On April 29, veteran film director and educator Bob Giraldi joins the ranks of advertising legends William Bernbach, Leo Burnett and J. Walter Thompson, and media trailblazers Charlotte Beers, Phil Knight and Ted Turner as a member of the Advertising Hall of Fame. Given out by the American Advertising Federation, the nation’s oldest professional association for advertising, the honor is reserved for individuals who have had a profound impact on the industry and the world around them. In Giraldi’s case, the Miller Lite commercials he directed were the longest-running campaign in TV history, and then there were the breakout videos like Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”—the first of many musical collaborations. SVA Close Up recently caught up with Giraldi at his office in the MPS Live Action Film Department, which he founded and chairs.
SVA: Last year you returned to your music video roots, and directed two spots with Raphael Saadiq for Prius (watch here and here).
BG: I heard of Raphael, but wasn’t really an R&B fan. The client said, “Go listen, because the more you listen, the more you’ll be a fan.” And I did. He is truly a great artist. We shot in what’s called a bubble, which I’d never used before. Instead of shooting on a large site you’re shooting in a large parachute that’s held aloft by fans. So you’re in this white world, like a large igloo that sort of flutters. Once we got in there I had two cameras going, and the rest just happens. The crew’s tapping their feet to the music, and they get excited when the star comes on the set. All of that is why you’re in the movie business in the first place.
SVA: You’ve worked with a lot of great recording artists. Is there something particular about working with musicians that you like?
BG: There’s something about the marriage of drama with music that excites me. I’m basically an old Broadway hack. It’s very emotionally driven. I don’t even have good rhythm!
SVA: Did you grow up going to the theater?
BG: No, we couldn’t afford Broadway. People have always associated me with West Side Story because of “Beat It,” sometimes suggesting that it was inspired by West Side Story. But it was about my growing up in Paterson, New Jersey. I just put it to dance.
SVA: Toyota is just the latest in a string of iconic brands you’ve worked for, from Fisher-Price to Wild Turkey.
BG: That’s the advertising business. Some people don’t get it, but that’s what’s so beautiful about creative people. Creative people that come up with ideas on how to sell something really care about the idea, and getting that little movie or ad or design or website or interactive piece made. Advertisers who lead the way say, “Let’s let people be entertained,” and the goodwill toward the product pays off.
SVA: What are you working on now?
BG: I just finished shooting a film based on a lovely story by Pete Hamill that’s in his latest book, Christmas Stories and Other Tales of Brooklyn. We’re friends, and Pete sent me a story called “A Poet Long Ago,” about a high school friend from Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, who had the gift of writing poetry, and actually inspired Pete to be a writer.
SVA: With all that you have going in, what’s kept you teaching all of these years?
BG: Learning, without question. I know it’s a cliché, but there’s no other way to say it that people like me teach to learn. I’ll teach for 10 more years if I’m around that long. It’ll be about learning 10 more years’ worth of new styles and new points of view.
SVA: Separate from your graduate program, you teach a yearlong course in the BFA Advertising and Design Department at SVA called The Project, in which students with no film experience make professional-grade work. How do you do it?
BG: We don’t spend as much time sitting around in my class talking about the beauty of film, the gestalt, as much as we talk about the practicality of getting it done. Because I promise them that at the end of this experience, more than making a terrific film, they will look at themselves and become empowered. They will say, “Wow! I did it!” [BFA Advertising and Design Department Chair] Richard Wilde tells me he once had the head of an ad agency tell him, “I love this new student we just hired.” And when he asked what convinced the agency to hire her, was told, “Oh, it wasn’t about her work. It was about this little film that she did.”
SVA: You’ve talked before about allowing creative people to be artists, and leaving the sales to marketing people. What kind of experience do your students in the MPS Live Action Short Film Department get?
BG: It’s a hands-on program, and they’ll never work with as many professional people and make relationships quite as easily and plentifully in a different program.
SVA: And why do students chose New York over, say, Los Angeles?
BG: New York City, more than anyplace in the world, perhaps with the exception of Berlin, has an underground film community which is incredible. Here you have the Marlon Brandos and Jimmy Deans and Elia Kazans of our lifetime, but in film. It’s the center of legitimate independent filmmaking.
SVA: Where would you like to see your graduates go from here, or where have they gone?
BG: Our graduates have had films shown in the Cannes Short Film Corner, the Milan International Short Film category and other festivals. The program has opened doors and changed the lives of some people, and that’s all I can ask.