Tales from Hollywood and Hungary with Justin Reardon
Every career is unique, but some are more unique than others. Justin Reardon raised eyebrows across the industry when, after winning a Grand Prix for the legendary ‘Wassup’ Budweiser campaign, he left his position at DDB to pursue his dream of becoming a director.
Brave decisions are something of a theme across Justin’s career - how else to describe leaving Hollywood a few years later to start up your own film company in Budapest?
But the bravery seems to be paying off. The Royal Budapest Film Company has produced Emmy-nominated episodes for IFC’s ‘Documentary Now’ series starring Cate Blanchett, as well as commercial campaigns and its own original entertainment projects.
To find out how it all came to be, LBB’s Adam Bennett spoke to Justin Reardon.
LBB> Why was winning a Grand Prix the right time to move away from the agency side and become a director?
Justin> Y’know it’s funny, when I did that of course everyone in the world was telling me what a big mistake I was making. However, what you have to keep in mind is that I went into advertising basically as my own personal film school. One of my trips from my school where I was an arts major was to Chicago where we went to Leo Burnett and DDB. At that point every cool beer commercial was happening, and I kind of viewed them as pop art. All my friends and I thought they were the coolest thing in the world. When I was on that trip I actually had a conversation with somebody at Leo Burnett, and he opened one of those black ideas books where it was just blank pages and scribbling ideas. I told him I was thinking about going to film school, and he tells me, well you could really learn everything you need to learn about making a film here!
He showed me this book where he’d first written down this scribble and he walked over to this tape player, pressed play on it and he played the commercial that had come about from that scribble he made in his book. And he said to me, you can make things go from here (pointing at the idea book) to here (the tape player). And that was the moment where it clicked for me. So coming out of school, instead of going to film school I went to Leo Burnett and basically just asked for an internship.
LBB> And did they give it to you?
Justin> Haha, no not at all - they told me no because I didn’t have an advertising portfolio, just my illustrations and designs. So I went to a tiny little ad agency making phone book ads for a couple of months while I did that, and at night they let me use their computer. I used that computer to make a book of basically, well, I called them jokes because they were kind of a bit tasteless - but it was enough to get my foot in the door at Leo Burnett and get that internship! And from there I managed to get hired full time!
LBB> So you ended up moving to DDB after that?
Justin> Yeah it was in my second year at Leo Burnett, I was an associate creative director and that’s when DDB came knocking and asked if I wanted to come over to work on Budweiser. But the whole time working there I literally had the date of my contract expiration marked on my calendar. I knew that once that day came and my contract was over, I was packing my bags and I’d be out of there, going to LA and pursuing my childhood dream of going to Hollywood.
LBB> So at no point during a pretty successful time on the creative side did you think maybe, y’know what, I can make a good career out of this?
Justin> Honestly, it wasn't in my personality to be in an ad agency all day. The people around me understood that I was really a filmmaker, I was a camera geek who took a camera everywhere I went. Even then I was constantly creating these little shorts with my friends, I was obsessed. It was an incredible experience, and I feel blessed to be able to have had the planets align in the way they did for me. But I knew I didn't want to get lost and I was laser focused on my dream of becoming a director. It was a childhood thing, I had every single video camera since the ‘80s and I was shooting stuff since I was a kid. Believe it or not, some of the stuff I shot was fake commercials. I enjoyed the format and it kind of being an expression of pop art. It just tickled me to death, I was obsessed with it.
LBB> So you did go to Hollywood!
Justin> I did! When it was time to go, it was time to go. I knew I was going into the great unknown. Once I got there, I was able to pick up some work with music videos, and this was the early 2000s so music videos were truly alive and kicking. Then I started writing directors’ treatments. Basically bringing these big time music video directors along and getting them to understand how the commercial world kind of operated.
Then, two years into me being in Hollywood this guy comes up to me kind of out of nowhere and says listen, I’ve got X amount of dollars to make a spec reel and I’m looking for somebody who’s into scripts. I said, well I’ve got a thousand scripts I would love to shoot. We went through them and I ended up shooting my own spec reel. And honestly, that was sort of the turning point in my life.
Above: Check out the Nutrigrain 'Feel Great' spot from Justin's spec reel
LBB> How so?
Justin> That spec reel that I did went viral! It was one of the first viral sensations on the internet, before Facebook and before YouTube. We had over 24 million hits in just four months and at that point I had every agent in Hollywood calling me, I was bidding against suddenly every top director that I admired. And I got offered a movie before I even got offered my first professional commercial gig. I didn’t take the movie, however, I signed with an agency and all this kind of stuff. Life was suddenly going really fast forward again. That was a nice thing.
