Ernest Lupinacci – Founder and CCO at Ernest Industries
8 curious questions. 5 minutes per answer. 1 legendary storyteller. We are switching things up on this week’s episode of the Courageous Podcast as Host Ryan Berman, armed with a referee’s whistle, puts his guest, Ernest Lupinacci, on the hot seat.
In this advice packed episode, Ernest — a co-producer of “The Offer” — touches on how Francis Ford Coppola, Kurt Vonnegut, and Stephen King have all played important roles at different points throughout his career. The two also discuss the make-up of every great story ever told (and sold), how fear is imaginary, and why Ernest considers himself more of a detective than a philosopher.
Ryan Berman 0:00
This is a show about facing fear, unlocking courage, and taking action.
Speaker 2 (Female) 0:05
Courage isn't necessarily a daunting thing.
Speaker 3 (Male) 0:07
It's going to give you more purpose, it's going to give you more drive.
Speaker 4 (Male) 0:10
It feels like making a courageous decision is going to get you closer to who you aspire to be.
Ryan Berman 0:14
It’s knowledge, plus faith, plus action equals courage.
(Intro music 0:17-0:41)
Ryan Berman 0:42
Long ago, two and a half decades to be exact in a creative business galaxy far, far away. I was doing my best to navigate an advertising world as a neophyte creative, and I remember meeting this unique and mysterious creative thinker who was positioned, at least, to me as the guy, air quotes, “fully intended,” seriously. He had created magic back at Wieden+Kennedy. He was the most interesting man in advertising, and since those days, I kid you not, I'm grateful that I've had an opportunity to volley high-level ideas back and forth and really learn from him. Today, we're joined by the one and only Ernest Lupinacci. Ernest, what's up my man, you're doing okay?
Ernest Lupinacci 1:26
Well, I'm doing fantastic, especially after that introduction. I didn't know that I was known as ‘the guy,’ I've often been referred to as the Macaulay Culkin of advertising after he had puberty. Although there was a period of time where I was known as the Winston Wolf of freelance.
Ryan Berman 1:45
Well, I'll tell you what, I remember, I don't know if you remember this or not, but I started on one side of the brain and worked my way to the creative side. And, before I ever met you through Jason DeLand at Anomaly, I was a neophyte, young writer and I remember sitting on a phone call at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer, or maybe even after the rebrand because we don't have enough time to go over that day.
Ernest Lupinacci 2:12
No, it definitely was… If it's 25 years ago, it was definitely when they were still Messner Vetere McNamee Berger Schmetterer.
Ryan Berman 2:20
And I was one of those little young creatives, and you were on a speakerphone as the freelance Mecca, and we're like, “Oh, this is the guy, Ernest. “Then I remember getting off the phone like, “Do you know what that guy charges?” I’m Like, “Oh, how do I do that? How do I get there? How do I pull that one off?” So, okay, anyway, Ernest is… You’re just one of the guys that I could sit here and listen to all day, and actually, the point of today, we're actually going to change our format a little bit. We're going to embark on a unique format, you’re a unique guy. You're going to get eight questions. I am wearing a whistle, people.
Ernest Lupinacci 3:01
Is that an ACME brand whistle?
Ryan Berman 3:04
(Laughs) You know what?
Ernest Lupinacci 3:05
I used to be a lifeguard, I take my whistles very seriously.
Ryan Berman 3:08
Look, where I went immediately was like, “Oh, another commodity opportunity that could be taken advantage of,” because there's really no brand in the whistles space.
Ernest Lupinacci 3:17
I assure you, amongst lifeguards, the ACME whistle, which I think was sold by Wile E. Coyote on Bugs Bunny, because literally, it's the same brand, but I digress. So, eight questions, five minutes per question?
Ryan Berman 3:37
Yep. I've got a running clock that we're going to start, and I think...
Ernest Lupinacci 3:40
I think those are the same rules as $25,000 option bet. (Laughs)
Ryan Berman 3:43
I have bad news. There's no prize other than wisdom at the end of each five minutes. So, we're going to start here with the first question, are you ready?
Renest Lupinacci 3:55
I think so, yeah.
Ryan Berman 3:56
All right, here we go. Question number one; you live your professional life like a specific Kurt Vonnegut quote, can you share the quote and explain what you mean by it?
Ernest Lupinacci 4:08
So, when I was growing up, junior high school, I discover this anthology of Kurt Vonnegut short stories called ‘Welcome to the monkey house,’ and I've become a huge fan of Kurt Vonnegut's writing. He's an incredibly inspiring author, because specifically, he is very prolific, but he's also extremely eclectic, which is rare. It's hard enough to be prolific, but it's incredibly admirable to be eclectic. So, a friend who knew that I was a Vonnegut fan, he sent me what I believe to be the last interview that Vonnegut gave. Now, he doesn't know it's going to be his last interview, tragically, and the journalist, whoever interviewed him was merely… You could tell by the form of questions that he was a huge Vonnegut fan. So, at the end of the interview, he says, “Mr. Vonnegut, I'm sure you could tell I’m a huge fan of yours, and I've always been inspired, not only by how prolific you are, but likewise, how eclectic you are.” And Vonnegut looks at him conspiratorially, and he says... Because the guy is basically like, “How do you come up with these ideas?” And Vonnegut looks at him and goes, “You want to hear a great idea for a story?” The guy goes, “Yeah, of course.” Vonnegut leans forward and he says, “Guy gets into a jam, guy gets out of a jam. That's it. There's nothing left to talk about.” And again, in the spirit of simple is hard, you take a step back, and you go, “Well, that's not every story. In reality, it's like, Au contraire, name a story.” And I think that there's a quote. There are these like pillars of knowledge that I get. I love quotes, I love history, I love backstories. So, there's a famous quote by Sir Isaac Newton, and I will say, Isaac Newton once said to me in a dream, “If I have seen further, Ernest, it’s because I've stood on the shoulders of giants.” So, all of these pattern recognition, finding people who inspire you, and trying to get your head around how they think really works. Again, having worked at Wieden, having worked for Dan, and Jim Resbald, and [?Seawall?], and looking at the kinds of things that inspire you, and then, taking the time to sort of deconstruct it. This idea of, Yeah, in fact, every story is essentially the same story because an individual, a protagonist gets into a jam, and then, they get out of that jam. And that comes from this ethos of simplifying, then exaggerate. So, all of these things they're kind of, I don't want to say they're a hodgepodge, they're these insights that you hear them, they resonate with you. And then, in terms of pattern recognition, either you project them onto things you're working on, or you consciously, subconsciously look at something that you really love, and then, you go, “Oh, my God. I'm going to extrapolate and go that…” March of the Penguin, which is the most commercially successful, most celebrated documentary in the history of Hollywood is, to paraphrase, Bugs Bunny. The story of a penguin that gets into a jam, and a penguin that gets out of a jam. So, those sorts of things. In our business, the ability to simplify and exaggerate is really our stock in trade.
