Deepa Mehta helms for United Way

ACOMPLISHED feature film director Deepa Mehta recently completed her first commercial directing job, a three-spot campaign for United Way through her commercial representative, Circle Productions, Toronto.

Clearly, when Mehta makes a movie the world takes notice. Her Canadian/Indian feature film Fire prompted death threats amidst a heady mix of international outrage and praise. In fact, Mehta was unable to complete the third film in her Fire, Earth and Water trilogy due to heavy protesting, more death threats and an attempted suicide in the Ganges River. The trilogy challenged some of the submerged social issues in India and the two completed films, Fire and Earth, were internationally lauded.

Why has such a committed and uncompromising feature director decided to jump into the client-driven world of spot-making?

‘It intrigued me,’ says the thoughtful director of her first commercial job. Only represented for commercial work for six months, Mehta says spots are ‘a great discipline.’

Getting into the commercial business, however, had never been Mehta’s plan.

‘I hadn’t even thought about it. But my editor [Barry Farrell of Smash], who cuts all my features, is also an editor of commercials. Barry’s been after me, ‘C’mon it’s good fun. Do it. Try it.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, forget it.’ They introduced me to Tim Turner at Circle and I thought, ‘This is not bad.’ ‘

Mehta found the ‘challenge intriguing,’ and when presented with the people-oriented spots for United Way, decided the job was up her alley.

The spots depict real people, helped by the United Way, sharing their stories, and close with the tag line, ‘Your money got to me.’

In addition to the three 30-second spots, Mehta also shot an 11-minute corporate video for the United Way for use as a fundraising tool. Everything was shot in one day.

‘I’ve never worked like this where you actually are looking at what a client really wants. And that, for me, was really important. To understand not what they wanted to see, but emotionally and intellectually what their requirements were. I enjoyed that. It was really smooth. I had a great crew and the agency was great,’ Mehta says.

The spots, through Vickers & Benson Arnold, Toronto, were produced for the agency by Karen Farrell and written by David Innis. Gavin Barrett was the art director. For Circle, executive producer Tim Turner was aided by line producer Jennifer Walker. The DOP on the United Way job was Doug Koch.

With the limited time available on spot shoots, Mehta notes the increased importance of a talented DOP on a commercial set. ‘Koch was fabulous,’ she says.

The spots, which will run nationally starting in September, are tied together by Mehta’s strong sense of design. She explains: ‘They’re very different stories, but what is going to tie them together, because they’ll be seen one after the other? I thought it should be the colors used in the design. I went for reds and greens: green is the color of hope and growth, and red is the color of passion. It’s almost subliminal, but if you look at them again, you’ll see that they’re all tied by green and red.’

Mehta has already developed a philosophy for dealing with commercial jobs. She insists spots are ‘an art form.’

‘There’s a mystique about commercials. People are inversely snobbish about them. And I just find that ridiculous. This was a talk I had with United Way and the agency. I said that I feel very strongly that in commercials there is a feeling that they have to appeal to the lowest common denominator. And I don’t think that’s right. I feel that I have to, as a maker of commercials, assume that everybody who’s going to be seeing this is intelligent. Then I am liberated to do my best work,’ she says.

Currently, Mehta is working on a feature film for Columbia TriStar. By the Light of My Father’s Smile is based on an Alice Walker book. Does Mehta expect this latest project to again stir up violent emotions? For her, it is not an issue.

‘You don’t sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a controversial film.’ Films, after you’re done with them, get a life of their own. I can’t start catering to what I think will be acceptable or palatable to them because, if I do that, I would be making a compromise. Who’s interested in that? I’m not.’

Would Mehta do another commercial? ‘Maybe,’ she muses. ‘I’d like to. But it depends on what they are. I don’t think I’d be very good at selling toothpaste.’