Making a Mockery

“The character of the director is not me. I am not a womanizing coke head,” says Tim Hamilton, just setting the record straight. “At least, not yet,” he adds with a chuckle.

Hamilton is the director and co-writer of two of the funniest ad-business satires put to film, Truth in Advertising and its sequel, The Reel Truth, screened last month at Cannes. And ever since the first acerbic 12-minute spoof blazed through the Internet last fall, the 37-year-old Toronto-based commercial director has been on the fast track to Hollywood.

Originally produced for an in dustry awards show sponsored by the Canadian trade publication Mar keting, Truth in Advertising generated such fanfare for its cutting behind-the-scenes portrayal of the advertising business, it landed Hamilton an ICM agent and a television deal. His first effort for TV is The Downer Channel, a sketch-comedy show executive-produced by Steve Martin that will debut next week on NBC.

The dialogue and performances in the two satiric films reveal what is never said but often thought by the professionals playing the ad game. “We wanted it to be totally honest about all the things people talk about in the back rooms,” says Hamilton, who has 10 years of directing experience.

Hamilton has directed humor-based spots for clients such as Advil and Zellers, as well as special-effects-rich spots for Lexus and Levi’s. He and his co-writer on the films, David Chiavegato, an associate creative director at Palmer Jar vis DDB in Toronto and a former brand manager at Unilever, had plenty of material to draw from.

“You see people at their worst, and some of those experiences never left me,” says Hamilton, who worked as an editor and a music-video director before crossing over to advertising. “It’s all stuff we’ve pretty much seen or heard about.”

Truth in Advertising opens on a meeting in which the client is presenting a brief to the creative team. The vice president of marketing stops by. “I’m just interrupting to in still some fear and to humiliate Bob here,” he says. The brand manager then asks, “Hey, while you are here, can I pop by your office, say around 5-ish, to kiss your ass until it’s soda-cracker white?” The art director’s contribution? “Let me ask a question in order to give the illusion that I actually give a shit.”

The scene ends with the question, “Awkward, uncomfortable drink with the client, anyone?” Responses range from, “I’d love to, but I have to go snort cocaine off a stripper’s tits” to, “Thanks, but I’d rather be burned alive.” So much for subtlety.

Initially, the pair considered using subtitles to reveal the thoughts of each character, but instead they decided that the tones and mannerisms of everyday speech, paired with the brutal, caustic reality of the characters’ real thoughts, would produce the most biting comedy.

Rather than getting angered by the film, the ad industry embraced it. Pi rated copies were distributed worldwide over the Web. Avion Films, the Toronto-based production company that represents Hamilton for commercials, was inundated with calls.

“Everyone tends to think it’s the other person [being satirized],” says Chiavegato. “No one ever sees the faults of themselves. Expect for myself. I am very sensitive and self-aware.”

The follow-up, originally titled The Reluctant Sequel, was produced for Saatchi & Saatchi’s New Directors Showcase at Cannes. In it, the novice director Tom is tortured on the set of his first commercial, but his abusers quickly turn into sycophants after his work is screened as part of … the New Directors Showcase. “It’s probably coming from my own fears,” says Hamilton of the inspiration for Tom.

The film received just as enthusiastic a response as the original. But Hamilton wasn’t there to get the kudos because his wife was giving birth to their first child.

Hamilton says he’s not planning to make a career out of spoofing the industry, but there’s still plenty left to parody. “We haven’t even addressed cost consultants yet,” he says.

There has been some talk of turning the films into a television series. Even viewers unfamiliar with the advertising business have identified with the scenarios. “The universal factor is bullshit,” says Chiavegato, “and the abundance of it.”

Drawing from daily life is the key to a spot-on parody, says Hamilton, who has “reasonably snotty” comedic preferences and a love of Monty Python. “If satires don’t have an element of truth, it’s nonsense,” he says. “It’s just slapstick.”

With The Downer Channel, Hamilton will get to showcase his improvisational-comedy skills. Featuring actors Jeff Davis, Wanda Sykes, Lance Krall and Mary Lynn Rajskub, the six-episode series is a half-hour mix of comedy sketches and interviews with real people. Actors including Fred Willard, Teri Garr and Steven Wright make guest appearances.

“A lot of it is about neuroses and everyday things,” says the director. “Your worst fears realized.”

One segment is about “Cat Las sie,” a feline who sleeps comfortably in its cat box while its owner, trapped under a fallen tree, calls for help. An other segment features an anal-retentive husband who, in stead of destroying his house after learning that his wife has left him, slightly rearranges everything in stead. And a spoof of Antiques Road show features appraisals of significant others rather than dusted-off attic finds.

The fast pace of the five-week shoot, with lots of up-to-the minute script changes, proved a valuable learning experience. “Being on the show pushed me even more to improvise,” says Hamilton. “It was a challenge for me.”

A graduate of Carleton University in Ottawa, Hamilton studied English literature and film theory before making his way up the production ranks as a production assistant and later working on music videos. His postproduction background steered him to visual-effects heavy work when he started directing commercials, but “I kept coming back to comedy,” he says.

His executive producer Michael Schwartz of Avion Films says Hamilton is destined for the feature world, and Hamilton is currently reviewing several feature scripts. But he is not so sure he would ever give up commercials. Earlier this year, he signed with Zooma Zooma films for representation in the U.S.

“I really enjoyed doing the TV thing,” says Hamilton, “but commercials are like little sprints, as opposed to a long-distance run of a film. You get in and out very quickly without tying up your entire life.” And, he adds, “It allows me to play.”