WTJ – July 31, 2009

WIRED TO THE NEW RULES – by Andrew Hetherington

(Behind the scenes of the Wired (August issue) photoshoot)

WTJ: Tell us how the concept came about for the ‘New Rules for Highly Evolved Humans: A Scientific Approach to 21st_Century Predicaments’ issue and what was your role in its inception as CD ?

SD: This was a package of stories we had been pushing around for nearly a year. Typically, [executive editor] Thomas Goetz and our senior editors develop concepts like this over a period of months, gathering string, posting ideas on our internal wiki, and holding various brainstorm sessions. But it’s not strictly an editor-only process; art directors and designers are an important part of shaping big editorial packages like this. We knew at some point in the summer we’d have enough ideas and momentum to make a cover out of the piece.

As CD, I—along with design director Wyatt Mitchell—shape the look and feel of the package. The design choices. Photography ideas. Story architecture and flow. Page gestalt. Wyatt and I then invest the page design and illustration direction with one of our rockstar art directors—in this case, Maili Holiman—and then the real work begins. We sketch the package layout, the what-goes-where, look at type styles, design elements. Basically, the graphic design part of it. Meanwhile, Carolyn does a print order and then I work with our production director to get the color dialed in and make sure the ink hits the page in the way it’s supposed to.

WTJ: How did Brad Pitt become involved ? I presume the fact that he has a new movie ‘Inglourious Basterds’ coming out helped.

SD: In mid-May, we got a call from one of Brad’s reps from Weinstein (yes, in reference to Inglourious Basterds) saying that Brad was interested in collaborating with us on a project. Turns out he had really liked the Mystery Issue (May 2009) we had done with J.J. Abrams and wanted to see if we had any stories that would be relevant. Why yes, we did! So Nancy Miller, our Hollywood editor, replied with word of our gestating etiquette package. We pitched the notion of Brad playing the “bastard/basterd”, clueless about modern etiquette as a way to illustrate a few digital do’s and don’ts.

A couple of days later, I got the call of a lifetime; I was sitting at my desk and his assistant rang and said “I’ve got Brad on the line for you.” And it was really him. Very cool guy. Turns out he’s a huge fan of the magazine and was completely open to the bastard idea. We talked for about 20 minutes, brainstormed a bunch of scenarios and agreed to do a shoot the following week.

WTJ: Did you have a clear vision for the photography ?

SD: Yes, absolutely. I knew I wanted to have Dan Winters shoot this. Brad’s been shot by all sorts of amazing photographers, done some really beautiful collaborations, but never with Dan. I had sort of bookmarked that pairing in my mind from when I was working on Dan’s book and the notable absence of a Pitt portrait. Also, “Inglourious” is a WWII movie and Dan’s a huge WWII buff/historian; he has this amazing collection of uniforms and helmets and gear, so even though it wasn’t going to be a story about the film, there’d be a nice underline in tone. Not to mention, Dan is one of my best friends, and I knew going into this that it was going to be one of the most intense productions of my career and I’d want someone I completely trust. We’re so on the same page, we get each other 100%, so there’d be no “getting-to-know-you” curve with a new photographer. We had a very limited time frame, so I knew we’d have to motor. But mostly, I had this notion for the design of the piece that was a weird mix of 1940s etiquette manual and modern WIRED, and Dan’s work can sometimes have that strange vintage vibe to it.

I wanted these Brad pictures to feel a little Conrad Hall, and I know from many great convos with Dan, he’s a huge fan of his work. We do those sort of design anachronisms a lot at WIRED, I love mixing modern tech with vintage visuals and you can see that even in the styling in picture of Brad scanning the porn—the modern iMac on the old Steelcase desk.

WTJ: Was Dan (guitar hero above) your 1st choice photographer for the story ?

SD: Completely.

WTJ: Can you describe your own process when working on a story like this and how you collaborate with the photo and editorial departments ?

SD: So at this point, I know I want to use Dan, so I usually will run that by [design director] Wyatt Mitchell and my photo colleagues. In this case, Carolyn was working on this story, so I pitched Dan and outlined the reasons above and both she and Wyatt agreed with the idea, so I called Dan, and Carol called Kathryn Winters [Dan’s wife and manager/agent] to start setting things up. As far as the editorial side of things goes, I’ve got a great situation here at WIRED in that I have the complete trust of Chris, my editor. He lets me and the photo department make the decisions about who shoots what, and that’s just tremendous to have that creative freedom. And with the photo department here, the photo editors will be the ones working directly with the photographers, but I will sometimes step in when I have a personal relationship with a photographer, as I do with Dan or Platon or Brent Humphreys.