Ryan Berman 7:44
And, when you say ‘our business,’ because you're jumping around businesses, so what business?
Ernest Lupinacci 7:53
No. So, again, in the spirit of some narrative alchemy, or as we refer to it in the industry, bullshit, another thing I've learned from becoming an accidental businessman is people in general, but brands specifically, tend to think quantitatively, when they should think qualitatively. So, when I do B2B work, or I meet a new client, and they say, “Well, what we do is really different,” or someone will say… A client commissioned me to do B2B work, and they said, “Well, remember, we have so many different types of clients,” and I said, “You sell cyber security, don't all your clients need cyber security?” They go, “Yeah, but some of them are big, and some of them are small. Some of them are regional, and some of them are international. Some of them are pre-public, some of them are post-public.” I go, “No. Here's how you sell cyber security. You meet the client, and you do your homework. And then, when you introduce yourself, you say, ‘Mr. Berman, Courageous is exactly the kind of company we do our best work for because it's an extraordinary company.”’ Now, extraordinary is a quality, it's not a quantity, and it's also a quality that almost no one would deny possessing. So, even though that sounds a little manipulative, it's like, “No, here's how you tell a great story.” So, similarly…
Ryan Bernan 9:15
Ernest Lupinacci 9:15
Wait, I thought this was the second question.
Ryan Berman 9:17
No, onto the second question, we're pivoting now.
Ernest Lupinacci 9:20
Sons of bitches.
Ryan Berman 9:22
Now, the good news is, let's talk specifically about every good story ever told. What does every great story entail? And if I'm a storyteller listening, what do I absolutely need to have in my story?
Ernest Lupinacci 9:36
So, again, a couple of things. If I had in my Felix the Cat bag of tricks, here are a couple of my tricks. The first thing is you go, “The greatest driver of innovation is empathy.” So, whatever you're trying to innovate, start with empathy. And even when you tell a story… I always joke around that the three best words that start any pitch for anything in the world are, “You know how…” You want to make sure that the person goes, “Yeah. Oh my God, it's like you've known me my whole life.” So, the first thing is you think and you go, “Oh, man, you know how you always find something in the last place you look for it.” Whatever it is, does it possess that quality? Similarly, is it something that is universally understood but infinitely adaptable? So, everybody knows what “Just do it” means, but do they know what it means to me? Just out of curiosity, when you hear the phrase, “Just do it”, what sport do you personally think of first?
Ryan Berman 10:42
Oh, wow. Well, running.
Ernest Lupinacci 10:45
What sport? No, that's the answer, the answer’s running, subconsciously.
Ryan Berman 10:47
Ernest Lupinacci 10:50
Why didn't you say fencing? Well, because you don't fence. So, similarly...
Ryan Berman 10:56
Ernest Lupinacci 10:57
You want to think about it that way, which is the plot is specific but the theme is universal. Like Rocky is about a boxer who's an underdog boxer, and everybody is to some degree or another an underdog. Even the wealthiest people in the world think that they're the underdog because that's how our brains work. So, part of telling a good story, again, is like you're building something, you're iterating. One of my favorite clients right now is this guy named Sami Khan, he's built this wildly successful iteration of the metaverse, but he was just, “Look, if you're going to design anything, it has to have reach, it has to have relatability, and it has to have repeatability.” And you're like, “Well, wait. Yeah, you're right.” So, if you're telling a great story, if you aspire to tell a great story… And look, full disclaimer, I'm a commercial guy. I don't mean just I make commercials, it’s I think about the books I love, and the movies I love, and the music I love, and I go, “Yeah, maybe I'm Phil Steen, but I like things… There's a theory too that the best stories are about people like us doing stuff we love. Get the joke? People like us… So again, it’s like, stories about families work because we all know what it's like to be in a family. It doesn't literally have to be a family. Stories about underdogs work. And I think I've mentioned to you in the past, I'm a huge fan of the Robert McKee Story Seminar.
Ryan Berman 12:31
Yes, I love that, I took it myself.
Ernest Lupinacci 12:33
Yeah, he's fantastic. And he goes, “You can’t tell a story with facts and data, you have to use insights and truths.” Similarly, Billy Wilder, the great director goes, “Don't bring me logic, bring me emotions.” So, is it true? Star Wars is a fantasy, but the characters behave in a true way. They're true to themselves, they're true to the story. You create a protagonist, you give the protagonist a purpose, you give the protagonist a tone of voice, whether the protagonist is James Bond or Nike. So, all these things, that's why, to me, when the clients started talking about brand narrative years ago, I was like, “Hey, man, I've been writing jingles for years,” but that was when there was that eureka moment where it's like, “Okay, wait a minute, there's a difference between writing an ad and constructing a proper narrative.”
Ryan Berman 13:32
Give me more on that.
Ernest Lupinacci 13:34
I feel like you're going to blow the whistle on me.
Ryan Berman 13:35
Oh, look, we got at least a clear minute left on this question.
Ernest Lupinacci 13:39
Okay, so, real quick. You wouldn't imagine that there's an algorithm for telling a story because you’re like, “Oh, this is all about creativity,” but there's arguably an algorithm for doing everything. So, again, this is something I learned from the McKee seminar. Every story needs an inciting incident. Why this? Why now? So, even when a client gives me a brief, consciously or subconsciously, my first reaction is, “Why this? Why now? Why are we selling the new Dodge Canyonero now?” Now, unfortunately, sometimes the client goes, “Oh, because they're coming out of the factory.” Sure, but not a real inciting incident because I don't have a dog in that fight. That's a business problem, that's a business goal. It can be serviced by your brand narrative. In fact, it has to be serviced by your brand narrative, but you literally cannot tell a real story unless it has a proper inciting incident.
