It’s easy to compare the creative life to the domino effect. One project can lead to another and each new connection can topple the next piece towards a big breakthrough. Of course, to start the reaction, you need motion. That first domino isn’t going to push itself. And the Callner brothers are tackling it like a middle linebacker with nothing to lose.
Adam and Ben Callner are behind the short film Adman. A Vimeo Staff Pick and a Short of the Week, it tells a simple love story in a way we’ve never seen before: entirely through commercials. And these aren’t some lazy ad spoofs. These are highly executed ideas that any creative director would kill to put on their resumé.
“On paper, Adman is an insane idea. It’s the stupidest business move of all time,” Ben told us. “But, we hadn’t seen anything like it and we weren’t sure if anything like it would ever get made. There’s some value in that.”
Of course, life doesn’t happen on paper and things are turning out pretty well for this director/producer duo. Ben and Adam have been making waves in the commercial industry for almost a decade now with a razor-sharp knack for comedic timing and really good ideas.
But, when they realized they were getting pigeonholed into a certain style, they decided it was time to knock over a few more dominos. Hence Adman. We talked with Ben and Adam about the lofty ideas behind their award-winning short film, their process for coming with 17 killer commercial concepts, and getting a toe in the door.
First, though, be sure to watch Adman below. Our conversation will make a whole lot more sense after you do.
Musicbed: We have so many questions after watching Adman.
Ben Callner: Oh man. You’re going to need to rein me in. You’ll find out really quickly that I like to go on tangents. That’s how it’ll go for the next 30 minutes I think. Adam’s better, but I go crazy sometimes. I’ll try to be good.
Well, we better get started then. Was there a “big break” moment for either of you in the commercial scene?
Adam Callner: I ended up coming to New York two years after graduating from college, trying to pave a path in the commercial world for both of us. I think the big break for Ben was when we shot a spec spot for Verizon that ended up winning a ton of awards and got him a Cannes Young Director Award.
Ben: Well, it got me on the roster at a production company in Atlanta. Then, we actually won the Doritos “Crash the Super Bowl” competition. I don’t know if you saw it, but we made one called Goat for Sale and that’s what kind of got me on a worldwide roster. It’s so funny. Ever since I made that commercial it kind of pigeon-holed me into this sort of slapstick comedy niche, which is kind of what spurred Adman.
The tone for Adman jumps pretty quickly between funny and sad. Do you two ever think about how thin the line is between the two?
Ben: Yes, yes, yes.
Adam: You just made his day with that.
Ben: I love that. It all has to do with context because if you take yourself away from it, death can sometimes be really funny. When she dies in Adman some people laugh because it’s funny to be killed by a piano. I mean, for me, it’s funny when he says, “Honey? Are you ok?” It’s funny because she’s obviously not.
And then—this edit was purposeful—you cut to see Moira’s funeral ad and people are like, “Oh shit. She really did die.” Then you get into it and it isn’t funny because I’m feeling these emotions and it feels real. I didn’t want the film to be some sales gimmick to get people to watch this. It’s all commercials, but I wanted there to be a reason for these commercials.
Adam: To touch even more on that context, especially that dog food spot at the end. If you watch it individually, it comes across as sad, but then you add another layer onto it the minute you add branding to the end. It throws you for a loop. You’re thinking, What am I feeling now that I’m just watching a dog food commercial?
Ben: We’re not in a position to preach; it’s more about asking questions. Are commercials important? Is materialism a bad thing?
Adam: I think this project helped define our voices a little bit more and the type of films we want to make. When you get into the commercial world, there are a lot of different creatives involved. You have to let go of the vision a bit. This was a good opportunity for us to create something that was 100 percent our story. It was a lot of fun to do.
Ben: It was exciting.
Adam: It was exciting. We even shot additional commercials that didn’t even make it into the final edit. There’s a whole website with them all.
Ben: There’s a lot of meta shit. It’s essentially my film school thesis that I never did.
