With a stellar 2013 behind him, Michael Haussman continues to tread a positive path through adland. About to embark on a global campaign for United Airlines, the much-acclaimed director takes a break from scheduling to tell Simon Wakelin what the year has taught him about advertising, filmmaking and the art of creating the perfect commercial.

Michael Haussman’s year began in style with the world premiere at Sundance of his film The Unsinkable Henry Morgan. This intriguing documentary follows a group of archaeologists investigating a 17th century shipwreck off the coast of Panama, believed to be the long-lost ship of English pirate Sir Henry Morgan.

“It was one of the funniest experiences of my life,” recalls Haussman. “We got there, fed people questions about Captain Morgan, and then discovered the wreck wasn’t Morgan’s ship at all. The wind was suddenly let out of everyone’s sails, but it worked to keep the mystery and intrigue alive in the documentary, plus it was so much fun to shoot.”

Haussman also competed at the 2013 Venice International Film Festival with The Audition, a short he wrote and directed. Shot at Rome’s legendary Cinecittà studios, the film explores what would happen if actors’ real feelings were exposed and blended with the roles they were playing.

“This is my ode to acting,” explains Haussman. “I’ve always been fascinated by the magic of movies, of actors on screen who are supposed to be in love. I wondered what it would look like if I crossed that threshold and had actors invest their emotions farther than they should. The film is a scene in which the actors play a couple breaking up, but they go deeper and their genuine emotions become involved.”

Haussman also generated buzz in the art world this year with the release of his hypnotising video installation Gravity, a work heralded for its study of ageing under gravity’s force. Five subjects were filmed in slow motion while jumping on a trampoline, their bouncing steadied in post to erase all movement except for gravity’s effects on their skin, cellulite, muscles and bones. For the installation, looped videos of each subject were projected onto lifesize screens.

“I knew it would be an interesting effect but didn’t expect the ageing process to be quite so powerful,” explains Haussman. “I thought I would need to give each person some direction, but saw how acting became overacting due to the super slow motion. I told each subject not to think of anything in the end. Gravity shows people baring everything – nudity, scars, body alignment, bones, imperfections and skin. It’s a brutally honest portrayal of ageing in both the young and the old.”

Haussman worked with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto to secure the beautiful, Caravaggio-inspired HD imagery. It seems digital is at the heart of just about everything today; a medium that extends into thousands of other media.

“We can never fear innovation,” offers Haussman on the evolution of digital. “Those who worry about technology will always create bad things. We have to make content that moves and involves audiences, no matter the device. The idea of movies and entertainment with a subtle message branding-wise appeals to me. I think, for example, Lost in Translation could have been a Marc Jacobs ad.”

So what does Haussman look for in trying to secure the right kind of commercial work? “I look for one thing. A simple idea that I can complicate through the storytelling process. I find the simpler and cleaner the idea, the more contained it is – and the better it can become.”

He notes how his first spot for a new global United Airlines campaign exemplifies this approach. Entitled Taxi, it features the POV of a passenger travelling in different cabs at different locations all over the world – New York, Shanghai, New Delhi, Dubai, Mexico City, London and Rome – with each taxi driver asking, “Which airline?” in the local language.

Argument for Haagen Dazs is also a stripped-down gem, the story of two lovers embroiled in a heated argument – until a tub of Haagen Dazs enters the picture, immediately flipping the scene to romantic, smoochy ice-cream sharing. But this truce is a brief respite before tempers comically flare again.

Meanwhile, Knockout for Levi’s shows a knack for pushing ideas to the edge. Created after lengthy discussions with ECD Chuck McBride at Cutwater San Francisco, the spot features a beautiful woman in Levi’s strutting down the street. As men gaze at her outstanding form they’re violently knocked out by an invisible force. The spot ends with the woman herself spotting a sexy guy in Levi’s – and immediately getting clocked after gazing too long at his butt. 

“We were just two guys having a drink, wondering how it would be if every time a guy looked at a hot girl in Levi’s he’d get knocked out and beaten up,” says Haussman on brainstorming with McBride. “I saw Raging Bull in my mind and we continued to riff off each other until the idea was down. Chuck is the most fearless, courageous creative I’ve ever met. We just sat down, smoked and drank and nailed the fucking commercial. Chuck kept adding ideas during the shoot to make it better. That’s the perfect relationship.”

Beer came to the rescue again in a collaboration with luxury brand Bulgari, which hired Haussman as brand art director for three months, while he conceptualised ideas for its campaign. “I saw how politics can often get in the way of the idea,” he quips. “But when you break down the business over a beer, the decision-making process makes total sense.”

