When Amy Hill came home to her cozy Santa Monica bungalow after a recent East Coast trip for an ongoing assignment documenting opiate addiction, the first thing she did was make pancakes. “I’ve had almost no sleep for four days,” the Film alumna says. “I get home and I’m like, ‘I’m making banana blueberry pancakes.’”
The beneficiaries of Hill’s nesting ritual include her husband Chris Riess (BFA 94 Film), with whom she co-directs TV commercials, and their daughters 13-year old Billie and 15-year-old Ruby. On the road much of the year, Riess/Hill specialize in fresh, award-winning “real people” spots for some of the world’s biggest brands including Starbucks, Siemens, Chase, BP and Jack Daniels.
Hill says, “It might look like he’s the DP and I’m the loudmouth director but we are truly co-directors.” Riess adds, “Amy has a way of peppering her conversations with questions that elicit the lines we need. My task is to make sure we get the shots that tell the story.”
Settling into identical rolling chairs in the studio behind their house, the couple remember meeting in Gabor Kalman’s documentary film class. “They wanted us to turn the camera on ourselves and tell them, ‘What is Gen X?’” recalls Hill, describing an assignment funded by Ford Motor Company. “There were originally 13 of us and we’re this beehive of emotion and fear and angst and excitement. Everybody else decided, ‘This is not for me’, so Chris and I are the only ones left holding the ball or the bong or however you want to say it. What the hell do we do? If we’re going to make a film about a generation, we better interview a ton of people doing a ton of things. So off we went.”
The couple rented a mini-van and trekked from Boston to South Carolina filming random singers, brokers and bikers who fit the Gen X demographic. Hill recalls, “It was crazy but it was great and after a couple weeks on the road having all these wild experiences, we were more than friends,” Hill laughs.
After completing the Gen X doc, Riess shot a Sundance Film Festival spec trailer that played opening night in Park City and prompted Robert Redford to ask for a sequel, which the couple shot mostly on leftover bits of 16 millimeter film. Despite modest resources, their work got noticed. “Lo and behold, we get a doc-based Hewlett-Packard assignment and we never looked back,” says Hill. “Right out of the gate we were absolutely unafraid of interviewing regular people for our commercials.”
Hill came to ArtCenter with a sociology degree from UCLA and has always approached filmmaking from the perspective of human interaction, like her mentor, late faculty member and filmmaker Francine Parker. Riess, a photographer, is obsessed with image, and that complementarity helps drive their success. In 1999 the duo became the first team ever nominated for a Best Commercial Direction award from the Directors Guild of America, making Hill the first and only female director ever nominated for a commercial directing award, a distinction she held until 2015. They’ve gone on to win both Effies and Clios for their joint work, and recently joined the collective of noted directors at Los Angeles-based Wondros.
Their work sparks conversation, from their recent And series for Gillette’s Venus razor that pulled in more than 21 million views and earned a YouTube Ad of the Year nomination, to their SaferSex4Seniors PSA, to any number of other spots that range from comedic to heartbreaking. Well over half of their projects involve other ArtCenter alumni, including a 13-year collaboration with a New York creative director on a Fortune 500 project.
In an industry that can be ruthless, the couple have been directing solidly and consistently for 18 years. To what do they attribute their staying power? “We continue to work because we continue to evolve,” says Hill, “and because we understand that it’s a business. We have always been able walk the fine line of art and commerce.”