For comedy director Alex Grossman, finding the humor in even the driest of situations has always been second nature. Kicking off his career as a copywriter for such illustrious agencies (named after a trio of white dudes) as Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Butler, Shine & Stern, and Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Grossman focused his razor-sharp wit into directing after SHOOT Magazine named him one of the top 25 worldwide directors of 2011. He has continued to prove that others find him funny as well, racking up a harvest of directing accolades and honors, including three Gold Lions and two Silver at Cannes, and six Golds, six Silvers, and three Bronze London International Awards, for his 2017 French Film Festival campaign. He took the time to talk with AdForum about maintaining relationships, crafting comedy, and steering tankers.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got your start as a Director
I started in advertising and was fortunate that I worked as a writer at Goodby Silverstein & Partners and some other really good ad agencies. But, L.A. is a peculiar city that senses when you want one thing, and makes sure you get something else. I moved here to be a screenwriter, but was shown the path to becoming a director.
The first thing I shot was a spec piece between 2006 and 2008 for the Jewish Film Festival. I went around town during the writers strike and asked people in the industry why Jews weren’t allowed to work in Hollywood. As you can imagine, the responses were pretty comical.
When I started directing, I had no intention of becoming a commercial director. I called one of my contacts that run a great production company, he took a look at my work and asked me how I’d like to start directing commercials. I was thrilled, and that's how my career in commercial directing started. A couple of years ago I managed to shoot Hickey, a feature film that I wrote and it screened at South by Southwest and it won some nice honors at different festivals around the country before Gravitas picked it up. My investors are actually seeing a bit of a return, which is increasingly rare for indy movies.
Do you think your time as a Copywriter/Screenwriter helped you as a Director?
Absolutely. It helped me understand the client and advertising agency structure. I know the processes and hardships creatives go through to sell a campaign, and I’m respectful of what it took to get here. I know what we’re shooting may not be the favorite campaign the ad agency presented, and want to do whatever I can to make sure it turns out better than expected.
The simile that often comes to mind is that a commercial is like a giant ocean liner. It’s up to the ad agency to get it out to sea, then it’s up to the director to bring it into port. By the time it’s in my hands, you can’t make any sharp turns or do anything too risky, but you can still make little tweaks here and there that ultimately improve the experience and end product.
How would you describe your creative process?
When I moved to L.A., I did what every newcomer here does and took improv classes. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for my career and my life. It taught me never to say no, to always collaborate, and to trust the people I’m working with. I recommend it for everyone in any field. It’s a great feeling on a shoot when we do something really funny and everyone feels like the idea belongs to them.
And what would you say is the most challenging part about what you do?
The bidding process. Every job now has gotten so competitive that. Realistically, there are about 30 directors who might be right for a spot. That is culled down to about five that have calls with the ad agency, and then down to three who will submit treatments. At this point, who the agency chooses is very subjective. If I have strong feelings about how I see or want to do something, I don’t hold back. This way if I win the job, I’m psyched, and if I lose it I can sleep well knowing I put it all out there.
What would you say is the most rewarding part of what you do?
Selfishly, making people laugh. Getting a positive reaction from audiences. And forming relationships with the client and with the ad agency that leads to repeat business.
So you're the most awarded comedy director at Cannes and the one show.
I was on a shoot in Arizona when this campaign started winning, and I was really shocked. I remember one of my old bosses was like. “Dude, you've just won more gold lions with one campaign then our ad agency has won in our entire history.” That was a super nice compliment.
Do you have any other comedic outlets?
My wife will tell you I use Facebook way too much. She thinks it does more harm than good. I've got another movie that a comedy I’m hoping to make. And around the house I try and amuse my children but am seldom successful.
Do you have a favorite ad that you've worked on in your career?
Directing the French film festival stuff. I can still watch that stuff and I don't cringe, which I think most directors will agree is a huge win. Almost everything else I've made I think I could have improved by doing this or that, but I look at the French stuff and think, this is what it was supposed to be. I got it right. And that’s a great feeling.
And what advice would you offer someone considering a career as a director?
You just have to stomach the ups and downs and know that the business has really changed. When I started as a copywriter, when you went to sell projects, there were 20 or 30 directors you were considering that were really good. Now there are hundreds of great directors that would be great for any spot. The means of production are so inexpensive right now, that it’s easier to become a director and build a reel. That’s actually a good thing because it’s opening doors to people and voices that weren’t previously heard. The downside is that ad agencies tend to spend more on media than production. Some realize that it takes years of practice and honing your craft, and it's not just turning on the camera. The toolbox to filmmaking is now readily available, but it still takes years of practice to learn the trade.
Check out more from Alex Grossman HERE.