John O’Hagan and Hungry Man are reunited as the director returns for worldwide representation with the company.
It’s something of a homecoming for John, who was one of Hungry Man’s first signings when the shop started in 1997. Soon after he graduated from NYU film school and directed his documentary ‘Wonderland’, he met co-founder Bryan Buckley. And an enviable commercial career was born.
Hungry Man and John have both grown in exciting ways since they were last together, so we sat down with the director to talk about his professional story, what inspires him and what we can expect from him in the future.
Q> Why did you decide to make the move back to Hungry Man?
John> After living in Eastern Europe for a few years and moving back to the US, I was looking for a new home at a production company. I gave Bryan Buckley a call, we met, and the conversation just clicked. You know when you haven’t seen a friend in a very long time but as soon as you get together and start joking around again, it feels like no time has passed at all. It was one of those kinds of conversations. We started talking about the idea of me rejoining Hungry Man, and I couldn’t be more thrilled that we’ve been able to make it happen.
Q> What is it about the team there that clicks for you?
John> When you’ve done a lot of work with people before, there is already this built-in trust and shorthand with everything. It’s a great feeling to have this with the team at Hungry Man. These are truly some of my favourite people in the business. Instead of having to go through a period of getting to know each other, we’re already just completely focused on making great work together. And I can’t talk about Hungry Man without mentioning humour. It’s obviously there in a lot of the work, going all the way back to Bryan and Hank’s early ESPN Sports Center spots. It’s also just a part of the company culture which I love. It’s a group of people who have always believed in a lot of hard work and a lot of laughs.
Q> How did you first get in the industry? What was your very first job in the industry?
John> My very first production job was driving the Czech director Milos Forman and his small documentary crew around Washington DC on a shoot. Forman was filming his old high school friend, Vaclev Havel, who had just become the president of the Czech Republic and was on a visit to the White House. Somehow I got the job because I was from DC, knew the area, and I had kind of stretched the truth with the producer that I had lots of previous experience driving a 15-passenger van. I soon learned that those vans are a lot longer than you think!
We were driving all over the place. Forman didn’t care much about traffic laws and kept telling me to drive across parks and plazas while he was shooting out the side door of the van. We literally drove right next to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial!
On the second day of the shoot, I was backing up the van and crushed the front end of a luxury sports car that had slipped in and parked right behind me. From the look on the producer’s face I was certain I was going to be fired on the spot. Then Forman saw that the driver wasn’t in the car and started yelling, “Let’s get out of here! Go! Go!” I was about to gun it, when the producer insisted we leave a note on the car. For some reason we had no paper in the van so she had to scribble a message on a napkin and leave it under the windshield wiper. I remember it was raining at the time so I’m pretty sure the note was completely illegible by the time the driver of the sports car actually found it.
After somehow managing to avoid getting fired or pulled over by the police on that job, I was hooked on the thrill of production from that point on. In one of those very strange twists of fate, I ended up moving to Prague many years later and randomly meeting Milos Forman again in an editing session. I reminded him of the story, and we had a good laugh about it.
Q> Where did you learn your craft?
John> To learn directing, I went to NYU film school. I had the good fortune to study under some great directors very early on. Todd Haynes. Spike Lee. I would intern on any shoot I could get on and would make a point of helping out the VTR department so I could set up the monitors and just watch these amazing directors work. That experience was invaluable.
Q> Before directing, did you work in any other field/have any different career path?
John> Before film school, I went to Brown University. During my last year there I got a job working in the university’s film archives which was extensive. I was the only employee, and my job was to clean and repair the film prints. There were so many 16mm and 35mm prints of amazing films from all over the world. I couldn’t believe I was actually getting paid to sit there for hours every week watching all of them. As part of the job, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen because I had to make sure not to miss any damaged frames. I think it gave me such a love for film and an appreciation for all the details that go into every single shot.
Q> Which creative talents in your field have inspired you in your own career?
John> Of course there are so many directors, films, and commercials that I have found inspiring in my own career, but I’ve also always found so much inspiration in photography. I probably have five copies of Robert Frank’s The Americans. It’s the first photography book that took my breath away. There is a story in every photograph. I’m also an enormous fan of Martin Parr. I just love how he is able to capture so much humour in everyday moments. I have a photograph of his that I love. It’s an old couple sitting at a table in a pub, and the photo seems to tell the story of them both thinking back on their whole relationship. It’s funny, sad, and just so wonderfully human.
Q> What was your first creative milestone in the industry — the project you worked on that you were super proud of?
