Reality TV

For years Errol Morris had envisioned himself doing Apple commercials. “Essentially ‘Think different,’ ” he explains, “but with living, breathing people, moving picture images, not still photographs.”

Known for the groundbreaking The Thin Blue Line and offbeat work such as Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, the 54-year-old documentarian would have been a natural to create a film version of Apple’s portrait campaign out of TBWA\Chiat\ Day in Playa del Rey, Calif. But no deal materialized.

Early this year, Morris was asked to use his well-known interview style to capture thoughts from movie buffs for the film segment that opened the Academy Awards. It became ap parent that a white background—Apple’s signature style—would coordinate best with the Oscars’ visual themes, and Morris decided to go for it. “I thought, ‘I’m never doing this Apple advertising, so I might as well,’ ” he says.

Fittingly for someone whose work celebrates irony, it turned out that Apple had been considering him for a new campaign, and, according to Morris, the Oscars film sealed the deal. “Steve [Jobs] was sitting in the audience and said, ‘This guy has to do the new Apple campaign,’ ” Morris says.

Switchers, a $50 million campaign from Apple that broke this month, is the latest in a spate of work directed by Morris in the past year that demonstrates his range of styles, from the first-person technique used recently for Apple and Cantor Fitz gerald to the visual storytelling featured in PBS’ “Stay curious” campaign. Upcoming work includes spots for AIG, Kodak and Merrill Lynch. (Along with his commercial assignments, Morris is working on a documentary about former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and a fiction film, The Book Thief, in partnership with Radical Media.)

Each Apple spot features a Mac user—against a white background—explaining why he or she switched over from a PC. More spots, not part of the Switchers campaign, are slated, with one featuring Morris’ 15-year-old son, Hamilton.

Morris’ interview style, in which a single subject candidly addresses the camera against a blank background, was uniquely suited to Fallon’s post-9/11 United Airlines campaign in which United employees talk about their love for their jobs. The spots, which struck an appropriate tone at a sensitive time, were well-received, and Morris started getting calls about doing the same type of thing for other clients.

His similar work for Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s current Cantor Fitzgerald campaign has been criticized by some as exploiting the firm’s tragic loss. But Morris says that while he did question whether the intensely personal stories would make good advertising, he thought the stories should be heard. “I felt that not only was I interested in doing it, I felt it should be done,” he says.

“Their words, phrases that people use that take you inside of their head—you feel that you have become part of their experience,” he says, choosing his own words very deliberately, as he does throughout the conversation. “These interviews were very, very powerful material.”

In the end, he says he’s proud of the work, despite one criticism: He thinks the final card, showing the logos of Cantor and its eSpeed unit, ought to have been more understated.

During the three-day shot, Morris spent up to four hours with each person, doing “a lot of listening,” says Amy Nauiokas, senior vp of global marketing at Cantor Fitzgerald, who is featured in the spots. She says Morris made her feel comfortable, talking to her through his “Interrotron,” which projects his image on a half-silvered mirror in front of the camera so that subjects can look into the lens and feel as though they’re simply having a one-on-one conversation.

Morris, who is based in Boston and originally from Long Island, developed the system early in his career. “[Looking into the camera lens] is the very opposite of conversation,” he explains. “Interrotron is a way of having your cake and eating it too.”

Putting people at ease is one way Morris elicits natural performances. But he’s not averse to making people downright uncomfortable either. “What makes a performance alive is that somebody is doing something for the first time,” he says. “With actors, I may force them to do the same thing again and again and again. … There’s a point where everything breaks down and something spontaneous happens. That’s when you start to get something great.”

He used that technique when taping the first Miller High Life spot for Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, Ore., in 1998. The High Life man was to pick up a deviled egg. Morris asked the actor to repeat the action until he finally fumbled it, producing the genuine moment Morris was looking for.

The High Life campaign, still ongoing, proved to be Morris’ break into commercials. “When Errol first approached me, he had already developed an incredible reputation as a documentarian, but his commercial career was a little less renowned,” says Jon Kamen, proprietor of Radical Media, which represents Morris for commercials. “He would have liked to have been doing more interesting and creative work.” (Not surprising, considering Morris’ eclectic résumé includes a stint as a detective, and he’s an accomplished cellist.)

That’s when the Miller High Life boards arrived. “I’ll never forget him picking up the storyboards, his hands trembling slightly, and saying, ‘These could be important,’ ” says Kamen, who refers to Morris as “Little Mo.” “For him, important because [the campaign] completely understood the American male psyche and beer.”

The High Life team had also been considering Tony Kaye and David Lynch, and had, in fact, all but hired Lynch. “Then I went to see Fast, Cheap & Out of Control,” says Jeff Williams, art director on the campaign. One particular moment in the documentary—the story of four very different men: a lion trainer, a mole-rat expert, a robot designer and a topiary gardener—struck Williams as demonstrating a keen eye for detail.

“You know the scene with the topiary guy who says he only uses hand clippers?” he says. “I noticed that when Errol cut [the film], he left in the part where the guy kind of brushes a moth away with his hand. I came back on a Monday and told Susan Hoffman, our creative director, that Errol would be the man to shoot it.”

Since 1998, Morris has shot about 70 spots for High Life, simple, under stated commercials that pair tight shots—a closeup of a grill or part of a person’s face—with a deep voiceover singing the praises of the manly man’s “high life.” “[Morris] knows that we’re not making fun of these guys, it’s done from respect,” says Williams. “Errol was like the fifth Beatle. Without him, High Life would have never worked.”

Arnold is hoping to translate Morris’ instinct for zeroing in on a brand’s essence for upcoming Southern Comfort work. The campaign idea, says creative director Mark Ray, is based on stories from consumers about drinking the bourbon with close friends before going out for the night.

To capture the spontaneity of those social situations, the shop’s St. Louis team avoided the traditional protocol. “We went into pre-pro with no storyboards,” says Ray, “just casting and a description of what we wanted to achieve in each location.”

Ray saw rough cuts last week at Morris’ Cambridge, Mass.-based production company, Globe Department Store. “We think we’ve got something special,” he says.

Adds Morris, who’s wary of being pigeonholed by his recent high-profile campaigns, “No, there’s not a single damn interview in the work!”