If the Budweiser Super Bowl ad “Born The Hard Way” reminded you of the work of Paul Thomas Anderson, that’s not a coincidence. The 60-second commercial that tells the story of Anheuser-Busch co-founder Adolphus Busch’s emigration from Germany to St. Louis, Missouri was inspired by Anderson’s “The Master” and “There Will Be Blood,” according to director of photography Jody Lee Lipes.
The cinematographer of “Manchester by the Sea” and “Trainwreck,” Lipes and the commercial’s director, Chris Sargent, also drew inspiration from Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Sargent hired Lipes for the Budweiser ad after the pair worked together on commercials for Asics and Acura.
Set in 1857, the ad features a young Busch on a ship crossing the Atlantic, resembling “The Master’s” seafaring Joaquin Phoenix, and jumping off a burning river boat at night in a shot that’s reminiscent of “There Will Be Blood’s” oil rig explosions.
“We had a lot of freedom in this spot to use natural light the way we wanted to and keep it dirty and gritty,” Lipes said, adding that the entire commercial was shot with the Alexa camera in a way that could capture dimly lit environments. “That’s not a pretty way of doing it.”
“Born The Hard Way” has the narrative feel of a movie rather than a traditional commercial, as its story unfolds without any indication that there’s a product being marketed until the very end.
“The commercial is about an immigrant who went through a really difficult time getting where he was going physically and just has this big mountain to climb in starting the biggest beer company in America,” Lipes said. “That play on your expectations is part of what makes the narrative interesting and satisfying in the end.”
Produced by Anonymous Content for the ad agency Anomaly, “Born the Hard Way” has stirred up a controversy online due to Trump supporters who interpreted the immigration-focused story as a response to President Donald Trump’s stance on restricting immigration into the U.S. There’s even a #BoycottBudweiser hashtag, despite the fact that executives from Budweiser have stated the commercial is not a commentary on U.S. politics.
“It’s a misplaced rage,” Lipes said. “It’s ridiculous to me that something as tame, easygoing and not offensive as this commercial gets people going, but that doesn’t invalidate the fact that people have really strong emotions about this, and that’s really the bottom line.”
“Born the Hard Way” isn’t Lipes first experience shooting a commercial seen by tens of millions of Super Bowl fans, as he previously shot a Super Bowl as for MetLife two years ago. He and Sargent have also collaborated on commercials for companies including Asics and Acura, and Lipes even co-directed a commercial for Apple that was shot on an iPad that aired during the Oscars.
Though Lipes made a name for himself by serving as the DP on films including Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” and Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” he has also directed a number of documentaries, most recently 2014’s “Ballet 422.” Lipes currently has two feature directing projects in development, one of which is the dystopian drama “Mother Tongue Reader,” which he co-wrote. He expects the project to be his narrative feature film debut.”
“I just finished a new draft of [the script],” he said “so that’s the thing I’m focused on right now.”