The creative leaders at Schafer Condon Carter got down to business on a Southern Comfort gig in New Orleans over the summer. Aiming to celebrate the place where the venerable liqueur was born, Dennis Bannon, Ron Sone and Michael Dorich set the stage for a cast of locals to show the world what the Big Easy is all about.
“The main goal was reestablishing Southern Comfort’s New Orleans roots,” says Dorich. “But we didn’t want to make a travel video.”
Southern Comfort was invented by Martin Wilkes Heron, a Garden District bartender, in 1874. According to Sone, it has since grown to reflect the “sonic gumbo” of the city.
“It’s a powerful place,” he says. “Our challenge was, how do you bring that to life without being cliché?”
The result is The Spirit of New Orleans, a minute-long flurry of dancing, jamming and cocktailing shot by director Sandro Miller and cut by Utopic editor Craig Lewandowski. Mixed with portrait-style footage and layered over the thumpy twang of the North Mississippi Allstars’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” it makes anyone who enjoys a good time feel like an idiot for not drinking Southern Comfort.
“It’s as much about the people who drink it as it is about the place where it comes from,” explains Sone. “One of the things that struck us the most was the authenticity and the uniqueness and the breadth and variety of character of the people of New Orleans.”
The spot begins by introducing the people who appear throughout the story. Each one is not only a New Orleans resident, but also a real-life version of whatever he or she portrays. The musicians are musicians. The dancers are dancers. The bartender’s a bartender.
“One of the coolest parts was casting and just seeing all these different people,” says Dorich. “We basically get our own little concert.”
Joining SCC at the auditions was Director Sandro Miller, who filmed the action scenes in New Orleans as well as the tabletop footage in his Chicago studio. According to Sone, “he was the perfect guy to capture it.”
Miller has been creating sensuous allure for decades. His work includes advertising, glamour, sports, editorial and frequent collaborations with actor John Malkovich. He’s also completed a handful of projects in the Big Easy and estimates that he’s visited “about 25 times.”
From the moment he saw the concept for the Southern Comfort job, he wanted in.
“I said, ‘Michael this board is fantastic,’” he recalls. “I have to do this spot. I get the vibe down there. I’ve been in the cemeteries and the voodoo bars.”
Shooting in the city where Jazz and twerking were invented helped make a natural connection between the seductive culture of New Orleans and the enduring legend of Southern Comfort.
Along the way, the collaborators highlighted what Sandro describes as, “the place that New Orleans has in the hearts of all Americans,” especially those who have visited the city.
“We wanted viewers to go, ‘Holy cow! That’s the New Orleans I remember,’” he explains. “I saw that guy playing on that corner! I saw that guy dancing in that alley!”
Pushing the city’s spiritual mystique was also high on their list of objectives. “If we didn’t have it, we would be cheating New Orleans,” says Sandro. This is most evident in the brief glimpse of the snake handler, which Sandro describes as “one of the most important scenes in the spot.”
Besides being a real life snake handler, he says that the woman with the reptile wrapped around her neck is also a “sweetheart.”
“She wasn’t really that dark scary person that you might perceive,” he continues. “She was a very interesting woman who really cared about what she did and wanted to be represented in a respectful light.”
Determining exactly where to place her among the ninety or so scenes that play within the 60-second commercial fell to Craig Lewandowski.
Lewandowski has become Sandro’s go-to editor, but he had only worked with Dorich on one previous occasion. Although he was thrilled to help create the “gritty, dirty and as cool as possible” mood that the director wanted, he found Sandro’s footage to be “a little bit daunting.”
“It was the kind of stuff you dream about,” he exclaims. “I had great music, a great script and great footage. Now, it was all on me.”
After creating “approximately fifty edits,” he weaved the snake handler into a sequence bathed in red light and combined with “four or five images that kind work their way over one another.”
According Lewandowski, the scene really comes to life with the addition of “a snake hiss kind of rattle that pops through at that moment.”
“A lot of this spot had to do with sound design, which I have a real passion for,” he says. “Our audio wizard, Brian Leitner, brought it to a whole new level.”
When Dorich and Sone viewed the first version of the spot in Utopic’s office, they applauded.
“Ron and I had so much passion and blood and tears in the project, our jaws were open,” Dorich recalls. “It was so much of what we talked about, but better.”