Director/Cinematographer Jon Hill has over 13 years of experience as a commercial director of award-winning commercials for clients such as Microsoft, Cingular Wireless, Sara Lee, Converse, Bellsouth, Suntrust Bank, The Real Yellow Pages, Comcast, Alltel, Costa Del Mar Sunglasses, Arby’s, the Atlanta Film Festival, Toto, UPS, Biamp Audio and SCANA Energy.
Known for his hip & quirky comedic work and edgy shooting style, Jon graduated with a degree in photography from Savannah College of Art and Design. Lately, he is gaining recognition and garnering awards for his short film, White Bitch Down, which is currently being broadcast on the Independent Film Channel (IFC). The film was awarded “Best Local Filmmaker of the Year” by Creative Loafing and the Southeastern Media Award at the Atlanta Film Festival. Recently, Jon won the Converse International Film Competition with film, The Lonely Ranger. Check it out on all of the MTV channels as well as at www.jonhillpictures.com.
Pat: I had a situation yesterday and I’d like to get your take on it. I had an audition for a commercial and my time was 12:15pm. When I got there, the casting director and ad agency had taken lunch and I was asked to hang out or come back at 1:35. I took a walk and got an ice tea, arriving back at the audition at 1:20. They came back from lunch at 1:45. I was finished by 2pm. Now I was not happy at all and I had to cancel another meeting I had, but I didn’t let that show in my audition. I thought the ad agency seemed inexperienced and a bit disorganized. Another actor there was quite disgruntled and did let them know. What do you think actors can do about being asked to hang at an audition for a long time?
Jon: They took lunch in the middle of your call? It happens. Sometimes, casting directors do get behind. I understand about the actors being disgruntled, though. They (the casting directors or the clients) realized that they had gotten backed up, and they needed to take a break. They don’t want to be completely wiped out and tired of looking at people. So, you (the actors) have got to wait a bit longer and if it means they are going to be fresh and sane when they see you, then it’s to your benefit. It’s your job to be at the top of your game even if you wait an hour. Try to think about it this way: “Hey, they will have had lunch, they’ll feel better and they’ll be ready to jump back in and have fresh eyes.” They know that you have waited that long, because the casting person will remind them. And if I’m in that situation as the director of the spot, it’s my job to get you into a good place.
Pat: That’s a good point. The casting directors and clients are having a day, too.
Jon: And there’s the reverse. What if you are running late? That might have been what happened, that an actor or a few of their mates were late and threw their entire casting schedule off. I think you should do what you did, which was to go away, blow off some steam and come back. I’m thinking about the person that got mad at the casting director. That was ballsy of them. If they gave a really good performance and cussed us out, I might still bring them back. But man, it also would have made me think, “This person is probably going to be hell on set. Even if they are really good, do we have the time to deal with someone who is going to be hard to work with?”
Pat: Are you hired by the ad agency?
Jon: It happens in different ways. Advertising has changed quite a bit. There are ad agencies that handle the whole thing and there are production companies that handle the whole thing. There is the old school way, which still comes up 70% of the time. That means that the ad agency comes up with the creative part of the commercial and they have two or three production companies bid on it based on their directors. If that’s the way it’s done, we all do a treatment and conference call to get the gig. I love the business because every job is different. You have new problems to solve all the time and there are always new challenges. It’s fun and so unpredictable! Everyone thinks they have a formula for making commercials, but there is actually no formula whatsoever.
Pat: What about the casting person? Where do they come into the hiring process?
Jon: I have worked jobs where the agency has cast the whole thing and they just want you to direct it. Most of the time, they will ask you who you would like to work with casting-wise. Depending on the job, I like to think about who is strongest in the category I am trying to cast and start there. If that casting director is not available we work our way through the list. I don’t have a favorite casting director. Everyone I have worked with has been great. It’s just like picking the right actor or director for the project. Everyone has their strengths and is right for a particular job.
Pat: How much do you talk to the casting director before the casting session?
Jon: We generally have one or two conversations before a casting session. It may be as simple as, “This is the look and feel of what we are going for.” In commercials, many times the actor isn’t talking, so it is a look and a reaction that we’re searching for. It can be really hard to nail that, and it’s best when the ad agency comes in with an old school story board that’s been drawn out and illustrated. These days, there are many times when they come in with photographs from stock sites and they want you to match them. They’ll have this preconceived notion of exactly what the actor should look like, and you might have to deal with something like that. Doing it that way makes it more challenging to find that “exact person” you’re looking for.
I usually try to steer the agency in the right direction. I’ll say things like, “You can’t get that person. They’re a million dollars. Let’s look for someone more in this vein.” I’ll usually have had that breakdown discussion pretty intensely with the ad agency before I chat with the casting director. Sometimes the casting director is involved in that aspect of the creative process, sometimes they are not. I’ll generally hand the casting director a written treatment with character descriptions or we’ll have a lengthy discussion on the phone. Sometimes they will send me examples of actors they are thinking about just so they can see if they are heading in the right direction. The really good casting directors generally have a sixth sense and they know what you are thinking and are on top of it. The casting directors I find most effective are the ones you have to talk with the least because they just get you. You get each other. It’s the same way with actors, too. Some will just get the scene and the character, and that’s exactly what you want on set.
Pat: Do you have actors that you really like and request?
Jon: Yes, absolutely
Pat: Is that ever a problem politically?
Jon: Never. I would hope that a casting director would want my input. That’s how the casting director/director relationship should work. If anyone ever thinks they create this thing on their own, whether it’s a film or commercial, they’re a nut. Commercials are a collaboration between the art director, the DP, the director, the producer, the client, the cast and crew all have to be willing to collaborate. Everyone has to be open-minded like that or it just doesn’t work. It become pretty obvious when someone is just trying to do their own thing and not be a part of the team.
