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Director Cody Stokes on Balancing Commerce and Art in Ads and Film

Over the past five years, Cody Stokes has crafted a busy career as a commercial director. An active creator on Big Block’s director roster, Cody has put together roughly 100 projects, ranging from 30-second broadcast spots for big brands such as Toyota, American Express and Nike to five-minute documentaries about the lives of rural Americans.

The son of a cowboy and a teacher, Stokes has built that huge portfolio (and raised a family) while working from the St. Louis, Mo., area, where he largely grew up and later went to college at Webster University.

A student of Stoic philosophy, Stokes brings a Midwesterner’s pragmatic, figure-it-out mindset to his craft, making sure he delivers value for his clients while finding the creative kernel in every project that helps him sustain and grow. We caught up with Stokes recently on the set of his new movie, “The Ghost Who Walks.”  We’ve edited the conversation for length and clarity.

TVR: How did you end up in St. Louis while working regularly as a national commercial director?

CS: My dad was a cowboy and we lived all over the Southwest. Then we ended up moving back here to St. Louis because my mom’s family is from here. I grew up and moved away to  New York, but here we are back in St. Louis, and now I have kids. It has that pull on people. It’s a nice place to have a family.

I make my living on a day-to-day basis directing commercials. (When I first started) It wasn’t quite available to make a living as a coastal director but be based in the Midwest. The technology wasn’t quite there.

And then, I moved to New York and all of that kind of hit at the same time. As I got my legs underneath me, my wife was (saying) “You’re gone a whole lot. Let’s go home and have some support with the family.” When I left New York, I didn’t know how it was going to go but I had this belief that I’m going to make this work and maintain all my contacts on the coast. So we moved back and I think (it was) right at the right time with technology, I’ve been able to work it as a coastal director and live here, so it’s kind of been the best of both worlds, because I go out and do my thing and shoot and then go home and have this quiet, affordable life with my family, which is great.

TVR: Tell us about your film, “The Ghost Who Walks.”

CS: When I pitch  it to people, I say it’s “Carlito’s Way” meets “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  People look at me a little cross-eyed when I say that, but what it really is about at its core is it’s a film about fatherhood and about family.

I wrote the film when my daughter was born, because at the time my commercial directing career was really taking off and I was away a lot and I wanted to examine what if I didn’t come back, or I’m not around a lot or what if I missed something. What does that mean from her perspective? How does she view me as a father?

Those were things I was personally wrestling with and I wanted to make a film about it.    But I didn’t want to make just an existential, heady film about that. I think at its core, film is the only art that was conceived as an entertainment piece. Everything else came from a form of religious communication or function.

I try to always remember that as a film, I want it to be entertaining first. I went to art school and I love art films and very obscure stuff, but my personal upbringing didn’t really have that. I wasn’t exposed to that. I grew up amongst very working-class people and so it was very mainstream stuff that we were exposed to. I knew that I wanted to bring those two worlds together and make something thought-provoking and poetic while still making it entertaining, so the guys I used to work construction with might accidentally watch and be moved into something deeper than their day-to-day existence.

That was how the film got conceived, and once I had this idea, then it was “okay, what’s the genre that I want to work within? How do I make something that will get seen?”

I was thinking about it from a marketing standpoint as well. I grew up reading crime fiction and watching noir so I knew that was kind of the world I wanted to live in, something a little harder edged. That’s how those two worlds came together, the “Carlito’s Way” and  “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

The third part of it that ties into “It’s a Wonderful Life” is that I’ve always loved films set at Christmas that have nothing to do with Christmas. I like using the tonal quality of the holidays to set a mood but not necessarily revolve the story around it. So those are the things that came together to make this piece.

TRV:  Do you have distribution? 

CS: We’re looking at a kind of hybrid approach. When I was growing up, money was never something I had any extra of, so getting to the point where I’m getting investors to trust me with their money, I wanted to make sure I had a solid plan to make that money back. Outside of making a really good film, I think that’s the biggest responsibility I have as a filmmaker.

