Sandboarding, Celebrities And A Nice Scotch With Michael Deane

Over the last couple of years, America has taken a fascination with the hitherto relatively unknown world of Japanese commercials starring Western celebrities. Thanks to the Internet, we've gained access to plenty of the Nipponese spots, but we've remained mostly blind to the stories behind them. That is, until now.

From within the hallowed halls of AdLand's AdList (our semi-secret society), we met Michael Deane, Executive Producer of Modern Times Film Company. Along with documentaries, an IMAX film and music videos for the likes of They Might Be Giants and Dr. John, he has over 200 commercials under his belt, including plenty involving the magic Japan+Hollywood combination.

This is his story, so far.

(And a few of his favorite spots.)

(Note: The following interview was done via back'n'forth email.)

Howdy Michael. First off, why not tell us a little something about yourself.

How about a lot?

A lot is good.

Born in 1954 into a politically progressive family. My father, a writer, was blacklisted and later called before the McCarran committee where he offered them half the peace sign. The FBI came to visit and our phone was tapped. It was definitely an interesting childhood and I met some fascinating people. My mom, a Kiwi, was a real trooper. (They met in Tokyo.) Both parents struggled but they were selfless. My father, considered by many to be an exemplary journalist, never worked in that profession again.

Grew up in Westchester County, just north of NYC. My parents were active in the civil rights movement and later in the anti-VietNam War movement. We went to Washington many times to protest the War and for civil rights demonstrations. Mom got gassed by the riot police. Me? I got the flu!

Went to Woodstock and stumbled my way through academia, getting a Masters in Film. Not a particularly useful degree. Spent part of my junior year in London and got the travel bug. While earning my masters I directed documentaries on Agent Orange and Capital Punishment while my classmates made "How to Fly a Hot Air Balloon". In between degrees, I spent a year traveling Europe, Africa and the Middle East, then circled the globe twice in two years. Most enlightening thing I ever did. Still like to travel. Just back from Brazil. Last year I was in Europe twice and Japan though I spent my summer vacation in Vermont watching the sun set over Lake Champlain.

Started working on commercials in 1981. Been doing it ever since.

Other stuff: Produced live action and CGI as well as developing long form projects including an IMAX film (Cosmic Voyage which was nominated for an Academy award) and executive produced a doc for Ted Turner and TBS Productions on Outlaws and media in 1993.

Also produced or directed music videos (Dr. John, Carly Simon, They Might Be Giants). Simon's was written up in New York Magazine under the headline "Massacre at Menemsha". Let's just say it didn't go well...

Moved to LA in 1994, freelanced for a while and then ran a small production company (three directors) called Fuse for nearly seven years. Did lots of packaged good type stuff in the studio which was very different from my location work. Did one Star Wars video release campaign where the kids spoke in their own words. "Use the fork, Luke" was my favorite.

Still unsettled about LA. Sometimes I think I'm in an airport transit lounge, waiting to go somewhere else. Just don't know where...

I took most of last year off. I made some quick money and then took some time for myself. Three months turned into nine and I was able to recharge the batteries while developing a music documentary (about Brazilian music) and working on both my yoga and my kenpo (I'm working on my blue belt--sort of intermediate level). Thank god for clarity.

Some gratuitous, possibly pretentious information:

Am PADI certified though I am a horrible swimmer.

I collect wine, reds of course. Mostly Californian (Alexander Valley) and French though I like Australian, Italian and Spanish as well.

And photographs: Dad introduced me to Cartier-Bresson (literally and figuratively as they knew each other in China). Also have some Elliot Erwitt, Sebastiao Salgado, Gordon Parks, Robert Capa and others. It is serious enough collection to require its own insurance policy.

I'm a history buff, probably because I come from a family with an interesting background. On my dad's side we're Mayflower descendents (Francis Cook), related to William Clark (one half of the exploring duo) and one of our relatives, Benjamin Waite, was supposedly the model for James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer. My mom's family emigrated from China during the gold rush of the 1850s and settled in Australia before moving on to New Zealand. They became a family of lawyers with one reaching the Presidency of the International Bar Association. He had me thinking law school, partly because of the influence he wielded. But I decided to shun the dark side. So I'm the proud owner of a Masters degree which is essentially useless but I'm still one eighth Chinese.

I am a Formula One fan. As a little shaver my idols were Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart and Mickey Mantle. Pretty eclectic, no?