Ryan Berman 14:40
(Whistle sound) Nicely done. Okay, look, if there was a pie chart of your life and the way you go about business, and we have to personify you. And here's the pie chart: A detective, a philosopher, a futurist. I put crystal baller first, but I figured, you know, choose which one you want. So, a detective, a philosopher, a futurist, a ringmaster, and a writer. By the way, if there's a miscellaneous one, I'm not going to tell you how to do you, permission granted to jump in, but what are your percentages? Does this feel like we're onto something?
Ernest Lupinacci 15:23
First of all, I love the idea of… [?Kipa Kumano?] used to say, “Don't give me a blank piece of paper, because then, I don't have to be creative.” He’s like, “Put me in a box, I'll get creative.” So, that's actually really great list. So, for argument's sake, I think most of the time, I'm a detective, because biologically, my father was a New York City police detective. One of my favorite shows is Columbo. I wanted to be an archaeologist growing up because I was obsessed with Indiana Jones. The thing about, literally, the notion of what a detective is, there's a great phrase that one of my best friends, and literally, a mentor in the industry; Tom Carolo, he goes, “The answers are in the archaeology.” And I love that because when the client comes to you, you're not going to find the... The days of watching MTV and seeing a cool REM video and going, “Just hire that production company,” they're over because there's just too many things to compete with. So, the first thing is you go, “Let's study this, let's do our homework.” Now, again, you obviously need the facts and data, you need the objective realities, but then, it's like, what are the insights and truths? I think that's when the sort of philosopher part kicks in. The notion of evolving from... Again, these are the objective objectives, but now we have to arrive at the subject of objectives. By the way, the subject of objectives -- let's use Robert Goulet to promote college basketball -- cannot mitigate the objective objectives, which were, this is not a brand campaign, these are retail ads. So, that's a healthy balance. In terms of a futurist, I guess, my version of being a futurist is the more things change, the more things stay the same. I did an analyst meeting a couple of years ago. Friends of mine who are investors, they were talking to a group about where streaming content was going. And the major concern was, will people ever have multiple subscriptions to all these different streaming services? And the consensus was, no, it's preposterous to expect people to do that. And I said, “But wait, guys, we're all the same age.” And when I was growing up, my family wasn't wealthy by any means, but I remember my parents subscribed to Life magazine, Time Magazine, Newsweek Magazine, People Magazine, Sports. Those were all subscriptions, and every family's house I went to had Reader's Digest. So, I’m like, “We've always had subscription, you're mistaking form and content.” So, for me, part of being a futurist is, and again, in this spirit of… It's not a bad idea to take great advice from growing people. The designer, Paul Rando, used to say “Defamiliarize the ordinary.” The iPod is the schematic of the transistor radio that made Sony Sony. There's something to be said for consciously, subconsciously, it's hardwired [Inaudible 18:38] we see things. They're pleasing, they're familiar, but they're different. Then, in terms of a ringmaster, that is not my area of expertise. I am the youngest of five children, and in my family, I'm the quiet dumb one. Again, I've worked with, and for, some of the greatest CEOs of the world, and I go, “I can't do that, I just can't.” So, ringmaster, for me… And likewise, whenever I would work with a quote-unquote, “vendor”, like, if I hired a director, if I hired an editor, if I hired a designer, the first thing I always tried to say to them is, “Okay, now I'm the vendor.” Meaning, tell me what you need me to give you. Tell me what you need from me so you can give me what I want. And I think that's the best way to work. If you're lucky enough to work with great designers and… Whoever you're working with, if they're great, just say to them, “What do you need from me so I can get what I want?” And then, in terms of being a writer, the more that I aspire to be a legitimate writer, the more you realize, it’s like, when you listen to really successful writers talk about what it means to be a writer… Anyone can play a guitar, but not everyone can be a guitar player. To me, the real thing about writing is, there are no great first draft writers, there’re just great rewriters, that's the first thing you realize or… Someone once asked Stephen King, “What's the key to becoming a successful writer?” He said, “Write when you're motivated and read when you're not motivated.” Then they said, “Yeah but…” He said, “Wait, I'm Stephen King, and that's how I do it.” Again, my theory is, my writing isn't evolving fast enough. Oh, maybe I should read when I'm not motivated, and write when I'm not motivated. So, I think the majority of it is…
Ryan Berman 20:49
(Whistle sound) Excellent work. Although, I got to tell you, because we didn't actually get to the percentages, so detective...
Ernest Lupinacci 20:57
I'm just going to round that off.
Ryan Berman 20:58
Okay, go for it.
Ernest Lupinacci 20:59
Detective is probably 40, Philosopher’s 30, I'm already at 70. I would say futurist... I don't know, futurist is five because it's more of just a pattern. Ringmaster is one, and writer is just like… That's the intel inside. I'm always trying to think like a writer, but what I'm really trying to do -- and I know this is going to sound pretentious, but get to know me -- is think like a real storyteller. Whenever somebody says, “I'm a storyteller,” it's like, “Well, what do you mean by that?” Bruce Springsteen was on Howard Stern yesterday, Bruce Springsteen is an artist. I’m like, “Are you an artist or do you have artistic inclinations? Are you a brand storyteller or are you just making digital ads for Sketchers? Stay in your lane…”
Ryan Berman 21:58
Great, great, great, great segue to the next question.
Ernest Lupinacci 22:02
Ryan Berman 22:02
So, why did you get into advertising? What did you learn from it? What's missing from advertising and those in advertising today?
