movie, Murro added, was shot on six full soundstages that housed huge sets, many of them boats. But no water tanks were used—so in virtually every scene, CGI was used to add water and background and to treat footage of the actors. “It was as complex as you can imagine,” he says.
When he directed Smart People, Murro says he didn’t have a problem with the stamina required of a movie director. But on Rise of an Empire, he admits the experience was far different from directing dozens of commercial shoots. “When you shoot 100 days a year, stamina is stamina,” he says. “But here there’s a different discipline in your head. You have to watch for different things, and you never really know how it’s going to come out. Part of it is understanding that you have to keep your eye on the ball, always assessing, ‘How is it going to come out?’ and ‘What is the difference between what I envisioned to what it actually is?’”
That concentration, he said, might be the key difference between commercials and features. “That is a critical aspect of moving from short form to long form—understanding what is at stake with features and understanding how you keep your eye on things when you can only control so much. [Trying] to hold somebody’s attention for two hours is very different from holding somebody’s attention for 30 seconds or 60 seconds. When you’re doing something that lasts for so long, it’s a bit more forgiving, for sure.”
Even in commercials, though, where the timeline is accelerated and the client’s demands must be met, Murro is known for taking chances. “He’ll experiment with things,” says Pinckes, “and if something’s not right he’ll be the first to admit it. He has no fear of failure, no fear of making a mistake.” He laughs. “It probably doesn’t hurt that he has his own company.”
The decision to flip his actor upside down on the DirecTV commercial, it turns out, is one of those creative leaps that turn out to be better in theory than execution. The actor’s new position means that previously shot footage of the character’s friend won’t work, and the payoff just isn’t worth the amount of time it would take to redo everything. “I like to do things that aren’t expected and see how they play out,” Murro says. “That was an experiment, it didn’t work and we went back to the original idea. If I have time, I like to try things like that. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. But I always think it’s worth trying something new.”
In the end, he adds, before returning to the set, the experiments and the effects are simply in the service of touching viewers. Asked what he thinks his strengths are as a director, Murro pauses and gropes for an answer. “I hope I have a heart,” he says finally. “And I hope that’s really what it’s all about.”