Director Ky Dickens joined me during the Chicago International Film Festival: 2018, to discuss her upcoming documentary: The City that Sold America. The film presents Chicago as the once advertising capital of America, and its history within the field.
Dickens’s previous directorial work, includes Fish Out of Water (2009), Sole Survivor (2013), and Zero Weeks (2017). Her films have typically dealt with how the larger world, especially laws and social mores, affects us. The City that Sold America is slightly different, but just as invigorating.
I’m a tour guide at Wrigley Field and what drew me to your film, was Albert Lasker’s name (one of the owners of the Cubs who moved the team to Wrigley Field). I was instantly interested. Now, compared to your prior films: Zero Weeks and Sole Survivor, what drew you to a film about advertising? It’s a different subject for you.
K: It is a different subject matter, and it’s the first historical film I’ve done. One of my challenges and also goals, is to never be pigeon-holed as a certain type of filmmaker. So with my first film, Fish Out of Water, I didn’t just want to be considered just a gay filmmaker. So, I wanted to make an issues-oriented film next, which was Sole Survivor. Zero Weeks was really about a personal experience. And I’d never made a historical film, and I thought this was something I care deeply about.
I love Chicago. I also direct commercials. I work in advertising and this has always been of interest. And just the fact that there’s this whole untold story about Chicago advertising and the impact its had on the world, I think is [interesting]. Any story that’s untold is automatically interesting and because I love the subject matter that made up this film it was just something I wanted to do.
It definitely brings a different challenge to do something historical. Could you explain some of the challenges with the research and filmmaking?
K: Well, unlike an issue-oriented film or a character-oriented film, that’s just happening in the now, where you just go out and film a subject for a while, or a few subjects, and you know what you’re working with and the big question mark is how you’re going to build this in the editing phase, for this film, it was almost the opposite.
I knew exactly how I wanted to tell the story because I read all of the books. The story’s been told. So it was read, read, read. I think the first 6 months was reading to figuring out what the story was. Once the story was made it was like, “Okay. Now how do I pull the right puzzle pieces together to tell the story?”
So first, was finding the authors of those books, and the researchers, and the advertising giants who created a lot of this work, and the artists that could tell these stories. But then, it was finding the visual imprint that becomes the film. There’s a ton of archival footage in the film. Not just from historical Chicago archives, but from advertising archives. And we had to go to the Kellogs headquarters, and go to Leo Burnett headquarters. and dig through just tons of advertisements. And I even had, boxes in my basement of Better Home and Garden‘s and Life magazines from the 20’s, the 30’s, and the 40’s to scan them and to look through them. And that amount of research and organization, in terms of the archives, was a new ballgame for me in filmmaking. I didn’t realize what an undertaking that would be.
It was really cool though, when it started coming to life because you have it in your brain one way and then, “Oh, this is working.” Which is always great.
It must have been just as exiting, unearthing some of those ads that are almost like pieces of art. At the end, the clip of Leo Burnett talking about advertising as an art form, it’s not something that would readily be thought of as art. But you present it as that in the film.
K: I think that’s the thing about advertising. It’s so pervasive in our lives. It’s everywhere we look. It’s everywhere we listen. You just can’t get away from it. So it becomes a thing that’s an annoyance. And I think that’s because there’s too much of it and I think a lot of it is unclever.
But the things that have broken through, really come from really good ideas and are about connecting with people. And as the film touches on, really good advertisement can change the world. For better or worse.
You know, you think about the Marlboro campaign. One of the best ad campaigns of human history, which completely romanticized smoking and killed millions of people around the globe. And that’s the power of advertising.
But on the flip side, you have from Leo Burnett, the crash-test dummies, which helped people put seat belts on all over the world. And everyone knows who the crash-test dummies were and that was a brilliant piece of advertising. So I think if advertising works, and is really [good], and can really connect and be really smart, it makes a huge difference.
And does it always do that?
And I think that’s what the film tries to tackle, especially using Leo Brunett’s famous “Take my name off the door” speech at the end.
