Directing Duo The Malloys on Wrangling Celebs and Stirring Emotion for the NBA and NFL

Why two heads are better than one

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Brothers Brendan and Emmett Malloy, who direct together as The Malloys, burst onto the scene in the 1990s when they made films in Southern California with their cousins—pro-surfing siblings Chris, Keith and Dan.

Confusion reigns about which Malloy is which, according to Emmett. In fact, he has been mistaken for any one of his cousins (who are also filmmakers) many times through the years. "It's hilarious. I just roll with it now. It's too tiring to say, 'I'm not that one,'" he explains with a laugh.

Brendan and Emmett have built a career that includes music videos for Blink-182, Foo Fighters, The White Stripes and Metallica. They have also co-directed the feature films Out Cold (the 2001 cult classic about misadventures in snowboarding), and 2017's coming-of-age drama The Tribes of Palos Verdes starring Jennifer Garner. 

More recently, The Malloys served as executive producers on the 2021 Netflix documentary Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell, which Emmett directed.

The Malloys are also behind ads for Nike, Google, Apple and others. Recent commercials include the NFL Kickoff extravaganza "It Feels Good to Football," a pep rally packed with rap stars and athletes including Lil Wayne, Saweetie, Pusha T, Simone Biles and Cam Jordan.

The "Says Who?" spot for Nike shows that Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant shouldn't be underestimated. And the duo's moving film for EA Sports, "Thanks, Coach," a tribute to the late John Madden, won a bronze Clio Sports Award last year.

Now that we all know who Brendan and Emmett Malloy are and some of their accomplishments, there is no reason for any of us to ever confuse them with the other Malloys again.

Below, the directors, represented by Superprime, discuss looking for the best creative concepts to bring to life, working with celebrities and why they still enjoy collaborating with each other after all these years. 

MUSE: Let's start by talking about your decision-making process. How do you decide which commercials to direct? Do you tend to agree on which spots are best, or does one of you convince the other of the worthiness of a potential project?

Brendan Malloy: We have pretty similar taste. I remember early on in our career we got some boards that came in, and it was a pretty boring mayonnaise commercial that we passed on. And then when I saw it on TV, it ended up being really cool. It almost felt like a Converse commercial, or something that Adidas would have done, even though it was mayonnaise. That always stuck in my head—that there's an opportunity to do something cool with anything. So, obviously, we want to be into it. As directors, you don't ever want to do anything if you don't feel like you're the best person to be doing this job. It doesn't matter if it's money, or a big client. If we feel like we don't see it, we will definitely talk about that, and either take a couple of days to think about it and see if we can come up with an idea, or just say, "Hey, we don't think we’re the right ones for this."

Emmett Malloy: In the commercial space, we're always looking for the greatest creative, the best people to work with, products that mean something to the world. There's things that, like Brendan said, pop up, and if you read the brochure, you'd be like, "I'm not going on that vacation." But if you heard all the details, you'd be like, "Okay, that sounds cool." I think we both have very similar instincts. Good can mean a variety of things. Sometimes, it's an athlete or celebrity talent that we've either worked with, or are interested in meeting. Sometimes, it's just something that can connect with a lot of people, and we're open-minded in that way. We're kind of feel-good people. We like doing things that mean something—or that involve us in getting talent excited to be there, and that would be actors, or celebrities or athletes.

There are so many celebrities in your "NBA Lane" commercials. The Playoffs spot alone features Spike Lee, Tiffany Haddish, Anthony Anderson and Issa Rae, just to name a few. And then there are the athletes, including DeMar DeRozan and Steph Curry. Wrangling that many people with busy schedules and limited time must be intense. Do you think working on music videos, which can be chaotic, helped you learn how to handle all of that?

Brendan: We did start off doing music videos. We were working with high-profile musicians at the peak of their career. So, from day one, we have been used to things changing on set, people just not showing up, ideas changing, working with management, working with scheduling. We are able to make it work and we're able to flow with it because it's just 100 percent the reality of what happens when you're dealing with celebrities. Anything that you can imagine has happened, and you've got to flow with it. So many times, clients say, "We're so sorry. Nobody thought this was going to happen." And we're like, "Look, we go into it thinking this is going to happen." It's kind of a weird thing to think about, but I approach the job like, "Things are going to go wrong. Expect it." I factor that in.

Emmett: And there's two of us. That's an advantage in those scenarios. Obviously, we're together [on set or location] when we're supposed to be together and focusing on one thing, but then we can be with two celebrities at once in those NBA spots. The NBA job, all of those athletes, as crazy as it sounds, most of them we've worked with before. So, at this point in our careers, there is that reality. Agencies are excited that we have these back stories with some of these people, and they lean on us. That's a real nice thing to offer—that you've worked with a lot of these people before. 

There is so much emotion and excitement in your sports work. We see it in another star-studded spot you directed—the NFL's "It Feels Good to Football." It's a pep rally anyone would want to join. How did you create such an engaging scene for the screen?

Brendan: Every athlete, every league, every team has a story to tell. They want something that says something about them that's beyond what people see when they watch a game. I think the NFL really wanted to say, "We're not just this huge league. We are this league that's at the core of football, like all the way down to the high school level." They wanted to do something that was like a high school pep rally. So, we just went on YouTube and found a bunch of pep rallies and looked at what real people were doing, what was interesting about them, how they were shot, and so forth, to make something that felt really homespun, and as if the NFL did it.

"It Feels Good to Football" starts off with DK Metcalf playing the opening notes to Dr. Dre's "Still D.R.E." on the piano. Every time I hear that song, my ears perk up, and I'm paying attention. It drew me right in.

Emmett: The shoot was real family spirited. Brendan's son Ty taught DK Metcalf how to play the song that morning. We had probably 50 of our family members in that crowd. It certainly helped with the energy throughout the day to pump that song over and over again. That's an example of how sometimes campaigns can really work when they've just got some iconic piece to them.

What I loved about EA Sports' "Thanks, Coach" was how for the first 43 seconds or so, we see retro TVs playing game highlights, and we hear people speaking off camera. That was such a powerful way to start that film. Did you shoot it knowing you were going to cut it that way, or did that idea come together in the editing suite?

Brendan: I think more in the edit. [Editor Matt Murphy of Exile cut "Thanks, Coach."] That one's a good example of our documentary background—always getting visuals to fill the screen for moments you need to tell stories with audio, or music. That was done so piecemeal, one interview here, one interview there—maybe it'll be a commercial, maybe it'll be long-form. You had to prepare yourself with every good option. Those TVs are just from our documentary bag of tricks.

You two have worked together for a long time. Do you have to put effort into keeping your creative partnership fresh, or is it effortless?

Emmett: You're on this, Brendan. I can't wait to hear this!

Brendan: If I owned a company, or an ad agency, I would hire Emmett, and I think that says a lot. If Emmett's not with me, I think about what he would be saying when I'm on set, and that helps me. So, I think the fact that we respect each other's creative decisions makes it easy.

Christine Champagne
Muse contributor Christine Champagne is a writer based in NYC.

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