After more than a decade running his own company designing Hollywood ad campaigns and key art — perhaps you saw trailers and posters for Femme Fatale, Cloverfield, Sin City, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, The Grudge, Panic Room, or the first two Spider-Man movies — and a current position as senior vice president of creative marketing at 20th Century Fox, Jamie Bradshaw has already come a long way since his Nashville youth (USN, Class of '94). Now, with his feature debut Branded, co-written and co-directed with Alexander Doulerain, Bradshaw can add to his list of accomplishments having a major motion picture opening in hundreds of theaters this Friday.
An effects-laden science-fiction thriller filmed in Russia and co-starring Max von Sydow and Leelee Sobieski, Branded concerns Misha Galkin (Ed Stoppard), a young marketer who returns to the corporate world after a prolonged absence, only to discover a monstrous pan-national conspiracy to infiltrate the mind and suppress the will. In his battle against this plot, Galkin will come face to face with the sinister forces that secretly run the world.
Taking time out from an intensive international publicity campaign and the birth of his second child, Bradshaw talked to the Scene about Branded, advertising, consumer theory and what makes an effective monster.
So what brought you from Nashville to this point, preparing for your first feature to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public?
I knew from the age of 12 my passion was to make movies. I did what anyone else would as an outsider — I frequented the Belcourt, I made student films with my friends from University School and Harpeth Hall and showed them at the Sinking Creek/Nashville Film Festival, and I studied the medium and its masters like Welles, Kubrick, Tarkovsky. ... Welles used to talk about how if you were going to try to make movies you better try to do something new and different both with the language of the medium and in the stories you choose to tell. Otherwise, what's the point of making another film?
You certainly chose a unique means of financing your film.
Since my filmmaking partner Alexander Doulerain and I wanted to make an original movie set in the world of global marketing, we knew we had to make the film an international effort, autonomous from the major studios, since the majors are obviously partners with those brands; they wouldn't and couldn't do it. From development, casting, pre- to post-production, through marketing and distribution, every decision was under our control and direction, and on the epic, international scale and budget we filmed the movie. That almost never happens anymore.
How would you describe the difference between the Russian and domestic film industries?
Doulerain and our executive producer, Boris Yukhananov, formed the first independent film movement back in the early days of Perestroika, and that's what independent cinema means in Russia — independent of government financing. As crazy as it may sound, one of the ironies of the Soviet film system was the freedom it afforded directors like Tarkovsky: to make epic and major-budget films which would appeal to only a tiny percentage of their or any other population, just because they were great stories worth telling that would evolve the language of the medium.
And you have Tarkovsky's composer involved?
Eduard Artemiev, who scored Stalker, Solaris, and The Mirror, is providing our score, and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra is performing it.
Damn. And now you have a major motion picture hitting screens all over the world. That must be an amazing feeling. What made everything come together for you?
This film is a labor of love. Not made for money or to make money, just made out of passion and with a lot of time. The goal was to make an entertaining movie for Friday-night viewing with a concept that's relevant to our lives and that tells a story you've truly never heard before.
You've got two distinctive things going for you that most films don't. First off, you've got your Russian locations, which conjure up countless different timespaces. And then you have your creatures. ... On first look, they seem like shades or echoes of things we see all the time. But when you actually get a look at what's going on with them, they're very different from what audiences expect from contemporary creatures.
Our creatures are born out of the weird logic of the manipulation of desires — and they look really weird; they freak me out every time I see them. It feels like everyone makes creatures in essentially the same tradition — the Gothic tradition. Now I'm not knocking [director Guillermo] Del Toro's creatures, because they're brilliant. But I am knocking the creatures in Skyline, because they were eyesores. Some fantastic creatures have appeared in that tradition, but those creatures scare you a certain way, they shape you a certain way, and they live and are defeated in a certain way.
Because they are signs of the familiar, it's harder and harder for them to be truly disturbing.
The world we are living in today is plagued by monsters of a different kind. They aren't scary-looking per se, they're actually quite colorful and even beautiful — the way a man-o'-war radiates color and draws you to it, until you realized you're just about to step on it and get stung.
Did you ever geek out, having Max von Sydow on set?
"This is a movie I must see," he told us after reading the script. What's amazing about Max von Sydow is that he comes to the set with the energy of someone half his age and sculpts his characters with the same precision he did with Bergman and in Three Days of the Condor. We are all lucky to have him.
I almost hate to bring this up, but I kind of have to: Were you familiar with The Simpsons' mini-episode "Attack of The Fifty Foot Eyesores?" And was that something you had to deal with during production?
Neither my partner nor I had seen it when we were developing the script. We did learn of it later in pre-production, then watched it, because why make the movie if someone else already has told the story you wanted to tell? Fortunately, our story and theirs have nothing to do with each other.
So your approach was coming from somewhere different from the idea of advertising as this oppressive force? That's a concept we've seen in allegorical science fiction for decades now. What caused this particular approach?
What we wanted to avoid was a satire about the evils of advertising. These are dark times, but to criticize something as world-shaping as marketing is irrelevant and uninteresting to people. Marketing is the power that defines the world today, and it uses advertising to alter our perception of things. ... It makes crappy food taste good. As such, marketing is a way of ordering our perception of the world. We can no longer think of it as "us versus them," wherein we're the passive lambs led to the slaughter, inundated with messages we didn't ask for and made to buy things we don't want. The model of advertising is different now. Social media has changed us all into brands, and we spread the advertisers' words for free. We are making the system, authorizing it, and making it a success. We are advertising. We are brands. Why make a boring satire out of that when you can make an edge-of-your-seat sci-fi thriller that invites you down the rabbit hole?
And as part of your own background in marketing, you designed all the posters, signage and trailers for the film, as they're the embodiment of your thesis.
I've always believed the ad campaign for a movie is another part of the movie itself. The Russian constructivist artist Rodchenko said, "The work of art is the work and its packaging." I did the creative ad/marketing campaign for Branded in the U.S. and internationally so as to craft both the movie and its campaign as different parts of one experience. We wanted to use the language of marketing — QR app technology, trailers, etc. — in an ironic way to alert the viewer of the conspiracy to control their desires, and we buried more Easter-egg QRs in the trailers, one-sheet and TV spots than anybody has ever used in any campaign ... 100 in all, in just the teaser.
Movie trailers usually lie — they give away the entire movie and they try to twist the story into a promise that the story you'll see is one you've not heard or seen before. Only when you get to the theater, they got you again. ... The trailer was better than the movie. So in making Branded, I was determined that the trailer not give away too much, that it not unlock the secrets and expose what's behind the mystery, so the viewer would go through a mind-bending experience with virgin eyes. And I promise you, at the bottom of this rabbit hole is something far more disturbing and unexpected than alien control. I hope by the end, the world you know has truly been turned completely on its head, and when you leave the theater nothing ever looks the same again.