In creating a campaign for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), director Sasha Levinson at Humble decided to go against conventions of the city’s on-screen portrayal.
The resulting spots pull viewers in with a vision centered on individual experience and transformation. A woman who met her girlfriend in Las Vegas throws together a surprise wedding ceremony; a working mom takes some much-needed time for herself. Through Sasha’s lens, Las Vegas becomes a stage for meaningful memories to unfold, promising the potential for each visitor to create their own unique encounters with the city.
Sasha Levinson kick-started her career in music videos, including Cake’s “Short Skirt / Long Jacket,” a memorable man-on-the-street film that highlighted her ability to tap into the beauty as well as the honesty of the human experience. The video was prominently featured in SHOTS magazine and propelled Sasha’s career further into the commercial realm.
We spoke with Sasha about shooting from inside an observation wheel, the unwavering commitment of her crew, and how a casual conversation with her mom helped to springboard her career as a director.
First of all, can you tell us about the process of booking this campaign, from your perspective as a director? What was the initial brief for the spots, and how did you approach their interpretation from idea to reality?
Well, it was funny because 2017 was an extremely busy year with very little downtime. I kept saying to my EP at Humble, Rich Pring, how excited I was to unplug for the holidays and recharge. About a week before the holiday, these scripts came in. As soon as I read them, I knew all bets were off – I would be pouring myself into this pitch and there would be no downtime. I was extremely determined to be the director that would bring these Las Vegas films to life.
The essence of the brief was as follows: Las Vegas had created the idea of adult freedom, so now the challenge was to expand what it stands for and what it can mean. Essentially, the goal was to reinvent the idea so it means more things to more people on an authentic and meaningful level. The client came to me wanting to create four short films of personal transformation, set across one weekend in Las Vegas. A busy mom whose business trip to LA gets cancelled and decides to spend the weekend in Las Vegas on her own; a carpet salesman in Vegas attending a convention with a yearning to reinvent himself; a couple who met in Vegas a year earlier and now one has planned a surprise wedding; and another couple who has been through a long stretch of conflict and are yearning to re-connect. These were the stories, and Las Vegas needed to be the catalyst in each one of these narratives.
I took a character-first approach. Who were these people? In the treatment process, I started making very specific choices about where they were from, what their home life looked like, and what they were deeply yearning for.
This really resonated with the LVCVA’s agency of record’s Group Creative Director Scott Murray, of R&R Partners. Early on in discussions, we referenced the film “Paris, Je T’aime,” which became a reference we really stayed true to. Scott kept saying, “if these four films feel like a love letter to Las Vegas, then we’ve done our job.” He was incredibly collaborative, and once the job was awarded, he welcomed the idea of me taking the scripts and transcribing them It was then that we truly departed from a traditional commercial approach and entered film territory.
Was the original idea for “Now & Then,” centered around an LGBTQ+ couple? How did you approach depicting this lovely portrayal of LGBTQ romance?
Yes, the script when it came to me was centered on two women. In this film, because it was a surprise wedding, I felt it was important to show the characters’ love story, so that the viewer had context for such a huge gesture and wouldn’t take it for granted, that it would be welcomed. So the layer of seeing them meeting and falling for each other was something I suggested in my treatment, and I was extremely happy that we wound up executing this idea. I was also excited because looking at those moments where characters are first falling in love is so satisfying for me. That time in a relationship when things are brimming with optimism, passion and potential, and so much energy boiling just below the surface is intoxicating. With Vegas as a backdrop, particularly the old neon and architecture of Downtown Las Vegas which we leaned towards in this film, just made it feel like the story fed the place and the place fed the story. I feel very grateful to have found two actors who had such incredible chemistry, were so committed to the roles, and were lovely to work with.
What was your strategy for casting? How did you work with the talent to get the performances required?
We had two very committed casting directors, Julie Goldman in Las Vegas and Shane Liem in Los Angeles. I opted to keep our callbacks list small so we could really take our time working with the actors. Once we had our cast, I think everyone took a collective breath, because we could start to really see the roles coming to life. During the treatment process, I suggested bringing all of the actors from Los Angeles to Las Vegas early, so there would be a relaxed schedule of rehearsals and fittings and time for me to soak up their energy and get to know them before being on set. Our agency producer Gerri Angelo made this happen seamlessly, and I was so grateful that she really understood the importance of this and made it happen.
How long did the shoot last? Tell us about the shooting locations and any challenges they might have posed.
