Q&A: Adrien Brody Talks Dodge, His Famous Mother and Why He’s Directing Ads Again

Period pieces from a man who's been in plenty of them

Adrien Brody has starred in dozen of films, and 12 years ago he took home the ultimate acting prize—the Best Actor Academy Award for The Pianist. (At 29, he was the youngest ever winner of that prize, and remains the only man under 30 to have won it.)

But he wants to direct a feature. And for practice, he's turning to advertising.

After dabbling in the ad space a few years ago, Brody, now 42, has signed with Smuggler for commercial directing projects. He also recently directed four Dodge spots as part of Wieden + Kennedy's "Dodge Brothers" campaign. (Those ads were produced by Caviar, though Brody got the job separately and was never repped by Caviar.)

We spoke with Brody about the Dodge work, how his acting influences his directing, and what his future holds behind the camera.

Adweek: The Dodge work isn't the first ad campaign you've directed, is it?
Adrien Brody: I've been keeping it under wraps. I directed several spots beginning about five years ago. One was really a wonderful, anthemic piece I did for Chrysler called "Arrive in Style." They gave me a tremendous amount of creative freedom with that, and I thought it would always be like that. I had a similar experience as an actor with films, doing independent movies and realizing they're not always so free spirited, and you don't always get the same degree of creative freedom.

The impetus to direct was to have more of my vision as a storyteller infused into the work, and into my own work, where there are limitations as an actor. As you know, the ad space does not necessarily offer that consistently. You have to choose your partners, and I think you also have to develop a degree of trust.

So the Dodge work came from your relationship with Chrsyler.
I kind of stepped back for a while and just focused on my acting work and some producing work, and then recently got back in touch with my friends at Dodge, and we bid for this "Dodge Brothers" campaign, which we got. And it was a tremendous amount of fun, and again I had a lot of leeway within the parameters.

Even though I aspire to direct a film, this is a wonderful tool for me to … I don't know, "experiment" isn't the right word. You know, it's not dissimilar to independent filmmaking, where you have certain constraints, and then you have to surmount those and tell the story that you feel you can tell best. And that comes from experience, and working with actors, and selecting the right actors. And picking the battles to ensure that you have the ammunition to deliver the product that they're really looking for.

Working with Dodge and Wieden + Kennedy, that's pretty good company in which to experiment.
They were super. I'm very friendly with Olivier [Francois], who is their head marketing guy, and he's really championed my work. He was the one who enabled me to do the "Arrive in Style" spot. I flew myself to Detroit on a crack-of-dawn flight and pitched their entire boardroom my vision for a spot they wanted to do, by myself, and won over their trust. Then, I did not have a directing reel. I shot that first commercial with six different formats. We shot everything from a Phantom to Super-8.

Olivier is a pretty experimental guy. He's got that independent spirit.
Yeah, I know. And it's wonderful. He is excited about something innovative.

Tell me a little bit about the Dodge shoot. What was the most fun part of it and what was the most challenging part?
Working with kids is pretty exhilarating. Helping to guide them, and create that comfort zone for them to not act. To just kind of find themselves within the period, and find the freedom with the action, and not feel confined. That's something that not all directors know how to do. And by being an actor, and by knowing what I need, and having had to find that at times without that guidance—it allows me to nurture a performer in a way that is very helpful for them, for their own growth, and also for the production.

And the challenges?
We had a few logistical obstacles that Wieden + Kennedy and I were really collaborative on, and those guys are great, and we solved the puzzle. That's the hands-on experience I crave. I've spent a lifetime on film sets anyway, so it's not new to me, and that process of having to fix stuff and make things work has always been a communal effort. It's not just in the director's hands or the producer's hands or the actor's hands. You really have to work with people, and hopefully you can align that vision and try and fix it. Sometimes you fail, and you learn to overcome obstacles and limitations. And having done many independent films, that's a big part of making something great, making something special.

When I heard you had directed this, what came to mind, for me, was King of the Hill. I lived in St. Louis for a while, and I'm a big A.E. Hotchner fan. You were working with kid actors, and obviously Jesse Bradford was a kid in that movie.
Yeah, he was wonderful in that.

Does your experience doing period pieces help you with something like Dodge?
Yeah, perhaps. There's actually another film that I have been contemplating lately that's really interesting to me. I had done a film of that era, my first film, when I had just turned 14, I believe, and I was the lead of the film. It was called Home at Last. My character, who was an orphan at the turn of the century, was very inventive and had a lot of will. It's a similar characteristic that we wanted to portray for the young Dodge Brothers.

So, did you handle some of the casting of the kids for this?
Absolutely. I was there for all of it. The young nemesis—he was so wonderful, and I wanted to cast around him. We found the brothers we liked, but there was some flexibility there, because there was nobody that had what this kid had. I'll give you a quick example. The casting director came in the room and said, "I don't know, this kid is really a character. He bumped into me in the hallway and he said, 'Hey, watch it!' And I said, 'What do you mean?' He goes, 'You pushed me!' And I go, 'No, I didn't.' And he goes, 'Yes, you did!' " I said, "He's hired." That was before he came in the room.

He was just so full of personality. I thought he would actually be more trouble than he was. I was like, "I love him, let's give him the job." Because he was just so real and full of life. That's the beauty of that age, actually, is that there is a lack of inhibition that kind of kicks in during adolescence, when we all transform. And that's a perfect age to be given some freedom as an actor, and kind of play a character, because you can really go with your imagination, and really don't give a shit about—you don't fully grasp what the responsibilities are. You're just having fun with it. He was wonderful.

You say you want to bring your own artistic vision to directing projects. Do you think you have particular style or aesthetic that you're drawn to as a director, or are you open to working in different styles?
I'm very experimental. However, I do definitely have something that I gravitate toward. I think partially that stems from the imagery that I was steeped in. My mother's work, as a photographer. Sylvia Plachy. She's an amazing, gifted and highly acclaimed photographer.

How do you feel like her work affects your vision?
She, first of all, gravitates towards a complexity, and a very symbolic and almost haunting imagery. There's some kind of poetic, rough softness to it, and a harshness as well. She's largely in black and white, but there is the story behind the story—the subtlety that exists within the fragility of the moment that is not a very fragile moment, so to speak. The tone of her work is fueled from her own struggles in coming to America, and being a refugee, and seeing war in Hungary, and loss. There's a degree of that that I think is also supported in my acting work, as well.

I'm also a product of my environment, and I do like a degree of action. And cars—I love drag racing, and I love cars. I can shoot the hell out of sheet metal, and doing the action running footage, and all of that. It's an interesting combination. So, aside from the filmmakers that I've worked with, who have also taught me so much, my mother's work has given me, I guess, a great artistic integrity to experiment in a commercial sense—to make sure that it's in there, regardless of how much I'm being asked to remove it. It's part of me, and part of the way I want to set the camera, or how I want to get close up on an action, or on someone's reaction. It's going to be there. And I'll work until I find that.

Do you have any other directing projects lined up?
Nothing at the moment. I hope I can do a feature. Working in the ad space is a wonderful way to really hone your technical skills, and put together teams of people that you get to spend several days with. It's a real amazing luxury to work with a good DP, and you get to know if you like their vibe, and if they work at a pace that you like, etc. When interesting opportunities arise in the ad space, I definitely will make myself available to do it.