Ernest Lupinacci 22:11
So, a couple of things. One is, the reason I got into advertising was I am a recovering Catholic, and as a child I think I would have… In retrospect…
Ryan Berman 22:23
Ernest Lupinacci 22:23
I am a [Inaudible 22:25] child actor. Again, growing up, I couldn't imagine going to my parents and saying, “Hey, I want to be a filmmaker.” I think they would have looked at me and been like, “Yeah, good luck with that.” So, the summer before college, I read the Stephen King book, Cujo, and the B story in Cujo is that the reason the mother and the child are stuck un-air-conditioned car in August being eaten by a St. Bernard is because the father is a creative director in advertising, and his client is basically Cocoa Pebbles or something. And, the dye that they use to make the crunch berries pink, it turns out not to be digestible, so all the young consumers are pooping pink poop. He's literally the reason... This is a whole B story. Now, I become transfixed by that. I'm like, “Oh wait, this is a job? There's a job that lives between painting in my garage, or playing a guitar in a park, or being a full-blown corporate stooge that I knew I could not be.” So, that's literally what gravitates me towards advertising. What I learned from studying advertising at the school that I didn't realize, it's like, the first thing I discovered when I became a visual communications major at the George Washington University is there's advertising, there's design. I was in the design department, but I was always informed by advertising. In advertising, there are writers and there are art directors. So, after I graduate, I realize that I probably should have maybe gone to a different college that had an advertising program. And all of my design professors said, “You're very creative, but you should just be a writer.” Again, it's like, follow your talents versus your passions. I will not be playing third base for the Yankees anytime soon. And then, give me the third part of the question. Oh, what's missing from it, right?
Ryan Berman 24:28
Ernest Lupinacci 24:29
It's funny, I had this conversation the other night, and again, I become the forget about a pattern recognition guy. So, the biggest challenge to the recording industry over the last 30 years is that they're not the recording industry, they're the music business. But, as soon as you call yourself the recording industry, and you think of making and selling and marketing records, then you've hung yourself because music can exist on different mediums, but you have consciously or subconsciously convinced yourself that you sell pieces of plastic with grooves in it. I really think the greatest disservice that the advertising industry did to itself was calling it the advertising industry, when in fact, our clients don't come to us for advertising as a goal, they come to us to help build their brands. So, call it semantics, but we're not in the advertising business, we're in brand building business. The mistake is, when I talk to guys our generation, guys and girls our generation, look, this business was always dudes in the creative department, and a lot of them are like, “Yeah, I wish people would still run 62-second Commercials on MASH. I'm like, “Okay, sure.” I don't even think you can buy a 60-second commercial anymore. And we caught the tail end as both consumers, and then, young ad… We caught the tail end of the Mad Men era, that's gone. Complaining that… A lot of people go, “Nobody goes to movies anymore. When we were kids, everybody went to the movies. It’s like, “When we were kids, we grew up in bedrock. There was no cable, there were no VHS, there was no... It sounds like apples and oranges, how could you possibly say, “Why don't people do this anymore?” I always joke around that the question I ask is, “Do you, Ryan, know the most successful professional mime working in the entertainment industry today?”
Ryan Berman 26:45
Ernest Lupinacci 26:46
No, of course not, because no one knows. And here's the problem, if you do this for a living, nobody's looking for that anymore. Once upon a time, that was viable, it's just not anymore. You could put a moral imperative on it, I would encourage you don't, but again, it's like, listen, the first rule of creativity is don't get stuck in a rut. We're never going to go back to making 30-second commercials that run on linear televisions, and when I say televisions, I mean boxes without remote controls or cable. Go.
Ryan Berman 27:25
(Whistle sound) Okay. Talking about The Godfather Gang, and the offer, because, in some ways, you're taking your own medicine here. It's still stories, the vessels might be different, but how did you land in this space, and where did your love of, was it for movies, The Godfather, and….? I don't even know what the right word, what to call them. I don't want to get in trouble for saying mafia.
Ernest Lupinacci 27:49
Again, I'm going to vamp this, but here's kind of a short history of a long story. Let's just accept the fact that The Godfather is arguably everybody's favorite movie, but it's also everybody's favorite movie that may be one of the greatest movies ever made for a variety of reasons like the writing, the casting. It is a piece of craftsmanship that almost belies logic. I was in The Godfather part two. My entire family were extras in The Godfather part two. Fun fact, I'm not even going to get into it. The movie itself, there's a theory that one of the reasons the movie was so beloved in its day is, first of all, it's about a family at a time when traditional families were sort of changing and evolving and disintegrating. Do you know what the first line in the movie is?
Ryan Berman 28:43
You're going to tell me.
Ernest Lupinacci 28:45
I believe in America, which is very much a part of the theme of the movie.
Ryan Berman 28:49
Ernest Lupinacci 28:49
And even though the movie takes place, the movie opens on the day of Connie’s wedding, it doesn't open at the wedding. It opens in the Don's office when this honest man, hard working immigrant basically comes to the Don, and he says, “I have tried to do everything right. America is where I came to make my fortune, and I did everything. I worked hard, and I played by the rules, but the game is rigged.” That's when Don Corleone basically says to him, “Well, if you'd come to me as a friend, then these animals who have hurt your daughter would be suffering as we speak, and if an honest man, such as yourself, were to make enemies, then they would be my enemies, and they would fear you.” And in 1972, when that came out, conscious or subconscious, everybody goes, “Geez, I wish I had a godfather-like that.” But then, at the end of the day, it is a story of a king, and his three sons and the [Inaudible 0:29:45]. These are themes that are universally understood and infinitely adaptable. So, between watching it and loving it as a piece of entertainment, and then, deconstructing it and going, “Why is this so fucking great?” Again, you don't need to know that to watch it, but you want to understand it too. Now, again, in the spirit of always trying to solve a brief in a responsibly selfish way, which sounds like an oxymoron, but it makes sense. In 1998, I had to write 16 TuneIn commercials for ESPN Sunday Night Football, they were retail ads. They were not brand spots about how great football were, they were retail ads to get people to watch the San Francisco 49ers dismantle the Atlanta Falcons in the last week of August. Stacey Wall, the great Stacey Wall said, “Ernest, I need you to write these commercials”, and I said, “I will write these commercials if I could cast Robert Evans as the voice-over,” because I had listened to the entire book on tape. There used to be books on tape of the [Inaudible 0:30:51] in the picture. It's one of the greatest things in the history of mankind. That that exists is spectacular. And the great thing about working at Wieden is, merely by expressing a passion… Like, Cece said, “I don't even know who Robert Evans is, but if you're this predisposed to tracking him down, if he is in fact your white whale, reel him in.” So, we cast Evans, he does an amazing job. He was a child actor growing up, he read each script, like, one take, they were perfect. They were written in his voice, every spot starts [Inaudible 0:31:29]. Now, I have this relationship with Robert Evans, and years ago, I went to look for a famous article that he references in the book on tape, not in the Graydon Carter documentary, which itself is a work of art. And, in the course of looking for that article; March 8th, 1969 issue of Life Magazine, I found all these other articles that had since been digitized that were written while the movie was being developed, and I felt I could teach a course on The Godfather. I didn't know Coppola was 30 when they hired him, I didn't know [Inaudible 0:32:09] had merely just come up with the idea for [Inaudible 0:32:11], he never set foot on the set. I didn't know Prusa was 50 when he started writing. So, again, I saw it as this ragtag team of misfits coming together for a heist movie. What I originally wrote, which is called The Godfather that takes place in Hollywood. In fact the logline, there's a quote from Hollywood, which is, and I'd like to say it in Evans’s voice. “If you can't make the poster, don't make the picture.” So, before I even started researching it, I wrote the poster and the poster is, “In the fall of 1970, a group of misfits, maniacs, has-beens, nobodies, fakers, frauds, and con-men got together to pull off one of the greatest scores in history. They weren't looking to rob a bank; they were trying to make a movie. Now, the inciting incident is, if Evans doesn't get this movie made, he's ruined, but the theme of the movie is, in Hollywood, parenthetically life, everything is personal, now more so than ever. Oh, by the way, my inciting incident was my entertainment lawyer, Jeff Finkelstein, who's amazing, he said, “You keep selling these really great treatments, now you have to write a screenplay.” Fortunately, Jeff shamed me into action, which kind of defines our relationship.