We shot for eight days over the course of two weeks, which included a lot of night shooting. We had the red carpet rolled out for us at virtually every property! We shot in restaurants, nightclubs, suites, on and off the Strip – it was incredible. Las Vegas is all about the visitor experience, so we had to work around that, which made for a puzzle of a schedule that was constantly changing. Each property had a filming liaison that we would work with, who were incredible and so knowledgeable about production. One of the more unusual locations was the pod on The High Roller, the observation wheel at The LINQ Hotel & Casino. We had one rotation in which to load-in, light and shoot the scene, all while being elevated 550 feet – it’s actually the world’s tallest observation wheel. It’s hypnotic being up there, and it just felt like this precision operation. As we rode higher and higher, the shots kept getting better and more surreal. But it was strange to be suspended in the air in a glass bubble with this small team quickly and quietly doing the work.
I kept telling our location scout/manager Kim Houser-Amaral that she was the glue. The locations were so vast and complex, and truthfully, I was relentless about getting to the right space for the right scene. We shot all over nine different hotel properties for the interiors, and this is not including the exteriors around town, driving shots and desert scenes. This was only accomplished through a core team that was unwaveringly committed to getting these films shot and shot well.
Trevor Allen, our line producer, handled every obstacle with an awesome attitude and great creative solutions. I found out after we hired Scott Harris, our AD, that he had been a second AD on the film “Casino,” which was so good because he had really done the Vegas thing before. Scott handled all the moving parts with so much finesse. Our DP Todd Martin was the perfect choice, because there is a lyrical quality to his operating, he put himself in tune with the vibe I was going for and ran with it beautifully. He knows how to achieve a luxe visual polish without truck-full of tools, which was also helpful because load-ins were a bear. Having a background in styling myself, wardrobe is extremely important to me, and we brought Karmen Dann, our costumer from “Welcome to Grandville.” She brings with her pure magic – not just amazing taste, a commitment to the characters and a great work ethic, but she lifts up the whole vibe of the production in such a positive way. I’m sort of going off topic here, but having a positive filmmaking experience is extremely important to me. Without the right team, film making can be a very unfulfilling road. Of course, we had our CD Scott Murray, our ECD Arnie DiGeorge, and our agency producer Gerri Angelo, very much in the trenches right with us. Scott and I were passing the scripts back and forth multiple times daily, and I think we both really relished the partnership.
One of the coolest things we did location-wise was being able to control the Bellagio Fountains for our scenes in “Now & Then”. A Bellagio engineer stood behind me and at just the right moment in the scene he would cue the fountains. That was exciting because those fountains feel like such an epic piece of Las Vegas culture – and in the opening of the film, it just works so well.
What was your inspiration for the look and feel of the spots? What technical choices did you make to achieve the visual character you were after?
Since all four films are of a different genre, I wanted all four spots to have a different feel but live in the same palette. Las Vegas, of course, is so much about the light and spectacle, so I knew most of the films would take place at night.
I wanted “Now & Then,” to live in a more dreamy, indie film space, where you feel like you are inside the story a bit. I think I pitched the flashbacks as being like the feeling of a memory. We favored handheld and steadicam here, to really stay intimate with the characters. “The Anniversary,” has the flirtiest, most luxe polish of all the films. I knew we had to find the right bar for the “initial meeting” scene, and we actually did a last minute switch when I found the bar we ultimately used. It totally made the schedule disjointed, but I campaigned hard to get it because that bar location with the glittering lights out the window just had so much attitude. From the beginning, I imagined “Party of One,” as a quirky romantic comedy, but the romance is with herself. As a result, the look is a bit cleaner, with poppy colors and playful wardrobe, and the music really plays into this feel so much. As far as “The Meetup,” goes, the references were the most obvious from the get go: of course, the Oceans films and Bond. So my big challenge here was how do I do this genre justice? But once we cast Victor – and truthfully, put him into the suit – it just all gelled. He was a lot of fun to work with, because he comes from a comedy background and he can give you something different each time and each time it’s great. Here again, we used cleaner lenses and favored slower-paced, more precise movement. This was actually the only film we used a dolly on.
Since this is a campaign intended to inspire Las Vegas tourism, what decisions did you, as a director, make to either reference or update previous on-screen representations of Las Vegas?
Everyone has an idea of what Las Vegas is about. I tried to create these very human exchanges between characters that feel quite intimate, but the landscape of Las Vegas is this looming light-filled fantastical place that’s larger than life. I think by juxtaposing the epic with the smaller human story, we begin to pull away from the preconceived ideas about what an experience in Vegas can be.
