You may not know the name Neil Kellerhouse, but you definitely know his work. He's the graphic designer behind the posters for "The Social Network," "I'm Still Here," "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," and more recently "Haywire" (which you can read more about here) among many others. He's also done work for The Criterion Collection, Pixar, and gets regular calls to work with directors like Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher. Kellerhouse appeals to these big names because his pieces are striking and often, for lack of a better term, "out of the box" of what is required to market most films. Unlike 99% of film posters, which are designed by production houses, Kellerhouse's work is the result of a one man operation. You will never see him do a "floating heads" poster.
Kellerhouse doesn't have a signature style that can be easily recognized from poster to poster, and that's just the way he likes it. He always does what he thinks is right for the film and never adds stylistic flourishes or anything that might be considered extraneous for the sake of style. His work cannot be templated. It spans the illustrated and photographic, retro and modern. The only thing binding these pieces together is that they're all beautifully conceived and flawlessly executed. A Kellerhouse design is more than just a piece of marketing, it's a true piece of art. We had a chance to speak with Kellerhouse last week about his process and what it's like working with auteurs with strong personalities like Fincher and Soderbergh.
The Playlist: A poster is often one of the first impressions an audience will get of a movie. How do you make sure that your image makes a strong impression? What's your process?
Neil Kellerhouse: You start with trying to learn as much as you can about the property. Then try to figure out what it is that you have that nobody else has. Like, why am I going to your film? What do you have that I can't get anywhere else? [You also have to] stay true to the story, especially these days. In advertising I don't think you can be disingenuous at all. With social media and the speed of communication you have to be really honest and up front about what you have with your property and be true to the story. So it's all that and then trying to figure out an interesting and compelling way to communicate that. And that's the hard part. A lot of times we're coming into the process a little bit late and other people have been living with the story or the property for a lot longer than we have, so they're much more intimate with it. So part of it is trying to glean that information out of those who are most knowledgeable about it.
Do you read the script, talk to the filmmakers? What do you require from the filmmakers or the studio to get started?
All of that. Sometimes it's an existing story or it's a book or it's a fairy tale, or it's something that's already woven into the fabric of our society, so then it becomes about: how are you editorializing the story? What's your take on the story? Why are you redoing it? What are you bringing to the party that nobody else brought before? An original story is different. Then you have The Criterion Collection and they're in a more curatorial role. And they're editorializing with the luxury of hindsight and everything that's happened since it was made. It's like a museum curator, and if he was doing a piece on a collection of paintings by an artist, he's going to have one viewpoint in one era and another in a different era, even though they're the same paintings. It's kind of interesting how you can tell a story with the same art and just reconfigure it and it [means] something completely different.
How did you come to work with Steven Soderbergh and what is his process like?
I had done some pieces with Criterion and then he had signed up to do the HDNet films [including "Bubble" and "The Girlfriend Experience"] with Mark Cuban's company [2929 Films] and then he called them to get my information because he'd liked what I had done on stuff for Criterion.
With him, he doesn't really art direct much. He's pretty sharp and he knows what he likes, he's got great taste and an amazing visual sensibility. I usually generate a lot of work. I think for "The Girlfriend Experience" we did 40 or 50 pieces the first round. [Though] with that particular piece he did pick [one version] and ask for a couple changes and try a couple different things. And we ultimately abandoned it and went for one that was untouched.
He just lets you do your own research and figure it all out on your own and lets you suffer through all that on your own.
Is the process with Steven Soderbergh a pretty unique situation as far as your collaboration is concerned?
Yeah, because it's a scary thing to spend all that money on a film and you have to be kind of courageous creatively as a director. You're throwing a lot of your personality out there to be judged and there's a lot of money on the line and it's a very anxious time and a lot of people are a lot more controlling over it. And I totally understand that. [As a collaborator] Steven is totally hands off at the beginning but if he likes something, he'll fight for it. He'll champion something through the whole process with the studio if he feels strongly about something. I've been on conference calls with him where if he feels strongly about something he'll stick up for it and champion the direction of the marketing plan. It's pretty cool [because] then [the art] gets unmolested as a piece of pure design. On "The Girlfriend Experience" nothing was changed on that. That was just, "we like this" and there was a little bit of an argument and [Soderbergh] was [basically] like, "Fuck you, this is what we're doing." He didn't say that but [he held his ground] and they didn't really have any rebuttal. There was nothing to argue about.
Switching filmmakers for a minute, could you talk a little bit about your collaborations with David Fincher? He's another director who really knows what he wants. How did that collaboration come about?
David and Steven are friends and David's producer Ceán Chaffin contacted me for "The Social Network" and asked if I'd be interested in working on it. It's like, "Yeah, of course." And that was another film that was really difficult to figure out what to sell. Do you really want to see a movie about the creation of Facebook? Why haven't they made a movie about Steve Jobs? Why haven't they made a movie about the Google guys? I mean, they're much more successful, at least they were then. So then it comes down to the traditional storylines and topics that people have been talking about since Shakespeare or 1000 years before that. It's the same drama: betrayal, love, whatever. So you have to sit down and do an amazing marketing campaign in the traditional sense, in a way, and work with conventions. Movie marketing has a problem in that they've been extraordinarily successful with their visual vernacular and the marketing language that they use. Everybody knows it even if they can't verbalize what that is. But you know what it is when you're on the street and see [an ad for] a giant Hollywood blockbuster. It'll have a certain aesthetic sensibility, a certain look and feel. When you see a poster you know exactly what you're in for.
And so, if you try to do something outside of that, if you try to move away from that language, suddenly it's met with skepticism because people don't know what to think of it. And [studio marketing has backed] themselves into a corner with that language and it's hard to navigate out of that because if you do it's met with skepticism, it's a mixed message. Since nobody's done a lot of different-looking marketing campaigns in the last 20 years or so, nobody wants to take that chance. It's very risky, so you want to try to do something that's different but leverage what's already effective and profitable as a [visual] language. And I think "The Social Network" poster is different but it also leverages a lot of the good parts of that language. That was kind of the goal with that.
There was really only one photo approved for the entire campaign. And there's not a lot of special effects going on either, computer screens aren't totally compelling and interesting so it's more about creating this enormous drama around this absurdly successful thing that this guy created. And how do you do a campaign that matches that exaggerated success? We had to come up with a great line. When we first wrote that line ["You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies"], it was "300 million friends" and I said, "let's just make it 500 million." That was December '09, we had that poster pretty much nailed down for an October 2010 release and [I said] we're just going to go for it and get 500millionfriends.com and see if it gets there. At the time we decided to go with [that tagline] it seemed a little bit ambitious because there was all those privacy issues going on. So I thought people would be abandoning ship on Facebook, so we got 400millionfriends.com just in case. We were really hedging our bets. But we scooped them on their own story because right as the film was coming out they got 500 million [members] so we got their publicity as well. It worked out super serendipitously.
Were you surprised that Fincher was able to get away with nudity for “The Girl With Dragon Tattoo” poster?
Oh, not surprised at all. He's been true to his personality, he's unwavering that way. I don't think there's any surprises at all. He was very up front about it the whole time. I wouldn't say they let him do anything. There's always pushback. There was [definitely] pushback from the studio [but standing up for the work] is a courageous thing in my mind. But the awareness is through the roof, it was very effective and I know there's a lot more work to do. Jean-Baptiste Mondino shot the photograph and he did an unbelievable job, that was him and David working on that together. They shot that in Sweden.
Will you be working on the final poster?
I hope so! I'm trying. I'm trying really hard, working away.
You can check out more of Neil's work on his site Kellerhouse, Inc.