Marcus Nispel On the Spot

At 40, Nispel complains—in a manner of bemusement more than irritation—that recent articles about him read like lifetime-achievement summaries. For that, he can blame all the Clios and MTV Music Awards he’s won, plus credits that include 1,000 commercials, 150-plus music videos and now a movie, the Michael Bay-produced Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, opening Friday. Besides, he had a head start: He joined a small shop in his hometown of Frankfurt, Germany, as a wunderkind 15-year-old and jumped to Young & Rubicam in New York on a Fulbright scholarship.—Q: What inspired you to get into advertising?

A: I liked the idea that you could make a living drawing or writing things. I’d always done it, and that’s what I wanted to exercise, but I could never imagine waking up and saying, “What am I going to do today?” I always needed the job—and all its complications—that would fertilize my mind. I need the problem to come with the project. And I knew I wanted to get out of my home. I couldn’t get far enough away from my parents at an early age. So I left home at 15 and tried to get a job at an ad agency. It was a small boutique called Hessler and Kehrer in Frankfurt.

Name the last ad you wish you had done?

The SUV spot where the kids are watching SpongeBob SquarePants on the inside. I think it’s just great. Because you want to be cool, you still want the macho car, but you have wife and kids, and you have to be much more polite. I love it when commercials make fun of themselves or acknowledge the medium they’re in, that juxtaposition.

Coming to America, what was your impression of American advertising?

When I was interviewing, I wound up at one agency where they asked, “How’s your English?” I said, “I guess it’s fair.” Then they said, “What are Oreos?” I said, “I know that. They’re cookies.” “But what do they mean?” No idea what they are talking about. And they said for an American, an Oreo is a very specific thing. You can eat it in different ways. It evokes certain childhood memories. Oreos and milk. And suddenly I started to learn of mnemonics and what images mean to somebody, and I thought, yes, there are certain cookies in Germany that make me think of Christmas. This Oreo thing always stuck with me. And I realized that to be successful in America, you have to understand, in depth, American culture and American symbolism. Having been in advertising first helped me a great deal to understand the American psyche, which became very instrumental to becoming a commercial director.

Do you still plan to make commercials?

I’ve done about 50 commercials since finishing the movie. A lot of people want to make commercials so they can make movies later. I never thought I wanted to make movies. It is a great privilege to be able to say no to that if it isn’t the right situation. I’m talking about the right story, the right movie. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not Lawrence of Arabia. But it was the right situation.

Will your life change, one way or another, depending on the success of TCM?

First of all, the success I would define for myself. I’m usually happy, in the end, with my work. A lot of directors take great pride in the fact that they’re never happy with what they do, it’s never good enough. I don’t know how they’ll ever find happiness. I’m generally happy with what I’ve done, otherwise I couldn’t do it. And I’m even happier that I can make a living at it.

What was it like to do the first commercial after doing a movie?

I had a great experience, actually. In fact, it made the top of my first new reel in three years. They called me up to make a campaign for Snuggle. I thought, that’s really polite stuff. The bear, tee-hee-hee, a few towels and so on. But they said, “Check out the boards.” And I look at them, and they were fantastic. The whole idea is that Snuggle has new fragrances, right? So they do spots that vaguely look like a fragrance commercial, in the vein of a Ridley Scott Channel or a Calvin Klein, Bruce Weber or Herb Ritts kind of a spot. But in the end you realize it’s for Snuggle. The bear pops up, but it’s not for the polite Snuggle bear but like a George Hamilton character now. It just shows you, you take a product like Snuggle that has had a certain type of advertising for a long time, and you are encouraged to reinvent it. It is not your mother’s Snuggle anymore. What I love about it is that you can take a Snuggle job and put it at the top of your reel and be proud of it, rather than a $5 million corporate spot or a “Do whatever you want” Nike commercial. That’s exactly where I want to be, that’s exactly where I want to position myself.

What was it like to be in that Snuggle frame of mind after doing the movie?

On the job I jumped in the water when I was in Rio, and I got caught in a rip tide and I almost drowned. And as I was about to drown—and I’m not exaggerating at all—the only thing I could think of was, “Here I am on the heels of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, drowning on a Snuggle shoot! I will be remembered now as the director who drowned on the Snuggle shoot!” Those were my dying thoughts.

If you could change one thing about the advertising industry, what would it be?

I’d un-invent TiVo.

What is your dream assignment?

It’s the journey, not the destination. So if I were destination-driven, then my life would become about that, and I would most likely wind up unfulfilled. I never planned on directing. I never planned on winning awards. I never made my happiness dependent upon it. A great thing is to choose who you can work with. That’s the ultimate in any career, I’d guess.