Derrick Borte, an artist-turned journalist turned producer/director of commercials, was watching a television news magazine one night when a segment about “stealth marketing” came on the air. We channel-surf during ads on television and use pop-up blockers to avoid ads online. So now some companies are going back to in-person selling, but with a twist — the customer does not know that the tourist showing off a new camera or the pretty girl asking for a particular brand of vodka in the bar are being paid to do so. And this gave him an idea for a script, and that became The Joneses, a provocative debut film about a marketing division disguised as a family — mother, father, and two teens — who move into a wealthy community to make everyone envy their consumer goods enough to buy them.
I spoke to Mr. Borte at the AFI Silver Theater just before a screening of the film and Q&A session with the audience.
Did you ever buy something because someone cool had one?
Absolutely! It started when I was about seven years old, my first pair of Puma Clyde tennis shoes. Somebody wore them to school and I wanted them. So I am definitely not immune to this phenomenon.
Your story is not far from what is really happening. I wrote an article about companies that use middle schooler slumber parties to sell products to girls.
It’s also companies that give purses to an actress so she can be photographed with it. Or developers that have furnished model homes. They hire out-of-work actors to pretend that they were living on the houses and they sell better. It’s definitely an ever-evolving thing. As long as there are products, there will be money spent on trying to sell them.
The products in this movie are real, right?
For the most part. There is not yet a phone with the video feature we show in the film but we figured as we were shooting that by the time it came out, there might be. I wanted real products because fake products would take it into a cartoon world. I wanted a disarming naturalism. I wanted to feel like it could be happening in your neighborhood. But in certain places we couldn’t use real products because of what happens to them. Some companies saw this as celebrating consumerism and were glad to be included. Some saw it as an indictment. But many companies with high-end products were very happy to participate. It gives it great production value.
What surprised you about making your first feature film?
It wasn’t as intimidating as I thought it would be. I thought I would throw up in my trailer the first morning! But I had already spent so much time with the actors and prepping the crew that it was just another day at work. It was fun and exciting, but there weren’t any training wheels.
What did your preparation include?
It started with the producers. Kristi Zea is a legendary production designer, and Doug Mankoff. I was not very precious with the material. I wanted it to evolve and grow so I was open to listening to them. And the actors — we didn’t pay them a lot because it was not a big-budget film. They all wanted to be a part of this film and they were all generous in terms of coming to work with ideas. Before production people kept telling me, “You have to hold on tight to your vision because people will try to knock you off your game as a first-time director.” But I thought that was ridiculous. If you hold on to that vision you could hit that mark or fall short. But if you foster an environment of collaboration you can listen to other people’s ideas. You may not use all of them but be open to them and to allowing the process to help discover the characters and story. That’s the only way to get something that goes beyond your vision.
The top-liners are responsible but what a deep cast — I was so fortunate with Gary Cole and Glenn Headley, and Amber Heard. Sometimes they would have an idea that would spark another idea for us. Because I wrote it if I found something I liked better I could go with it, rewriting on the set or in a lot of late nights.
Why do people want to be cool and especially be cool by owning stuff or looking a particular way?
It can be a disease — affluenza — wanting to have what other people have because of the perceived effect it has on them. I don’t think anyone is immune to that. There’s no way to predict it; it just happens. I read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, great book. I wish I knew the secret of what makes things cool!
What movies inspired you?
Everything from the spaghetti westerns to the John Hughes films, the Plant of the Apes films, the David Fincher, Tarantino, the Coen Brothers. I’ve always loved film but everything I’ve done has led to this point.
What does that include?
I started off in college at Old Dominion studying fine arts but paying my way doing graphic design, t-shits and things like that. I was probably the first person to learn to use PhotoShop. I graduated with a degree in fine arts and went to LA where I was represented by a gallery. But when the bottom dropped out of the art market, I went back to get a Masters in Media Studies at the New School. It seemed like a logical progression. I was a production assistant and then after I graduated got an offer to be an on-camera reporter for an NBC affiliate. It was great training in guerrilla film-making. I had no budget but I had six or seven hours to come up with a story for that night. When I started my production company I knew I wanted to do features, but I knew I would not get a chance unless I wrote my own script. I turned down much more money for the script for the chance to direct it myself.
Were there other influences on your concept for the movie?
I was fascinated with reality TV. A lot of it is stranger than any fiction. I can’t imagine a prime-time sitcom that would be as captivating and bizarre as “Jersey Shore.” And they become celebrities and have endorsement deals.
I thought this forced intimacy that happens when you throw strangers into a house would be great to combine with the stealth marketing. When you’re going to do something with stealth marketing you have to decide — are you going to go broad comedy, are you going to do a thriller? I thought that would be an interesting angle. It it was just the stealth marketing, where would you go after the first 15 minutes? So I wanted to explore the fake family dynamic. Hopefully, the personal stories are enough to carry people through.
A movie based on a novel called “The Zero.” We’re waiting for the first draft of the book adaptation and we hope to be going to work in the fall. I love doing features. In my everyday life I am so attention-deficit but on the set time slows down and I’m very calm. I love being on the set working.