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Let Tom tell it

By Wendy Helfenbaum



Funny, sensitive and totally willing to embarrass himself, Tom Feiler excels at storytelling


“I really feel that my brain is in two parts,” says Tom Feiler. “When it comes to my work, there’s Funny Tom. And then there’s Sensitive Tom. And I think these worlds cross over a lot.” The Toronto-based photographer and commercial director describes himself as “an all-around nice guy who looks like he’s still in Grade 7,” and his work reflects the same wry wit.


In his 15-year career, Feiler has amassed a long list of high-powered clients, including MTV, Toyota, Bell Canada, Walmart and McCain Foods, and a longer list of awards from the Cannes International Advertising Festival, the Canadian Marketing Association Awards, the One Show, Communication Arts, Archive Magazine and the Advertising & Design Club of Canada.


Feiler’s style has been called absurdist, surreal and hilarious, yet much of his work is infused with quiet, gentle moments. He enjoys print and motion work for different reasons and feels lucky to do both. “I like that photography is a little bit looser. Usually you figure things out on location, where you and the art director are moving around and realize that things can shift and change as you go,” he explains. “I love that TV feels meatier. It’s a longer process—pitching, production, post—and, in many ways, sitting in the director’s chair in front of a monitor is like going back to the very beginning of my career, where I’d take a picture, wait 30 seconds for the Polaroid and then decide whether I liked it.”


Feiler is especially drawn to the storytelling aspect of each craft. “With photography, I’ve always loved creating a story in a single moment,” he says. “One of the greatest compliments I’ve received was from somebody who said that when they look at my photographs, they can hear the whole story behind them.” Directing offers more moments to create that story, he adds. “It’s always about making the right choices. My work isn’t quirky for the sake of being quirky; it has to make sense,” he says. “In most of my work, my mom won’t see the things that are in there, which is great—art direction is successful when it doesn’t call attention to itself.”


Feiler regularly provides clients with photography and directing, flitting from one place to another to complete projects such as the online videos and print work he recently did for Scotiabank’s You’re Richer Than You Think campaign. “Who doesn’t want to own a whole campaign?” he says. “It’s something I love doing.”

An astute marketer, Feiler is known for his memorable, zany promotional stunts. He kicked off one of them by taking out a full-page ad in Applied Arts. In small white type at the centre of the black page were the words, “I hate Tom Feiler.” The same message ultimately appeared on mugs, candies and even steak knives. Feiler currently teaches a course at Ryerson University that covers the business end of creative life.


“At school, I wasn’t interested in art, because it was all about making things exactly the way they looked, which is something I couldn’t do,” recalls Feiler. Mathematical ineptitude further narrowed his options. “I looked at schools that didn’t have a math requirement, and Ryerson, luckily, was one of them. My portfolio consisted of short films of my parents’ old vacuum cleaner being wrapped up in Christmas lights, plus some time exposures and ceramic figures. Friends and family were always wondering, ‘What is this?’”


Feiler was extremely shy, but a two-year stint teaching English in Japan in late 1990s made him a great communicator. “It was a real shyness-killing boot camp—I learned how to talk to everybody,” he recalls. “Today, I get the biggest kick out of working with actors and non-actors, and it goes back to the experience I had there, figuring out what people needed from me as a teacher. Some actors want very direct direction, and others need to figure it out, with you gently guiding them along.”


Feiler’s most surreal work results from placing ordinary people in unusual circumstances, such as in the spots he did for Little Trees Air Freshener, in which a teenager introduces her new beau, a giant foot, to Mom and Dad. It’s Twin Peaks meets Meet the Parents. “It’s all about their performances during a very awkward moment,” he explains. “For the art direction, all the tones are the same, it’s very muted, brown and bland, which then becomes a subtext of who they are and why a foot would be so shocking. It’s stories upon stories upon stories. I don’t know if anybody gets that but, for me, that’s a huge part of it; it always has to make sense. Real life is so funny when you observe it. It’s funnier than anything contrived.”


In Feiler’s recent commercials for Dempster’s, passersby enter a juice bar and are greeted by comedian Gerry Dee, eager to convince them to add bread to their smoothies. “We could’ve cast this in New York or Vancouver, but I don’t know if we would’ve found the great people that walked in that door,” laughs Feiler. “I just stayed out of the way and let Gerry do what he does so well.”


Feiler is definitely in touch with his inner child, as evidenced by how he directed three recent spots for Toronto children’s store KolKid. While the concept was very simple—tech toys can be disappointing—it took Feiler’s deft touch to make the kids shine. “Assistants who have worked with me for a long time know what jokes are going to come out of me,” explains Feiler. “It’s just a role that I play to get people to keep breathing and smiling so I get the kind of responses I want. Kids are fascinating and challenging and there’s rarely a façade. They see through everything, so you have to instantly understand who they are.”


In stark contrast to his comedic work, Feiler’s mesmerizing short film Sometimes I Dream of Reindeer—based upon Drift, a photography book he produced—explores memories and dreams, and features haunting imagery. The film screened at the Worldwide Short Film Festival in Toronto, the Bangkok Short Film Festival and won the Most Innovative prize at American Photographic Artists’ 2012 members’ short video contest.


“All my work is about trying to dig deeper, even things I’ve done for conservative clients, like Bell,” explains Feiler. “There’s a huge range there. I guess it’s part of my bipolarism.”


Wendy Helfenbaum is a freelance writer and TV producer in Montreal at http://www.taketwoproductions.ca.


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