“Get a Mac” from Apple. The long and strange journey to a comedy classic

"Get a Mac" from Apple.  The long and strange journey to a comedy classic

DUNCAN MILNER: And Steve said, “That’s what I want. That’s what we’re looking for.” And I was like, “Okay.” [laughter] But actually, I went back to the team and I was like, ‘It happened in the meeting. And that’s what we’re looking for here.’ I don’t know if that helped or if people walked away saying, “What, are you crazy?” But people were getting pretty frustrated because we had come up with really good ideas that any other client would probably have bought. But Steve was just no, no, no.

TIM NUDD: From the start, Jobs thought only one ad could work – another “1984” or “Here come the crazy ones.” But the nature of Mac’s problems suggested otherwise.

JAMES-VINCENT: When we wrote the list of things he was better at, I think it was like 27 points. “Oh, it’s better at this, and better at that, and better at that.” And Steve wants a campaign. Well, that’s not an advertisement, is it? This is not an announcement. We need to create an episodic idea that can go from problem to problem. It needs to build and build and build and build, until at some point you’re like, “Okay, I get it! You’re better!” And “it’s worth it” better.

TIM NUDD: An idea finally caught on with Jobs. It was called “A Week With Owen” and featured Owen Wilson as a Mac user, living with a PC-owning family for a week, and staging some sort of intervention – showing them how terrible their computer was. The idea came from editor Jason Sperling and art director Jamie Reilly. For Jason, it felt like a breakthrough.

JASON SPERLING: And I read this script, and Lee Clow burst out laughing, and absolutely loved it. I remember going back to my workstation, which was under the stairs. And he comes after, and he says, “Do this and do this and here’s my number”, and blah, blah, blah, and so from then on he didn’t know my name, but he was calling me the funny guy. And so that was the nickname I had for a while.

TIM NUDD: Ultimately, however, Owen Wilson refused, as did Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell and John Cusack. So they were back to square one. Increasingly desperate, Chiat at this point threw everything she had at the problem, bringing more teams into the project, including a group of top freelancers.

JASON SPERLING: It was The Empire Strikes Back where they brought in all the bounty hunters to go get Han Solo, and they brought in all these freelancers who were legend to me. They brought in all of Chiat’s top creatives, and then us poor, tired souls who had spent six months shooting and burning on this thing that had run out of steam.

TIM NUDD: Scott Trattner, artistic director of the group associated with the writer Barton Corley, remembers that it was only a surreal period.

SCOTT TRATTNER: All these rogue senior teams from Wieden were coming in, like OG. They flew into people, just like the best of the best. You know what I mean? And Barton and I are sitting around going, “Shit. Okay, well.” First, the process is already tricky, but now we have to compete with these people! [laughs]

TIM NUDD: In the end, however, it was Scott who ultimately helped crack the code. And it all started with a simple conversation he had with Eric Grunbaum, his creative director – with Scott, at his wit’s end, telling Eric how exhausted he was, how he couldn’t see a way forward after so many months of failure.

SCOTT TRATTNER: And it is as if it were. This is the story we need to tell. We have a platform that is not as good. We have a platform that is better. We have to tell all the ways this platform is better. And we need a new, inventive and completely flexible narrative architecture. “Imagine I’m 2 or 5. And tell me what we have to say.”

TIM NUDD: Simplifying the problem like this helped. And in fact, Scott had had another little epiphany, right around this time, about the power of simple storytelling. He went to see his little sister perform in plays at school.

SCOTT TRATTNER: And I remember at the time going there and being struck by how lovely it was to see a child playing at a rock or playing at a tree. And just that, like, how disarming that was. So it was kind of like in the back of my head a bit. And I just remember, after that conversation with Eric, just saying to Barton, like, maybe we just need to visualize these platforms somehow. And maybe they need to speak for themselves. And one might be like “Hello, I’m a Mac”, and the other might be like, “Hello, I’m a PC” Kind of like the kids school thing. And then he just filled the void. He was just like, yeah, and this one could say, “I’m quick, I’m this, I’m that.” And then it literally went boom.

TIM NUDD: Barton Corley, who had been at Wieden + Kennedy Tokyo before Chiat, remembers those early scripts arriving very quickly.