WTJ: I presume you had to run Dan by Pitt’s people first ?

SD: I did. Brad had a few great suggestions of his own, but he’s a fan of Dan’s work. I emailed him a few samples of what I was thinking, and there was no convincing required.

WTJ: Did you have a firm idea which scenarios you wanted to shoot or was there a creative tet a tet with Dan as to what
ones would be visually strongest ?

SD: This part actually worked out perfectly. Wyatt and I were actually in Austin the weekend before the shoot, so we were able to meet up with Dan and Kathryn in person to hammer out ideas and work out production. We met for lunch on a Friday and had the shoot loosely scheduled for the upcoming Tuesday in LA. So we basically had 72 hours to build sets and produce the whole thing, a tall order. My colleagues in editorial had given me a list of potential subject matter—items that were sure to be covered in the story—so we had a nice starting point. We thought about shooting on location, trying to drum up an office scene actually at a movie theater, so we could do those two scenes and the urinal etiquette all at one place, but we decided the scout would take too long and perhaps not work out, and we’d be left in a lurch. So Dan called his amazing crew of production designers and pitched a weekend build in order to get us four sets for Tuesday. Once we knew that was feasible, we started to flesh out the shot list, what would be affordable but funny and germane.

WTJ: Again did you have to run the scenarios by Pitt in advance and if so were any nixed ?

SD: We didn’t HAVE to, but I did. I didn’t want to spend the money and time on the set build and then have him walk on and not like one of the ideas. We had loosely discussed a plan when he rang me, so I followed up with an email detailing all four setups and the cover ideas and he liked them all. I was thrilled. He even had a few suggestions that Dan and I loved and incorporated.

The only thing he nixed was at the urinal shot, we wanted him to have his pants around his ankles, like a really crude, clueless guy who is so out of touch he doesn’t understand how to stand at a urinal. But he felt like that was too far, and I sort of agree. I like the subtler humor that we ended up with where there are three urinals and of course, he’s standing next to the guy on the left even though—according to man code—you’re supposed to keep an open urinal between each other (when possible!) Dan and I had to explain this one to Carolyn on set.

WTJ: Wow that’s not much time to carry off a shoot like this, how did the pre-pro play out ?

SD: So Carolyn, Dan and Kathryn get all of the credit here. The three of them just worked nonstop for those 72 hours, lining up wardrobe, location, catering, sets, the whole nine yards. Carolyn and Kathryn might as well have been using walkie-talkies they were talking so much. And Dan and I were sending sketches and reference back and forth.

So we got to LA Monday and Dan spent the day reviewing the build with his crew. The previous shoot at Smashbox ran long, so we didn’t get to do load-in until Monday evening, but I swear, I blinked and the whole thing was up and in. Dan’s crew was amazing—Ed Murphy did a beautiful job with the sets. So we got to do a little prelight on every setup and I think we were done by midnight. We came back Tuesday am at 7am and finished polishing the sets and setting props.

WTJ: How much time did Brad give you ?

SD: He got there at noon and stayed until 3:30 or 4. We worked the whole afternoon, got in a few BS sessions in between shots, but yes, he was incredibly generous with time.

WTJ: He seems like a cool guy and he is a talented photographer. Were you intimidated ? Was Dan ?

SD: I thought I was going to be, but because we had been in touch and done the phone call, I wasn’t really. And Dan is such a cool customer, he’s done and seen it all, so no, I think he was pretty chill about it. When he got there, we just sat in the makeup room and got to talk a little, get comfortable, which I’ve found is pretty rare with celebrity shoots. And that went a long way to having fun on set.

He was really kind to the whole crew, always a good indication to the character of a person. He’s very smart and has an excellent vision of what looks good and how his character fits into a scene. I’ve never gotten to work with an Academy Award-nominated actor, but I can now say what a treat that is. As a person, he’s just a regular guy with a family and interests and hobbies and a cool job. And yeah, he’s a great shooter himself, so I gave him a copy of my American Photography annual and a copy of Dan’s new book, which he appreciated. I came back into wardrobe at one point when we were waiting on him to change and he was propped up on the couch flipping through AP, said he really loved it, so that was a thrill.

WTJ: Did you have any backup sets built or is what we see in the magazine all that was shot ?

SD: WYSIWYG. We really had everything so nailed down, we ended up using everything we shot.

WTJ: Did you try different ideas for the cover shoot ?

SD: Slight variations. We did some of him using a blackberry and screaming into a cell phone, but we liked the quiet bluetooth shot best. It’s just so freaking absurd, this really handsome guy, the perfection of manhood, wearing that stupid headset.