There’s obviously a traditional approach to distributing a film. You go the festival route, you work with distributors, hope you get picked up, four-wall it in some places and hopefully get written up and you build that momentum. I by no means turn my back on that. We’re going to be doing that as well.

(But working in the ad world) I realized there’s whole other side of marketing, to have a digital distribution and marketing plan for the film. I realized it may not sound as sexy as “Hey, I showed at Sundance and now my film got bought.” But it guarantees that, with the right amount of time and work, you’re going to make your investors’ money back.

It’s really about making sure we give it time with the distributors we’re talking to and working the festival route, but know that, at a certain point, we have another approach if that’s not panning out as the dream scenario.

TVR: Tell me more about the lessons you’ve learned as a director making dozens of commercials.  

CS: Because of the way technology has changed, you really have a chance to find a niche market, a pinpointed market for your movie. It’s about making a very good movie that hopefully appeals to a lot of people, but also not just thinking “Oh, it’s for everybody.” That’s a naive way of thinking about getting people to watch your film.

So, it’s about knowing what is that audience and how do I get this film in front of them. When I was directing for advertising, I was asking where are these (ads) going. I was curious about how they were pushing these and I would talk with the account people. David Johnson, one of the executive producers of the film, is the president of CoolFire Studios out of St. Louis.

He was someone who really opened my eyes to this marketing side of things. He said, “Hey, if you have this certain idea you want to get to these people, we can make certain through all these different forms of media, social media being one of the biggest, and paid placements, you can make sure the link is getting in front of the right people to give them the opportunity to rent or download the film.”

He was talking about that for other things they were doing for big companies and I was asking, “Well, why don’t you do that for a movie? Why don’t you do that for a small independent film, because that, to me, sounds like you have a very responsible plan to make your money back.” I don’t hear those (marketing tactics) applied to film that often. “Do you think that could work?” He saw the same potential that I did and that’s how that came to be.

TVR: You’ve directed dozens of ads, including for big companies such as Nike, American Express and Toyota. How did you get into that business and how has it shaped you as a director?

CS: I had to support a family and how was I going to do that? I started as a DP and an editor and I enjoyed that and was making money at it. But I always knew that while I was good enough at those jobs to have a career, it wasn’t what I was best at or what I wanted to be doing. I knew I was a director, so it was, “How do I get to prove that? How do I get to practice that?”

If you’re a musician, you can practice every day and play alone. If you’re a painter, you can sketch. With filmmaking, the director is the least experienced person on most sets. It takes so long as a director to get to sets so that by the time you get there, everyone else has you outgunned in terms of their knowledge of how things work. I always hated the idea of that.

Statistically, no matter what you’re doing, it takes a lot of work and time, and coming from the people I come from, who spent their whole lives working very hard at their trades, I looked at film and thought “Well, okay, that’s the path I have to take. I just to have to get on as many sets as possible and work.” I very much believe that if you can’t master a craft, you can’t be an artist, and so I just set out to master the craft first.

When I first started as a director, I would take any job I could that would get me on a call sheet as a director. People (have to) think, “Oh, this guy has been called a director before so he’s a director.” Everything else is having an answer to a question, and believing in your opinion.

I remember my first two commercials having my ass handed to me, because as a director you have this illusion of having control. In the commercial world, they want you to have an idea and have an opinion, but you’re beholden to their money, you’re beholden to a whole team of people, lawyers and account people who all have these things they’re fighting for and different opinions.

I remember being crushed early on. I would put all this energy and effort in and the idea that I wanted would get completely sidelined.

So instead of letting that stop me, I thought about what’s the way to be better in this world. What’s the way I can transcend that kind of heartbreak, because as a director you have to get past that.

My dad always talked about picking your hill to die on, the one thing you’re going to fight for and make a stand on. So I said, “Okay, the way I can direct commercials and be successful at it is by picking my hill to die on. Whatever the piece is, I pick the one thing that I will fight to the end for.”