Ryan Berman 33:36
(Whistle sound) I will extend 30 more seconds.
Ernest Lupinacci 33:38
Oh, so, at some point, I'll admit, I evolved the screenplay, Jeff said, “If you write a screenplay, the problem is the only place you could possibly sell it is to Paramount, no other studio would be allowed to make this.” I said, “Well I don't see that as a disadvantage.” “What do you think the chances are they'll option?” I said, “50/50. They will, or they won't.” Then I turned it into a graphic novel, and he said, “Why are you going to turn it into a graphic novel?” I said, “It'll make it simpler to sell”, and he goes, “But it's going to be hard”, and I said, “I didn't say it’d be easy, I said it’d be simple.” Part of it too, for me, on a personal level, if I really believe in all of this, if that's my brand ethos, then again, it's time to make the donuts.
Ryan Berman 34:27
Which is ironic because Ron Berger, who was one of my mentors at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer, came up with ‘it's time to make the donuts.’ All right, next question, fear and courage are...
Ernest Lupinacci 34:40
Ryan Berman 34:41
Fear and courage, look, how do they both show up in your work life? When do you dance with fear? Are you the type of guy that, when you're looking at a blank screen, and that sad little moment, you can't write anything? Is that fear? Is that excitement? Where can you sense courage at play for you?
Ernest Lupinacci 35:02
Here's a couple of things because again, in the spirit of manifesting your fear in a useful way as a recovering Catholic. Years ago, I had sold a treatment for this high-concept historical fiction to Sony, and a friend of mine read about it, and he's like, “This is amazing.” He's like, “What's your process?” I'm like, “My process?”
Unknown Speaker 35:28
We out, we out. No, no…
Ernest Lupinacci 35:29
I'm on a Zoom.
Unknown Speaker 35:29
No, no, your office, whenever you need it.
Ernest Lupinacci 35:32
Okay. I thought…
Ryan Berman 35:36
We can cut that out.
Ernest Lupinacci 35:38
Yeah. I thought… Someone asked me, “What is your process?” I said, “Do I have a process?” My initial reaction was, “My process was…” I opened the tuition statement from my son's private schools, and then, threw up in my mouth and said, “You better write something or you're going to have to sell your kidney.” But then, I realized, I really thought about it, I said, “Do I have a process”, and I realized my process is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of emotional grief. Have you ever heard of that?
Ryan Berman 36:08
Ernest Lupinacci 36:08
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a psychiatrist in the 1970s. This cancer became epidemic, she theorized that when you are diagnosed with terminal illness, you go through five stages of emotional grief. They are anger, denial, negotiation, depression, and acceptance. So again; anger, denial, negotiation, depression, acceptance. And I went, “Oh, my God, that's my process.” As soon as I get a brief to an assignment, I want it, I go, “What's the positioning for the…?” Like, how the hell do I know? I literally, I get angry that I go into denial, I go, “I can't figure this out, I am creatively bankrupt.” Then I negotiate. I'm like, “Do I have something I haven't sold before that I could use again?” Then it's full-blown depression. I'm ruined, I'm a wreck, I'm a disaster. Then it’s acceptance, I go,” Just write something, just write something, just write something, and then, send it, and then, tell the client ‘I apologize, I am a fraud.’” Invariably, what I write, I'm like, “Oh, that's not bad.” What I learned was, I was afraid to go through that process, so I hoped that if I didn't start, by time I started, I wouldn't have to go through the process. But then, I was courageous enough to go, “Hey, idiot, you're always going to go through the process. Just go through it, go through it as quickly as possible.” The other thing is, fear is literally imaginary. Danger is real, but fear’s imagined. For instance, it would be dangerous to swim in the waters off of Montauk, if the waters are ridden with great white sharks, that's dangerous, but if you won't go into a hot tub because you're afraid of sharks, that's make-belief. So, the other thing too is, it's like, wait a minute, what am I afraid of, and is it really just my imagination? There’s a great quote by Spielberg, when he was promoting Lincoln, he was interviewed on 60 minutes, and the interviewer said, “Why did you start making films?” He said, “Well, I found out by making films about the things I feared, it would help me deal with my fears.” Then the interviewer said, “Well, what are you afraid of?” He looked at her like she was crazy, he went, “Nazi, sharks, and aliens, get to know me.” But, at the end of the day, it's really part of that thing of repeating almost mantra, like, fear is imaginary, danger is real.
Ryan Berman 38:45
Yeah. I love that thought, by the way, of those two worlds and helping yourself spot... You're basically talking to yourself, like, “Hey, me, that one's imaginary. Hey, me, that's actually dangerous?”
Ernest Lupinacci 38:59
Again, don’t forget, the power of our minds to convince us of those things, or to convince us not of those things is pretty extraordinary. Also, don't forget the reason people love stories is because... Here's how you tell a great story; you come up with your plot, you come up with your theme, and then, you prove and disprove the theme relative to the plot. But, do you know what you call the squiggly line in writing, the proving or disproving of the theme?
