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How The Thrill Was Put Into Nissan’s ‘Thrill Driver’ Super Bowl Ad


David Banta, ECD at TBWA\Chiat\Day NY and Gabe McDonough, EP and music supervisor at Music and Strategy speak with LBB’s Ben Conway about creating the action movie blockbuster for Nissan’s Big Game spot

How The Thrill Was Put Into Nissan’s ‘Thrill Driver’ Super Bowl Ad

Hollywood’s Eugene Levy is widely considered to be a mild-mannered gentleman. So, what better way of showcasing a car’s ‘transformative power’ than transforming the characteristically Canadian actor into a buff, over-the-top, action hero cliché? TBWA\Chiat\Day New York’s ‘Thrill Driver’ campaign for Nissan uses the transformation of Eugene into a blockbuster-badass to reflect the transformation that the Nissan Z sports car hopes to provide its drivers when it’s released in 2023.

Giving them a taste of this ‘thrill’ in 2022 however, this campaign combines an A-list cast of action stars and familiar faces from Eugene Levy’s career - including Schitt’s Creek co-star Catherine O’Hara and real-life action man Dave Bautista. Accompanied by a three-part soundtrack combining smooth R&B songs from Ray Charles and Rick James and an intense, action-movie score, the campaign’s music was overseen by creative music company MAS - Music and Strategy. It was directed by MJZ’s Craig Gillespie

With an explosive car chase, a fancy red carpet event and plenty of cheesy catchphrases, the ad takes Eugene Levy from suave and suited to tattooed and tough in a matter of seconds. It’s the trailer for the movie that unfortunately you’ll never get to see, but by the end, you’ll be craving for a feature-length film, a Netflix series and a Thrill Driver poster on your bedroom wall.  

To discuss the creative process behind the entertaining Super Bowl spot and Music and the important role the suitably epic soundtrack plays within the ad, LBB’s Ben Conway spoke with David Banta, ECD at TBWA\Chiat\Day NY and Gabe McDonough, EP and music supervisor at Music and Strategy.

LBB> Where did the idea to turn Eugene Levy into an action star come from? And how did this seemingly unlikely cast of actors come together?

David> The strategy for our Super Bowl campaign was to highlight the transformative power of a great car. Once we started thinking that way, we reviewed a lot of before-and-after ideas and this one rose to the top. If a drive in a Nissan Z can make mild-mannered Eugene Levy a tattooed action hero, imagine what it can do for you? Brie Larson is our brand ambassador, so of course, she is the one who introduces Eugene to the Z. Katherine O’Hara represents Eugene’s current, mild life that he leaves behind, and Danai Gurira and Dave Bautista are symbolic of the super-hero, action movie genre, so who better to introduce Eugene into that world?

LBB> What was the initial brief from the client? And how long did you work on the spot?

David> The brief was simple: be the most talked about brand at the Super Bowl. And we’re confident we succeeded in that. We briefed creative in August, tested concepts in the fall, and built out a deep and innovative surrounding ecosystem in the early winter. We then filmed in December and the campaign launched almost two weeks before the game.

LBB> When working on a Super Bowl ad with such a big magnitude as this, what things are there to consider? Is there anxiety or pressure around Super Bowl ads?

David> At TBWA\Chiat\Day NY we approach every project with the same energy. The Super Bowl campaign was no different. It had more attention than most because the culture that surrounds the game – and the ads in the game – generates more media coverage. The anticipation is heightened on Super Bowl commercials, which is what makes them so valuable. 

Gabe> It’s the only cultural moment where people tune in specifically to watch the ads. The spots and the music in them must rise to that moment.

LBB> How did you create a ‘blockbuster’ feel to the spot? What is your favourite part of the spot?


David> No action movie is complete without tons of explosions, helicopters and a catchphrase. For weeks we’ve been greeting each other on Zoom calls with “cock-a-doodle-do.” My favourite part of the spot is when Eugene passes Katherine and she does the double-take and says, “What the F…” and right then the “Hey, hey…” lyric from Ray Charles hits.

Gabe> We just went all-in on all the action movie signifiers out of the gate. Tense strings and big hits. The music needed to bring people into the action movie world immediately to drive home the arc of the story.

LBB> How was the process of writing copy for Eugene and the other stars? Did they have freedom on the set to improvise and make it their own?


David> We met with Eugene early in the process and brainstormed some lines. He also wrote some ideas and shared them in pre-production. Our director Craig Gillespie also ad-libbed some lines with him on set, but most of the script was very close to the original lines presented to Eugene back in August. 

LBB> Who worked on the production of the film and how was the process of creating and collaborating with them? 


David> [Craig] Gillespie was awarded the project based on his creative treatment and approach. His vision was clear and aligned with ours and it reinforced his expertise when it comes to handling large-scale, complex car chases and A-list talent, all while getting the comedic performance and production nuances just right. On the production front, we teamed up with MJZ, the production company representing Craig. They were both truly great partners.

LBB> Were you on set for the shoots? Do you have any interesting anecdotes or lessons learned from production?


David> I was on set. The main thing we learned was to trust the process. With so many pieces needing to fit together, we had to have faith it would all work out in the end. And of course, it did. 

LBB> What was the aspect of the project that you were most looking forward to coming to life and why? 


David> I was really looking forward to Eugene’s hair and makeup team’s interpretation of his ‘Dragon’ character. It could have gone several different ways, but where we landed was perfect. 

LBB> How much of an influence did TBWA\Chiat\Day NY have on the music for the spot? How important was that aspect of the film and what were your creative visions for the music?


Gabe> A massive influence. It’s ultimately their spot! This team had great taste so it felt really collaborative and was a blast trading tracks back and forth. Every spot is different, but our job is to leave our egos and that door, suggest some great music, and empower everyone on the team to weigh in if they have an idea. Then we close the deals and let the best tracks go to air. 

David> We worked very closely with Music and Strategy. The music was always going to be important to give the story momentum. We wanted it to drive the energy from the top, but also build. In the end, we decided on three separate pieces. Big, fun licensed tracks upfront and at the end, and an original action movie score in the middle.

Gabe> The Ray Charles and Rick James tracks both communicate an easy, confident, coolness that feels right with Eugene. The score in the middle plays hard against that feeling, to immediately tell viewers that they are in a completely different world where some intense action is about to go down.

LBB> From VFX to the production crew and everyone else involved - it seems like there was a big crew behind this spot - how did you find coordinating and working with everyone?


David> There was a real, shared sense of purpose on this production. We had an idea everyone loved and wanted to make. We all had the feeling it was going to have a big impact when it landed in the world, and everyone worked their tails off to make it great. 

LBB> What was the hardest challenge you faced on this project and how did you overcome it?


Gabe> Most spots have one piece of music, this one had three! The combination of score and licensed music was unique as well, but it let us really flex all of our music muscles and really show the agency all that we are capable of as a company.

David> The only real challenge – as on any production – was time. We wanted it to be great, so we used every second of the schedule to push every aspect of the campaign – from the movie trailer teasers, out of home, posters, action figures, social influencers, the Snapchat lens to the commercial itself, to be perfect.

LBB> Anything else to add?

David> Cock-a-doodle-do!

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TBWA\Chiat\Day, Fri, 25 Feb 2022 17:02:00 GMT