It’s a classic set-up – a crack team of specialists (the Demolitionist, the Brain) receive a call that spurs them into action to pull off their next great heist. Except in this case (spoiler alert), there’s no heist necessary.
Director Kim Nguyen cleverly plays off the familiar tropes of a heist film in her latest work with pledged agency BBDO (Atlanta) for the GA Lottery, assembling a somewhat-less-than-impressive team before the big reveal. “This particular spot had a lot of moving pieces to consider,” said BBDO Atlanta Creative Director, Derrick Ogilvie, “and it’s easy to lose sight of your comedic sensibilities because you’re busy getting swallowed up in all the technical details. Kim was on top of it all.” Creative Director, Jon Mueller agrees, “From an above-and-beyond treatment to set design to getting the best performances on shoot day, every step of this production had her full attention.”
Kim Nguyen lives in LA with her husband Eric. Kim was a pancake mascot for IHOP, then a writer for The Onion, then a copywriter at various ad agencies, then a writer/director in the MTV on-air promos department. She is a director at Bob Industries and also a member of the Directors Guild of America’s TV Episodic Directing program.
We spoke with Kim about her techniques for coaxing pitch-perfect performances out of her actors, crafting a vintage cinematic feel through her choice of camera lens, and “exploring the rich tapestry of gas station restrooms in America”.
Your latest work for the Georgia Lottery is a humorous sendup of Ocean’s Eleven-style heist films. Can you tell us about the initial brief, the bidding process that you eventually won, and what ideas you brought to the table?
This was a fun brief. Derrick and Jon wanted an Ocean’s 11 heist genre vibe to promote their GA lottery “Break the Bank” scratch-off tickets. We had a great call. They felt I really understood the vibe they were going for tonally and creatively. I thought it was funny that instead of a group of bona-fide heist “experts” for the characters, they instead wanted a group of very average skilled people. I shared some thoughts on how I wanted to bring this concept to life. They were great and gave me a lot of freedom in terms of development and execution.
I had a lot of thoughts for this piece. There were quite a few moving pieces to the visual storytelling. I wanted a filmic look for the overall piece, a cinematic feel. We used a set of Zeiss Super Speed lenses to give it a hint of that vintage heist feel. These are subtle lenses but add some character to the images that take you back in time a bit.
I wanted each character to visually live in his or her own individual world and to create shots that underscored the storytelling of each scene. In the demolitions spot, we did snap zooms to give it energy, whereas we used more languid camera movement in the opening poolside cafe scene with a lateral tracking shot on the dolly. We go from the manicured, lush, sunny feel of the two partners scheming in that opening scene, to the overrun backyard feel of the demolitions guy, to the organized DIY Etsy feel of our Brains scene, to the dark basement/dad cave of the guy working out, and we end on the clean bright suburban kitchen with a flying pig eating lo mein. We also knew we wanted to create a graphic grid in the spot where all the characters are looking around at each other. I had a very clear vision of how I wanted the overall piece to look and feel, and the smaller worlds within it.
On the production side, I wanted to maximize our shooting time and suggested changing the original scripted outdoor restaurant scene to a poolside cafe scene. I wanted to find a large house that would have a pool that I could convert into a nice outdoor pool scene. We folded this into our locations scouting and found a great space that had it all. Our agency team liked this idea, especially as it visually establishes that opening scene with an “Ocean’s” vibe.
How long was the shoot? Were there any logistical elements to this shoot that proved challenging?
This was a one day shoot in Atlanta. On our prep day, it snowed and shut the entire town down, so the shoot was pushed a day. For the actual shoot day itself, we had a lot to cover so there was a challenge in terms of getting exactly what we wanted in a limited amount of time. Luckily I had a great agency, production team, and producer, so it ended up being a great shoot.
What was the casting process like?
Performance is hugely important to me. I want every character, whether it’s the lead or bg support, to be adding a layer of storytelling to the piece. In particular, I wanted to find the right leads who could play off the camaraderie of those opening scenes, the right woman who could imbue the intelligent satisfaction of the Brains character, the diffident and home-grown eccentric quality of the Demolitions guy, the sarcastic and opinionated Muscles guy, and then have each of these characters turn on a dime when our pig reveals a better solution.
How did you, in your role as the director, coax out the comedic performances you were looking for from the talent?
I give everyone a backstory and, of course, invite the actors to inform their characters too. I love collaborating with actors. I made sure our two leads spent all their time together before their first scene so there was a familiarity and ease to their friendship and we could immediately start playing for subtext. I try to be the director every actor needs me to be for them. Each actor in the cast was different. Some wanted more guidance, others wanted broad-strokes, still others preferred to work things out on their own with small adjustments. I have a tremendous amount of respect and love for my actors. They have my full support and attention, and they know it. I think that trust in me allows them to explore a lot of shades of performance.
