Q&A: Doug Pray

NEW YORK After a recent New York screening of Art & Copy, documentary filmmaker Doug Pray shared the stage with a few of the advertising legends featured in The One Club-funded film: Jim Durfee, Mary Wells and George Lois.

“They grew flowers in hell,” he said, echoing the words of Kirk Souder, who, with Gregory Beauchamp, wrote the original concept for the film. What began as a tribute to the members of the nonprofit’s Hall of Fame members became a film about inspiration and rebellion.

“I always thought of myself as a cultural provocateur,” said Lois. “This film shows that for the people in advertising, who created the advertising that we remember and really care about, it was about love and sincerity. People think we were just trying to sell to make some money. The people who were very talented, from the beginning all the way through, who did the campaigns people loved, were people who felt tremendous amounts of love for the people around them and for what they were working on.”

When Durfee took the microphone, he had a less optimistic take, but for different reasons. The film, he said, “made me angry in the sense that there are so few people in the business” today with those same creative sensibilities. “Technology is mindless, it’s heartless, but it’s dominant and drawing in a different kind of creative person. I don’t think advertising is going to be better,” he said.

Here, Pray, whose films include Surfwise, Hype! and Scratch, discussed how he found art in advertising:
This project began as a tribute film. Where did you find your story?
It was through the people. I kept wanting to figure out why they do this. I’m kind of a sociologist at heart. I’ve done a lot of movies that portray artists and I’m always trying to figure out what motivates them. With advertising, aside from the money and job part, why do they do this? And why are some really good at this and others not? It became clear that I was making a film about people who are doing revolutionary things in an environment that seemed the exact opposite of being able to think in revolutionary ways: commerce, pushing products, working with budgets, research. The movie talks about all these things that these people are up against.
What surprised you most?
Just like Mary Wells said on stage, it was so human and it was really about love. It’s so abstract for people to hear that. Everybody is cynical about advertising. Of course, most ads are really bad. But advertising is here and it’s not going away. These are people that took that bad situation and made something great out of it.
How did you decide which personalities to include?
It is a film about the creative revolution of the ’60s and the people who were directly inspired by that. That’s a limit that I liked. I didn’t want to do a history of advertising and didn’t want to do a behind the scenes. There are amazing people working in advertising today, there are great minds out there.
What did you learn in the process of making this film?
I do work in advertising. I direct documentary-style commercials and I’m familiar with the ad business. But I never really [considered that] campaigns you see on TV that you take for granted have a totally human source. Yes, it’s selling product and yes, they are making a lot of money. But it’s not that different from a painting or anything else an artist does. They are putting themselves into their work. Time and again I found that the campaigns that did change culture were perfect examples of people putting themselves into the work.
How so?
Hal Riney’s ads are all Hal Riney the person. I’m just quoting the movie. But Jeff Goodby says you are watching the man. All those ads are a result of how he was brought up by his dad, and then you look at the work and you go of course that’s Hal Riney. You look at Lee Clow, and all of his work is from this Southern California rebel. These campaigns, when they are good, are human. When they are bad, they are not [human] at all. And most campaigns are bad.
What made you interested in making this film? Most of your work is about underground culture.
I was really reluctant at first. I majored in sociology. I have been for much of my life as big a critic of advertising as anybody. I was like, “What’s the point of making a tribute for people who are essentially not underdogs?” In all of my other films I was able to say these are people you may never have even heard of, but they are brilliant. But then I started thinking, actually no one has ever heard of these [ad] people either. If you are able to get beyond the fact that they are doing advertising, the creative process they go through is really not dissimilar.
Where did you find the similarities?
It doesn’t work to make a direct parallel between legendary advertising creative geniuses and graffiti writers running around in an alley. But there is a connection. They are both saying, “I have an audience and I am going to get something out to them. I’m going to move my audience.” Despite the fact that they work for the system, despite the fact that it’s capitalism at its finest, they are still struggling to get a message out: their personal message. They all go beyond the product. I’m just as cynical as anyone else about advertising, but I like what these people do and it totally changed our culture.
You didn’t want to make a movie about the history of advertising, but you did weave in a lot of facts and figures about the impact these ideas have and the money attached to them.
I wanted to keep reminding the audience of the world we are living in, keep reminding them this is big, big, big commerce. Our entire economy is resting on individuals like this.
You’re a documentary filmmaker, but you only talk about the positive.
I had an opportunity to make a movie about good advertising. It’s so easy to make a movie about bad advertising. It was more of a challenge to make a movie that might actually inspire the millions of people working on a daily basis, [to let them know] that they can do more, whatever they are doing.

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