After we did casting in LA and our initial location scout, I took a weekend and had my own experience in Las Vegas. I drove out to Valley of Fire State Park, saw Elton John in concert, rode on The High Roller, ate at some amazing restaurants and experienced the city in a way I previously hadn’t. I wanted to get inspired and I’ve always loved the desert, so there is this sort of built in romance for me about Vegas being this desert oasis that you just feel, looking out the windows wherever you are.
What are your favorite aspects of the final film?
I love that each of the films carry this emotional quality that feels like the way you’d love to spend a moment in Vegas. I am so happy with the look of the film. I really wanted to get the couple in the water in their clothes in “The Anniversary,” so I’m glad that happened.
I’m also pretty enamored with the way the edits and sound and finishing came together. This was no easy endeavor. We had a lot of ADR, because of course this is Vegas and there is music piped in everywhere. We had two editors, Erin Nordstrom (“Now & Then” and “The Meetup”) and Nick Pezillo (“The Anniversary” and “Party of One”), and I feel they both did such a great job moving these films across the finish line. Furthermore, the music, which came from a few different sources! Human created some original pieces and Josh Baron, our music supervisor, landed us some awesome tracks from up-and-coming artists that I just love. He turned us onto Jazz Morley, who has a song called “Bad Love” in “Now & Then,” that when Erin first used it in the edit and shared with me, I almost cried I loved it so much.
You got your start in film as a wardrobe assistant – can you talk about how that trajectory led you to a career as a director? Was directing always the goal?
Writing and directing was always the goal, since I was in 5th grade. I always knew that I wanted to do this, and from the time I was 19, I literally took any job in film I could get. I was living in San Francisco at the time, and when my dad’s neighbor was directing an indie film called “Nina Takes A Lover,” I got an internship as the wardrobe assistant. I did that for about five years, and ultimately worked on a film called “Dream For An Insomniac.” It was all a cast of young actors, including Jennifer Aniston, Ione Skye and Mackenzie Astin, and there was a real feeling of camaraderie on set. After the shoot, Mackenzie invited me down to LA to move into a house with some friends and I went for it. That’s when things really started to click and I started working heavily in production, doing wardrobe on films and commercials.
I was working on a Fruitopia commercial and the director, Jamie Caliri, asked if I would help him produce a re-shoot for a music video he had shot in New York for the band Morphine. I didn’t really know how to produce formally, but I knew the flow of it at this point that I just jumped in. I became his go-to producer. He had just signed at MJZ for commercials and music videos, and after I produced my first big job there – a music video for the band The Eels, which I totally went over budget on because I was not the best line producer – the Head of Production called me into his office to go over the budget and was like, “you know Sasha, we really like you but this budget is really over.” I quickly pulled my act together, and a couple of years later I was producing a very big budget Burger King commercial in Miami, and my mom lives in Florida. On a down day I went to the beach with the EP, Joe Mantegna of Zooma Zooma, and I invited my Mom to join us. As we’re lying on the beach, Joe is telling my mom how much he loves working with me as a producer. My mom was like, “you know, she’s really a director.” Which, of course, I hadn’t told him. So the next day, he comes to set and he’s like, “I had this epiphany last night. You are going to be a woman director!” He signed me to his roster and helped me win my first paid directing job.
How do you think your past experience plays into your work as a commercial director today?
I am very fortunate for my time spent in the wardrobe trailer, because you really get to hear the intimate details of how actors perceive and respond to the director, where their frustrations come up and why. It gave me such a huge respect for the acting process, and I also feel very protective of my actors on set. I nurture them and work from here as a base.
As a music video and commercial line producer, I learned the nuts and bolts of everything, from actualizing a budget, to negotiating lighting packages, to keeping clients happy, to all things post-production. It really helps to have a base of knowledge about how production functions.
What are some of the pieces of your past work that best exemplify your vision as a director, and why?
When I made the film “Welcome To Grandville,” I felt that for the first time I had fully put forth my vision as a director. It felt so good. But it also started to highlight the commercial pieces that fell under this umbrella, and I could see how I had been building to that and my commercial vision really started to gel. I recently completed a director’s cut of a Microsoft AI film that I’m extremely happy with. It’s about movement and communication and transformation and I love this.
