DIRECTOR MICHAEL HAUSSMAN PROFILED IN DECEMBER ISSUE OF ‘SHOTS’ MAGAZINE

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Ad Icon: Michael Haussman
Director Michael Haussman talks about odes to actors, purity of image and starting off with a good ending.

With a stellar 2013 behind him, Michael Haussman continues to tread a positive path through adland. About to embark on a global campaign for United Airlines, the much-acclaimed director takes a break from scheduling to tell Simon Wakelin what the year has taught him about advertising, filmmaking and the art of creating the perfect commercial.

Michael Haussman’s year began in style with the world premiere at Sundance of his film The Unsinkable Henry Morgan. This intriguing documentary follows a group of archaeologists investigating a 17th century shipwreck off the coast of Panama, believed to be the long-lost ship of English pirate Sir Henry Morgan.

“It was one of the funniest experiences of my life,” recalls Haussman. “We got there, fed people questions about Captain Morgan, and then discovered the wreck wasn’t Morgan’s ship at all. The wind was suddenly let out of everyone’s sails, but it worked to keep the mystery and intrigue alive in the documentary, plus it was so much fun to shoot.”

Haussman also competed at the 2013 Venice International Film Festival with The Audition, a short he wrote and directed. Shot at Rome’s legendary Cinecittà studios, the film explores what would happen if actors’ real feelings were exposed and blended with the roles they were playing.

“This is my ode to acting,” explains Haussman. “I’ve always been fascinated by the magic of movies, of actors on screen who are supposed to be in love. I wondered what it would look like if I crossed that threshold and had actors invest their emotions farther than they should. The film is a scene in which the actors play a couple breaking up, but they go deeper and their genuine emotions become involved.”

Haussman also generated buzz in the art world this year with the release of his hypnotising video installation Gravity, a work heralded for its study of ageing under gravity’s force. Five subjects were filmed in slow motion while jumping on a trampoline, their bouncing steadied in post to erase all movement except for gravity’s effects on their skin, cellulite, muscles and bones. For the installation, looped videos of each subject were projected onto lifesize screens.

“I knew it would be an interesting effect but didn’t expect the ageing process to be quite so powerful,” explains Haussman. “I thought I would need to give each person some direction, but saw how acting became overacting due to the super slow motion. I told each subject not to think of anything in the end. Gravity shows people baring everything – nudity, scars, body alignment, bones, imperfections and skin. It’s a brutally honest portrayal of ageing in both the young and the old.”

Haussman worked with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto to secure the beautiful, Caravaggio-inspired HD imagery. It seems digital is at the heart of just about everything today; a medium that extends into thousands of other media.

“We can never fear innovation,” offers Haussman on the evolution of digital. “Those who worry about technology will always create bad things. We have to make content that moves and involves audiences, no matter the device. The idea of movies and entertainment with a subtle message branding-wise appeals to me. I think, for example, Lost in Translation could have been a Marc Jacobs ad.”

So what does Haussman look for in trying to secure the right kind of commercial work? “I look for one thing. A simple idea that I can complicate through the storytelling process. I find the simpler and cleaner the idea, the more contained it is – and the better it can become.”

He notes how his first spot for a new global United Airlines campaign exemplifies this approach. Entitled Taxi, it features the POV of a passenger travelling in different cabs at different locations all over the world – New York, Shanghai, New Delhi, Dubai, Mexico City, London and Rome – with each taxi driver asking, “Which airline?” in the local language.

Argument for Haagen Dazs is also a stripped-down gem, the story of two lovers embroiled in a heated argument – until a tub of Haagen Dazs enters the picture, immediately flipping the scene to romantic, smoochy ice-cream sharing. But this truce is a brief respite before tempers comically flare again.

Meanwhile, Knockout for Levi’s shows a knack for pushing ideas to the edge. Created after lengthy discussions with ECD Chuck McBride at Cutwater San Francisco, the spot features a beautiful woman in Levi’s strutting down the street. As men gaze at her outstanding form they’re violently knocked out by an invisible force. The spot ends with the woman herself spotting a sexy guy in Levi’s – and immediately getting clocked after gazing too long at his butt.

