Director's debut pic stars Firth, Blunt

The long list of feature directors who got their start in TV commercials includes Michael Bay, who helmed spots for California’s Got Milk campaign before moving on to the “Transformers” franchise; Gore Verbinski, who added the Budweiser frogs to pop culture before taking on the “Pirates” films; and Ridley Scott, whose “1984” Super Bowl spot for Apple set a new bar for event advertising.

Whether Dante Ariola is destined to join this group remains to be seen, but the prolific helmer of spots for Levi’s, Coca-Cola and Sony PlayStation is about to start prepping his debut feature, an untitled dark comedy starring Colin Firth and Emily Blunt skedded for release in 2013.

Pic, touted by Focus Features in Cannes last month, was penned by Becky Johnston (“The Prince of Tides”) and will be produced by Johnston, Alisa Tager and Cross Creek Pictures’ Brian Oliver, with financing by Vertebra Films.

No novice when it comes to working with talent, Ariola has directed Lance Armstrong for Nike, Willem Dafoe for Jim Beam and Ron Howard for Canon.

For the Canon ad, Ariola stayed true to the product and shot the commercial with the same Canon digital SLR camera that some cinematographers are now using for features. The spot promotes a Canon call for entries for people to send images to Howard to create a film. “Imagine inspiring a Ron Howard production with your photograph,” says a voiceover.

So far contestants have submitted more than 58,000 entries to the Alliance agency, which is coordinating the campaign with Grey Advertising. The contest, promoted on TV and YouTube, ends in a week.

After selecting eight photos corresponding to eight movie themes, Howard will write and produce a short film; winners will be flown to New York for the launch party, per Grey creative director Ari Helper.

Grey selected Ariola for the spot because “we wanted the most visually skillful director we could find,” said Stephen Krauss, another creative director on the project. Method studios handled the vfx.

Meanwhile, Ariola anticipates that his feature career — which hit a bump last year when a film on which he was attached, starring Shia Labeouf, fell through — will start in earnest in September when production begins on the Firth-Blunt project. The story centers on a man who stages his own death to gain a new identity and meets a woman also trying to leave her past behind.

Unlike some other spot helmers, Ariola isn’t a cinematographer but has used some of the top lensers in the biz, including Emmanuel Lubezki, Matthew Libatique and Robert Elswit. He hasn’t yet settled on the d.p. for the feature and is torn between using the digital Alexa camera and the 35mm anamorphic format, which he considers endangered. “There aren’t too many years left to shoot something that way,” he said.

Ariola intends to continue directing commercials. “It’s a chance to work with d.p.’s and production designers and try out different techniques,” he said, adding that any stigma that may have been attached to directing TV ads in the past has totally vanished.

Bookings & Signings

WPA signed producer Justis Greene (“Tron: Legacy”); d.p.’s Mitchell Amundsen (“Wanted”), Eric Schmidt (“The Mechanic”) and Antonio Calvache (“In the Bedroom”); production designer Maria Caso (“Deadwood”); and vfx designer Kevin Tod Haug (“Quantum of Solace”).

Agency booked producer/UPM’s Michael Fottrell on Robert Schwenke’s “R.I.P.D.,” Mark Cooper on James Foley’s “Mary Mother of Christ” and Thomas Busch on Barry Battles’ “Baytown Disco”; d.p.’s Simon Dugan on Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” Stephen Windon on Jon Chu’s “G.I. Joe 2: Cobra Strikes,” Michael Seresin on Ben Hibon’s “Pan,” Jeff Cutter on Nick Cassavetes’ “Yellow,” Antonio Calvache on Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal’s “The Words,” Geoffrey Hall on Ben Nott and Morgan O’Neill’s “Drift” and Christopher Baffa on Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” pilot for FX; and vfx concept designer Neville Page on J.J. Abrams’ upcoming “Star Trek” feature.

Montana Artists booked UPM’s D.J. Carson on Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” and Meredith Zamsky on NBC’s “The Office”; 1st AD’s Vincent Lascoumes on Ruben Fleischer’s “The Gangster Squad,” Michael Pitt on Rob Reiner’s “The Third Act” and David Sardi on 2nd unit for “G.I. Joe 2.” Agency signed costume designer Courtney Daniel (“The Grey”) and production/costume designer Amanda Ford (“Here”).

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