A Wild-Card Tuesday Exclusive by Stephen Jay Schwartz
If you’re only going to do one thing today, vote.
If you’re going to do two things today, vote, and read this interview with my good friend, the remarkably talented commercial and film director Blair Hayes.
I met Blair many years ago when I was a development exec working for Wolfgang Petersen. Blair is one of the top commercial directors in his field, with clients that include Pepsi, Federal Express, Kodak, Budweiser, American Express, Nintendo, Verizon and many more. He has received all the top commercial awards — the Clio, Addy, One Show, Mobius, IBA, and even a First Place Golden Trailer Award for the theatrical trailer of “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” (“…If you see one movie this summer see “Star Wars”, but if you see two movies, see Star Wars and Austin Powers!”)
Blair’s creative energy is infectious. Actors love working with him, and the list of celebrities he’s directed in commercials include Denzel Washington, Richard Gere, Geena Davis, Andre Agassi, Barry Bonds, and Cal Ripkin, Jr.
In 2001 Blair directed his first feature film, the cult classic, “Bubble Boy”, for Touchstone/Disney Studios, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. I was fortunate to have had a small part to play in this process, as I was a “go-to” person for the scripts that Blair was considering to direct at the time. I knew he’d found the right project when I read an early draft of “Bubble Boy.” Blair gave me the opportunity to help develop the project with a series of notes I provided over the course of several months. I remember visiting the set a few times, watching the magic evolve despite a tight, chaotic schedule and the inevitable financial and technical obstacles involved in making a feature-length film where the star is encased in a “mobile bubble” throughout. Blair also honored me with an invitation to join him and a few select people — his girlfriend (now wife), mom, film manager, and Jake — at an opening night dinner in Beverly Hills followed by a limo tour of the different theaters where Bubble Boy appeared. If you haven’t seen Bubble Boy, rent it. Now. Before you go to the polls. It’s irreverent and hilarious.
In 2004 Blair directed the pilot, “Fearless”, for Jerry Bruckheimer Television, starring Rachel Leigh Cook and Eric Balfour. He also designed, directed, and photographed the award wining opener for the series, “Push, Nevada”, produced for ABC TV by Ben Affleck and Sean Bailey, and served as a visual consultant on the series, shooting scenes to visually punch-up the look of each episode.
Forays into long-form filmmaking aside, Blair still find his greatest passion in commercials. “Telling a story, provoking a response–be it a laugh, a tear, or a scream–in 30 seconds, is the toughest challenge there is – and the sweetest when it works!”
Blair grew up the son of a career marine officer and diplomatic serviceman, living for many years in South America and Thailand. He graduated with a BFA in film and a minor in music from the University of Miami and did post graduate work at USC in screenwriting. He currently lives in Topanga, California, where he shares a house with his beautiful wife, actress Boti Bliss (“CSI:Miami”), his adorable two-year old son Ashby, three enormous dogs, and the occasional Topanga Canyon snake.
Stephen: We have something in common in that we both studied music before settling in on our chosen, creative careers. For me, music influenced everything I did in the arts. My writing wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t feel the crescendo and diminuendo, the staccato and legato of every sentence. How has music influenced your career as a film maker and commercial director?
Blair – Opening line to my uncompleted first novel: “That quick, stridulous tone, like some strategically placed dissonant semi-quaver, lingered familiarly and perfectly in the air, ending abruptly and crudely in a resounding “thwack” as screen door met frame.”
The two studies are intertwined and inseparable. I can always find in music the perfect metaphor for what I am going through in life – career or otherwise. I can’t tell you how many frustrated musicians I have encountered in the film business, including, *sigh*, me.
Stephen – I understand that you had some connection to Jaco Pastorius, the great bass player from the jazz fusion band Weather Report. How did you come to meet him and how has he influenced your creative process?
Blair – I studied music at theUniversity of Miami in the late seventies, my principal instrument being bass. Jaco was teaching there as well as playing with several of the various rocdk and jazz ensembles. The first time I ever saw him perform was one of my earliest “door moments,” you know, those pivotal moments you encounter where you have some sort of epiphany – and a door opens or closes for you. Though I openly derieded his playing to my roommate as “too many notes,” I knew in my heart that I was witnessing a divinely gifted individual. What was actually going on in my mind was, “okay, either I study my ass off and woodshed til my fingers bleed to get as good as this guy or toss in the towel now and acknowledge I will never get to that level.” I knew in my heart the answer.
(The brilliant Jaco Pastorius, of Weather Report)
Stephen – And yet you didn’t have the same response to film. What motivated you to become a professional film-maker and commercial director instead of a studio musician?
Blair – To be perfectly honest, it was a combination of seeing Jaco and realizing I was never going to be that good and meanwhile having professors saying shit like, “less than one percent of you will ever go on to anything more than teaching accordion to grade school children”, and other such discouraging stuff. I knew I had to switch majors and saw that UM had a film department and thought, “hey, all those countless hours in movie theaters and in front of the boob tube has certainly prepared me for this!”. And that is honestly how it happened.