And I love baseball. As some of you remember I am a Yankee fan. Taking in a ballgame at Yankee stadium is an experience I shall never forget. In fact, it is one of the few things I miss about New York (along with good bagels and pizza, the NY Times on Saturday nights and well, a few women who shall remain anonymous...).

I'm working on a few interesting things: A 3 G mobile phone project out of Japan (licensing flash and other types of animation), developing this Brazilian music doc as branded content, and putting together a group of directors to work here in the US and a larger group to present overseas clients.

I like the international work. When I started in this business no one took me seriously--a case of ignorance, arrogance and xenophobia. And then globalization kicked in and I had my 15 minutes. Then of course the guys who did it for 10 minutes became the self described experts. So I ran to the US market. Now I'm back doing both and I'm enjoying it more.

Favorite color:


Favorite book title:

Unreliable Memoirs by Clive James.

Favorite quote:

All the world's problems are created by people who think they are important -- TS Eliot

How did you find yourself in the American Celebrity/Japanese Commercial production biz?

By accident. I got out of graduate school and worked as a PA for a few months. A job opened up at this company where a friend freelanced. She recommended me. I went in for an interview and ended up producing. It wasn't that I was such a good production person but that they were so completely clueless. So by default I became a producer and I was smart enough to hire good people and make my mistakes in private. I think after a year or so I became a decent producer; after two or three, I became a good one.

(A question from Dabitch): Are commercials commonly around 15-20 seconds in Japan? If yes, why is that?

I did my first :15 for Japan in 1981 way before that format was popular here. I think the format works well there for a simple reason: Japan is a homogenous place with a language that is somewhat visual or at least symbolic. So they all intuitively understand the visual clues and icons...

Which celeb was easiest to work with? Hardest? How so?

Paul Newman was great. So was Billy Joel. Let's just say that the more minor celebrities are the most difficult.

Any good stories to tell? (examples: culture-clashes, misinterpretations, wrong papers, drugs, alcohol, cough syrup, etc.)

I had to knock down the door of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel to make certain Ringo was still with us. This was only a year or two after Belushi so everyone sort of freaked when he was 2 hours late to the set. So his lawyer and I went to the hotel and got security to allow us to knock the door down. (He was fine).

And I once had to shoot a football field in the middle of winter. Ever paint grass? Very toxic. (This before the digital era of course).

The cultural confusions are pretty rampant. It is so easy to misunderstand someone's intentions or read what you want out of a situation. My favorite anecdote: When I do business in Japan I try to have Japanese partners. People take you more seriously and they will interpret the customs for you.

As you probably all know, the Japanese do not like to say "No". They find other ways to say it. Some are obscure.

So I had friends at one very successful production company here do a Japanese project and then think they were going to rep themselves in Japan based on that one spot.

They went and came back, very full of themselves and quite certain they would get work. They got squat.

What they probably heard was "Zensho shimasu" which generally means I will do my best. So if you hear this you might think ok, we have a chance here.

But what it really means in that context is NO FUCKING WAY!!!

There are tons of other examples which refer to arrogance and misunderstanding on both sides but this pretty much explains it.

What was your favorite spot to work on and why?

I liked the Hollywood campaigns--I did probably 30 or so spots for them. I don't smoke. And now I won't do cigarette ads at all but at the time they were fun because we got to do some extreme sports in some interesting places in the world. I once spent a month in Maui shooting wind surfers. And I got to go to South Africa and Namibia for the sandboarding spot.

And again I got to do stuff that I wouldn't normally do. For example, one night I couldn't sleep so I turned on the Discovery channel to see a guy sailing a boat in Antarctica. He anchors his boat to an iceberg, scampers out and climbs the iceberg. Luckily I had decided to tape the show so I sent the tape to Brazil and it became one of the most famous of Hollywood's spots.

What sticks out in your mind as the most notable differences and similarities between commercial production in Japan, and, say, Santa Monica?

The Japanese, who are essentially a tribe of 140 million people on an island smaller than the state of California, are always struggling to overcome "sameness" and therefore actually like to try new things. They don't always succeed -- I can't tell you how many times I repeated myself doing Japanese work -- but they start with a concept and really let the director try to add value.

In the US it is more lip service. I can understand it. I have CD friends who struggle for months to get an ad approved so they don't want to see it changed much, if at all. You can sympathize with that but ideally this is a collaborative medium.