He’s trying to remind advertisers, the reason you got into this business is probably because you wanted to tell stories. You want to take great pictures. You wanted to give the world a message. And it suddenly becomes, very quickly, about numbers, and quantifying the data and sales and all that stuff. And Burnett very succinctly says, “If you do that, if you stoop to that level, take my name off the door. This is not what I’m about. This is not what the agency’s about.” And I think any person in any industry, often you go into it with your ideals, hoping for things to be in one way and it ends up in a very different way. And using that speech to end the film is just a reminder to people why they got into this industry, to make big ideas.
It’s a very powerful moment in a very compact film. Just over an hour. Was the original intent to make it that short?
K: Yea, my other three films hovered around 90 minutes. And I just feel that sometimes 90 minutes is too long. I mean, you have to have a real good reason to have an 80-90 minute movie. And I think the mistake that myself and other filmmakers make often is having too long of a film. Or having a longer film than you need for no particular reason.
I am completely the first one to admit that there are so many great creatives and so many great campaigns that came out of Chicago that we didn’t cover. There’s a lot of people. There’s a lot there. It could have gone on for 4 hours. “Be Like Mike,” that came from Chicago. We could have given the whole history of gum with Wrigley. That could have been a whole movie.
But I wanted to touch on the flash points. The things that people wouldn’t know, and try to direct the film almost as you would direct a tv-commercial. Make it short. Make it punchy. Keep it fast and make a feature film for Chicago advertising.
That compactness of the film is interesting because it’s become a debate that films are a little bit longer, too long. But you also talked about earlier how you didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a director, what else do you want to be challenged with? You went from very controversial subjects to almost the mundane.
K: I’m working on a docu-series at the moment with a co-director, Mercedes Kane. It’s the first thing I’ve co-directed and it’s also the first series I’ve done. And that’s sort of the next challenge and that’ll be a fun take at something new, making a 6-part series that’s going to be about 6 hours of television.
That’s going to be, not really a challenge, but an adventure to co-direct something. Because sometimes directing, you forget that you’re in charge. You just sort of think, “Oh, what is that? Why hasn’t that been fixed.” But now you have another set of eyes on it.
Do you like to have multiple projects going on at once, or do you like to go one-by-one?
K: No, I like to have multiple irons in the fire because as many people know, entertainment is fickle, and one idea might be hot one minute and then you don’t get the funding and then you don’t get distributed.
I think the only way to stay in this game and not get your heart broken is to have 2 or 3 items in the fire, so if one thing goes out then you’re like, “Oh, that’s okay. I’ve got these 2.” If you just have one, and it goes out. then it’s like your whole soul goes out with it. So, it just keeps everything alive.
How long ago did you start researching The City that Sold America?
4 years ago. And it was just books, and books, and books. I felt for the first year, like “I’m not doing anything. I’m just reading.”
And then I realized, once I started doing interviews, that reading was so essential to the process. Because you know, you’ve gotta become an expert on this topic, in particular. So yes, I have to read Albert Lasker’s biography. I have to read Leo Burnett’s biographies, the biographies of Chicago, and African-American history. And all the books about Chicago’s history, I have to become an expert on.
And you decided not to end the documentary at the conclusion of the Golden Age of Chicago advertising. Because African-American advertising is really coming into its own as the Golden Age is ending. Was there a thought of ending the film at the conclusion of the Golden Age, or were you always going to continue until the present day?
I mean, I think it was, “What happened that was really important in Chicago?”
I think Burrell’s imprint in Chicago is maybe the most important thing, honestly. I look at Chicago and I think, Charles Dawson was the inventor of Pop Art and Andy Warhol and Lichtenstein basically ripped it off.
And in fact, we have the Chicago cultural Czar, who’s in the documentary, Tim Samuelson who connected the dots that they totally knew who Charles Dawson was.
I think that’s one of the most exciting stories and that was an ad man who was completely ripped off and was completely original. And Burrell changed the way that people interpret the world around them. And that is the most important thing you can do in advertising, so I think Burrell’s story is the biggest of the film and it had to be included.