James Gartner, a two-time Directors Guild of America Award winner for outstanding achievement in commercials, made his feature-film directorial debut with the recently released Jerry Bruckheimer film Glory Road, based on the true story of the 1966 Texas Western basketball team that defied expectations and institutional racism to win the NCAA championship. The 55-year-old Detroit native has worked with many U.S. agencies, including BBDO and Ogilvy & Mather, on spots for clients as varied as AT&T, Coca-Cola and Visa. He lives in Traverse City, Mich., with his wife and three children.
Q: How did you make the leap from ads to your first feature film, Glory Road?
A: Actually, I went through the same process as everyone. After directing commercials for a number of years, I acquired an agent. And Jerry Bruckheimer had been familiar with my work. We sort of danced around some prior projects, but none that I felt was quite right for me. And then came Glory Road.
Sports such as basketball create their own drama and suspense as live events. What's the secret to capturing that feeling of immediacy in a feature film?
Storytelling is really just capturing life. And he who captures it with the most honesty wins. Whether it's basketball or a drama. And of course, you have to have something worth telling.
What did you learn in your commercial work that made Glory Road a successful film?
Well, commercials are like a university of learning. In May, you're doing a comedy piece; in June, something emotional; in July, a period piece. It's the beauty of commercials. You work in so many different venues.
In advertising, you get several opportunities to get the message across. In a feature film, you may get only one shot. What do you want viewers to take from this film?
Nevil Shed, one on the players on the 1966 Texas Western championship team, told me this story. How, after they won the championship, Nevil said, "Now we get to go on Ed Sullivan"—because all of the past championship teams were on The Ed Sullivan Show. But then he said, "No one asked us." That's the story for me. It's beyond basketball.
Did you learn anything in making the film that might affect your ad work?
I don't think so, actually. The opposite was certainly true: Making a zillion commercials helped in doing Glory Road.
Race plays a major role in the film. Do you think advertising has a role to play in improving race relations?
I think we all have a role and a responsibility in improving race relations. Advertising? Sure. Movies? Sure. In fact, advertising has helped a great deal with this. Because how many times are clients concerned about an "all-white" commercial? Well, a great deal. So this has helped our mindset and attitudes towards the bigger picture. It's a good thing.
What is your favorite aspect of your work?
No question, when it's finished. When you look back, if it's good, there's a great satisfaction. But the doing? I like very little of it. I find it very difficult and demanding. The process is intimidating.
You have won many awards for your ad work. What spot do you consider your best?
Probably the lesser-known ones. A FedEx spot, "Adoption." Some of my work for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Are there any duds in your early work?
Are you kidding?
What inspired you to get into advertising?
I don't know. I'm very lucky professionally. I never really sought any of this. That's not to say I didn't work hard. I was obsessed with improving my skills, but I can't say I really structured any sort of step-by-step process. I got into directing because a friend nudged me. Then my partner, Don Block, saw my work and asked if he could rep me—we've been together for almost 20 years. And then Jerry asked if I wanted to do a movie.
Who has influenced you the most creatively?
This is a funny answer. I think Jack Lemmon. When I was a teenager—and I would see The Apartment or Days of Wine and Roses or Mister Roberts—what so grabbed onto me was the power of this "force" that can make someone laugh and then cry moments later.
What's the most important career decision you've ever made?
When I was about 13, my cousin asked me if I wanted to start exchanging little 3-inch audiotapes with one another in the mail, and we would produce these rather extravagant little half-hour "programs." I had a little mock radio studio in my mother's fruit cellar in the basement. That was my most important career decision.
What is your dream assignment?
Oh, I don't know. Trite answer, I suppose: I think there's a story out there that can improve us and, frankly, get us closer to God.
What do you consider the greatest accomplishment of your life so far?
My children. That they are all good people. And then I think I have—this will sound hubristic—a pretty good handle on truth.
What's your all-time favorite movie, yours excepted?
Well, mine would certainly be excepted. It's like asking me, "What's your favorite Beatles song?" It would be Godfather I and II or Schindler's List. How's that for opposite ends on the morality scale?
Name one person you're dying to work with.
Jack Lemmon. You said, "dying to work with."