BARTON-CORLEY: Pretty much we both wrote the “Virus” script on the spot. Sitting on the steps in front of Chiat. And then we went inside and we wrote five more, including one that had a printer from Japan that spoke Japanese, a little homage to my time in Tokyo.

SCOTT TRATTNER: And we introduced them to Lee. And I will never forget the look on his face. I wonder if Barton remembers that too, he just smiled. And it was in a time of great stress. He smiled and he was like, “OK, wait, read that again.”

TIM NUDD: The team was excited but tried not to hope. After so many months, it was clearly a special idea – everyone felt it. But would Jobs agree? Duncan, for his part, had doubts.

DUNCAN MILNER: And our feeling was that we’re now bringing these computers to life, but we’re not showing the product, other than a three-second shot at the end of the spot. And we knew that Apple is always proud of their products, and I mean basically everything they do is advertise a product. So it was like, “Wow, that doesn’t sound like something Steve is going to buy,” even though we liked it.

TIM NUDD: The moment of truth would come at the next marcom meeting on Wednesday, where Lee and Duncan would not only present the idea, they would also stage it.

LEE CLOW: Duncan Milner and I stood up and I said, “Hi, I’m a Mac. And I remember Steve saying, “Good choice.” And Duncan said, “Hi, I’m PC.” And then we did the first script. And Steve said, “This is it. I love it. It’s perfect.”

TIM NUDD: Once the idea was approved, things moved quickly. The agency made a one-off offer for the project and hired, as director, Phil Morrison of Epoch Films, whose indie comedy Junebug had been released the previous fall. Phil was widely admired for his encyclopedic knowledge of actors and his skill in working with them. Which would be key here, as they were looking to embody the entire Apple brand in one person, and do the same with the competition.

Phil Morrison: Of course, there was an immediate peculiarity about it because it was Apple, and Media Arts Lab, and Chiat. But none of us could see in the future that it would be anything more than a two-day shoot. But one thing was different about that from almost any job I’ve ever done, right off the bat – they were really willing to not even schedule a shoot date until we found the good people. And that never happens.

TIM NUDD: Jerry Solomon was Phil’s EP at Epoch. He also remembers that this first meeting with Chiat was very interesting.

JERRY SOLOMON: There’s no better guy with casting and directing talent than Phil. So he was the guy. And I had already established budgets and obtained estimates. And James basically gives us this talk about Apple. He goes on a 10-minute soliloquy about the importance of the brand and the fact that Apple doesn’t just sell computers or tech devices. It changes the world. And the trip we’re about to take will change everything, and pa, pa, pa, pa. I mean, that was super evangelical shit, right? [laughter] And what I remember so clearly is shooting – and like I said, I had my budgets ready. And I was already doing this stuff. And he said, “When you change the world, money is not an expense.” And I was like, “Awesome.” And I took the budgets and just put them back in my backpack. And I’m like, “We’re done with that.”

TIM NUDD: Demitri Martin was an early favorite for the role of Mac. But in the end, they went with up-and-coming 27-year-old Justin Long, who was on Phil’s shortlist and who, coincidentally, Steve Jobs said he liked too, after watching Herbie: Fully loaded one evening. with his daughter. Long was at that time an “offered only” talent, which meant he did not have to audition. He was offered the role, and he accepted. For PC, Phil was drawn to a 34-year-old writer named John Hodgman, whom he had seen on The Daily Show and who he felt had a special energy and spirit. Hodgman had to audition and, by all accounts, brought the house down by reading a script in which PC brags about being a blogger and a hip-hop original. Hodgman even threw in a pretty impressive beatbox. Soon John was offered, and accepted, the role of PC. In the end, Long and Hodgman were very opposite types – the stereotypical “cool guy””nerdy guy” – whom the team, wary of caricatures, had tried to avoid. But they just worked. And their chemistry would also be a big part of why the ads worked.

Phil Morrison: They loved each other very much and made each other laugh. Their senses of humor were very, very, very in sync right away.

TIM NUDD: And so, on April 8, 2006, Justin Long and John Hodgman arrived on set in Los Angeles to film the first part of “Get a Mac,” the start of a remarkable four-year journey. The first set of spots included “Virus”, one of the true classics, and “Restarting”.