After seeing some of her previous work, Humble director Sasha Levinson was approached by agency R&R Partners and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority with a vision of creating four short films of personal transformation, each set across one weekend in Las Vegas, where the city was the catalyst in each narrative. The spots play more like a film trailer than a commercial.
Initial scripts were already written, when Levinson won project. “Right out of the gate I started to develop ideas about how I would bring these stories to life in a way that created a human mystique around Las Vegas while showcasing how the city could have an authentically positive impact on each character’s life,” she says.
We reached out to Levinson to find out more about her process and the project.
Who did you work with the most from the agency?
R&R Partners’ Arnie DiGeorge (ECD), Scott Murray (CD) and Gerri Angelo (Producer) were the primary people I interacted with. Once I was officially on board, the collaboration stretched into a place I hadn’t seen in my commercial work thus far. The team stressed their desire to have a filmmaker that could truly bring the films to life, and I think I did just that. They trusted my process whole-heartedly.
Can you walk us through the production process?
While working on readying the scripts for production, I flew out to Las Vegas and spent several days location scouting in and around the city. It was very inspiring to start to feel the environment and begin to envision exactly how our scenes might play out.
We scouted many incredible spaces, both interior and exterior. My process was to put myself into the mindset of each of the characters and decide where they would want to spend their weekend.
The next step was casting, which was done in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. We all took a collective breath when we found our actors because they became the characters that had only been living on the page for quite a while.
It took a dedicated team and the full support of Humble, our production company, to pull this off. Line producer Trevor Allen, AD Scott Murray, AD Todd Martin, costume designer Karmen Dann and location scout/manager Kim Houser-Amaral were a huge help during this two-week shoot.
Yes, we shot for eight days over the course of two weeks, filming mostly at night in restaurants, nightclubs and suites both on and off The Strip. For interiors alone we shot at over nine different hotel properties, and then filmed various exteriors, driving shots and desert scenes.
Can you talk about each of the four spots?
For the Now and Then spot we used a handheld and Steadicam to stay intimate with the characters. The film lives in a dreamy, indie space, making the audience feel like they are inside the story, and as if the flashbacks are their own memories.
The Anniversary was the flirtiest, most luxurious of the films. We were initially planning to film in a different bar, but I changed the schedule when I saw the personality of the final location. It was perfect.
To me, Party of One was a quirky romantic comedy, but the real romance is with herself. This film had a cleaner look with colors that really popped, a playful wardrobe and fun music. The Meetup has the most obvious references to the iconic Oceans and Bond films, and I wanted to do this genre justice.
Victor, the actor in The Meetup has a comedy background, so he was able to give us something different and great each take. We used cleaner lenses and slower-paced, more precise movements using a dolly.
What did you shoot on, and why did you (and assuming the DP) feel this was the best camera?
We shot on the Alexa Mini for its stunning Alexa image and the smaller body. The choice was due to all of the handheld and Steadicam we knew we would be working with. I really love the Alexa and of course we played with a lot of filtration and elements in front of the lens.
Where did you find the inspiration for this campaign?
I was really inspired by the film Paris, je t’aime, which became a reference we really stayed true to with this campaign. We kept saying, “If these four films feel like a love letter to Las Vegas, then we’ve done our job.”
After we finished casting in LA, I spent a weekend in Vegas visiting Valley of Fire State Park, seeing Elton John in concert, riding on the High Roller, eating at some amazing restaurants and overall experiencing the city in a new and inspiring way. I’ve always loved the desert, so there is a built-in romance for me about Vegas being a desert oasis that you just feel, looking out the windows wherever you are. I wanted to capture that essence in this campaign.
What was the biggest obstacle in directing these four spots?
Las Vegas is all about tourism, so we had to keep the visitor experience in mind when planning our schedules and shooting. It was a constantly changing puzzle of a schedule, but each location had a filming liaison that worked with us. They helped us film across iconic Las Vegas locations like the High Roller at the LinQ Hotel & Casino and the Bellagio Fountains, where we even had an engineer help us control the fountains, starting them at just the right moment in the shot.
Where was this project edited, and how did you work with the editors?
I worked extremely closely with the editors Erin Nordstrom and Nick Pezillo at Spot Welders in Venice, California. They cut on Adobe Premiere, and during the edit process we cut in side-by-side rooms. As we were cutting the first cuts I would hop between rooms as the edits were evolving.
Music was a huge point of discussion. Josh Baron was our music supervisor, and Human created some original pieces. Early in the edit process there was a lot of conversation about tone and feel of the soundtracks. Getting the music to encourage the cinematic feeling was very important to all of us.
Can you talk about what you wanted from the color grade?
Las Vegas has so much light and spectacle, and most of the films took place at night, so I wanted to capture that essence and make sure we didn’t go too far. The idea was that the character of Las Vegas should be cohesive across all four films, but each of the storylines should feel visually dedicated to their respective characters.
Dave Hussey at Company 3 too the reigns on color and hit the perfect balance between fantasy and reality.
We’ve heard a lot about making the ad and production industries more inclusive. How do you see the industry changing? Do you think organizations like Free the Bid are doing their jobs to help female directors get the work they deserve?
I think that filmmaking and content creation is about telling stories that accurately reflect reality, but this isn’t possible without diverse creators showcasing their own unique realities. I’ve spent a lot of time on scouts and shoots where I am the only woman, but this is changing, and there are more and more times where the van is all women, and it’s amazing!
However, just when I think diversity is becoming the norm, I’ll be on set with a crew member or client who says they’ve never worked with a female director. Free the Bid has been an incredible initiative and because it’s so action oriented, you can feel the rumblings of change in realtime. That’s exciting.
Do you have any tips for aspiring female directors?
Being a filmmaker in film or advertising is an incredible career path. My best advice is to develop your authentic voice and find projects that resonate with it. Don’t get lost in what you think you should be doing, and don’t just follow the trends. Be authentic in your work and speak from the heart. And when it comes to starting a reel, donate your time. Find brands or projects that cover the costs and give them your creative skills in exchange for footage to build a reel.
There has been a trend around branded content and spots, that look and like films, like this campaign. Do you think this trend will continue?
I think this trend will continue and extend deeper into newer mediums like immersive storytelling and interactivity. Brands are constantly searching for ways to connect with consumers, and I believe the art of storytelling is an age-old unifier and connector. So it makes sense. Personally, I love the three-act structure and any opportunity to work with this, whether it be 90 seconds or 90 minutes, inspires me.
Are you working on any upcoming projects that we should be on the lookout for?
I’m currently taking my recent film Welcome to Grandville through the festival circuit. It made its premiere at the Cleveland International Film Festival, Perspectives Exhibition, and more recently in New York City at the Soho International Film Festival.
I’ve also just completed a commercial project for Whirlpool, Google and Amazon’s Alexa. Currently, I’m writing a film called the The Discomfort of Skin, about the human discomfort with nudity and sexuality.