The result was a dramatic, romance-filled spot shot in black-and-white on location in Rome, channelling classic Italian neorealist cinema. The city’s ancient ruins and Renaissance palaces were used to frame a flirtatious couple’s romantic adventures. The spot was further enhanced by the use of suggestive rhythms created by Italian composer Daniele Luppi.

With so many commercials under his belt for great brands such as Diesel, Absolut, BMW, Yves Saint Laurent and Guinness, does Haussman ever find the pressure of delivering for these icons lead to uncertainty, worry and stress?

“Whenever you shoot for big brands they already have a following and a history of fantastic work,” he admits. “There is obviously a benchmark and I think there are always restrictions, but you need to be absorbed in your own idea. You need to handcraft each commercial and not think about what you can’t do. Once you start thinking

about things like budget and responsibilities you are no longer creating, no longer directing and everything you do is just the status quo.”

So what does he think about when deciding on his own aesthetic? “Always, in everything I do, it’s about purity – being as pure to an idea as possible,” he answers. “It’s the hardest thing to achieve. At the beginning of my career I hid behind things, whether it was a device or a camera move. Today I realise I have the confidence to find purity in the image. It also makes for something that you can’t quite put your finger on.”

Sometimes the process gets in the way of achieving this ‘purity’; sometimes it’s an aid. “Casting is just horrible,” Haussman quips. “You’ve written something and need to find the character. It’s not about acting because we all act. It’s performing that is so hard to achieve. I have never cast anyone without having callbacks.”

However, treatment writing is welcomed with open arms. “When it’s on paper and you can see it, then you know it’s been realised,” he explains. “Many directors bitch over treatments, but I remember Dante Ariola saying he likes the process because it forces him to think the idea through. I concur with that outlook.”

Sound design and music are often overlooked in many commercials, but not so in Haussman’s work. “Sound is such a crucial component for commercials, it’s a huge element. Sometimes the sound is more important than the visuals,” he says. “One of the spots for the United Airlines campaign features a 150-person live orchestra.”

Sound also affects the editing process, particularly when Haussman works with longtime collaborator Marco Perez of bicoastal editing house Union. Perez is one of Haussman’s favourite cutters with a special insight into the use of music. “Marco used to be a director of opera, so when we edit we are also laying in a host of sounds,” reveals Haussman. “All my Levi’s work was done by Marco. We always have something pretty good in the editing room before I move on.”

Haussman has worked with a host of heavyweight cinematographers, including Paul Cameron, Harry Savides, Darius Khondji, Benoît Delhomme and Rodrigo Prieto. “You go to different people for different things. For example, Rodrigo still relies heavily on stock. After he shot Biutiful with Alejandro [González Iñárritu] he wanted to create the same look in his next film, but the stock was already gone. His films have such a distinct look. He is one of the smartest men I’ve ever run across.”

It’s clear that for Haussman (and, by extension, his posse of cinematographers) it’s all about the vision and creating something vital, fresh and new: “I can never go to any of these guys and ask them to repeat themselves,” he states. “If we find ourselves doing that we back up immediately. When I started in this business I shot everything myself, but it was just way too much clutter. I feel if you are focusing on the performance you can’t operate a camera and light the scene yourself. You get diminishing returns.”

Talking of diminishing returns, a recent conversation between Haussman and friend, director Jim Sheridan, reveals both men’s concern that the American film industry has sorely depreciated the stock of cinema in the global village: “American cinema has methodically destroyed European cinema. It’s gone in most places except for countries that regulate American releases, where they save themselves while Hollywood creates yet another franchise like Batman Vs. Superman and eats itself alive.

“We all see creativity going elsewhere to Netflix and cable TV, with audiences flocking to see Behind the Candelabra, House of Cards, Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad. When Jim Sheridan can’t pitch drama to studios because drama won’t sell, you know there’s a problem.”

Enough of the depressing future. What about the more hopeful past – what attracted Haussman to the world of commercials and filmmaking in the first place? “I got into film because of Antonioni, Bertolucci and neorealism,” he replies. “I can still watch [Visconti’s] Death in Venice, and I loved the early work of Scorsese, Lumet and Cassavetes. I am also inspired by up-and-coming directors today who work hard to create absorbing, compelling characters.” When asked the secret of his success, Haussman immediately offers the words of advice he heard from playwright, actor and director Sam Shepard: “He says every good movie is born on a great ending,” he concludes. “You just have to go back from that.”

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