Ryan Berman 39:27
No, what is it?
Ernest Lupinacci 39:28
Drama. That is literally how you dramatize a story. And the reason people love that is, here's me ordering lunch today, “Sir, would you like to make that burger a platter?” Time freezes, should I make it a platter? Should I not make it a platter? What would it say about me if I made it a platter? Am I arrogant? Am I pretentious? If I don't make it a platter, am I afraid? Are all my dead relatives, all my dead silly relatives going to appear to me in a Dickensian moment and go, “Who were you to have the… Get a load at Mr. Big shot with the fries now.” We all watch movies in our head. Most of the time, they're fantastic, they're extraordinary. They're not authentic or credible, but they are fantastic and extraordinary. So, often, when a friend of mine goes, “I want to write the script, but I'm convinced that the heads of all the major talent agencies are conspiring to ruin my career.” I go, “Okay, interesting story, not credible or accurate. So, here are your choices; stop watching that movie playing in your head or write that, write that. I would watch that story.” Sensing the whistle.
Ryan Berman 40:40
(whistle sound) Yeah. Well done, Sir. Look, I think that this question, just to be clear, was very thought out and difficult to bring forward, but you'll see why. Talk me through two imaginary mentors that you have, and two real mentors that you've got.
Ernest Lupinacci 41:06
Wow, that’s a good one. That is a good one. Well, I will say this, in this spirit of gallows humor, and I love... One of my favorite things to do when I present is either… Someone once complimented recently, they said, “I love that line, it's so interesting and you can do so much.” I said, “We know, it's meant to be a double entendre, which, of course, is French for double entendre.”
Ryan Berman 41:31
Ernest Lupinacci 41:31
But, I love, again, reading and hearing these thoughts that resonate with you. So, I always joke around that two pillars of my existence are these two great quotes by Jean-Paul Sartre. Quote two is, “Hell is other people.” At this point in my life, all I want to do is be on the dark side of the moon with a cup of coffee and a computer. So, hell is other people, Jean-Paul Sartre. And the other great Jean-Paul Sartre quote, which, again, resonates with me being a recovering Catholic is, “We are our choices.” A friend of mine said to me recently, she said, her therapist said, “Whenever you said, ‘I should have,’ just said, ‘I chose to.”’ Like, I should have not gone out last night for Halloween dressed like a sexy hamburger and woken up in the deep fryer to McDonald's, but you chose to. Should not have, but I chose to. So, the idea of these things. Jean-Paul Sartre, those are like the good guardrails. Also, in terms of a mentor, somebody you aspire… My friend Judith Regan, the publisher, she published this thing called ‘The Godfather notebook,’ it is the prompt of what Francis Ford Coppola made not to direct The Godfather, he made it to write the screenplay. If you've never seen it, get it immediately, but when you look at the meticulousness and the effort, you go, “Okay, this is what you have to do to make a movie like The... Actually, this is what you have to do to pray you could make a movie like The Godfather, and it isn't easy, but it's simple.” Someone like Coppola, at 30 years old, to be handed that responsibility, and to do it, and to never give up, is extraordinary. So, imaginary mentors or people like that. They are people who you go, “Here are real people telling you, ‘yeah, it looks easy now, but I assure you, it was a shitstorm.’” And then, in terms of real mentors, listen, and I literally cannot believe that Dan Wieden no longer walks the earth, that doesn't seem possible, but working at Wieden+Kennedy, when I got to work there with just hundreds, not dozens, hundreds of people who are world-class in every category, not just… Best business affairs, best producers, best account people. Dan is somebody where you go, “This guy isn't just talking the talk.” And, by the way, he put that thing together and let luna techs, like me, he said, “Here are the rules, now go break them responsibly.” So, just having freelanced with so many agencies, great agencies with great people, but having worked at Wieden in six years and three offices, I just went… I can't imagine that there's anything like that. So, I'm going to say, Dan, but also just the environment he created. Some of my oldest best friends were people I worked at Wieden with. And then, trying to think of… Listen, here's the thing is, I am inspired and in awe of so many people that I'm trying to think of another other mentor where you go, “This is somebody that I look at, and I go, ‘I may never be an artist, but they're strictly inspiring me to be a craftsman.’” That sense to just do it meticulously. Years ago, I got to consult for Ron Howard on these commercials he was working on. Again, someone like Ron, first of all, he is the nicest guy in the world, he is Op Cunningham and Richie… Op, that's an old line from center life. He's Op and… He's authentically that guy. One of the hardest-working human beings I've ever met in my life. And you go, “Oh, it's not a question of, ‘if you're so successful, why do you work that hard?’” It's, “Oh, you're so successful.” And when I say hard work, it's not the mannicness of… I would say that, like, crazy tech clients. “Panic isn't passion, fear isn’t focus, and motion isn't movement.” Just running around screaming, “Break things. Move fast and break things.” No, that's the motto of Otis the drunk, on the Andy Griffith Show. Again, getting… [Inaudible 46:25]
Ryan Berman 46:25
(whistle sound) Here's what I loved about your answers. First of all, on the imaginary mentors, to me, it's always a mirror. It's always a mirror of what you aspire to be like, and who you wish you were, or who you’ve become. So, the idea, the craftsmanships of the imaginary mentors, you could see, although, to the eye, regular eyes, it’s simple, but the details and the meticulousness and the pain, that really is real. Not for the viewer, it's not pain, it's just beauty, it's magic.
Ernest Lupinacci 46:55
It’s also… And I know this is going to eat into my time, but there's a great quote by Albert Camus, the service philosopher, and you know that the famous myth of Sisyphus, the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus. Now, as a Westerner growing up in a Judeo-Christian site, you hear, “There's this guy, and he has to push this rock up the hill every day, and at the end of the day, after finally doing it, it rolls back down.” The reaction is, well, that sounds like the worst form of torture. So [Inaudible 0:47:28] interpretation of that is, the struggle for greatness is enough to fill one's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy because it's so counterintuitive to go, “Oh, I think he's really enjoying that, I think he's really getting fulfillment out of that.” Again, when you think about what it takes to climb a mountain, play a sport on a professional level, professional. This Bruce Springsteen interview that Howard just did, just listen to that. Even if you don't watch Springsteen's music, you just go, “This person is pursuing this on a level that… It's another level of consciousness that you and I may not possess.” You cannot look at that and go, “That's what it takes,” and I'm going to find the thing that I can pursue like that, if I'm lucky. If I'm even luckier, I can get paid for it.
