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Into the Library with Noam Murro

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The legendary director and founder of Biscuit Filmworks takes us through the work that means most to him, exploring the importance of simplicity, nuance and great storytelling via spots for Katz’s Deli, Saturn, Volkswagen, Bud Light, Got Milk?, and more

Into the Library with Noam Murro

'The Creative Library' is LBB’s exciting new launch. It’s been months - years, probably - in the making and we reckon our re-tooled archive will change the way you work, whether you’re a company looking to store and share your work, or a marketer or creative looking for new partners or inspiration for your latest project.
 
This isn’t a dusty old archive. It’s an easy-to-search, paywall-free library where all our members can store and share all of their reels and creative work.

To coincide, we’re also launching a new regular feature called ‘Into the Library’ where we catch up with the industry’s most influential directors to talk about their directorial highlights past and present. Think of it as a director’s reel showcase with a big dollop of personality. We interview directors about their favourite commercials and music videos from their reel to find out about how these works shaped them as a director.

Up today is the legendary Noam Murro, director of some LBB’s collective favourite commercials and founder of Biscuit Filmworks. He takes LBB’s Addison Capper through the 15 spots that have shaped his career and his approach to commercial filmmaking. 



Katz’s Deli - Old Man (1994)



This is really the first thing I ever shot. The idea was actually to create a documentary about Katz's Deli but it was very hard, and I didn't have any experience. It was shot on a 16mm Aaton camera that a friend of mine had. I got Katz’s to agree for me to be there for seven days, and I totally fumbled it. The documentary was right in front of me - and I didn't see it. It should have been about Sammy, the guy in the film. He was a degenerate gambler, who worked there for 30 or 40 years, and would have been a very good character to do a beautiful documentary on, but I was young and not terribly smart at the time. I realised that the documentary, even though it could have been actually quite OK with the footage I had, wouldn't really serve the way I viewed what the documentary should be. I realised very strongly for the first time that this is a very difficult business to be in, and that to do something good is hard. So, I approached Katz’s and suggested making Sammy into commercials and running them on local channels in New York. I have to say, they're still pretty good to me. They make me smile. This is work that was done many, many years ago that I think still kind of holds up.




Got Milk? - Birthday (2001)



One thing I remember about this is that I got a call from Steven Spielberg after I shot it. That's an honest truth. Another thing is that I had a 40.3 degrees fever and the worst flu when I was shooting it. If it is a success in anybody's eyes, it's because I was completely delirious. Of course, there are some Kubrick-ean influences and stuff like that, but in my work, I tend not to - and I really mean this - copy anything. I don't take frames or study things before, I think this all sits in some unfortunate drawer in my brain. When I work, I rely on that to inform myself, but not to copy. If there are elements in it that feel familiar, it's because of my love and knowledge of film.

I think something to learn from all this is that the greatest movies or most successful directors - and I'm not talking about myself here - are basically taking genre films and flipping them over their head. Kubrick - that's all he did. I've learned that I'm influenced by genre. Something I ask on a lot of calls is, how do you take the familiar - a genre, such as horror - and reintroduce it in a way that is yours and new? I think this is a good example of that. 




Bud Light - Wedding (2003)



Something I learned from this was how precise and how fragile comedy is to become actually funny. The nuance is where it's all at. You can make this film and it doesn't make you laugh. But you can make it in a way that does make you laugh. It really is about things like the casting and the nuance of the storytelling in order to create comedy that works. And it's a very small window. Comedy either works or it doesn't. You can say, "it looked great", but who gives a shit? This spot really taught me how much you have to be informed by the set itself and what is happening on set to create comedy, and not just go into it with preconceived notions of what is and isn't funny. The final thing I'd say about this is that writing is everything. It is very hard to write well, and every time a good script comes from an agency that is well written, I'm always in awe of it because I know how difficult it is to write well for a very short format. It is an art form. 




Saturn - Sheet Metal (2003)



I worked at the time with an incredible creative genius called Jamie Barrett, and we had a very good, long line of work together. I think this was actually the first thing we did. There are no effects in this film, we had to close freeways to shoot it all in camera. There is literally not one thing in it that isn't in camera. I remember, we set up the first shot, looked at it, and it wasn't clear if it was going to work or not. We changed a few things and all of a sudden it clicked. I have to say, this is a great example of advertising that is based on a conceptual idea that precludes or even excludes the product. It is maybe a perfect example of how to tell an emotional story about a car. I think it was one of the first times that we were able to take a piece of advertising and make it into a conceptual performance piece - and also make sense for the brand. At the time, I thought it felt very fresh, and I still might say myself that I think it looks beautiful.




