It’s a story that may too closely resemble reality for some in the ad industry: You wake up one morning and realize that you can only speak in slogans. Next week marks the launch—May 6 on demand, and May 10 in a handful of New York and L.A. theatres—of ad-themed indie flick And Now a Word From Our Sponsor. In the movie, actor Bruce Greenwood plays a mysteriously traumatized ad man incapable of spouting anything but ad copy. Adweek caught up with feature-debuting director Zack Bernbaum to discuss why the movie—also starring Parker Posey and Callum Blue—was made, how many brands made cameos, and what it’s really driving at. [Ed note: Also check out an excerpt from the movie below.]
Adweek: How did the idea come about?
Zack Bernbaum: The story goes that apparently, [screenwriter Michael Hamilton-Wright] started this about 10 years ago. I think he gave a flower to his wife, and said “This bud's for you,” which is kind of corny but kind of cute, and just something clicked and he said "Oh, we use these slogans as everyday speech now, they've kind of evolved from their original meanings … to really having more subtext that you can use in everyday life and people will understand what you're saying if it's not related to beer." I think that's the little nugget that started the whole chain reaction.
How did he go about researching and writing the script?
I think a lot of it was in his head in terms of slogans. Obviously cross-referencing the Internet does help. You basically have an unlimited resource of slogans, where you can go and find different brands and different commercials and see “OK which ones work?” And basically just create a bible of slogans. Then when you're writing the script, it's never really just placing slogans. It's “OK, what's the character really saying, and what slogan best represents that?”
Did it ever feel like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole?
I know at first when we were doing a table read, it just wasn't really clicking unfortunately, and we were all just banging our heads against the table. Then Bruce and I had a chat and figured out what's the right tonal balance for this character—how is this person really supposed to speak and how does he see the world and what's really going on underneath. And then things really just started clicking. It wasn't about satirizing the industry. It wasn't about pretending to be a spokesperson. It just was about being a real person. Instead of natural dialogue, it's slogans that come out, and how the other characters respond to that.
How'd you keep the gag—that he's stuck in ad-speak—from stretching too thin, or collapsing in on itself?
I think oddly enough, Parker Posey is probably the main character of the film. Bruce is a catalyst. He comes into these people's world and he drives it forward. But the real arc that happens in the film is between Parker and her daughter. So keeping it fresh and keeping it from running thin, I think is more to do with just telling an overall story and keeping the characters moving forward, than OK, “Heres a gag, here's a gag, here's a gag.” Because, yeah that does get thin rather quickly.
What is the deeper message you're driving at here? That advertising has taken over the American psyche? That advertising rots viewers brains?
I don't like putting a stamp on like, "This is the message." For me what it's more about is we've come to a point where media and reality have kind of blended together. Everything is branded, not that it's necessarily a negative, but that's just kind of the world we live in. So having a character that's 100 percent set in this world is just kind of interesting… To me, the slogans themselves and the fact that he never breaks out from that is kind of the satire of it. We're satirizing everyday speech and replacing it with these slogans, with these brands, but I didn't want to say OK we're commenting on how advertising is bad, or this is [what] we're all going to turn into, beware.
The trailer alone includes ad copy from Trix, McDonald's, Suave, the Army and Mastercard, to name a few. How many different brands you end up quoting in the whole movie?
I've actually never down done a formal count. I can only imagine it's probably in the hundreds. We have a scene where Bruce is in a car dealership. And on the page it was about a three-page monologue of just stream-of-consciousness slogans to do with cars and selling cars. That scene alone must have 60, so … it was really finding the ones that worked. But we're drawing on decades worth of slogans, we're going back to you know, the 50s. And we shot in 2011.
Did Chevy or any other brands pay to have their ad copy or products written into the script?
We never got, ironically, any formal sponsors. We got permission to use them, and they were happy to do so. I'm pretty sure that scene was always a Camaro convertible.
So no paid product placement in the movie at all?
There is. We had a product placement person. But it's very minor to be honest. We tried to not fill the scenes with just blatant product placement. I think that would have just gone overboard.
We had Smartwater. I think there was a margarita mix brand. I think Toms shoes. There was a sunglasses brands. We used them, but they were more set dressings than "Look at this, there's a product." So they're integrated into the film, just as people watch any other movie and they pick up a bottle of water and they drink it. We weren't trying to hit the nail over and over and over again.
Did any one brand stand out as getting the most play?
In terms of the commercials, probably Old Spice. We were able to get the Isaiah Mustafa commercials, which was wonderful. So we used those sparingly but throughout the film. They're so distinct that I think they stand out more than some of the other ones. We actually got the "Mikey Likes It" commercial for Life cereal. That was a big one for me, just because it's so iconic … It was really important to have those types of commercials in the film to add reality and life and really ground the fact that this is where we are.
Even most passionate ad execs would probably consider being able to speak only in slogans to be a total nightmare scenario. So what happened to this guy to send him down that dark path?
He's disappeared for a year, and then we find him at the beginning of the film unconscious. We don't really go into the details of where he was or what happened to him, but there's kind of a magical element involved in the movie as well where it's kind of surreal. It's not necessarily taken literally. It's more a fable in that regard. We kind of left it ambiguous as to where he came from before this. And also, if you see the film and see the ending, what happens to him at the end. But both of those things are interconnected. So, spoiler alert, I guess.