Ryan Berman 48:27
Again, I never worked at Wieden, it's probably one of my... I value greatness, I want to be great, I want to be. I can't explain why, I'm sure I could do the work, by the way. I just know it to be inherent to who I am. But when you look at your mentors, the imaginaries and the reals, my sense of Dan -- and I only met him a few times -- was, the ability to create space and a bar for what the rules are going to be, and what are the rules that need to be broken, but to do it the right way, there's a lot of goodness in that idea.
Ernest Lupinacci 49:08
Again, pattern recognition. One of the most frustrating things in the world, I think to everybody, but especially me, is hypocrisy. So, here's a great example of it. The Pilgrims flee England because of religious persecution, and then, they start a colony that burns witches. So, they weren't against religious persecution, they were against being persecuted. It turned out that they were very pro-persecution. A lot of agencies are started by people who hated the system, but then, they started an agency that had the system. The thing I always admired about Wieden+Kennedy is, if you were nine, and you came up with the Super Bowl idea, and Nike bought it, you went and did it. There was never that thing where you presented to your group creative director, and they presented the creative director, and the grownups got to make the commercials, and if you were lucky, you were one of the 27 names in the credits and communication arts. So, the fact that this guy made a list of everything that frustrated him about the industry, and then said, “I'm going to create a place that doesn't alleviate me of those frustrations, it alleviates every one of those frustrations.”
Ryan Berman 50:20
That's power, good. That's good. Here we go, last three or four minutes. Look, everybody that has made it this far is clearly interested in your story, in your ability to tell a story, creative business, anything that's painting the future. You’ve come this far and you have the opportunity now, Ernest, to sort of provide the last four minutes of advice or wisdom to leave them with. Again, I don't know what group they're coming from, brands, or agencies, or story, or curious people, or Hollywood, but knowing they've made it this far, and you've got the floor for, I’ll give you five, you got five minutes, what do you want to leave them with?
Ernest Lupinacci 51:09
Again, a couple of things is, in the spirit of there's that great phrase, “You have to eat your own dog food.” One of the things I always say to a client is, “How do we avoid getting pigeonholed as a wax paper company? How do we get pigeonholed as a paperclip company or whatever?” That's the fear, and I go, “Well, remember, people don't buy what you make, they buy what you believe, so just start there.” Someone said to me once, he said, “What do you believe?” And I said, “You know how”, I'm using my own terms. “You know how they say, ‘there's no business like show business?’” and everybody goes, “Yeah,” and I go, “Bullshit. Every business is like show business.” But I don't mean star fucker, and glitz, and glamour, it's like, “If you can't make the poster, don't make the picture”, doesn't literally apply to making movies. It’s like, can you articulate on a post-it note what you're about? What this endeavor is about? These are things that you need to be able to do regardless of what you're doing. Whether you're throwing a dinner party, or designing the next maro-high building. Again, in the spirit of pattern recognition… And, by the way, I selfishly constructed my own brand narrative that allows me to revel in the things I like to talk about. So, watch the movie ‘Unzipped.” If you've never watched the documentary ‘Unzipped,’ it's one of the most inspiring movies in the world, because, of course, it takes place in the world of fashion, but it's basically Rocky II, plus you’re retold in the context of fashion. The movie opens, it's the morning after a disastrous fashion show. Isaac Mizrahi’s fashion show is so bad that the reviews aren't just professionally negative, they're personally hateful. And then, he has six months to do his rematch, but it's a real story, and he just is like, “I am going to get this done, or I'm going to die trying.” Then, the other thing I say is watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi because, as the title would suggest, this gentleman who arguably runs the greatest Japanese restaurant in the world, is at any given moment doing one of two things; he is either making sushi, or he's dreaming of making sushi. Now, it may not take that level of determination and dedication for you to succeed at what you're doing, but it might. So, entertain the notion that it might, and then, just say to yourself, “Am I willing to do what I have to do? Because if I'm not, it doesn't mean I won't be successful, it just means it's going to be an uphill battle, and it's already an uphill battle.” So, really, I think it's one of those things. My decision tree in life now is would I rather do it and wish I didn't, or would I rather not do it and wish I did? For instance, is one of the great introverts of our generation. Whenever one of my friends is like, “Do you want to go to Burning Man?” I go, “No,” and they go, “You sure?” I go, “I am quite sure,” because every year I think, “Would I rather go to Burning Man and wish I didn't, or would I rather go to Burning Man and wish I did?” And the answer is, I would always rather not be there, and wish I was. There are things, like, every once in a while, I get invited to something, and I go, “Oh yeah, I'll be there,” because I would rather be there going, “You know what? This isn't as good as it looks.” And then, again, know yourself. Two of the greatest behaviors, or flaws, or shortcomings that drive me crazy, and it's not like I don't possess them, but two of the worst things is, don't be a magical thinker. Don't look at me at five o'clock, or four o'clock on Friday afternoon while we're having coffee in SoHo and go, “Hey, I have a flight out at JFK at six, do you think if I leave at five, I'll make it?” And the answer is, “No, no, never, never in a million years.”
Ryan Berman 55:25
By the way, that is not imaginary, that is dangerous.
Ernest Lupinacci 55:29
I’m saying, that's like, “Hey, maybe if I just start this college essay on the way to the…” No, that's magical thinking, you know yourself. It's called the time-space continuum.” At 8:15, you can't rush to an eight o'clock meeting. It's the time-space, it's magical thinking. The other one is, don't be a dilettante. Don't walk by the Met and go, “Yeah, I walked by the Met, and that Monet exhibit looks like crap.” It's like, “You walked by the Met.” I always joke around, I’ll recommend the books. A friend of mine goes, “I really want to start pushing on long-term learning.” “Well, you should really read this book.” Then, three months later, I go, “How's it going?” They go, “Well…” And it's all that magical thinking. Like, “I'm just hoping I'll wake up and I'll be able to write the next great American novel.” I said, “Well, have you read that book?” They said, “No, but I bought it, and it's on my nightstand.” I said, “Well, interestingly enough, a scented candle is on my nightstand, and that book is on my nightstand, but unlike the scented candle, the book actually is going to require me to read it.” So part of it is, like, be honest with yourself. Oh my God.