What that does is allow me to be emotionally invested in the whole thing… Every other thing that comes my way, I’m able to compromise and figure it out and make it work, because at the end of the day we’re there making something for our client. If I have that one hill, that lets me, the cast, the actors and even the agency see that I am completely committed.

Now, I’m taking something from everything that I’ve done, and that’s building into the craft part, building yourself up as a craftsman. I know for sure, in making this film, ‘The Ghost Who Walks,” I could not have made this film even two years ago.

I work non-stop. Doing that every single day has allowed me to prepare to step in and helm the ship of this very lean and mean, low-budget movie but that is not written as a low-budget movie.  This could not have gotten made if I had not put myself through the wringer of these commercials.

TVR: You’ve worked in some exotic places: New York, Rwanda, Ghana. And you won a Princess Grace Award for your work in Africa. What was that about?

CS: When I was growing up, all I wanted to do was go to exotic places and do daring things. I got into movies because I wanted to be a stunt man. I think I just wanted a chance to go anywhere.

I hadn’t seen a lot. I’d never been out of the country. When I was in college, I found out that the business school had an exchange program. On there was Accra, Ghana, and no one was signing up for it. I thought if they’re going to get me there, why would I not sign up for it?

At the same time, I was putting together this grant for my thesis film for the Princess Grace Award, and I thought well I should go there and make a movie, and certainly that will work out. That was my naive idea: if I just will it, it’s going to happen.

But then I went over there and was just smacked in the face by reality. I showed up alone, this kid with a backpack, and thought everyone would be just so excited to make this movie. None of those things really panned out.

I did shoot a movie there. All the donated film, the cameras, never made it through customs. I ended up using a borrowed camera, and muscled my way through. But I got myself in a lot of trouble. I was held at gunpoint. At one point we were caught in a riot, we were arrested. We got in a car chase. It would have been much more interesting to film a movie about making the movie.

But I finished the movie and ended up making g a lot of great friends and had the adventure of a lifetime, right? I remember getting home and I was so ready to put this thing together and sent off the tapes to get transferred, and I remember the guy calling me and saying “I’m sorry to tell you this but there’s no way for me to transfer these tapes for you. You have to get the original camera you shot this on because the playheads were calibrated incorrectly.”

And his machine couldn’t read it.

I had to reshoot the whole movie, here. I was heartbroken. And I was terrified. I had promised all this stuff, I had raised this money and had all this donated stuff, and it was a failure. Outside my own personal adventure, it was a failure.

TVR: How did that failure shape you as a director? 

CS: It really comes down to resilience. When you’re directing a commercial, it’s just about diverting every single crisis, one after the other. If you don’t get good at standing up and letting people see how you’re going to deal with it, you really have no business being a director.

TVR: You joined the director roster at Big Block Media last summer. How did you connect with them, and what work have you done with them?  

CS: I was actually shooting a Toyota commercial in Los Angeles, on the street where Big Block’s executive producer lives. At the end of the day, I was thanking the neighbors and there was this guy looking things over and I started a conversation with him. He said we should keep in touch. I’ve learned to say yes to everything, because you never know what can happen. Sure enough, he hit me up later and said, “I’m the E.P. of this company. I thought your work was great. Let’s talk.” So that started that conversation, and that led to me getting signed. I’m repped nationally by Big Block and still do work regionally with CoolFire in St. Louis.

It’s been a great relationship with both of them, and since I’ve been at Big Block, I’ve done spots for GMC and my last project was a broadcast spot for ESPN.

TVR: I know Big Block does a lot of work with ESPN on the motion graphics side. What was the spot?

CS: It was a mockumentary spot called “A Fan’s Best Friend.” He says he always wanted someone who loved sports as much as he does. It was for the new ESPN app, and the spot was all these vignettes of him going around doing things with the app. It was really a lot of fun to do a comedy spot. I don’t usually get to do those kinds of spots. Sometimes when you’re a director, you get pigeonholed. so it was nice that they had the confidence in me as a director to be able to handle any kind of project.

You can follow Stokes on Vimeo or on his website. Stokes’ national commercial representative is Caroline Gomez at Big Block Media.