“We were just two guys having a drink, wondering how it would be if every time a guy looked at a hot girl in Levi’s he’d get knocked out and beaten up,” says Haussman on brainstorming with McBride. “I saw Raging Bull in my mind and we continued to riff off each other until the idea was down. Chuck is the most fearless, courageous creative I’ve ever met. We just sat down, smoked and drank and nailed the fucking commercial. Chuck kept adding ideas during the shoot to make it better. That’s the perfect relationship.”

Beer came to the rescue again in a collaboration with luxury brand Bulgari, which hired Haussman as brand art director for three months, while he conceptualised ideas for its campaign. “I saw how politics can often get in the way of the idea,” he quips. “But when you break down the business over a beer, the decision-making process makes total sense.”

The result was a dramatic, romance-filled spot shot in black-and-white on location in Rome, channelling classic Italian neorealist cinema. The city’s ancient ruins and Renaissance palaces were used to frame a flirtatious couple’s romantic adventures. The spot was further enhanced by the use of suggestive rhythms created by Italian composer Daniele Luppi.

With so many commercials under his belt for great brands such as Diesel, Absolut, BMW, Yves Saint Laurent and Guinness, does Haussman ever find the pressure of delivering for these icons lead to uncertainty, worry and stress?

“Whenever you shoot for big brands they already have a following and a history of fantastic work,” he admits. “There is obviously a benchmark and I think there are always restrictions, but you need to be absorbed in your own idea. You need to handcraft each commercial and not think about what you can’t do. Once you start thinking

about things like budget and responsibilities you are no longer creating, no longer directing and everything you do is just the status quo.”

So what does he think about when deciding on his own aesthetic? “Always, in everything I do, it’s about purity – being as pure to an idea as possible,” he answers. “It’s the hardest thing to achieve. At the beginning of my career I hid behind things, whether it was a device or a camera move. Today I realise I have the confidence to find purity in the image. It also makes for something that you can’t quite put your finger on.”

Sometimes the process gets in the way of achieving this ‘purity’; sometimes it’s an aid. “Casting is just horrible,” Haussman quips. “You’ve written something and need to find the character. It’s not about acting because we all act. It’s performing that is so hard to achieve. I have never cast anyone without having callbacks.”

However, treatment writing is welcomed with open arms. “When it’s on paper and you can see it, then you know it’s been realised,” he explains. “Many directors bitch over treatments, but I remember Dante Ariola saying he likes the process because it forces him to think the idea through. I concur with that outlook.”

Sound design and music are often overlooked in many commercials, but not so in Haussman’s work. “Sound is such a crucial component for commercials, it’s a huge element. Sometimes the sound is more important than the visuals,” he says. “One of the spots for the United Airlines campaign features a 150-person live orchestra.”

Sound also affects the editing process, particularly when Haussman works with longtime collaborator Marco Perez of bicoastal editing house Union. Perez is one of Haussman’s favourite cutters with a special insight into the use of music. “Marco used to be a director of opera, so when we edit we are also laying in a host of sounds,” reveals Haussman. “All my Levi’s work was done by Marco. We always have something pretty good in the editing room before I move on.”

Haussman has worked with a host of heavyweight cinematographers, including Paul Cameron, Harry Savides, Darius Khondji, Benoît Delhomme and Rodrigo Prieto. “You go to different people for different things. For example, Rodrigo still relies heavily on stock. After he shot Biutiful with Alejandro [González Iñárritu] he wanted to create the same look in his next film, but the stock was already gone. His films have such a distinct look. He is one of the smartest men I’ve ever run across.”

It’s clear that for Haussman (and, by extension, his posse of cinematographers) it’s all about the vision and creating something vital, fresh and new: “I can never go to any of these guys and ask them to repeat themselves,” he states. “If we find ourselves doing that we back up immediately. When I started in this business I shot everything myself, but it was just way too much clutter. I feel if you are focusing on the performance you can’t operate a camera and light the scene yourself. You get diminishing returns.”

