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How the Detroit Pistons and Big Sean Embodied the City’s ‘Difference by Design’


Lord Danger’s director, Lawrence Lamont, speaks to LBB’s Ben Conway about bringing the underappreciated magic of Detroit to life for the city’s basketball team

How the Detroit Pistons and Big Sean Embodied the City’s ‘Difference by Design’

(Photography courtesy of Bre’Ann White)

Lawrence Lamont is a screenwriter and director, represented by LA-based production company, Lord Danger, and so far, has had a rather eventful 2022. Kicking off the year by joining Lord Danger in March, he has also directed two episodes of Issa Rae’s HBO show ‘Rap Sh!t’. 

A Detroit native, he is known for his cinematic and grand approach to storytelling across a catalogue of ads, music videos, TV and film. His range of work often explores social nuances, and empowers feelings of positivity and love - especially in this project, where he got the chance to show some affection for his hometown. 

Made for the basketball team, the Detroit Pistons, ‘Different by Design’  sees Lawrence celebrate the city that inspired him as a filmmaker, and features landmarks and communities from across the city, including his frequent collaborator, rapper (and the Pistons’ creative director) Big Sean.

Speaking to LBB’s Ben Conway, Lawrence discusses the deep cultural and creative sides of Detroit that the media fails to show, how the city has influenced him as a person and director, and how he brought the authentic ‘Spirit of Detroit’ into the spot for the basketball team he supports.

LBB> You grew up in Detroit - tell us a bit about your upbringing and what life is like in the city! 

Lawrence> Yes, I grew up in Detroit. The best city in the world! I don’t think my career would be what it is now without that city, for so many reasons. I grew up on the east side of the city in a Section 8 housing complex called McDonald’s Square. It took a village to raise me, and I’m forever grateful to have spent so much time with my grandparents, aunts, etc. because they instilled in me how to be a good person and to abide by life’s golden rule: ‘treat people how you want to be treated’. 

Throughout my childhood, my family and teachers never snipped my creative wings and they always encouraged my vast imagination. I still feel like a kid to this day. Not only were the people in my life in Detroit monumental to my growth, but the city really has a magic in it. The culture, the music, the fashion, the pride - it’s all in my DNA, and I believe that has helped shape my perspective when it comes to storytelling in all genres. 

LBB> When outsiders hear ‘Detroit’, they often think of cars, Motown, the Lions and the Pistons. But what are some more hidden things that only locals know about Detroit? What would surprise people to know about the city and its people?

Lawrence> Wow, so much! I think one of the biggest surprises is how close Canada is to Detroit. My grandma lives in the downtown area, so I was privileged to get a front-row view of another country my whole life. Also, the Detroit-Windsor underwater tunnel is so unique. I think it should be the eighth wonder of the world, simply because of its construction. Divers built it in 1928! I can’t even wrap my head around that. Also, Detroit is home of the oldest continuing jazz club in the world, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. I like to get dinner there with my mom whenever I’m back, and just bask in the place where greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Cab Calloway, etc. graced the stage.  

LBB> How does the city inspire you creatively? What is the creative and production scene like there?

Lawrence> The city inspires me in multiple ways. First and foremost, just knowing that Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, J Dilla - the list goes on - all were in my hometown, creating art that would shake the world, keeps a fire lit inside of me. We are originators and authenticity is truly one of Detroit’s strongest feats. I think the creative scene will forever thrive. If we were to ride around the city right now, we’d see some of the best murals and architecture on the planet. There’s an energy that radiates inside all creatives from and in Detroit that I think is impossible to duplicate. 

The production scene is a great one, but I think it needs to be even bigger. [There are] hardworking crews and casts that are always ready for their moment. I’ve been lobbying for the film tax credits to come back, and hopefully this bill gets passed sooner than later, so we can continue to make films and TV throughout the gorgeous state. 

LBB> So how did this Pistons project come about? And what was the brief like?

Lawrence> I got a call from my team mentioning how the Pistons would love to meet about a new campaign, in which Big Sean would play a big part. I’ve directed multiple videos for Sean, even winning a VMA for one, so once he became the creative director for the Pistons, I knew it was only right we made a commercial that uplifted our city and inspired the team. It’s always fun working with Sean. We’ve been collaborating since we were teenagers and his energy always elevates the project. His narration was the cherry on top, because he can say the simplest things and make them sound cool.  

The brief was clear and precise. I knew exactly what they wanted from going through it. I saw the ‘Different by Design’ slogan and what they wanted to do with the brand, which inspired me to think of this magical basketball that gets covered by the map of Detroit as our city thrives. 

The brief also connected with how I feel the city should always be viewed. We’re so used to seeing Detroit from a gloomy, ‘ruin-porn’, industrial standpoint, and I’m always trying to highlight the opposite. So, knowing the organisation was on the same page was refreshing. I immediately thought about warmth, happiness, murals, dancing, and most importantly, magic. I knew I wanted to be inside the inner city as well as show some of our famous landmarks. Incidentally, the westside backyard in the opening scene was my Auntie Robbie’s and Uncle Norm’s, where I fell in love with cinema.  

LBB> What were some of the iconic Detroit locations and landmarks that you had to include in the spot? 

Lawrence> For me the Spirit of Detroit, the Guardian Building and real Detroit architecture were key for this spot. I wanted the city to feel bright, warm and energetic, because our city is always highlighted as the murder capital - bankrupt and abandoned when that’s not the full truth at all. Detroit is a world-class city full of dreamers and artists whose ideas and perspectives are beyond valid.  

LBB> Where did you find all the different communities to feature in the piece - the lowriders, breakdancers, graffiti artists and DJs? How did you try and capture the spirit of all of these groups - and of the city as a whole?

Lawrence> That took a lot of favours from friends, and the help of the Pistons as well. I knew that I wanted the mural party scene to feel as grand as possible, in order to match the true spirit of Detroit. I’m grateful so many showed up, because it really added a much-needed flare to the spot. The goal was to have a real party and float through the crowd with our camera (with little blocking). I think we did a good job putting our audience in the front row for what Detroit really feels like, and not what is often depicted through the media. 

LBB> Let’s get a bit technical - what was your camera/lens set-up on this shoot? And did you work with any fun rigs or tech during the production?

Lawrence> I love technical! We used the Sony Venice on this with a set of prime lenses. We kept it pretty straightforward as far as rigs, and mainly lived on Steadicam and an easy rig for our handheld moments. 

LBB> How many takes did that opening basketball shot eclipsing the sun take? The visual is awesome!

Lawrence> Haha, I can’t give away all of the secrets! But we had some help with VFX sky replacement to get it perfect. Shout out to James McCarthy, Kelly Koppen and the whole of Modern Logic Studios for crushing the VFX throughout the piece. 

LBB> What was the hardest challenge you faced on this project - and how did you overcome it?

Lawrence> For me, I’d say the hardest challenge on this project was getting everything in one day, especially with it being the hottest day of last summer. Prep and planning is always my best friend, and with the help of Josh Shadid [founding partner and executive producer at Lord Danger and Modern Logic] and my other producers at Lord Danger, this was a seamless shoot. Since we storyboarded the whole spot and scouted thoroughly beforehand, I knew exactly what I wanted in each scene and was able to get creative on the fly while staying efficient to make our day. The film Gods were literally on our side because five minutes after we wrapped Sean’s scene outside of LCA, it started pouring rain. 

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Lord Danger, Fri, 11 Nov 2022 17:41:00 GMT