Adam: There’s your film school right there.
Ben: You see what I’m talking about? We’re going to answer your simple question with stuff you never asked [laughs].
No, this is great. Were you surprised by the amount of attention Adman received?
Ben: I think awards are crazy. I think it was Woody Allen or somebody who said you can’t give an award for what we do because it’s so subjective. It really is just opinions, but at the same time, for someone who doesn’t know wine, you go into the store and you’re looking at who has won awards. For people who aren’t as refined in wine—or our case, commercials—how do you even know what quality is?
Agencies are in the same boat sometimes, where they don’t really know what’s good. That’s where awards can help you. When I first started, awards were really helpful. Now, it’s even harder because there are so many more directors and a lot of them are very good. It makes you better, sure, but it’s also easy to get lost at the same time.
You do need something that makes you stand apart, but more so I think Adman is beneficial because it’s so different. On paper, Adman is an insane idea. It’s the stupidest business move of all time. But, we hadn’t seen anything like it and we weren’t sure if anything like it would ever get made. There’s some value in that.
Is it bringing in more commercial work?
Ben: We’ve already gotten work. We’ve gotten attention from companies that I never would have even known about. In that sense, it’s already getting attention.
Adam: I almost think it’s more valuable from a director’s standpoint and a storytelling standpoint. It’s something that a lot of directors want to do or wish they could do. They want to make spots they believe in and in the commercial world, a lot of spots you’re really proud of have a tendency to get diluted because there are so many people involved. This was a great portfolio piece because it’s a bunch of commercials that cover a wide spectrum of ability but also contribute to a larger story.
How did you begin to create the framework for the story? Was it a storyline first or were there commercials you had in mind?
Ben: There were no limits at first and we really needed to give ourselves some limits. Mainly, we didn’t want to make these spots feel like parodies or spoofs. We needed them to feel real as if it was an actual product. If we were presented with the product, what would be the best way to sell it?
But, even bigger than that, what we were really talking about was the meaning of objects in our lives. It’s such a crazy idea that we thought the story needed to be simple, but also a simple story people would want to watch. For me, it’s a love story. I think everybody can relate to that. So, once we had our broad storyline, we started coming up with spec spots that would tell the story but also be true to a “product” and not just engineered for the story. That was the hard part.
Adam: Ben has been coming up with spec spots ever since he started directing. We’d always throw out some funny ideas and keep track of them. That really helped in the process, where we had an overarching story idea and we had these spots that could fill in the gaps here and there. From a process standpoint, I think we had something like 17 commercials going into it.
A lot of people would kill for one great commercial idea. What’s the secret to your process where you can come up with 17 of them?
Ben: For me, the best commercials are the ones where the joke doesn’t stray from the messaging. You can’t just slap a product at the end. I think the best commercials are the ones where the punchline is the messaging.
Adam: It generally starts with Ben or I coming up with a specific moment in the spot that would be fun. Something specific and unique. Then we revolve the idea around that and Ben will flesh it out in his head and we’ll talk about it. Eventually, I have to put on my producer hat and say, “Hey bro, we can’t have a flying horse come in, it’s just not going to happen. But we can try it this way.”
Ben: I’d say if I’m presenting an idea to Adam, 90 percent of the time he makes it better by making it simpler. Adam lets me think crazy and he’s really good at that. He’ll hear me say something insane and he’ll push to get to the heart of the idea. And sometimes you get stuck. Sometimes you need that original moment you came up with to get excited about. If you have nothing to get excited about, you’re just going to give up.
With Adman opening new doors, what’s coming up next?
Adam: We’re fleshing out a few ideas right now, one for a feature and one for a series. The film industry, with all of the different content platforms out there, are looking for people who can tell stories well. Even though Adman was a bunch of commercials, it still tells a story and that has resonated with some people in the film industry.
Ben: So, to answer your question, we were able to make some connections and now we have a foot in the door. Maybe not a foot. More like a toe.