The Directors: Jonathan Klein

First Appeared in LBB on February 2, 2024

DOMO director on distilling scripts down to a single sentence, being drawn to work with a sense of joy and making films that make people feel something.


Jonathan Klein brings joy and imagination to his work. He’s curious. He’s thoughtful. His approach possesses a playful vulnerability that’s evident at every stage.

A former creative director for the NFL, Jonathan’s relationship with brands comes from a uniquely collaborative place. More than a director working alongside them, he anticipates and empathizes with their needs with open-mindedness and enthusiasm.

Among many celebrated projects, Jonathan is known for his 'Whopper Detour' film for Burger King which claimed the Titanium Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions, as well as One Show, Clio, and Webby honours. He also led 'Jingle Hoops' for the NBA, which USA TODAY said was one of “those commercials people will be talking about forever.”

While working with Pepsi, he delivered the Cannes Lions-winning web series Uncle Drew, amassing a few hundred million organic views and inspiring a Lionsgate feature film.

A writer who had a hand in fashion and journalism before filmmaking, Jonathan’s work is visually engaging and smart. But it’s also memorable, mostly because he counters the rigid intensity by crafting through intimacy and viscerality, always eager to expand boundaries.

Location: USA
Repped by/in: DOMO
Awards: Cannes Lions (including Titanium Grand Prix), Clios, D&ADs, One Show, Sports Emmys, etc.

LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?

Jonathan> I spent some of my early twenties working with Bob Guccione, Jr. He was the man who started SPIN magazine and whose father started PENTHOUSE. His criteria for stories was fundamentally about how it hit you. If you have something that hits people in their guts, you feel a gut punch. At least I did when Gene Johnson hit me there.

LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?

Jonathan> I try to distill the script down to a single sentence. Sydney Pollack used to call this the spine of the film. Once you have a spine, well, you know...
Visually, when I first read a script, I see flashes in my head, like a hastily printed contact sheet - just a montage of images. Neither my vision nor my imagination is 20/20, but I have great hearing. So, on that first call, I LISTEN. I try to take it all in, not just about the script, but I learn about the client, the agency, their dynamics, the brief, the objectives, and even the daydreams. And then I put everything down. I start writing, start scanning through my image libraries, etc. When you submerge yourself deep enough in the material, things start to crystallize. An image piques your interest because of its lensing. A turn of phrase in the script conjures a clear path for the tone. It’s fun!

LBB> If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with/ don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?

Jonathan> It’s essential. And it’s eye-opening. Research allows me the freedom to play and be spontaneous on-set because I know what fits in the confines of the current and past creative (and/or market). My aim is not to make the best film for me. It’s to make the best film for the client. Period. I try to understand where they are coming from, what they have done before, and where they want to go. It sounds trite, but it isn't. Please refer to the above (which I hope you already skimmed if not read).
LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?

Jonathan> Creative directors. Because they tend to have really sophisticated tastes in food, and I’m always curious about new restaurants and recipes that they know. Seriously, though, creative directors have lived and breathed with the scripts. They have a vision for what they want, and they are the ones who often inspire me to take it further. Maybe they had an idea that was jettisoned early on, but I want to know what it is, because perhaps we can integrate it in a new way that moves all of us. One of the exciting things about coming in with fresh eyes is that you (sometimes) see the forest through the trees and can recognize when one sapling might grow really strong if we tend to, water and care for it. If you catch my horticultural metaphor.

LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?

Jonathan> I’m drawn to work that possesses a sense of joy and wonder. No joke.  

LBB> Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?

Jonathan> Yes. I’ve been fortunate to work with cost consultants who understand their job is budget oversight, not creative oversight. Just lucky, I guess. But I if they really want to see what’s on Line 130, then they are absolutely welcome to come for lunch.

LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?

Jonathan> A McDonald’s manager threatened to call the cops on us at the very first location for 'Whopper Detour.' Everyone freaked out. They wanted us to re-rig all the cars with different cameras, to re-engineer our whole approach. I just smiled and said, “Well, I think we learned a lot on that first one…” and asked everyone to let me try some small adjustments but stick with the plan on the next one. I’ve never been arrested, and I’m pretty down for experiencing most things once, so they agreed to give me one more shot. The adjustments worked. After that, the rest of the day got better and better, to the point of some very enthusiastic high-fives in our mobile command centre that were so loud that they probably had to isolate and remove them from the mix. And no Miranda Rights were read to any of the crew. 

LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?

Jonathan> The ideas are not mine. They are ours. We are making films together. No one makes great films alone. Not even Soderbergh. 

LBB> What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?

Jonathan> I’ve always had a diverse crew. I appreciate that people come with varied perspectives. Everyone who works on a film contributes their own energy to it. That energy is something people feel when they watch the film, and the more diverse the energy, the more resonant it is, I believe. 

LBB> Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)? 

Jonathan> Make a film that makes people feel something, and it will thrive whether it’s an IG story seen on a phone or a cinema buy seen on a 30-foot screen. That’s what I keep in mind. I do leave lensing to the DP – that’s their domain. I mean, I have opinions, but I don’t demand a 40mm when the DP is proposing a 35mm (don’t tell anyone but we can always blow up on it later).   

LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work (e.g. virtual production, interactive storytelling, AI/data-driven visuals etc)?

Jonathan> The wonderful thing is there are always new toys. But what counts is how you play with them. AI is definitely the game-changer this year. You need the right tool for the right job. But once you mistake a tool for a crutch, your creative options are limited.

LBB> Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?

Jonathan> eBay 'Haha' - Laughter is contagious. Trust me. The crew had to stifle their giggles constantly. Casting a wide range of laughs lent a musicality to the edit. Then, it was just about the orchestration. Sound in commercials is criminally underrated. 

NBA 'Jingle Hoops' - The swish makes such a satisfying sound. I kept reminding the players and everyone involved about that feeling of joy when your shot goes in. I also brought to this a simplicity that honoured the idea and enabled us to film all of these players on different days in different cities and make the action appear seamless. 

Burger King 'Whopper Detour' - I proposed a straight-up covert op. We had a mobile command centre. We had codenames. Well, some of us did. I felt like I was in HEAT. Flame-broiled heat, obviously. 

Amazon 'Save Time' - I wanted to parachute into a fast-moving, chaotic world. I tried to shoot every moment with that spirit and from the character’s POV of that world. We were low with the kids (and the guy on the toilet). The Korean actor who gave a quizzical look in the bathroom barely spoke English, but he understood the emotion of the moment perfectly, and I insisted that we cast him. I even sent his audition to my mom, and she loved it (my mom may be available to direct commercial projects in the future – stay tuned).