I do think that the people here (both agency and production sides) tend to take themselves just a bit too seriously. We're not curing cancer. We're selling stuff to people who may -- or may not -- need it.

(Another question from Dabitch): Art Directors, Copywriters and directors usually develop a fetish for a specific widget. Art directors commonly lurve specific types of markers. Copywriters might develop a fetish for moleskins/the perfect notebook. What the hell is your quirk? So... Do you have a quirk(s)?

I try not to take myself too seriously. I like to have fun and work with my friends. I understand this is a business of art AND commerce. Most of the time it is more commerce but sometimes the art happens and that makes it more fun. I try to stay away from jerks and I really try to treat people the way I like to be treated. Karate and yoga both help.

Favorite smell?

Not just one: Pine needles, a wood burning fire, clean laundry and a decanting 1970 Chateau Pichon Lalande.

Least favorite toe?

Pinky toes. I keep breaking them.

The ladies (and several of the guys) want to know, who/what are you wearing right now?

Jeans, gap shirt and Cole Haan sandals (no socks--hey man its California!).

How many frequent flier miles do you figure you've earned in your career so far?

About 1.6 million on one, 300k to 500 k on two others.

Any advice for the rookies?

Give your best effort, be straight (honest) and own up to what you do. And be kind to others. You never know who you are going to meet as you climb up or slide down the greasy pole. The only thing you have in this business is your reputation.

Any advice for celebrities?

Don't take the money for an ad and pretend you are making an art film. It's an ad so get over yourself.


Dewars of course.

Well, now that you know all about Michael Deane, here's an AdLand retrospective of some of his most groovy work. Since this isn't a DVD, there's no commentary track, but Michael was kind enough to provide us with spiffy tidbits on each of the spots. If you're logged on as a SuperAdgrunt, enjoy. - Clay

Sony - Billy Joel (1991/1992) 0:30 (Japan)

Shot at Montauk Long Island, near his home in East Hampton (now owned by Jerry Seinfeld). Christie Brinkley made me lunch!

DirecTV - Oscar De La Hoya - Director's Cut (2000/2001) 0:35 (USA) Latin Market

This spot won a bunch of local (So Cal) AD awards. The creatives never really appreciated what the director did for this spot (e.g. the bulldog with headgear was the director's idea). I think they were very defensive or territorial about it. So for some reason they never hired us again even though the client (and Oscar De La Hoya) kept asking for us. Finally the client called me directly and asked why we didn't want to do their spots. I told her we were never contacted and she fired the agency a few weeks later. Idiots.

Hollywood Cigarettes - Bungee (1994) 1:00 (International)

International = Basically third world countries where they can run these spots, 1994.

This was shot in Auburn Ca. The jump was over 770 feet high. The guy did it 24 times. His girlfriend did it 7 times. They asked me to do it. I humbly declined. I wasn't worried about the height. Hell, I figured I'd have a heart attack on the way down...

Hollywood Cigarettes - Sandboarding (1997) 1:25 (International)

International = Basically third world countries where they can run these spots, 1997.

The interesting thing about this spot is that we essentially created a sport, sandboarding.

Lux - Brooke Shields (1998) 0:30 (Japan)

Her mother was a royal pain but I enjoyed working with Patrick Demarchelier on the print campaign. That was another cool thing about doing Japanese projects--we often did print and broadcast and I got to meet and work with some extraordinary people. / My Prime Time - No Regrets (2000/2001) 0:30 (USA)

One final project before the bust. We all liked it because the cast kept breaking up with laughter.

Nissan Skyline - Paul Newman (1981/1982) 0:30 (Japan)

We did four years of campaigns. Paul Newman is one outstanding human being, a gentleman, always polite, kind of fun to hang around. We once shot in Daytona Speedway and he drove the picture car around the track after a shot, picked me up and the two of us went to Wendys for lunch. It was very funny.

He also did me a personal kindness by calling my then girlfriend (a Japanese actress) and congratulating her on the release of her film in the US while wondering what the hell she was doing with me. It was very generous of him.

Sad moment: I was with him when the news came over the radio that Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari F1 driver) was killed at SPA. If you are a racing fan, you know how tragic this event was. He asked me to stop the car so he could have some time for himself.