Talking of diminishing returns, a recent conversation between Haussman and friend, director Jim Sheridan, reveals both men’s concern that the American film industry has sorely depreciated the stock of cinema in the global village: “American cinema has methodically destroyed European cinema. It’s gone in most places except for countries that regulate American releases, where they save themselves while Hollywood creates yet another franchise like Batman Vs. Superman and eats itself alive.

“We all see creativity going elsewhere to Netflix and cable TV, with audiences flocking to see Behind the Candelabra, House of Cards, Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad. When Jim Sheridan can’t pitch drama to studios because drama won’t sell, you know there’s a problem.”

Enough of the depressing future. What about the more hopeful past – what attracted Haussman to the world of commercials and filmmaking in the first place? “I got into film because of Antonioni, Bertolucci and neorealism,” he replies. “I can still watch [Visconti’s] Death in Venice, and I loved the early work of Scorsese, Lumet and Cassavetes. I am also inspired by up-and-coming directors today who work hard to create absorbing, compelling characters.” When asked the secret of his success, Haussman immediately offers the words of advice he heard from playwright, actor and director Sam Shepard: “He says every good movie is born on a great ending,” he concludes. “You just have to go back from that.”

Read the article at Shots Magazine online 


Michael Haussman’s New Campaign for United Airlines featured in Chicago Tribune

United goes back to ‘Friendly Skies’ ad campaign
September 20, 2013|By Samantha Bomkamp | Tribune reporter

United Airlines has unveiled a new ad campaign that it hopes will bring customersback to the better days of flying.

The Chicago-based airline announced Friday it developed a series of ads featuring its famous “Fly the Friendly Skies” tag line it last used in 1996.

United, the world’s largest airline, said the new campaign came from customer feedback and a desire to focus on technology improvements and product enhancements made over the last few years.

Click here to read the article.


Haussman’s “Orchestra” featured in Chicago Business Journal

Can United Airlines make the skies friendly again?
Sep 20, 2013, 2:19pm CDT

“Orchestra,” the campaign’s debut spot, sets the stage, so to speak, for all that is to come. It shows a symphony orchestra onboard a United plane performing the carrier’s longtime signature brand music, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

The symphonic commercial, which also uses some lilting ad copy with orchestral connotations to tie up all aspects of the global campaign, ends in a crescendo of sound and a voiceover description of United as “flyer friendly,” the key buzz phrase for the entire campaign. Actor Matt Damon is the star voiceover talent used in all the commercials.

Click here to read the article.


Michael Haussman’s “Orchestra” for United Airlines featured in New York Times

Old Slogan Returns as United Asserts It Is Customer-Focused

Click here to read the article.


A Sense of Gravity with Michael Haussman – From Shots Magazine

Published on 28th March 2013 | Issue 143

Director Michael Haussman discusses his art installation project about the emotional & physical effects of gravity.

Director Michael Haussman‘s recent installation at the Young Projects Gallery in Los Angeles was an eye-opening experience. 

The installation, called Gravity, which was on show in February and March, and which will be moving to Berlin and Barcelona soon, features a selection of people, shorn of their clothes while jumping on a trampoline. Haussman shot the activity at 2000 frames per second aiming to showcase the experience of aging in an extremelly condenses period of time.

Below Haussman discusses the thinking behind the project and how it all came together.

Where did the idea for Gravity stem from?

I had seen a documentary on one of the Apollo missions to the moon and heard the recordings of the astronauts trying to explain the euphoric feeling that they had while being weightless, or unchained from gravity. They were almost stoned or giddy.

Ground control just sort of cuts them off and tells them to stick to the facts. So I guess the idea of recording man’s sort of “high” emotion without gravity became the first germ, or search for the effects of gravity.