Nationwide‘s “Good People,” a film to express the company culture of Nationwide Insurance, also really feels like me. Like these films, it was a very unique production experience, and we spent a good amount of time in rural Ohio telling a road trip story of an insurance adjuster.
Angie’s “BOOMCHICKAPOP,” is another unique story. The positive affirmations that are the soundtrack to the spot were discovered organically during the casting process, and I heavily campaigned for this to be a thread throughout the piece. I was elated when everyone was on-board. I think this is what really makes this piece different, and this discovery through the process is something I love about directing.
Also, “A Force For Good,” the film that Humble produced for the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday with Daniel Goleman, is a project I am very connected to. I wrote and directed “The Mother,” narrative thread, and that was a very fulfilling experience. It was my first narrative project shooting with DP Kate Arizmendi, who also shot Grandville. The very first commercial that allowed me to flex my narrative strengths was for St. Vincent’s Hospital, and that spot still holds a special place in my heart. I love the flow of that piece.
Since you have recently been developing interactive work with Humble, your production company, can you talk about the unique challenges posed by interactive work, and what excites you most about its possibilities?
When I was a kid, I literally wanted to exist inside movies. That is what initially attracted me to interactive filmmaking. The style I am cultivating and working in is a form of interactivity that is akin to an immersive theatre experience, where you can wander down hallways, peer into windows. It’s quite voyeuristic which I love. The challenges of this work is really in the writing process and the editing process. You have to create multiple planes of action happening simultaneously. I really enjoy thinking about narrative in this manner, however, and really want to develop more projects like this. “Welcome to Grandville,” has an interactive experience, which just premiered at CIFF in their Perspectives Exhibition, as well as a traditional narrative version, which is premiering at Soho International next month.
Where do you think your work will take you next? Do you have any long-term goals that you hope to accomplish, commercial or otherwise?
As we are starting the festival tour for Grandville, there’s been a lot of interest in turning this into a TV series. I would ideally love to make this an interactive series where we populate the small town of Grandville, the setting of the story, as the season progresses with more characters rather than episodes, showing us different perspectives on the season’s fixed timeline.
I’m writing a film called “The Audacity of Skin,” a dark comedy which challenges conventional notions about nudity and sexuality. I see this film in production in 2019.
As far as commercials, put simply: more projects like this! I really love the branded entertainment space and advertising work that pushes into storytelling. This is when I feel most inspired.
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?
I think it’s about the content being put out in the world being an accurate reflection of reality. Without creator diversity, this cannot happen. Making films is a very unifying craft. I’ve spent hours upon hours riding in passenger vans on scouts where I am the only woman. With more and more women on both sides of the lens, it is not uncommon for my scout vans to be filled with only women. And wow! What an amazing feeling to be creating with people who can more closely share in my version of existence. The conversations and connections made are so different, and this is infused into what unfolds on set and happens when you call action.
What advice would you give an aspiring woman director who was interested in starting a career in advertising?
Being a filmmaker in advertising can be an incredible career path, though the concept of being an auteur is something we see more in film. I think though, in commercials, it’s just as important to develop your authentic voice and find the brands that resonate with that voice, or let them find you. It’s easy to get lost in what you think you should be doing in advertising, because there are trends and ebbs and flows, but ultimately for the work to feel authentic, it has to come from the heart. From a nuts and bolts standpoint, in terms of launching a reel, find some smaller brands or businesses that inspire you to make something and collaborate with them on spots or films. See if they can pay for the hard costs and donate your creative time in order to start to create a commercial reel.
BTS photos taken by: Victoria Stevens
Chief Marketing Officer: Cathy Tull
Sr. Director of Advertising: Colleen Yoshida
Director of Digital: Nikki Velez
Advertising Manager: Ramon Montez
Agency: R&R Partners
Executive Creative Director: Arnie DiGeorge
Group Creative Director: Scott Murray
Executive Producer: Don Turley
Sr. Director of Content Production: Vaitari Anderson
Director of Content Production: Gerri Angelo
Sr. Brand Manager: Cassidy Francois
Project Manager: Emmye Frye
Group Account Director: Yanick Dalhouse
Production Coordinator: Lauren Simons
Director: Sasha Levinson
Production Company: Humble
President/Founder: Eric Berkowitz
Managing Director/EP: Rich Pring
Head of Production: Mari Geraci
Producer: Trevor Allen
Editorial: Spot Welders
Executive Producer: Carolina Padilla
Editor: Erin Nordstrom
Editor: Nick Pezzillo