Starbucks - Glen (2004)



This surprised me. When I shot it, I remember heading home and thinking, 'yeah, I think it works'. But when it came out, people went berserk for it. Here's the bottom line once more: it's simple. I think if you look at all these ads that we're discussing here, they all have a really clear, written idea behind them. None of these scripts were six pages long, and they're all just really simple, focused ideas. You can tell them in three sentences. I think simple is positive. This film is appropriate for the storytelling, it's really simply done and doesn't feel over-produced. 

There's an overarching thing in the way I do a lot of my things: not pushing good writing and good directing, but letting it pull you instead. The actual shoot and idea gives you a roadmap. If you're sensitive enough with your ears to the ground, it really will tell you how to do what you need to, and you don't end up imprinting an external, self-serving agenda on it. Sometimes as a director you put on an external forced identity or cinematic showmanship that has nothing to do with the story. Our job is to tell a story. The story has to serve, and our filmmaking has to serve the story. It doesn't matter how hard it was to schlep the cases up the hill - if that shot doesn't fit, it doesn't fit. The idea is to navigate directing from the bridge, not from the engine room. The machine may work really well, but you're going to hit an iceberg if you don't know where you're going.




eBay - Toy Boat (2004)



This is, again, a simple narrative - this time of a kid that lost his boat - but interestingly the emotion is actually geared towards the boat, not the kid. He's not crying, he's not totally devastated, he's just a bookend to it. But you feel for this boat, who just sunk to the bottom of the sea. You can go 100 ways in order to tell that story, but in short form spots you have only so much time to develop a narrative, and only so much time to punctuate what you need to punctuate. If you don't know how to do that, it just becomes a potpourri of visual wallpaper. Why this business is so fantastic is the opportunity to move somebody with a story that's 30 seconds long. Poetry - and pardon me to those who hate me for equating that with what we do - can be as beautiful and as strong as a 300 page novel. But it better be good.




Orange - Blackout (2006)



We actually went to downtown Manhattan and shut down three blocks off Broadway, below Canal [Street], and shut the lights everywhere. Think about it: no effects. We went to the mayor's office and negotiated for two nights where we shut down the streetlights and asked every single office building to turn their lights off - in New York City! We were young and stupid. But it's yet another nice example of good writing. Directors are only as good as what comes their way. The hardest and most important part of this entire process is what an agency does. If they do it successfully, it is very difficult and extremely powerful. When you look at the work coming out of any market, the great stuff is where the idea was pre-conceived and thought about, not something that's been cobbled on a piece of paper for the director to solve. It's very, very hard to make a good movie out of a shitty book or a bad script. It is a lot easier if the script or book is a good piece of work. I always wonder, why wouldn't you make sure that the piece of paper that's been circulated to find the right director to execute your idea isn't honed enough for it to become a brilliant piece that can then be executed? The people in agencies that have that talent are geniuses. You look at any film on this reel and the most important thing is that the people behind it were brilliant and they came to me with an idea that I feel honoured to get and incredible responsibility to make sure that it comes out as good as it is on paper. Our job as directors is not to be a lifesaver. Our job is to elevate or protect the jewels that are given. If it's not a jewel to begin with, it's going to be very hard to polish it.




Volkswagen - Night Drive (2007)



The agency on this came to me with the poem. I thought, 'oh my God. That poem read by Richard Burton? I'll certainly try not to fuck it up.' The agency came up with the idea, sold it to a brave, smart client, and had the vision. We now had to execute it and bring it to life in the most imaginative and surprising and wonderful way - but the idea was there to begin with. I like this spot. Still today, I drive at night by myself and take in where I'm at and listen to music, and it changes the perception of where you are in reality and stuff like that. 




Halo - Deliver Hope (2010)



This is a film that was done all in camera, except for one shot. That might be partly why it still looks good after all these years but the main thing is that there's a really simple narrative that has an emotional effect on you. 