What then transpired was the opposite. Sure it was nice to see the happiness of a person weightless, but to see the burden that gravity really has on our bodies in an aging process, being pulled down, that happens suddenly in front of the eye, caught in slow motion, was incredibly profound and emotional. It was as if you could predict what every person will look like in thirty years time, after living under the constant strain and pull of day-to-day gravity. Not just the physical effects to the body, but the emotional burdens in the expression on the face.

Is the process of aging, or perceptions of aging something you’ve always been interested in?

Aging. Not really. But I have always been interested in man’s relationship with the Earth in every sense of the word, and in my work. I find certain strength from being firmly grounded, or having one’s feet firmly planted on the ground. I think true strength comes from this. Escaping up to space or out of the head is a very scary thought for me. Maybe because I spent too much time when I was younger trying to escape.

But I think that being firmly attached to the ground is accepting that relationship with Earth and all that is being pulled back down to it. This is in a sense aging. To me it is certainly not a grotesque or sad stage, that needs to be hidden, manipulated or avoided, but as natural as an apple falling from a tree and becoming nutrients to the tree eventually.

What emotions were you aiming to elicit with Gravity?

The emotions were to see completely different people, strangers, that suddenly go from their 20sto the 70s in front of our eye in a natural, real way and to interpret that lifetime however we want.

It is their own bodies pulling them down, nothing is manipulated in the film, so all the wrinkles and pulls to the body will most likely be exactly those in thirty year’s time. So, in essence, we are watching a person’s lifetime. It is no doubt an emotional journey, and what we see is a person becoming weighed down can be maybe confused and not giving in, or surrendering happily to the elements, or in one case surrendering their child to the earth.

We watch each wrinkle and pull to the body happen and interpret ourselves why we think it was caused. It is a person’s life passing in front of our eye, that we can walk around and discover, observe and that is a pretty great movie.

Can you tell us a bit about the Young Projects Gallery?

Paul Young is the most interesting, knowledgeable and passionate curator of film and video as ‘art medium’ that I have come across. His care to curating a show is always museum quality and hand crafted. With my show, the content was one thing, but how he curated and displayed the show in the Pacific Design Center added a 3D element to viewing and walking around each piece that was very powerful.

How different was making Gravity from working on a TV commercial or TV project?

Completely different in its end result, but not so different in the execution. Rodrigo Prieto was the DP. We worked together in the past on other projects. We were setting out to light and create emotional life stories with each person and referenced lighting from early Renaissance masters like Caravaggio, using a high frontal light, that captured all the wrinkles in a beautiful way, but did not give up the movement or traveling body.

This is the same sort of task we, as filmmakers, deal with all the time, this and similar riddles. So the execution was normal territory. But to exhibit these pieces in a vertical fashion, where the screen is no longer just a screen to display a narrative or moving film, but now a frame in which to see art. That part is very different and very enlightening to add to one’s film experience.

How did you choose the subjects for the installation?

The subjects were chosen in a normal casting fashion. But once you start casting your net for people willing to jump naked on a trampoline for an “art” film, you start to gather some very interesting people. These are people with real lives and very interesting backgrounds, and their real character is the character we watch. They were not given direction to be anyone else. They are playing only themselves, and we see who they are in a very revealing way.

Did they choose the props they carry themselves or did you make that choice?

I made the choice of props after choosing the people. I thought each of the pieces would add something more in the search into their life. For example the woman holding her red underwear tells it’s own story. When you see her weightless and young, the underwear is provocative, sexy, and even slightly devious. So is her make-up and earrings. When she is weighed down with age, it becomes like a “Sunset Boulevard” Tragedy. The underwear seems to stand for a lifetime of trying to maintain a youth and beauty and is no longer sexy or provocative, but sad with routine and fruitless attempts to fight gravity.

Are you working on any further art installations or projects at the moment?

At the moment I am setting the next venues from Gravity in Berlin and Barcelona and also yes, always working on new ideas…

Read the full article from Shots Magazine 


‘Gravity’ By Michael Haussman Speeds Up The Aging Process – By Huffington Post

Gravity isn’t kind to aging bodies, but the decades-long transformation makes for a gentle easing into wrinkles, cellulite and skin flaps.