Ryan Berman 56:48
Ernest Lupinacci 56:48
Oh my God.
Ryan Berman 56:49
You did great. You did great. Hey, thanks for playing around with this experiment, and the reason I felt you'd be game for it is there's so much to learn from you, if you're paying attention. And, there's times when you'll say something that is so thought out and short, but you won't give it the space that needs because it's just your normal. And I'm like, “Oh my gosh, I love that. Let's write that down,” and there's so many of them, Ernest.
Ernest Lupinacci 57:17
Again, and in all seriousness, I feel very lucky because I grew up with four brilliant, fun, smart, older siblings. And I'm always predisposed. It’s like, watch the great documentaries, read the great books, but whatever your jam is, do it because the first thing you realize is there's this weird reality that… Willis O'Brien designed the special effects for King Kong. And Ray Harryhausen met him and he became his mentor. Ray Harryhausen changed special effects for eternity. I think, like, George Lucas, this guy begets this guy, begets this guy, begets this guy, begets this guy. And, even Steven King so many years ago said, “Do you know so many of your books are like H. P. Lovecraft novels?” He goes, “Yeah.” This idea of like, don't you know that George Lucas… Someone said to Lucas once, “Jeez, Star Wars is so informed by that Akira Kuro sound movie, The Hidden Fortress.” And Lucas goes, “There's a line in Star Wars where one of those jackasses who’s breaking Darth Vader's balls goes, “Your face to this weird religion hasn't conjured up the location to the rebel's hidden fortress.” It's like, yes, become a student of the things you love because you realize that the people who inspire you go, “Oh, yeah, what I did is I took the courses, I saw the films, I read the books, I asked the questions.”
Ryan Berman 59:02
And this is a great place to wrap. This is my takeaway from today; Know yourself, number one. We are our choices, as you said. I love ‘fear is imaginary and danger is real.’ I think, having that conversation with yourself, and then, keep coming back. And, I think this is one of the hard ones when you actually do this. It's easier for a brand to do this, but for yourself, why this? Why now? Why this? Why now? Is a brutal one and a tough one, but if you're going to do it, whatever your jam is, do it, which takes work ethic. If you have that work ethic, you probably need a process. Your process, anger, denial, negotiation, depression, acceptance.
Ernest Lupinacci 59:48
Yeah, it’s like, know yourself. What's the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning?
Ryan Berman 59:53
And, it ends with, ‘people don't buy what you make, they buy what you believe.’ And, it's so funny. To me, if you believe... Do you believe in yourself? If you know yourself, it's to believe in yourself. If you don't believe in yourself, maybe you're not doing the right thing for yourself, and maybe start there, like, what do you need to do to believe in yourself, and then, go do that.
Ernest Lupinacci 1:00:13
Jim Carrey said once at a graduation commencement, he goes, “People say, ‘well, you shouldn't study acting because it's a really tough business. Why don't you do something safe, like deliver the mail?’ And he goes, ‘you could suck at that too.’” I'll leave you with this one, and this will be part of our next whistle-blowing conversation. Alternative and opposite are not synonyms. If someone says, “You only presented one idea, present another idea,” and I go, “Why?” Because it’s the opposite. If you're afraid of this idea, and you think it's crazy, the other one might just be another crazy idea that your a-fear of, those are alternatives. Chocolate and vanilla are not opposites, there are alternatives. Words matter.
Ryan Berman 1:01:04
Words matter, and I will say, the one place where I will disagree with you on the whole commentary was there is no doubt in my mind that Ernest Lupinacci is a showman. Now, I don't know what percentage of it is, let's say it's 15%. I don't think it's...
Ernest Lupinacci 1:01:23
That’s not a… Listen, you didn't, listen, you didn't say showman, you said ringmaster.
Ryan Berman 1:01:26
Well, ringmaster is showman. To me, ringmaster, like, the right amount of show and biz, and I don’t think it...
Ernest Lupinacci 1:01:33
I see what you mean now. Oh, no, don't get me wrong. Listen, as my mother, Gladys, used to say to the neighbors, “Don't encourage him. I like to tell a story, I like it.
Ryan Berman 1:01:47
(Laughs) But hold on. It's not...
Ernest Lupinacci 1:02:48
I know, I’m like...
Ryan Berman 1:01:49
It’s not for the wrong reasons. Look, I'm at peace with, when I take a stage, my business is not to share knowledge, it’s to transfer knowledge. That's a big difference. So, the showman part, where to pause, where to pace, the preparation, the meticulousness nature of that reality. If you're going to land and transfer knowledge that people get, the impact of a story and you've done the work, I think that's the part that even back as a little neophyte with hair at Messner, I remembered this guy who he had that part figured out, and I think that's a positive, not a negative.
Ernest Lupinacci 1:02:30
I'm sorry, like I said, yeah, you're right. To me, the fact that Frank Sinatra was the first person in the history of entertainment to be the number one star at the Box Office, and on the record charts at the same time, but he put in the work.
Ryan Berman 1:02:50
Put in the work.
Ernest Lupinacci 1:02:51
Listen, when we met, I had talent, but I didn't have experience. That's a big difference, is understanding that if you're blessed with talent, you're born with talent, you're not born with experience. If you fall in love with the experience at the risk of failing, then that becomes transcendent. But as soon as you say, “I'm afraid to fail,” it's like, okay, but that's table stakes. Failure is an option. Listen, I really enjoyed this. I’m certainly grateful you asked me.
Ryan Berman 1:03:29
Ernest, you’re the man. Thanks so much for coming on, I'm sure we'll have you back, we'll do some more whistle-blowing. Stay courageous, keep doing what you're doing man.
Ernest Lupinacci 1:03:37
Next time, just put a shock collar on me.
Ryan Berman 1:03:40
Ernest Lupinacci 1:03:40
It wouldn’t be any less disconcerting. This was fantastic, and I really enjoyed it. Thank you.
Ryan Berman 1:03:47
(Outro music 1:03:48-1:04:05)
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