LBB> I’m just trying to piece together where Hungary came into this story?!
Justin> So I signed with Anonymous Content a few years later. At that point I was getting scripts from all over the world and I was shooting everywhere. And that’s when my next door neighbour introduced me to my now wife, Barbara, and she’s from Budapest! From then on I started pushing more of my work to shoot in Budapest! So I shot my first commercial in Budapest in 2005 and I absolutely fell in love with it. It so fits my sensibilities in every way from the people’s faces to what you could do here, the lack of rules at the time when it came to shooting, the in-camera capabilities of the crews, it was fascinating to me. So I would come out here more and more and bring more of my projects here.
LBB> So where did the idea to move permanently come from?
Justin> Basically, I ended up shooting a short film called Zoltan the Hungarian Gangster of Love. And that really was when the light sort of went on. We sent it to all these Hungarian companies and getting these budgets back that were like $60,000 and I was like ah man, this isn’t gonna work. So we just produced it ourselves! It was supposed to be this weird black and white short film that was having fun with weird ideas. But it ended up winning a ton of film festivals in the US, and then it came to raindance and qualified for the Academy Awards! So I was like wait a minute, this little beast of a film that’s based in creativity and not having any limits outside of myself is really making it. But it never could have happened anywhere but here. The production value you get here where things are less expensive, the actors, the textures, the locations, the personality that you can extract from a place like this country just so fit me. It was a match made in heaven. So from then on it was like alright let’s shoot more of my stuff there. So I was telling everyone how amazing it was and a lot of my friends started coming here to shoot as well under the umbrella of the Royal Budapest Film Company. Before I knew it we’d built a really nice reel!
So we decided to shoot my second feature film, which was this bizarre ‘Being John Malkovich’ type film, in Hungary. I said to my wife let’s move over there for a year while we make this film. But when we were out here something happened with the financiers and the project fell apart. And I was just like fuck - my dream script! I thought this was my dream film and it wasn’t going to happen. But the company as a whole continued to grow while I was out here and the light went on again where I was like - the opportunities here are incredible, both from a creative and logistical standpoint. So we decided to just stay another year and try and make this thing work. After saying one more year over and over again, we just decided to move permanently!
LBB> So what kind of projects are you working on now?
Justin> Last year we ended up doing this is incredible comedy series called Doc Now and that was starring Cate Blanchett, and all these really talented people. I was finding myself sitting there talking to Cate Blanchett going, why would I wanna be anywhere else in the world? And this is coming from a director, not from some guy who’s just trying to make a buck. I was able to give that unique perspective that a director has and I’ve turned that into a perspective for bringing projects in. We built a business off it and we’re still climbing.
LBB> And so this is now permanent - you’re there for good?
Justin> It’s funny because we have two kids. They both speak fluent Hungarian, one of them goes to the American school and another one is finishing his last year in pre-school, it’s just one of the best places to raise a family. I couldn’t imagine going home, I never want to leave this place!
LBB> Where do you see the Royal Budapest Film Company in five years’ time?
Justin> In five years, we want to be combining the way Hungarians make films, which is fantastic (and also very efficient from a budget standpoint), with the more western or American approach. With the costs being so low out here you suddenly find financiers that bit more likely to want to take risks and try things that are experimental - I think that’s quite an exciting prospect for a lot of directors and creatives.
LBB> What’s a Hungarian film that everyone needs to watch?
Justin> I would have to say Kontroll, 2003. Nimrod Antel - he’s actually one of the directors we’re representing right now. The film takes place in the Metro in Budapest and it's such a cool, inventive movie. I actually saw it in 2004 or something when I first met my wife. That is a must-see Hungarian film. Oh and of course Taxidermia! That’s an incredibly weird movie that’s another must-see, you’ve got to look it up.
LBB> Finally, outside of film-making, what do you do in your spare time?
Justin> Honestly, my family. It’s always filmmaking and family, but there’s a lot of crossover! My kids have been on the set, I held my daughter while directing my first film in LA. We’re a filmmaking family, my daughter was actually in her first commercial last year! It’s an ad for the Swiss version of Amazon, the girl at the beginning of the ad, that’s my daughter! Every single take, she was on target, it was like clockwork. It’s one of those moments where I’m trying not to cry on set, it was awesome.