Not so with “Gravity,” a video installation by Michael Haussman. The artist asked his subjects to jump on a trampoline while he shot them at 2,000 frames per second. In the post-production stage, he steadied the subjects in the frame so that only their skin, muscles and fat jumped up and down. Add some spooky music and the finished video becomes a haunting homage to aging and decay.

“The overall effect is somewhat disturbing,” explains Haussman in the description of the video on YouTube. “We see a singular subject who does not move, and yet the way in which his or her skin moves seems to suggest a kind of time-lapse aging, where they suddenly go from 18 years-old to 55 in a matter of seconds.”

The hyper-aging process can transform one’s perception of a subject, all of whom are naked and holding a prop. Take, for example, Haussman’s first subject: a blonde woman holding her bra and panties.

“She is obviously not coming from a good place, and when she’s at the bottom of the jump, she suddenly ages forty years, making her a Sunset Boulevard tragedy,” says Haussman. “However when she soars up, her body is flawless and attractive and she exudes a confident beauty, making her red underwear sexually promiscuous and enticing.”

h/t Boing Boing

“Gravity” was on display at Young Projects Gallery from February to March in Los Angeles, Calif. The exhibit is over, but check out photos from the installation courtesy of Young Projects Gallery.


LA Weekly: No Satisfaction Yet in the Search for Captain Henry Morgan’s Satisfaction

| JANUARY 18, 2013 | 7:00AM
The Unsinkable Henry Morgan isn’t your typical documentary. Following the search for the eponymous Captain Morgan’s lost flagship, The Satisfaction, the film reads more like an episode of MTV’s Laguna Beach or The Hills than anything you’d see on The History Channel. But that decision was intentional on director Michael Haussman’s part: to treat these eight specialists, led by underwater archaeologist Fritz Hanselman, like characters in a feature charged “to move the storyboard” along.

This approach fits with Haussman’s goal of finding the narrative in any medium, be it music videos (such as Justin Timberlake’s Sexyback or Kanye West’s Jesus Walks) or commercials. But also, when Michael first got the call about directing the 30-minute film, he thought he was going to be making a mockumentary. “I didn’t even know Captain Morgan was real,” he explains to a small audience that’s gathered at the film’s pre-Sundance screening at the Downtown Independent on Jan. 15.

Like many, he thought the pirate was simply a fictional figure chosen by the rum company, who helped fund this project, to represent their brand. So, the central question of the film became: “How do we put a true identity around him?”

Hoping to avoid the unnecessary drama and gravity of many documentaries of this nature, Haussman intentionally introduced these experts in a comedic fashion. “The point was to knock the pretentiousness out of [the documentary],” he tells the Weekly. “So let’s make everyone fuck up in the beginning — not in a clichéd way. Make everyone unknowing.” We see the archaeologist Hanselman struggling to describe his feelings over finding Captain Morgan’s guns, the biographer snoozing on the boat, and the model maker asking everyone the same question, “How long is The Satisfaction?”

At first, you wonder why the documentary would feature a model maker or Academy Award winning costume designer Colleen Atwood painstakingly creating imagined replicas of Henry Morgan’s ship and coat. Wouldn’t actual artifacts be preferable? They would.

But, by the end, you realize that these recreations are necessary to augment the quest for Morgan’s flagship and its related contents during this two-week shoot. Because the sunken ship they excavate proves to be not The Satisfaction after all.

Archaeology is a waiting game. And by endearing Hanselman and his team to the audience, the director hopes we will remain invested as the archaeological team optimistically returns to Panama next summer in search of The Satisfaction. Hopefully, this time, they will be more successful in their treasure hunt.

In the meantime, though, we’ve still got the rum. (“Drink responsibly. Captain’s orders!”)

The Unsinkable Henry Morganairs this Sunday, Jan. 20, on the Sundance Channel at 9:35 p.m.

You can catch Haussman’s art show, Gravity, starting Jan. 17 in the Pacific Design Center.

Read the full article on LA Weekly