The commercial had everything necessary for comedy gold—a goat, a guy with a huge beard, a weird hoarding of snack food. But director Ben Callner knew it couldn’t succeed without its emotional apex: The goat must look into a once-stuffed pantry full of Doritos, which he and his owner used to share, and discover that the man has taken them all for himself. Then the goat must stare forward and scream. And the scream must be very… goaty. "If the goat doesn’t scream there, I don’t know if you really laugh," says Callner, a 28-year-old freelance director in Atlanta. "We knew the scream was critical, and going into it, it was like, how are we going to get this goat to scream?"
It wasn’t easy. To film the shot, the crew stationed a second goat on a shelf behind the camera. The second goat, which is named Kudzu, had a lot to say about this: baa, baa. But Moose, the goat on camera, was just confused. He looked around. He walked away, then came back. The crew was silent and anxious. And then, finally: Baa. "After the first, we were like, ‘Oh my God, we got it,’" Callner says. "And then he did another, and it was, ‘Oh my god, that was even better!’ And then the third and we’re like, ‘OH MY GOD!!!’"
Still no scream, though. The goat only let out soft bleats, and that isn’t funny, though the camera caught the critical shot of a goat opening its mouth. Callner recorded two friends screaming to dub in for the goat, but neither were funny. And then he remembered a college buddy named Keith, who does a hilarious scream. So he called Keith, who recorded some noises on his iPhone and sent the file over. Callner patched them in. Perfection.
And now, months later, the spot is one of five finalists in Doritos’s seventh annual "Crash The Super Bowl" contest. Voters pick their favorite on Facebook, and two winners’ commercials will air during the game and earn other prizes. (One is picked by voters; the other is picked by Doritos.)
The making of Callner’s commercial isn’t just a wacky story about working with goats, though. As it came together, on a tight budget and with nothing more than a goat and a prayer, it became an important lesson in creativity: Limitations are helpful, if you know how to properly embrace them.
Contests like this can boost a career, and in fact, Callner has already experienced that. While in college, he became a perpetual intern—you know, the kid who just won’t go away—at the Atlanta production company Pogo Pictures. Eventually he struck up a friendship with its owner, Steve Colby, who became a mentor. Then in 2010, Callner made a commercial that won a Super Bowl commercial contest held by Georgia State Lottery. That’s when Colby decided Callner was ready for his own work: Pogo began representing Callner, suggesting him as a director for local commercials and then producing the projects.
"Since then, I’ve been able to call myself a freelance director, basically because I’ve been keeping my expenses incredibly low," he says. That’s another way of saying he lives with his girlfriend in her parents’ basement, and still drives the 1998 Honda Accord he had in college. (Now with 216,000 miles!) "Otherwise I don’t know if I could do it—you’re living from job to job, and you’re trying to tell people, ‘This is why you want me to direct your spot.’"
Callner entered the Doritos contest a few years ago, but got nowhere. He didn’t intend to enter again, but the goats intervened.
Colby owns those goats. He lives in a suburban-style neighborhood in Atlanta, and just happens to like owning them. ("He’s just this quirky, fun-loving guy," Callner says. "If you know him, it’s not weird that he has goats.") One day, out of the blue, Colby mentioned that his goats are funny eaters. That led the guys to some YouTube clips, where they saw goats eating chips and screaming. What’s not to love?
Soon, Callner was working up a script for the Doritos contest. His first ideas were static: The commercial could be a goat munching on Doritos, and a voice would be dubbed in to match their mouths. Or, it would show two guys on a couch watching the game, and then pan over to show two goats joining them. "But those were moments, not stories. They don’t go anywhere," Callner says. "So I called up Steve. We decided it’s the crunching that’s funny, and it’s the annoyance of it that’s funny. So that helped us formulating."
Callner pulled an all-nighter, working within the restrictions of what he had: goats, a house (Colby’s) to film them in, annoying crunching, and a scream. They needed a narrative to gel together. By morning, he had it: A guy buys the goat because both he and the goat love Doritos, but the relationship sours because the goat’s constant munching is just too aggravating. The guy steals all the Doritos and locks himself in a room, but the goat barges in and catches him.
In the morning, Callner’s girlfriend Elicia added the finishing touch: The goat should catch the guy making a "Goat For Sale" sign. With that, it became a tight, cyclical, 30-second story. All the pieces fit.
The only question left was who to cast in it. Callner had recently filmed a commercial for a local fertilizer company, and worked with a funny British actor named Mark Ashworth. So Callner called him up, and Ashworth said he’d love to do it—but there’s one problem: He’d grown a big beard for another project.
"Steve [Colby] always says, ‘You have to put the product first,’" Callner says. "You probably don’t want to make Doritos look disgusting. This beard could have been a problem." But Ashworth sent over a photo, and it turned out the beard was big and comical. Callner decided to take a gamble: The product comes first, yes, but believability comes in a close second. It takes a quirky guy to buy a goat, and this beard was definitely the mark of a quirky guy.
So the shoot was scheduled, Pogo Pictures financed it, and they bought 150 bags of Doritos. Afterward, everyone who worked that day took some bags home. Callner’s mom took some to the high school she teaches. And Colby kept a bunch. "He uses it as a very sparing treat for the goats. Because they do love it. They really do love it," Callner says.
And if the Doritos go stale, no problem: "You know," Callner says, "goats eat anything."