John> After finishing NYU film school and making a feature documentary film called Wonderland, I happened to meet Bryan Buckley at the very moment he was starting Hungry Man. He gave me a huge break and asked if I wanted to try directing commercials. I jumped at the opportunity. My very first commercial that I directed was for this local mattress delivery company in New York called Dial-A-Mattress. A few months after the shoot, someone at the office told me the commercial had won a Gold Lion at Cannes, and I always remember being so embarrassed that I didn’t even know what the Cannes Lions were at the time. So it was a very exciting moment that didn’t really register with me until later.
Q> What recent projects are you proudest of and why?
John> I recently shot a campaign in Italy (before the whole Covid shutdown) with the football player Christian Vieri. I loved this shoot. We had him and a stunt double driving these different vehicles through cinder block walls. It wasn’t high art, but we nailed it every time and the spots turned out really funny. To me that’s something to be proud of!
Q> Do you have any personal or side projects on the go?
John> I’m usually pursuing some sort of photography or documentary project on the side. I’ve started shooting a photography series about walled suburban communities. For some odd reason I find this kind of stuff interesting! Maybe because I’m a child of the American suburbs.
I’ve also been working on a documentary about this interesting group of African-American photographers on the South Side of Chicago in the late '60s.
The recent project I’m probably most inspired by though is getting involved in the development of an app for people who are unable to communicate verbally. As the father of a child with disabilities, I’m very excited about the concept and the potential that this technology could help give a voice to people who don’t have one.
Q> What really drives you creatively?
John> I really have no idea. I’ve just always had a love for storytelling, especially when it’s done with a camera. When I was a kid I used to drive my parents crazy whenever I saw a movie because I would always come to them and want to describe the whole story shot by shot. For me, there’s nothing like a well-crafted story, no matter how long or how short.
Q> What are the aspects of your work that you really obsess over?
John> Casting and performances. In a commercial, especially one that involves dialogue, you really have nothing if you don’t have a great cast and great performances. So this is what I obsess over on every job. For me, camera angles and art direction and wardrobe and hair/makeup are all the icing on the cake.
My guilty pleasure on any location job though has to be the location scouting. It’s kind of an incredible thing that you can tell complete strangers that you’re scouting for a shoot, and they suddenly just open their door and let you walk around their house and start checking out everything. You end up seeing the craziest stuff. I remember one guy letting us take a look at his house and then finding he had a fully set dining room table with mannequins seated around it. I think we politely made a quick exit.
Q> How would you describe your approach to your work?
John> There are so many moving parts in production that you really have to prepare every last detail in advance of a shoot. I’m a huge believer in that. At the same time, it’s almost a guarantee that these plans are going to be altered in some way as you start shooting. I’ve always loved this great quote from Eisenhower when he was asked about his planning for D-Day. He said, “In preparing for battle I always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Unforeseen circumstances are always going to come up so there really is no such thing as a successful fixed plan. You have to keep planning and adjusting the whole way through.
On a commercial shoot, a pre-production deck is really only a snapshot in time in the planning process. Since I mentioned the Dial-A-Mattress commercial earlier, that was a great example of this for me. In the middle of that shoot, the lead actor started becoming really overheated and irritated in his costume, and I was worried about it affecting his performance. Then I realised his performance was actually getting funnier and funnier the more irritated he got! Instead of being the mild-mannered character that was planned, he began snapping at the other actors, and we all started howling with laughter. So we made the decision to change the plan and go with it. Had we obstinately stuck to the original plan, I don’t think the commercial would have ever ended up being nearly as successful as it was. It was a great lesson in seizing on unforeseen moments like this whenever possible.
Q> When it comes to enjoying the creativity of others, what sort of thing excites and inspires you?
John> I’ve always been in awe of creativity on any level. My daughter can show me a drawing of stick figures, and I’m floored. In this business I’m constantly watching other people’s work. It’s when I see someone do something really unexpected or unusual with the camera or a performance or some bit of art direction that I’m always the most impressed. And insanely jealous.
Q> Outside of work, what are you passionate about?
John> Running. Fishing. Football. Music. History. Science. Space exploration. If I have to be honest, it’s probably in the reverse order! My absolute hero has to be Brian May. I mean, who has this kind of a run in life? The guy becomes the lead guitarist of a legendary rock band, puts out #1 hits, tours the world. Then he goes on to finish his PhD in astrophysics and helps a team of scientists guide a deep space probe past the most distant object ever explored in our solar system. Oh, and then he goes and writes and records a song about the whole experience…with a guitar solo that he plays. OK, I kind of hate this guy.