Filmmaker Casey Neistat and Mercedez-Benz don't pair easily in people's minds. One's a YouTube renegade, the other is the manufacturer of cars you can't afford. And yet! They teamed up and made an ad. The result is as surprising and weird as you'd expect it to be.
Yes, this is definitely a car commercial, but it's not a stuffy luxury car plug by a mile. It's fun, it's frenetic, and it'll probably turn you on in that way that movies about renegade hackers and underdog football teams make you want to break stuff. This ad doesn't make you want to be richer—it makes you want to have fun.
For the last decade Neistat has built a career out of telling personal stories about whatever he wants, both on YouTube and on an HBO series. In short, he symbolizes all of the optimistic promise of the free Internet combined with a maker's will to get it done. So how the hell did he end up doing a commercial for stuffy ol' Mercedes? In exchange for his cachet with The Youths, Mercedes set him loose with a car, a stack of cash, and total freedom to do whatever he wanted.
This new ad for the (affordable?) $30,000 Mercedes CLA is actually the conclusion of the four-part "CLA-project," which follows Neistat through the entire process of making the video. We had the chance to speak with Neistat about the whole project. Here's how he shredded tires from the Utah Salt Flats to Times Square, all in the name of getting you excited about a car.
Gizmodo: So what’s the story of these four videos?
Casey Neistat: We started with video 1, which was about describing the why, you know, why would I do the campaign and what does Mercedes-Benz mean to me personally? Video 2 is about us actually discovering the car. Video 3 is following us discovering and creating this commercial. Video 4 is the commercial.
Giz: Did you choose the Salt Flats because they look cool? Or as a contrast to New York?
CN: So many car commercials are shot in the Salt Flats and so much great imagery comes out of that place, but I’ve never been there and I’m curious. Plus it was one of the only places in the world where I knew I could drive around and not crash the car into anything else.
Giz: Did you have anything in mind—did you have a storyboard when you went out there? Or were you just seeing what it would look like when you got there?
CN: We didn’t have a storyboard.
I feel all these productions that we do are adventures. We went out there with an idea, and we didn’t know the outcome, and we went out of our way to make sure we didn’t know the outcome. So we went out there with all these goals and all these ideas, and we made sure to embrace whatever obstacles that came our way.
The biggest obstacle was that rain. If you type Salt Flats into YouTube, you’ll find 100 amazing videos that were shot out there, but you won’t find any that were shot in the rain. We had a 2 day shoot out there, and it just poured the entire time. And after 5 minutes of debating what to do, we were like “fuck it, let’s just go shoot in the rain and see what happens.” And that was a prime example of us embracing something… a lot of people would say “this is going to cost us our shoot” or “we’re going to have to push back a couple of days until it stops raining.” Instead, we made that excuse a part of our narrative. All the salt on my face, spraying up all over the cars—that amazing look, the glossiness of the Salt Flats, all that was because of the rain.
Giz: It looks crazy. It almost looks like snow on the Salt Flats.
CN: When I first posted a picture on Instagram of the Salt Flats in the rain, there was just this huge dialogue about “Where is that,” “What am I looking at”, and “Is this Photoshop” because it just looks like the color’s floating upside down in ice.
For the record: We had to steam clean this CLA no less than a dozen times to get all the salt out from under the car. It also wrecked two cameras and one of our monitors. It’s the most toxic liquid you could ever shoot in. It made my skin feel amazing the next day, but it’s like the gnarliest stuff ever. We tasted it, and it was like poison.
Giz: Is that important to you, that your process be incorporated into your work?
CN: There’s a huge insecurity on my part that my audience might perceive this as: this is something a company is directing, or this is a company that wants to be something else, or this is something that a company is pushing in a certain direction. So by revealing so much of the discovery—which is how I see these productions, is us setting off not knowing what we’re going to find out and then discovering it and revealing that discovery on camera—we’re letting the viewers decide just how authentic this is by essentially showing you what cards we’re holding. We’re not making this shit up, this is really what’s going on.
