St. Thomas Health feat. Marcus Mariota

Q&A WITH DIRECTOR
JOSH MCGOWAN

What was it like to work with NFL star, Marcus Mariota? How do you direct someone who otherwise doesn’t usually act?
He’s great. Incredibly professional and genuine. He was also really open to trying just about anything on set. Secretly, I think he actually had a little bit of fun, which makes me happy.

I love working with non-actors. With Mariota, my approach was generally to give him something physical to do. When he knew what to do, he stopped “acting” and started “reacting.” That meant he also knew exactly what I wanted from him, so he was never confused.

I also tried to keep him on his toes the entire time. We’d work the scene one way and as soon as things felt stale, I’d totally flip the blocking on them. So in one take, Marcus would console Thomas because he fell and in another, he’d be running away from him trying to give him a chest bump. This ping-pong effect kept it fresh for everyone and created space for them to play off one another.

You’ll see a few really genuine moments with Mariota in the spot where Thomas made him laugh, or surprised him. We wouldn’t have gotten those any other way.

The performances from the comedic actors were spot on. What was your approach to extrapolating their comedic instincts?
Yeah. I was joking with someone that Peyton Manning ruined it for everyone with his charming personality and perfect comedic timing. Honestly, I think it just comes down to getting to know them as people and then giving them permission to be those people. Not everyone can be Peyton Manning, so this is where the casting was key.

I never coach a line. I try to create specific situations where people play off one another so things unfold naturally, then tweak from there. For Thomas, I found his strength was really in the physical comedy, but even more in the subtleties of his false sense of confidence. Sarah had an incredible ability to make you feel encouraged, even if she said something condescending. And Mariota knows how to play the likable cool guy. For each scene, I’d basically just create moments that tested or played into those characteristics for each person. I tried to make Thomas feel like he had to impress Marcus. I tried to make Marcus feel like he had to make Thomas feel better about himself and to make Sarah be the voice of encouragement. Ultimately I think some of the best moments came when they didn’t know who the camera was on and could just follow the guidelines I’d give them.

Ultimately that’s part of the discovery process on set. At the start of the day there were things I asked Mariota to do that just didn’t work, so we had to tweak and play more into the things that did. Same for Thomas and Sarah. Being present to go through that process and just react to the moment instead of fitting them into the boxes I’d created helped them identify what felt right too.

 

When you only have a limited time window to capture a whole story, how do you coordinate everything in a timely manner? How do you plan for something like that?
Compromise. I mean obviously there’s a ton of planning that goes into something like this, but you have to make compromises. You have to know when to get behind on schedule for a shot and when to move on. Otherwise, you’ll realize in the edit you’ve spent all your time on the close up when you actually needed the wide.

The best directing advice I ever got was “fewer takes.” Shooting for less takes forces you to be specific with people and to make significant changes between takes. There’s nothing worse than a director who does too many takes or does them without making significant changes in-between, so I always try to prioritize my angles and blocking, then go for the bonus material if there’s time.

I think there’s also something to be said about moving fast on set, not just because we have limited time, but because the energy builds a certain momentum for the talent and team. People feel like they’re accomplishing something instead of things dragging out. That’s where the planning really comes in. Mapping out each location for light, prioritizing the key shots and structuring the shoot day with an efficient movement pattern between locations. Then having the discipline to spend more time or less in a certain place.

Often times, it’s also knowing when to cut something all together.

 

What filmmaking techniques did you employ to communicate the story? For example, how did you shoot for comedy?
My approach was really just to keep it simple, both because our schedule was tight and because I wanted the focus to be on the performance more than the camera. Overall I didn’t want the camera to really draw attention to itself, so we kept it very objective and let it be motivated by character movements more than anything.

The most important thing to me was to choose the right angles for each scene so the comedy would play. We spent the most time shooting the tire drill. I think we had 7 angles, but it was key because I needed them to really establish each character in a different light during that scene and also use the wide for the punchline; him falling.

Overall, we contrast a lot of close-up hero angles of Thomas, to put us into his world, with wide shots that shatter his illusion of himself. So just about every time he eats it, we’re wide. When the action is ramping up, we’re close. This could’ve been a very different piece without that juxtaposition and I don’t think the comedy would’ve played as well. We had to play a lot with that in the edit, as well as the pacing — big hats off to our editor Zach Prichard. A lot of the jokes in the final spot weren’t really landing right in the first couple edits and it had everything to do with rhythm & pacing.

As a final choice, I used music to externalize the exaggerated self-confidence from Thomas. I thought of it as a mental tape he was playing over and over in his head. Admittedly, music was something I was on the fence about until we got in the editing room. I’d originally imagined a sort of rocky theme song going throughout, or maybe none at all, but it was pretty clear how necessary it was in the cutting room. I think it enhances his mental state and also builds the hype up to our final climax. 

There’s also one particular moment when he’s doing push-ups and the music drops out for a beat. This was a great call from our editor Zach. It added this subtle joke about how long he was taking to do the push-up…then we reveal that he’s only on number 3. I just thought it was a really great instinct all around and wish I could claim credit for the idea.

 

What is your approach to balancing information about the product and the comedic tones in the storytelling?
I believe the story is the product.

This film had 3 main characters with their own individual arc’s all wrapped up in a 60-second spot. It was a lot to balance and we had to make a lot of decisions about how much of the story real estate to give to each one.

The hero of the spot is the mom, even though she’s presented as a supporting role. She represents the honest and caring voice of the brand/product. We had versions in the edit though where Thomas was a much bigger part of the story because he’s just hilarious; hard not to give him as much screen time as possible. We realized there was an imbalance in the comedic tone and ultimately what we were missing was the voice who will be there for you no matter what (i.e St. Thomas). Sarah became the key to balancing the comedy and made Thomas’s jokes land better. I think it was more of a gut feeling that we were missing a key element, so we built it up.

All that to say, I don’t think a product is a tangible thing in a commercial. I think it’s actually more effective to think of the story as the product and find ways to build characters and situations that personify the feelings of the brand. It’s more enjoyable and relatable all around.

 

Check out more of Josh’s work here!