Is This the Most Horrifying Film-Festival Ad Ever?

RPA and Tool's gruesome seven minutes for Newport Beach

IDEA: "It's only a movie." That was Alfred Hitchcock's line to actors who took themselves too seriously. But it's also literally true for viewers. What feels like a lived experience is merely the projection of an experience. That illusion, magical and mysterious, is at the core of RPA's campaign for this year's Newport Beach Film Festival, opening Thursday. The agency wanted to celebrate the power of film to evoke the strongest emotions, despite being nothing but "particles of light" on a screen. The centerpiece, a horrifying seven-minute film about a sadistic dentist, directed by Tool's Erich Joiner and Robert Richardson, does just that. It will certainly shock you—and may, with its darkly comic premise, also amuse you. But in the end, the actors break the fourth wall and remind you that actually nothing has happened. "We wanted to push people beyond their comfort zone, put them in a space they can't believe they're in, and then pull them back to reality," said RPA creative director Scott McDonald. On that harrowing journey, you may want to remind yourself: It's only an ad.

COPYWRITING: It came down to two scripts—a sexual coming-of-age story and a torture scene. Joiner and Richardson pursued the latter, brought in writer Lee Aronsohn (Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory) and hatched the story of a dentist who inflicts brutal punishment on patients who don't floss. "Our thought was, Let's put this person in a situation where everyone has been, and everyone feels helpless," said Joiner.

The tension builds as the patient (Ronnie Gene Blevins) arrives, fills out forms and eventually sits in the dentist's chair. After he lies about how often he flosses, the dentist (Timothy Murphy) straps him down and gives him an unorthodox cleaning indeed, leaving him with no teeth left to speak of, and plenty to think about. At the end, the dentist turns to the camera. "Are you repelled?" he asks. "Appalled? Amazed? Amused? We're particles of light on the screen. But we can make you feel anything." The film closes with the logo and the tagline, "See the light."

ART DIRECTION/FILMING: Joiner and Richardson filmed the whole thing, some 180 shots, in just two days. "Some things in there, we did one take and had to move on," said Joiner. "Bob lit it beautifully. The guy has three Academy Awards [in cinematography, for JFK, The Aviator and Hugo], but it still takes time to do that." The spot is a triumph of special effects. Blevins sat for a head cast, which produced several prosthetic heads that the filmmakers could realistically abuse. The Mill then mapped Blevins's face on the prosthetics in postproduction, making it look intensely real. "We set up three cameras around Ronnie, and Bob duplicated the lighting on him," said Joiner. "So, when the prosthetic head wrenches around, they can track that because they have three angles." The visuals are stomach-turning, but they have to be. "The risk is not going far enough," said Joiner. "When the guy asks you if you're repelled, and you're not, that would be a problem. But we were pretty sure we had gotten there." In fact, they called off a fourth scene—all set to go, it would have ripped off the patient's lower jaw—deciding enough was enough.

TALENT: Murphy, who played the "Opulence" guy in the famous DirecTV spot, exudes the perfect evil calm. Blevins has an everyman quality—someone "people could relate to but also weren't so sure about," said McDonald. Jessie O'Donohue plays the dentist's assistant.

SOUND: It was a giant sound job as well. "There's like 500 different sounds just in the first few seconds," said Joiner. "I think people were a little taken aback at the scope of this thing, but in the end, everyone gave it their heart and soul."

MEDIA: The spot is online and will run before select screenings at the festival.

THE SPOT:

Warning: The spot below is extremely graphic.

CREDITS