Giz: Can you speak to technical stuff? When you rigged the tow line to the back of the Mercedes, how did that work? How do you make sure you don’t kill yourself when you’re doing that?
CN: Well, you just asked two very different questions. How you don’t kill yourself is mostly just dumb luck. I consider myself to be a very good skateboarder but the difficulty when you’re being pulled behind any car when there’s only a 20 ft line, is that you can’t see the potholes.
But the technical stuff, and I’ll speak straight to your Gizmodo audience right now: I had my lead cinematographer focus on these big beautiful shots, and have my secondary photographer figure out how to capture what was really going on. What that meant was that I had an A team and a B team. And the A team is operating all sorts of larger gear, so we’re shooting on Canon 5D Mark IIIs with big proper steady cameras, and locked off cameras, and shots that are set up.
And then our B team is shooting entirely on point-and-shoots. I think we shot mostly on Canon S110 cameras. And the reason for that is because, with the big lenses and with the 5Ds, we know they’re still quick and easy to operate, but at the same time they’re going to capture beautiful broadcast-quality images. Our B team needs to have point-and-shoots because most of the time, their hands are occupied, so when we see something that needs to be captured, they can whip out a point-and-shoot and capture it.
Giz: How much of the B team footage made it into the final cut?
CN: Just about zero. The final edit of the video that you’re looking at is all the clean stuff.
All the shit that lands on the cutting room floor, all that garbage footage, that’s the footage that has to make up video 3. Tell the story using that garbage footage. And that was a big hurdle for us. All we wanted to do was show a slick shot of me being pulled behind a car, with Celeste behind the wheel and I’m on a skateboard, and we’re racing through Times Square waving an American flag. But we had to bite our cheeks and be like no no no, how do we get people excited for that without showing them what we’ve got.
CN: Can I ask you what you thought of the American flag?
Giz: I sort of made an assumption. It has a super strong connotation when you see a flag being flaunted in that way, probably some of the connotation you were trying to give it. In a side-eyed way, it’s patriotism but not in the general sense. It’s a little macho; it has a little bit of that vibe.
CN: What the flag represented for me—along with Celeste’s American flag bikini and all that kind of American iconography—it’s just an idea that exudes through all of my work, and specifically through this entire CLA project, which is this idea of American arrogance. And that’s something I define very narrowly and very specifically, and something that I think of as really positive.
But American arrogance is a term I use to sort of describe this generation that’s just like one-half a generation younger than you and me. So it’s something I use to describe the kids that are figuring shit out right now, kids that are getting out of high school right now.
I was raised on Nirvana and flannel shirts and Rage Against the Machine, and I sort of describe my youth as rebellious and always fighting the system. And the youth that’s coming up now, the generation that I just described, is total can-doers.
And that arrogance, that idea is to me what represents so much of the CLA project and this experience that has been the last 5 months of my life with Mercedes Benz, which is just like fuck it. Grab it by the horns, grab it by the steering wheel, drop the hammer and just do it. We don’t know what this commercial’s going to be, let’s figure it out. We don’t know what this video’s going to be, let’s go to Germany. We don’t know how to shoot this thing in the Salt Flats—-whatever, let’s just get the car delivered. It’s pouring rain out? Fuck it, let’s do it.
Team Mercedes: Casey, can you talk about the car?
CN: (Laughing)It's been fifty minutes and we haven't even talked about the car... It’s a totally fucking dope car. What’s the feature called, when you have the cruise control that speeds up and slows down depending on the distance of the car in front of you?
Team Mercedes: Distronic Plus
CN: Whatever that thing is, when my kid and I discovered that on I-95, we went from our house in Connecticut to Manhattan without touching the gas pedal or the brake pedal. I sat Indian-style the entire time. I don’t know if you’re supposed to do that, but when we finally got to the city and I turned that thing of my kid was like ‘dad, I hate the way you drive, you don’t drive anywhere near as good as the car drives.’