So, basically, I owe my career to Jaco!
Stephen – That’s wild, Blair – I had a very similar experience in music school. I spent one year at North Texas State University, one of the top jazz schools in the country, studying saxophone performance. I was a somewhat decent musician, but everyone around me was insanely good. I noticed that I was having more fun in my English courses and, after one of the many days when I skipped my Sight-Singing and Ear-Training course to argue literary style with my English professor, he suggested I leave music school to study film and literature in Los Angeles. It was the right move.
You ultimately chose film-making as the preferred medium in which to express your art. Have you always seen stories as images, or do you feel equally comfortable telling your stories on paper?
Blair – My primary effort both on the page and on the screen is to tell the story as “experientially” as I can. You know, intimately and personally. I just want to be provacative; be that a laugh, a tear, or just a reflection on something. So a lot of what I’m known for visually is what some might call impressionistic. I call it jazz.
If you want to see a few samples, go here, here, and here.
Stephen – What was film school like for you? What were your goals and expectations?
Blair – I honestly wouldn’t recommend film school to anyone these days. Not with DSLR’s and the multitude of inexpensive ways to record an image. In film school, other than the theory and film history stuff you learn (all of which is terrific at chatting up girls and geeks), you don’t really get to know anything substantive until you actually get your hands on a camera, which, in most cases, isn’t until your senior year. That’s when you really learn something. All the theory, the history, didn’t do me a bit of good professionally. You know what did? Knowing how to thread a Movieola! As a PA (production assistant) right out of college, on my very first job (back when everything was shot on 35mm film), I was asked if I knew how to run a Movieola (the ancient though venerable rackety machine that was the industry norm for editing and viewing dailies on location). “Yes!”, was my enthusiastic reply. I even knew how to repair the torn sprocket holes that would inevitably occur when the director would take over the running of the machine…
Stephen – What was your experience after film school? Did you march into Warner Brothers with that reel in your hand? How did you end up in commercials?
Blair – I became a commercial director really by default. I never intended to be a commercial director (how low brow can you get???); I totally believed that diploma in hand, I would be granted the reins to “Citizen Kane 2″. But, as fate would have it, I started working as a production assistant primarily on commercials and started moving up the old ladder, to production coordinator, location scout (which was really fun because I was creatively contributing to the project), then assistant director and ultimately producer. But all the while “what I really wanted to do was direct.” By the time I was in my mid-twenties I was producing for some of the biggest and best commercial directors in the business, including Ridley and Tony Scott, and making very good money, but it just wasn’t where I wanted to be. So I self-imposed a goal to be directing by the time I was thirty. And to really light the fire I also said to myself the day I produce for someone younger than me is the day I give in and realize, “that’s it, I will be a producer the rest of my life”. And guess what? The occasion presented itself to me in my 29th year and that was it: I sold my house and financed a showreel of spec spots that I directed. The reel worked. I got representation as a director right away and that was that, I was on my way. Now the only frustration was that I wasn’t directing movies…
Stephen – How did you make the move from being one of the top commercial directors to directing a feature film for Disney?
Blair – One of the production managers working for me on a commercial, who also worked for Jerry Bruckheimer, saw my reel and asked if I’d be interested in directing a movie and if it would be alright with me if she showed my reel to Mr. B. Needless to say, after I peeled my ass from the floor, I ran to give her all the reels she could carry. A week later I was ushered into the presence of Mr. Bruckheimer, who was incredibly complimentary of my work and asked If I’d like to direct a movie for him. That’s it. That’s how it happened. I ultimately did not make a film for Jerry Bruckheimer, but word got out that I was on the short list of directors he wanted to work with and then the agents and managers came out of the woodwork. I had also directed the trailer for “Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me”. The one where you think it’s Star Wars only instead of Darth Vader it turns out to be Dr. Evil, “If you see One Movie this summer, see Star Wars. But if you see two…” That garnered quite a lot of attention.
Stephen – How did the Bubble Boy opportunity come about?
Blair – My agents and manager started sending me stacks and stacks of scripts to read. They were pretty much all the shit that everyone had passed on. Then I got “Bubble Boy” and literally laughed aloud (for me a rare occurrence) at least four or five times so I knew it was something that I could get behind for the next year and a half of my life.
Stephen – How did you get hooked-up with Jake Gyllenhaal?
Blair – Jake was one of many many young men who came in and read for the role. We all (the producers, casting director and myself) knew he was the guy the moment he started reading.
Stephen – I remember a lot of hair-pulling going on when you were in production. Was the experience a dream or a nightmare?
Blair – Actually, the production of the movie was the fun part. Once the studio was happy with the dailies (I was told lunch time screenings at Disney were standing room only) they pretty much left me alone. It wasn’t until post production and all the other chefs came into the kitchen that it got less than fun.
Stephen – Why are movies so hard to make? What gets in the way?
Blair – Well, as my experience was working for a studio, I can only speak to that. And honestly, the hardest part is just what I mentioned before, too many cooks in the kitchen. I honestly don’t know how any good studio pictures ever get made. Most of them come from experienced directors that, having “proved themselves”, get a little less interference. But even the big boys get notes.
