Family Ties

BBH takes a cue from reality TV for its new Noggin spot

What if you had to spend every minute of the day attached to your mother?

At Oceanside Elementary School in Merrick, N.Y., Donna Mig dol is teaching a class on fractions. Secured tightly to her wrist with a bright red bicycle lock is her somewhat embarrassed 15-year-old son, Matt Bressler. Later he will get dragged along as she shops for lingerie and has her nails done, then endure her close proximity at his own after-school activities.

It’s not an Oedipal version of Chains of Love but a location shoot for Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s first TV campaign for Noggin, the kids television network founded in 1999 by the Children’s Television Workshop and Nickelodeon. After winning the $12 million account in late March, the agency came up with a concept de signed to pique the curiosity of young minds.

Three 30-second commercials pose left-field “cliffhanger” questions: Can I win a girl over by being her servant? What do you do if your allow ance is a goat? And then there’s the question at hand, about being literally unable to get away from a parent. For answers, kids must tune in to Noggin, where three- to five-minute interstitials (shot at the same time as the commercials) will reveal how the kids involved “used their noggins.” The mother-and-son spot, which will also run in cinemas, launches next week on Noggin and sister Viacom channels such as Nickelodeon.

“The last thing we want to do is be preachy to kids,” says Kevin Mc Keon, executive creative director. “This way is much better. … The client loved it. It gave them content and drove [kids] to the channel with compelling situations.”

The agency wanted to use real kids rather than professional actors, and found Donna, 44, and Matt after interviewing hundreds of kids from New York and New Jersey schools. Matt, blond with rosy, round cheeks—a “mushkin,” his mom calls him—can’t get enough of the attention being lavished on him. Donna, also blond and with a wide smile, bursts out singing one moment, plants a kiss on Matt the next—anything to embarrass him and steal the spotlight.

“It was so funny to watch them together,” says copywriter Peter Kain. “They’re really competitive with each other in a light hearted way. It seemed like an interesting relationship.”

Director Mark Lewis, via Independent Media, is an Australian documentary filmmaker skilled in coaxing funny, natural performances out of non-actors. Before the shoot, he in terviewed Donna and Matt about what they do on a typical day. Then he and agency creatives came up with several scenarios in which to film the shackled-together pair: while he’s in his high school algebra class and while she teaches at her elementary school, and then as Donna shops for lingerie and has her nails done, and as Matt plays hackeysack with his friends and attends his acting class. (The conceit is strictly for the cameras: The two are unattached between shots.)

The New York shop has invaded Donna and Matt’s sleepy Long Island town for the two-day shoot. (After the scenes are edited, it will appear that mother and son were attached for one full day.) The scenes are un scripted, but milked for comic potential. “When we see a moment where Matt seems really uncomfortable, we explore that more,” says Kain.

At the lingerie store, for example, Matt blushes and squirms to get as far away as possible. The camera zooms in. “At that point it was al most like watching him alone with his mother,” Kain says. “He was just really embarrassed to be there.”

While the spontaneous nature of the shoot can create a documentary-like feel, there are problems to be had in using an unsuspecting small town as the set of a commercial. Matt’s high school initially refuses to let in the film crew, but finally allows just Lewis and the cameraman. The scene at Donna’s school, later in the day, is a little easier, at least after everyone has sheepishly donned a hall pass. Getting permission to film the students in the classrooms—these aren’t extras, after all—is no small task either. After filming, they have Pola roids taken with their names marked on the back; releases will have to be secured.

Donna and Matt’s house, a two-story in a quiet neighborhood with a flower bed and basketball hoop out front, has been transformed into a make shift studio. Card board covers the floor. The electrical team lounges on the front patio. Sound men have taken over the dining room. Agency creatives and the producer watch the shoot from a monitor in the den. In the living room, sheets are taped against the windows, and the camera is trained on the couch.

Lewis interviews Matt in his cataclys mically messy room, asking what he’s learned about his mom from the experience. “She lives a pretty hard life and puts up with a lot,” he says. “She has to deal with all the fumes in the salon … and then she has to come home and deal with me.”

Because of the tight shooting schedule, a trip to a nearby mini-golf course—a place with much comic po tential—has to be scrapped. Instead, Lewis films the chained duo looking through an old photo album with a neighbor. Donna talks loudly about the pictures of Matt as he squirms. When the shot is finished, Donna shows the photos to everyone in the room. “I don’t know why he was so embarrassed,” she says, holding up his naked baby picture.

The scene works, and Lewis is thrilled. “Matt was bright red throughout,” he says. “By accident, we picked up something that was better than the original idea.”

After shooting a hurried breakfast scene—at 7:30 p.m.—the crew clears out as fast as it de scended. Donna barely has time to give Lewis a great bear hug before he’s whisked off in a van. She is overcome. “I expected a positive ex perience, and this was way be yond that,” she says. “It’s a memory we’ll cherish always.”

In the van, Lewis reflects on the two days’ work. “It’s all about creating a bond with the people you’re filming,” he says. “They have to trust you to throw them into com edic situations that will reveal something about them.

“The secret to these spots is in two parts,” he adds. “One is the story and concept, and the second is finding good, energetic characters. Once you’ve found a good character, you have every chance of good filmmaking.”