How Filmmaker Casey Neistat Gets Away With Murder

Director does his own thing for Nike and Mercedes


Who Casey Neistat
Age 32
New gig Freelance commercial director
Old gig Commercial director, HSI Productions

You mostly make unbranded videos. How did you get into branded work?
I met Andy Spade in 2002 or 2003, and he invited me out to Arizona, where they were doing a still photo shoot for Kate Spade. We made some pretty crazy videos that might be par for the course now, but 10 years ago people didn’t know what to think.

You’ve convinced Nike and now Mercedes to let you spend their ad dollars basically traveling the world and having fun. You must be pretty charming in meetings.
I made a living for 10 years making very typical TV commercials. But I always wanted to reach beyond that and do stuff that people might relate to in the way they relate to my nonbranded content. I have 60-plus videos on YouTube and over 30 million views. Of those 60, only three or four are branded videos. I built that audience by telling stories the way I like to tell them. If you want me to emulate that for your brand, I need to do it the same way. Lending my voice to something is not me endorsing a product as much as it is me sharing my perspective on it. That’s at the heart of everything I make.

One of the great things about your ads is this sense of freedom—of choosing your own path rather than the client’s path. Do you really have full autonomy on these productions?
With a company like Nike, I give them a one-sheet or outline. I have a relationship there, so there’s trust before we make anything. Mercedes is a fairly new relationship. Razorfish came to me and said, “We want to do something that reaches a digital audience. What would you do?” So, I came back with a proposal for a series of videos that look loosely like the finished product. I never tell clients what I’m doing explicitly. There’s no client on set, no agency on set. I submit the film when it’s complete, and if there are any concerns, I’m enthusiastically open to that. When we have something we’re both excited about, we put it out there

How do you approach storytelling in such a free-form environment? Do you just go out and let the story find you?
I go out with a very open mind. I look for conflict, and I look for the unknown, and I embrace things like missing a flight or having an entire production shoot day not work out. It’s in conflict that we find the story. We’re not sitting down doing storyboards.

Some might say your videos are more about you than the brand.
I’m pretty unapologetic about that. As a viewer, I care about people, I care about characters, I care about perspective. Why do I give a shit about a car? Why do I give a shit about a pair of sneakers or an electronic bracelet that tracks how much energy I use? I need to invest myself in someone. All of my work is character-driven, and I’m always the lead character. If people care about me, then they’ll probably care about what I have to say.

Do you have your next client lined up?
I don’t. I’m not really sure where to go after Mercedes and Nike.

You’re a longtime Apple fan. They could use some help these days.
I am so disappointed in Apple. I don’t even use an iPhone anymore. Their marketing sucks. It’s embarrassing. It’s just garbage. If you had asked me the day Steve Jobs died, “What’s the biggest fear for what might happen with Apple?” I would have described to you what’s happening right now. They stopped innovating. They stopped taking chances. I take it so personally. As far as companies go, who do we have left to believe in?

Adweek video—Six Questions with Casey Neistat:

BONUS: Photo details of Casey's studio: