You’ve probably seen the dystopian Halo Top ice cream commercial by now—the one directed by Mike Diva, the popular YouTuber with the twisted sense of humor. We wrote about it last week, and it’s also been playing in front of the movie It at cinemas.
For a brand on the rise, it’s a subversive commercial indeed—so bleak it’s funny, but not exactly casting the product in the best light. To learn more about how the spot was made, and why Halo Top greenlit it, we called up Diva for a chat.
Check out our Q&A below to hear how Four Loko played a role in concepting, whether the spot was intended to be as Kubrick-esque as it feels (the location of the set had a lot to do with that), and how the lyrics in the happy-go-creepy original song created for the soundtrack are way more fucked up than you knew.
AdFreak: Was this the first ad you’ve made for a brand?
Mike Diva: No, I’ve made a handful of commercials. I did a couple for Yelp. I’ve done some for Mobile Strike. This was the first commercial where I wasn’t stifled creatively at all. It was a really amazing opportunity, and a blast to make. Justin [Woolverton], the CEO, trusted me to just do whatever. I’m also working on a few commercials for the L.A. Metro, which are also absolutely insane. I can’t believe I’m getting away with this stuff.
Did Halo Top get in touch? What did they say they wanted?
I guess the CEO has been a fan of my stuff for a while. He basically just said to me, “We already have enough commercials that explain why Halo Top is awesome. We just want something in your style that just grabs people’s attention.” I came back and pitched my idea in person. It’s one of those things where I felt like, if I just sent it to him over email, I would sound like a crazy person. I had to get in front of this dude and illustrate why it’s going to be funny. On paper, it just reads like it’s super dark, you know? I downloaded a text-to-speech app and kind of acted it out, and played the robot parts on my phone, so he would understand why it’s funny for the robot to say “Eat the ice cream” a bunch of times.
Where did the story idea come from?
Four Loko! I’d been trying to come up with an idea for this thing for a long time. For one, the idea of coming up with an ice cream commercial that’s creepy enough to capture the internet’s attention—it’s a huge challenge. The other challenge was making it different enough from the other weird ice cream commercials on the internet, from five years ago or so, from Little Baby’s Ice Cream. I don’t know if you saw those.
We wrote about those, yeah.
Yeah, the challenge was—there’s already a weird, crazy ice cream commercial out there. I’d kind of been banging my head against the wall. Then one day, my producer, Josh, and my DP, Aaron, came over with a bunch of Four Loko. He saw them at the store and thought it was funny. So, we sit down and just lock ourselves in the house to come up with this idea. After I had enough Four Loko in my system, I came up with it, and they thought it funny. And that was it. It’s the worst origin story for this thing, but it’s kind of funny to me.
Some people have called the ad Kubrick-esque. Is that fair?
A lot of people are drawing comparisons to Kubrick and saying it’s a take on 2001: A Space Odyssey. That it’s a direct homage. I actually didn’t want that at all. I had reservations about shooting in the 14th Factory Space Odyssey set. I didn’t want people to associate it with Space Odyssey just because there’s a robot in it. We yanked out all the furniture and redressed the entire room to make it look as different as possible. But of course, we still ended up getting a lot of those comparisons.
Ah, so you shot it at the 14th Factory.
Yes. They have this re-creation of the Stanley Kubrick Space Odyssey room art installation. In the script, I just wanted a large, white, empty room with just a few things in it. But the bottom-lit floor in this place was just so cool, we couldn’t pass it up.
Building the robot must have been fun.
I’m friends with this guy Fon Davis, who runs this company Fonco. He’s this amazing practical-effects guy who’s worked on stuff from Star Wars. He built spaceships in Starship Troopers. A bunch of really crazy stuff. I’ve been friends with him for a long time, but we never really found anything to work on together. Finally, I got the perfect project for him. He and his team at Fonco built the robot over the course of a few weeks, and they killed it. They have this giant 30-page document with every style of robot ever. I had to pick a few styles that I liked, and we’d narrow it down from there, and adapt upon it, and make it unique in certain ways. It was a really fun process to nail down the look of it.
Where did you find the actress?
We auditioned a lot of people. A lot of the older ladies that we got in to audition, they didn’t quite get the tone of the ad. A lot of them would be kind of goofy and over-the-top about it. You hear “ice cream commercial” and you think it has to be this cute, fun thing. It was actually really difficult to find the right person. But Rebecca was great. One of the reasons I chose her is because she just stood out. She has these great, expressive eyes that could look really sad. She’s just an amazing actress. And I really liked the fact that she had short hair. It reminded me of the end of Requiem for a Dream, when she gets her hair cut. I liked the idea of people gathering another element of the story from that. That she’s in some sort of crazy futuristic nursing home. I liked the idea of people wondering why her hair is cut so short—like, is it some sort of prison?
She has to communicate being afraid, but also being curious.
She had to have this childlike state. She’s confused, and possibly drugged up on some sort of crazy serum or something. She had to capture a lot of stuff. Going from being confused and happy to confused and angry.
“Everyone you love is gone” is a great line. It actually works as a laugh line. That’s an unusual moment for a laugh.
My favorite humor is stuff that’s so dark and weird that it becomes funny. That was my whole pitch for this thing—that it would be so dead serious about itself that it becomes funny because of it. It’s such an inherently goofy situation, this idea of a malfunctioning robot feeding an old lady ice cream. Originally it was supposed to be “Everyone you love is dead.” Which is way more hard-core. I don’t think we’d be able to get away with that. [laughs]
The voice of the robot? Was that still text-to-speech software?
Yeah, I bought some good text-to-speech software and messed with the pitch and things like that. Downwards and upwards inflections at certain moments.
You’ve also got the creepy, sing-songy soundtrack. What is that song?
Me and my brother made that song. My brother’s friend sang on it. I originally put “Mr. Sandman” by the Chordettes on there. We tried to get the rights to that, but it was crazy expensive. So, we had to make our own song. We had never done anything in this style before. We were able to actually put a lot of really, really dark stuff in the lyrics that’s kind of hidden. If you listen really close, you can hear it. There’s a line that says, “I scream for you/I scream for me/I scream for someone to set me free.” Which is really funny to me. There’s another line where she sings, “Everyone’s gone since the great war/There’s only me and the machines.” So there’s a bunch of really fun, ominous stuff that I was able to work into the song. I’m actually really glad that we weren’t able to get the rights to “Mr. Sandman,” because I think it made the commercial even better.
Was there any concern that this ad doesn’t exactly show ice cream as a very fun thing to eat?
Totally. And I think Justin, the CEO, is just such a badass that he was willing to take that risk. He got why the ad is funny. I guess he has a similar sense of humor, since he likes my stuff. He really believed it would be entertaining enough to not turn people off to ice cream. That being said, there’s a lot of comments from people saying they wouldn’t eat ice cream again. Maybe you shouldn’t put that in there. [laughs] Most of the comments are “This is crazy, what the fuck am I watching?” or “This is the best thing I’ve ever seen.” Then there are some comments like, “I’ll never eat ice cream ever again.” A lot of people found it sad, too. And how scary it is. Which is really funny to me. Because it’s hilarious to me. But both of those emotions make me really happy. The fact that I was able to elicit those emotions in one minute and 30 seconds is pretty cool.
It’s perfect that it’s playing in front of screenings of It at the movies.
It’s a huge, huge trip for me. It’s super surreal.
Do you always want to be subversive in your work? Or would you be willing to shoot, say, a boring Olive Garden commercial?
Honestly, I love the idea of shooting a boring Olive Garden commercial. My favorite thing about shooting commercials is the constraints that you’re given to be creative in. I love having to play in somebody else’s sandbox. Being outside my comfort zone and doing a boring Olive Garden commercial sounds like a lot of fun to me.
Olive Garden serves ice cream, too.
Maybe there’s some crossover there.