Stephen – How has the film industry changed since “Bubble Boy?” How have you had to change to keep up with the times?
Blair – I don’t really know because, frankly, I’m not really playing in that arena, I do Commercials. But both worlds have really become stripped down financially and therefore have become all about how to create the maximum bang for the minimum buck. Which is of course, also where some of the best filmmaking in the feature world is happening today, e.g.,”Butterfly and the Diving Bell” and this year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. This is the type of movie I intend to do next. That or a Wes Anderson sort of pic; visual, personal journey sorta thing.
I recently directed a “short” film. I say short in italics as it’s 43 minutes long. Didn’t write it; it was a one act play written by Andrew Fischer, who, along with my wife Boti and the other actor in the film, Guy Birtwhistle, were all members of Howard Fine’s Masters Class. Howard Fine is one of the most well-known and respected acting teachers in Hollywood. Bo came to me along with Guy and Andrew about directing it. I loved the material and jumped onboard immediately. It’s a wonderful piece that takes place all in one long evening in one house. It was great fun to do. We rehearsed for months, something I had never done before (we had only a couple weeks rehearsal time for BBoy). I really learned the value of rehearsing – with good actors, of course. Being 45 minutes long it fell into a category that was too long for most short film competitions and too short for feature film festivals, but from the get-go we were just making it for the love of the piece and the experience of bring it to life. I also composed the music (to get back to your first question). Something I had been wanting to do for a long time.
And the trailer for those without the patience.
(Boti Bliss in “Bubble Boy”)
Stephen – Your lovely wife, Boti, plays a now legendary cameo in “Bubble Boy,” one that makes me laugh from the moment she appears on screen. How did you and Boti meet?
Blair – I met Boti Bliss on a commercial shoot. She was the girl Damon Wayans and David Arquette were fighting Chop-Sakey style over in an AT&T commercial. It was honestly love at first sight for both of us. We started dating shortly thereafter and moved in together 13 years ago. We tied the knot officially two years ago when we got pregnant. And now share the house with the World’s Most Adorable Child, Ashby Buck.
Stephen – I often wish that I could be reborn as Ashby – the kid with the cool, artistic parents, the three enormous dogs and the house in Topanga. I’ve seen photos of him at work in his art studio and playing piano and drums…and he’s two years old. You and Boti are giving him the best that can be given.
Thanks for giving us a peek into your life, Blair. We’re all waiting to see your next creative endeavor!
Blair – Thank you, Steve! It was fun!
Heya, Blair – sorry for the light turn-out – my guess is that everyone is out voting today. However, I know there's a lot of folks out there reading the interview who don't usually leave comments. You did a great job and it was wonderful having you join us today!
Steve, great interview with a great man.
Blair, I think you have done a great job and I am pretty sure will continue giving us such a beautiful talent.
By the way, we already voted.
Sorry about the late comment, but I wanted to watch Night Music first, and this is the first free hour I've had all day.
It's an incredibly powerful piece–John and Leo and Trisha had me swapping sympathies the entire time. So much pain . . . I'm not qualified or observant enough to comment on directorial decisions, but the music was excellent!
Thanks for the insiders look at how movies (and directors) can be made. And for a glimpse of an absolutely adorable little boy!
Thank you, Sarah. It was precisely that, the swapping of sympathies, trying to figure out just what was going on – and who was zooming whom – that attracted me to the piece. That you very much for watching, and thank you for sharing your opinion.
Glad you liked the music.
Yes, today was distracting to say the least but I am facinated by your interaction with Jaco, one of my very favorite musicians. Lucky you. I know Jaco was difficult as a guy and died tragically but not before he made some great music. Enjoyed the insights and the path. Some commercials are as good as mini movies….loved Dicks Sports Equipment ad during the World Series, fabulous. Like of like writing short stories — hard to do well to get a point across in that limited time with the other constraints.
And the too many cooks comments we've heard from current and alum Muderati (including Stephen) as to one reason why they turned to novel writing. It's singular. thanks for coming by…sorry about the POTUS distraction and resulting late post.
Sorry to check in late, guys. Wonderful interview. Jaco Pastorius. Saw him perform with Weather Report, a monster for sure, but such a sad end. You may have lacked the talent, Blair (I had a similar epiphany), but you also lacked those kinds of demons. Best of luck in your many endeavors, and I'll be looking for your feature.
I'm catching up on Murderati blogs, too 🙂
Great interview. Thanks to Stephen and Blair! I can't imagine ever directing a film – I tend to be a stress-head as it is and I think I'd self-combust or implode if I had the reins to that kind of a project. Fascinating to hear about your life as a director.
very nice little interview…would love to work with Blair someday.
Blair Hayes is the man. He has an incredible eye that almost never gives you what you expect.. but his images are fantastic nonetheless. I produced two Cannon camera spots which he directed. One with Andre Agassi. They both turned out fabulously. It was one of my favorite production experiences to date. I hope we can work together again.