D&AD’s Foot in the Door series continues with Bryan Buckley, who wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated short films ASAD (2013) and SARIA (2020). Buckley has also directed over 65 commercials for the Super Bowl since 2000 including ESPN’s The Kid and Drinking From the Cup, which has earned him the nickname ‘The King of the Super Bowl’.
Buckley, who is the co-founder of production company Hungry Man, directed the Black-Pencil winning The Lost Class, and is the top-ranking Director at D&AD Awards 2022 Rankings. Here, the 59-year-old creator tells us how he found his feet in the industry, left an illustrious advertising career to switch to filmmaking, and the importance of finding your voice in an ever-changing industry.
Switching from advertising to filmmaking
I had always thought I wanted to be in advertising — and I started my career at Doyle Dane Bernbach — but when I got into the business I realised I really wanted to start my own agency. Director and writer Tom DeCerchio and I started an agency called Buckley/DeCerchio when I was around 23, and we built it up very quickly. At around age 26 I realised I was unhappy. You build this big company, and all you're doing is meetings and you're not actually creating the work anymore.
At that point, I had thought I’d become a screenwriter, because Tom and I had sold a screenplay to Columbia Pictures about the same time we’d started the ad agency. I had never written a script before and we sold it, and we made a ton of money compared to what you’d make in advertising. I had wanted to sell the agency and become a screenwriter, but I realised that screenwriting is a slow, arduous process where you’re working with multiple writers and everyone has an opinion. Tom went off to fame and fortune but I stayed at the agency longer and (Director) Frank Todaro joined me.
We specialised in very low budget advertising at the agency; we couldn't afford to hire directors, so we had to do it ourselves. Hank Perlman had been working for us but left to join Wieden+Kennedy, and he came to us with all their ESPN work. He came with a sports centre campaign along with some other stuff, and he said, “Guys, I believe you can direct that.” So for two years, I shot around 180 hockey spots with ESPN, and that was my film school. Then that took off and everything started happening, and suddenly I was a director. I started directing when I was 27 years old, but didn't really call myself a director until I was 29.
Get to know your industry beyond your craft
There are very specific things that I can look back at and tell you where I picked up skills. When I was in advertising I took acting classes. I didn't want to be an actor, I just liked being able to leave reality. I also took an improv class, and those classes were invaluable. I wasn't thinking of becoming a director yet, but once I had taken those classes and entered into directing I realised I was a better director than many because I understood the importance of drama, and when a scene wasn’t working right.
I was also a cartoonist in college, and I wrote cartoons every day. This experience taught me storytelling, pressure, deadlines, and experimentation, because of which I now always board my own movies. I do all the storyboards for my films and for commercials, every single frame of everything. You can visualise things, and that’s from the cartooning. It's made me evolutionary in terms of my thinking.
Find your voice
In this era of entertainment everything is sort of smashed together – the film business has completely turned on its head at this point. It's a very interesting time, and you have to choose between adapting to what's out there, or skewing towards your own interests or what you want to do. I think the important thing is that you do what speaks to you. The whole idea of what your voice is — that is so important. I used to hear it a lot when I was younger and didn't understand what that phrase meant. It took me many years to figure out what ‘my voice’ is for me as a director. You can create in many different forms, but the voice has to be there.
I was always focussed on changing and evolving, because it’s important to keep evolving even when you’ve found your voice. I find it's always about elevating your game by figuring out how to reinvent yourself, or push yourself into another space that you're uncomfortable in, or haven't been in. Don’t rely on your bag of tricks, don't go back and be the same person over and over again, because ultimately advertising is about what's new. If you keep doing the same thing it's not gonna be new for very long, and your shelf life is going to be reduced. When you push yourself, hopefully people around you also benefit from you pushing things. So that's what I expect of myself.
Three creatives to follow for more inspiration
Rob Reilly (Small Business Gets an Official Day, Pizza Turnaround), who is Global Chief Creative Officer at WPP is another one. Pick a campaign over the last five years that left you in awe, and chances are that Rob had something to do with it. No one fights harder for great work than him.
Manuel Oliver is a client of mine and co-founder of Change the Ref. He and his wife Patricia are behind some of the most powerful work designed to bring changes to gun laws in America, and their work is simply remarkable. (Check out the 2022 Black Pencil Winning The Lost Class).
D&AD’s new Foot in the Door series asks creatives to share their unique route into building a creative career. Read our first two interviews in the series here.