Jameson - Legend (2011)



This is another genre film, toying with something like 'Master & Commander'. But it has a beginning, middle and an end - that's hard to do in short format. It goes to the basic premise of how to tell a story that hopefully stirs a reaction in a very short amount of time. That is the skill that we work a lifetime to refine in this art form that we call advertising. But there's still so much great work like this today, and there always will be. You just have to look at the likes of Apple, Droga5, adam&eveDDB - all these places are just remarkable at what they do and they keep surprising you. That's because people fight. People ask me about the agencies and companies that I think are great. But it's not the agency - it is the people who fight within those places. What's the best VFX house? They all have Flame suites - but who is operating the Flame? That's what the real question should be.




Heineken - Moustache (2011)



I don't know what to say about this one - it just made me laugh! I think it's another incredibly simple idea. People ask me if I'm stressed before a shoot, and the honest truth is that no, I'm really not. That's because I'm telling a story, which I find fun. I'm not searching for a style or a technique or something like that. I know how to tell a story, so I'm going to try and do that. The rest will be informed by the set itself, but I come to that set with a very clear understanding of what story I'm telling, and how I am going to do it. If you do that, then 90% of your work is done - what's left is organic nature. The idea that we have a storyboard for a 30-second commercial, and we are going to follow it frame-by-frame - not only for the story but also the composition - is a baffling development in this business. If I can't tell a 30-second story in my head without a storyboard, I shouldn't be hired. You have to go into the set with enough room for it and the talent to inform what you do versus a pre-fixed menu of shooting three shots, and only these three shots and knowing exactly what they're going to look like. It's really unfortunate. My advice is always to use storyboards if you need the process or to make sure the client is on board, but deep down inside be free enough to get to a set and make the great movie we're hired to do. 




Guinness - Basketball (2013)



I don't want to use the word simple again, but part of what made this good is that it is a one act opera written by a bunch of very, very talented people. I got a call after this and the person on the phone said, 'Hi, this is Dustin Hoffman', which I did not believe at first. But he saw the Guinness ad and said it made him cry like a baby. I hope that doesn't make me sound cocky, but it's emotionally resonant and emotionally nuanced. Achieving realism in a movie, so you can actually feel that you're in that world, is not an easy task, but it's a very important one. When I see work that's done with incredibly technical transitions or whatever, I'm always amazed at how people do it, but at the same time it leaves me cold. When it's appropriate, it's fantastic. But any technique for the sake of technique is a sacrilege and a wasted opportunity. This piece is all about the emotional resonance at the end. Friendship is the idea. There's nothing else. How do you tell the story of friendship without making it not self-pitying? It's a great piece of written material, and it's for me to make it so that it feels real and honest. The honesty of the storytelling is important.

 


Cannes Lions, New Directors’ Showcase - Night Shift (2015)



This project was for the opening of [the New Directors' Showcase in] Cannes. I really didn't know what I wanted to do. It was way past the deadline, there was no money - typical stuff. The vocabulary of the film is very different to what we originally planned - all of a sudden, literally two hours before we started shooting, I thought, why don't we get somebody who can and is dancing. We watched the original Fantasia maybe 30 times together, and the way he walks the stairs like Mickey Mouse becomes a dancing language. For me, it's one of my favourite pieces because it's done for no good reason. It was a challenge to bring to life a story that feels so familiar and so known, but make it relevant and surprising at the same time. 




SEAT - A Race Car Set Free (2017) 



The idea was to set a race car free. When you equate that to an imprisoned machine that cannot get out, it's pretty fucking brilliant. It’s a challenging uphill task to make that work, because it's not the easiest thing to translate. But it is a fantastic idea from Droga5 [who created the spot], a bunch of people that are very, very talented, sensitive, smart, and amazing.




Ancestry DNA - Together Forever (2018) 



The hardest thing to do is be critical, but not offensive. We can offend anybody or make somebody feel shitty right away. Self-deprecation is a very subtle and demanding thing to do, but when you're successful, love springs. It's like when you make fun of yourself - you disarm. And I think that's part of what makes this great - that in some ways it’s self deprecating and a little biting. It never says, 'don't do this or that'. Don't be didactic. Don't try to be cool. Be good, honest and emotional. Those are the three things that, if you can add a little pepper on top, are funny. 



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Biscuit UK, Mon, 05 Dec 2022 13:33:00 GMT