Pioneer - Ry Cooder (1982-1985) 1:00 (Japan)

Ry Cooder couldn't keep his hair combed nor could he look at the camera directly. Sometimes I think he regretted doing the ads and was pretending he really wasn't in them..

Suntory - Diorama (1987/1988) 0:30 (Japan)

We shot this in the museum of natural History in NY. Very simple and good execution of an elegant idea.

Suntory - Toots Thielemans (1982) 1:00 (Japan)

Toots was very nice but the thing I remember most about this spot was that we lost the location -- a farmhouse in CT -- the night before the shoot. Just as I was about to lay into the owner, she told me her husband had dropped dead that very day. That certainly put things into perspective.

And I learned to listen before opening my mouth -- well ok, sometimes...

This story still reminds me not to take myself or the business too seriously...

BTW, we ended up scouting the next morning with the entire crew on hold in NYC. We found a location at 11AM and wrapped camera around 6PM. I still remember the stress.

Suzuki - Statue of Libery (1983) 0:18 (Japan)

Pretty Wild huh? We did this completely without permission...

TDK - Andy Warhol (1984) 0:17 (Japan)

I knew Andy through some mutual friends and approached him to do the gig. He was really pleased. We traveled to the set together and when he saw the backdrop (video color bars), he looked at me, smiled and said "I'll sign it; you sell it".

Using Andy was my idea. This is what I most like about doing Japanese work. I was close to the client and he asked me for some ideas. So I put a short list of celebrity possibilities together including Woody Allen, Andy and Ringo Starr. I ended up negotiating the deals and producing the spots with Andy doing TDK and Ringo doing Schweppes.

I have little to say about Ringo who prefers to be called Richard. Suffice it to say he is certainly one lucky bastard.

TDK - Miles Davis (1990) 0:30 (Japan)

Well if you are a jazz fan, this is as close to god as you can get.

TDK - Youssou N'Dour (1990) 0:30 (Japan)

Part of the Jimmy Cliff/Gaz Mayall/Miles thing. Had trouble getting the rock to look right.

Tokyo Gas - Charlie Sheen (1992) 0:30 (Japan)

This was during his drug/alcohol days. He was not very nice and his agent at William Morris started all sorts of problems for no reason. It was my first taste of Hollywood out-of-control BS. But I hear he has turned things around so good for him.

Toyota Celica - Eddie Murphy (1988) 0:30 (Japan)

Eddie had a huge entourage which always wanted to eat at Burger King. Could not get past that...

Dryel - Sentimental Sweater (1998) 0:45 (USA)

Shot in Prague for Leo Burnett. What a beautiful city, pretty much undamaged by history. If you have never been, go.

The agency creatives (AD and copywriter) were really great. So was the producer. The GCD was a jerk who tried to impose his will even though it wasn't his gig. Imagine a short fat guy from Chicago dressed in ill-fitting Gap clothing (shorts t-short and a baseball cap) lecturing our Parisian-based stylist on fashion. He knew everything about everything except human nature and when to shut his mouth. Even the client apologized for his behavior.

Thanks for sharing the goods, Michael. We appreciate it.

about the author

claymore Creative Director, copywriter and ad connoisseur that has been riding the wild surf of advertising in style, panache and grace for two decades.

Comments (5)

  • Dabitch's picture

    Don't tell me Paul Newman is such a nice guy - now I'll have to have a crush on him all over again. Dammit.

    The Andy Warhol spot had me in tears. Oh I so wish I had seen this back in 1984 - kudos for trying to pronounce things in Japanese Andy. Alas, I think that american accent came through loud and clear. ;)

    The Suntory - Diorama spot in the natural history museum was everything I love about Japanese ads. Irreverent, surreal and strange. Good stuff! Flying a Suzuki around the statue of liberty without permission aye? Those were the days, you'd get shot on sight if you tried that today. ;)

    Thanks for sharing all this Michael, very very cool.

    Apr 12, 2005
  • Robblink's picture

    Michale's body of work is amazing and his nomadic life really comes through in his international spots!

    Apr 12, 2005
  • caffeinegoddess's picture

    Wow. Great stuff. Thanks Michael for sharing and cheers to Clay for posting!

    Apr 12, 2005
  • suture's picture

    Sweet! Very insightful interview. I just wonder what he thinks about the present day of fracturing of media...

    Apr 12, 2005

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