Sam Bayer On The Spot

Sam Bayer, 43, studied painting at New York’s School of Visual Arts until a low-budget clip for Blind Melon led to a music-video directing career that exploded with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and has continued apace with six MTV Video Music Awards last week, including Best Direction and Video of the Year. In the meantime, agencies have relied on Bayer’s eye for automotive (Acura, Nissan), soft drinks (Mountain Dew, Pepsi) and footwear (Nike, New Balance). Now the RSA USA director is headed for the movies, with his first feature, Black Water Transit, debuting in 2006.

Q: Until Green Day, your music videos had become rare. What happened?

A: MTV was film school for me, but like everything else, I felt I’d outgrown it. It wasn’t the medium I grew up with. And I think MTV had outgrown me. I didn’t like the music I was being sent; I didn’t like the images I was seeing on MTV. I felt like it was a bad marriage and time for a separation. My ‘wife’ was sleeping around with all these hip-hop artists and pop stars!

Do you worry that your MTV nominations might be less about your artistry than MTV endorsing Green Day’s political agenda?

I think it is interesting that MTV embraced Green Day, and I think they’re the exception to the rule. This is a band that never got critical attention, was always kind of dissed by everybody. It is exciting to be in business with those guys. It is a politically charged record, but I love it. They really did get me excited about the genre. There wasn’t one cut made by the band. Those are all my ideas.

How did you connect with Nirvana?

I think they hired me because I had the worst reel they ever saw. And it was a punk thing to do, hire a bad director to do their first video. And Kurt [Cobain] never liked the video. We fought all day long on the set. And you ask me, what makes me sad? I never got to talk to him again. I talked to Courtney Love six months after Kurt died, and she admitted to me that Kurt really did like the video. He was a tortured poet. It makes me kind of sad. I wonder if kids out there are going to remember him. Are they going to listen to Hillary Duff music and think that’s cool and interesting? Are they going to think of Ashlee Simpson’s ‘Pieces of Me’ as a heartfelt autobiographical statement?

What’s the one spot you directed that you think has had the most influence?

The [1995] Nike spot, “If you let me play,” was an important commercial. It wasn’t as if I’d started out to do anything that visually compelling or different stylistically, but I don’t think people had used real people quite like that before. I’ve seen that commercial imitated. And everything I set out to do, make this empowering message from these young girls feel unrehearsed and honest … I’ve seen the ad community appropriate that idea and distort it. I shudder sometimes at actors pretending to be real people and looking at the camera.

What’s your sense of how the commercial world has changed since you started?

Some people will say, ‘Sam wouldn’t know the difference, because he’s not one of the hottest guys anymore and he doesn’t see the best boards.’ You’ll hear everybody say there are not great boards out there, that there’s more directors, that people are fighting furiously for the work out there. What I’ve noticed is that the agencies are in a difficult position: The last thing you used to hear ten years ago is how difficult their clients are. Now it’s the first thing you hear. So you find yourself on set trying to accommodate an agency, and suddenly you have a client who thinks they understand filmmaking.

If you were making Sam Bayer Joy, a la your Microsoft ‘Digital Joy’, who would be in your personal parade of iconic influences?

Sam Peckinpah and Kubrick films. A smidgen of Scorsese, a little bit of Fritz Lang thrown in, and I’d be thrilled. Throw in Guns N’ Roses and some old Rolling Stones, and it would be perfect.

What’s your greatest accomplishment?

I come from a lower-middle-class family. My father taught at Ohio State. My mother was a painter who passed away [from cancer] when I was really young. And I have three brothers. So my proudest accomplishment is helping my family. That means more to me than anything.

What are your worst habits?

I’ve got two. I drink too much coffee and I really got into cars for awhile. My girlfriend is really sick of the cars. It was one of the perks of the business, to be able to live some of my adolescent dreams. I got a ’67 Corvette that I think is the most beautiful car on the planet. And it’s really great getting into a 35-year-old racecar. It’s the most dangerous thing in the world. It’s like driving a rocking chair on a bomb ready to blow up.

What keeps you up at night?

What defines me as a human being is making art. My greatest fear is that I’ll lose faith in my ability to make art, and I won’t know how to live my life.

What’s the most important thing you learned from your parents?

I have to say, my mother was my hero. She died at 36. She was raising four kids. Her youngest was four years old, and she knew she was leaving the planet. She never let us children know how much pain she was in, how scared she was. And she faced something terrifying with dignity and protected us. That’s unconditional love. What I learned from her was strength. She was painting until the day she died. So maybe it’s also that your art can outlive you. I still have her canvasses in my house.