Were there any entertaining anecdotes from the set that you’d like to share with us?
I was pretty focused so I don’t remember any offhand but here’s one I’ll totally make up: We were doing a play off the Oceans 11 movie and in the middle of our shoot, Brad Pitt and George Clooney actually came by. It was really awesome and we all ate Hot Pockets (Clooney apparently loves the pepperoni ones). At the end of the shoot, we did a human pyramid and I exchanged nanny information with Pitt.
How many elements (like the flying pig) were created in post? Talk us through the process of creating VFX components like this after the shoot.
The pig was filmed before we shot, so we shot the kitchen plate and all the elements needed to support it. We visually matched our environments with where the pig would be flying, what he would be doing, where he would be looking in the grid, and to whom he was speaking.
You’re a writer as well as being a director, having started directing after a career as an advertising copywriter. How do those skill sets inform one another?
For myself, very much so. I have a deep respect for writers. In TV, I find the writers rooms and the way their scripts develop and evolve to have commonalities with writers in the commercial world. As a writer, I can look at a script and break down the beats and collaborate with the creatives on how to evolve the storylines and punch up jokes and all of it. I am lucky in that I get to work with talented creatives and I love figuring out how to mine their setups for the best comedy or subtext. Again, I am in service to the script.
Is humor a large part of your work? How would you describe your personal sense of humor?
It is. I genuinely get psyched if a script makes me laugh. I can appreciate and direct subtle tonalities of performance. Those are satisfying. I enjoy crafting them. But I also love a dumb joke. Dumb and Dumber is one of my favorite movies. I like an easy and relaxed set. I can’t stand overly serious or overly anxious sets for comedy. My favorite is when we cut and everyone bursts out laughing. It is the best feeling in the world.
As a woman director who’s had a prolific career in advertising, what challenges have you come up against over the course of your career?
The same challenges a male director faces. Getting a script and figuring out how to bring out its full potential. Taking it on and bringing it to life. And the journey along the way, evolving it, advocating for it, and protecting it. Also: never eat sushi the night before a shoot.
What’s your favorite aspect of being a director?
Writing responses to interviews at 2am in the morning. My second favorite part is collaborating with creatives. My third favorite part is crew camaraderie. My fourth favorite part is breakfast burritos. My fifth favorite part is building the visual storytelling with cinematography and production design. My sixth favorite part is when people tell me about all the other Kim Nguyens they know. My seventh favorite part is becoming friends with so many talented people. My eighth favorite part is dancing like nobody’s watching. My ninth favorite part is throwing tantrums on set. My tenth favorite part is exploring the rich tapestry of gas station restrooms in America. And so forth.
Are there any dream commercial projects you’d love to work on?
I don’t think so. If there was a story I really wanted to tell that was in a commercial script, and I wasn’t attached to it, I would probably just be inspired to shoot my own story. Filmmaking creates a fluidity and element of freedom for a director. If you want to tell a story, you can tell it regardless of the medium.
Free The Bid is committed to advocating for diverse perspectives and points of view. What do you think are some of the benefits to diverse representation on both sides of the camera lens?
Diversity is a reflection of the world I want to live in. I cast for diversity and love working with a diverse crew. I know there is a common sentiment, “we hire the most talented and qualified, and of course, if that person happens to be a POC, then that’s great.” I don’t necessarily subscribe to that philosophy. When you only have one person of color auditioning for the role of an office manager, that’s putting a tremendous amount of pressure on that one person of color. My job as a director is to bring out the best in every person on set so that it reflects on-screen. And I feel part of my job as a human being is to effect positive change. I am proud to have worked with great known talent, but I will absolutely and resolutely go after and advocate for untapped talent that hails from all parts of the world. If you’re not interested in having a fresh perspective be part of your approach, then what exactly are we doing here and why are we doing it?
What advice would you give to aspiring women directors looking for a way to take their careers to the next level?
I suggest defining what “next level,” means to you as a filmmaker. Is it experience? Exposure? A personal piece of filmmaking? A Tesla? Build your thinking and army of supporters around that definition.
Surround yourself with a team that understands you and works hard for you. And do the same for them. Finally, (and for me most importantly), have fun with it. This is a great career and we’re lucky to do what we love.
CLIENT: GA Lottery
CHIEF CREATIVE OFFICER: Robin Fitzgerald
CREATIVE DIRECTOR: Derrick Ogilvie
CREATIVE DIRECTOR: Jon Mueller
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Marc Calamia
PRODUCER: Todd Johnson
BUSINESS MANAGER: Ashley Lipham
ACCOUNT SUPERVISOR: Ami Wiener
ACCOUNT MANAGER: Ben Curtis
DIRECTOR: Kim Nguyen
LINE PRODUCER: Bart Lipton
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY: Joe Arcadiacono
EDITORIAL COMPANY: Hero Post
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Molly Baroco
EDITOR: Jeff Jay