Pat: I have heard that you can tell when an actor is comfortable right away the minute they enter the room.
Jon: Sometimes you can, but the fact that they’re comfortable doesn’t mean they are going to nail the audition. You might be looking for somebody who isn’t comfortable. I think a good actor comes in and brings whatever they think is right for their character. By the way, I do believe that you should come in as the character. I think that’s a really strong choice.
Pat: Should you even slate in character?
Jon: Yes, I think so. It makes me see you as the character from the get go.
Actually, you just reminded me of some additional points I’d like to address. If I am involved in casting a project, I want you to have a fair shot. If I come in with a preconceived notion of what I’m looking for, I have to let that go and try something else. I have learned that there is always a better idea out there than what I have got in my head. Always. There is always someone who has a smarter and better idea than I do.
I also think this is true from the acting standpoint. Actors have got to be open to whatever gets thrown at them. Definitely own what you are walking into the audition with, but at the same time you need to be ready for an “a-ha” moment. When you are open to that the performances you give will be better. From the directing standpoint, I may have 15 great people who nailed it, but then in walks this one person who does something completely different. That actor has just raised our whole creativity up a big notch. I have been in a lot of casting sessions in which the first person walked in and we are all like, “We can stop casting right now!” We might end up with that first actor, but 17 actors down the line there’s going to be someone that makes us question our original pick. The actors who stand out, who book the job, are the actors who come in and show us the character in an original way. In fact, they might even get the character better than we do!
In the end, it’s all about whether or not an actor is going to sell the client’s product, it’s not about me. It’s about how memorable this is going to be for the audience, and whether or not that audience is going to buy your client’s product. As an actor, research the product you’re auditioning for a little bit. Research the company’s past campaigns. Maybe this spot is part of the same campaign. Say it’s a Capitol One “What’s in your wallet?” credit card commercial. See what works in those campaigns from an acting standpoint. Is it quirky, weird characters being themselves, or are they playing over-the-top?
Pat: Is it alright for an actor to ask a question like, “Is there anything you think I should know before we start?”
Jon: Absolutely. This is a communication business. I am not going to know that you don’t know something unless you ask me. Most of the time, I ask if you, the actor, has any questions. I think it’s one in a million that someone can come in and nail it the first take. I think actors need to do it two or three times, and they should have a chance to adjust. Adjustments are very important.
I wouldn’t ask too many questions, but if you really don’t get the character, say that. I would rather you ask than waste my time. I want you to do the best job you can.
Pat: If an actor is not feeling well, should they say something?
Jon: If you can come in and just do your best for those 10 minutes, then work through it. Save up your energy, take EmergenC, blow it out and give it your all. It’s part of your job. If this is what you want to do, are you going to let a cold stand in your way?
Now, keep in mind, I’m not saying you should come into the casting office and get us all sick. Be responsible and don’t shake hands. If you have the flu and can’t get out of bed, find out if they are casting the next day. As an actor you really need to know yourself, your body, your emotions and your energy levels. You just really have to know your strengths as well as your limitations.
Pat: If you get off to a bad start in your audition, what is the best way to handle that?
Jon: If you can’t make the bad start a part of your performance, I don’t think it’s a problem to ask to start again. That doesn’t bother me on tape. In fact, it just shows that the actor is in charge of their performance. Having said that, if you start again on every take we never get our shoot done. I had one actor do that on a test not too long ago. I could just imagine our shoot day flying away.
Pat: Do you care if the copy is completely memorized or if actors use the boards?
Jon: I’d rather they came in and didn’t look at the boards. It’s about finding the character and not finding the words. Obviously, if you can’t get the words at all we’re going to have problems. For one, your writer is going to want to kill the actor. The words are there for a reason, especially on a commercial. The agency has probably gone through a lot of changes, approvals and legal mumbo jumbo to get the script where it is, and if you know the words you will be in a better place and a step above everyone else. If you had the copy for only 5 minutes prior to the audition, make sure to get the gist of it, because that is going to help you even if you don’t have time to memorize the words. There are some that can look at the paper and still connect with the camera. If you are good like that, maybe you can pull if off. Be as prepared as you can be.
Pat: What’s the most effective way to cultivate a relationship with you? It’s all about relationships in this town.
Jon: The actor’s primary relationship is with the casting people. Just like agencies want to work with different directors, directors want to work with different actors. The casting folks are the ones that actors need to develop relationships with. It’s your most important connection. Your performance is really about your relationship with the director. If you see somebody you have worked with or had a really good audition with at a party, you should definitely say “hi.” I don’t see why not. I don’t think you should inundate people with emails and headshots, though. Our office is purposely as paper-free as possible. I don’t want to store headshots.
Also remember that networking is not an armchair sport. You need face time for someone to remember you. Find out when SAG has networking events. They are free and you are crazy if you don’t go. Even if you meet just one person, it’s worth it. Think of it as something that’s kind of exciting. Who knows who you’ll meet? You definitely know what’s going to happen if you just sit in your house. You’ll end up with a half-pint of ice cream, watching a movie you wish you were in that you’ve seen 100 times. Why did you move to this town? It’s an industry town. Get out there and be a part of it.
Pat: What is Jon Hill up to?
Jon: I am pitching several ideas and a few of them are films. We have a team of writers working on a lot of projects, from webisodes to television and film. I’m directing commercials and I’m also a photographer. I guess you could say I have a lot of irons in the fire.
Patricia Tallman co-created Talent To Go with Judy Kain. Their goal is to help actors hone their acting, auditioning and marketing skills. Go to www.talenttogo.net for more information or email firstname.lastname@example.org about casting director Francene Selkirk-Ackerman’s commercial classes.