How The Man Behind Budweiser’s “Wassup” Campaign Turned Himself Into A Hot-Ticket Hollywood Director

justin reardon

Justin Reardon is pretty sick of people coming up to him and, tongues wagging, unleashing a big, fat “Waaaaaasssssssssup!”

After all, it’s been more than a decade since he masterminded, the iconic Budweiser campaign that won the 2000 Cannes advertising festival Grand Prix.

This year, Reardon is going to Cannes again — for the film festival.

He’ll be shopping the rights to “Convention,” his directorial debut.

The insanity of that shift isn’t lost on the filmmaker, who’s spent the last 10 years doggedly making over a career that seemed pretty perfect to begin with.

But Reardon never really wanted to be in advertising. He had to be talked into his internship at one of history’s greatest ad agencies, Leo Burnett in Chicago.

(To be fair, he had a pretty good job at the time — doing the “art direction” for a friend’s bar. “I sat at the bar all day drinking and painting signs,” Reardon said. “I was paid in a wonderful beer called Big Shoulders.”)

He reluctantly gave the unpaid internship a try — and was brought on full-time within three weeks.

Fast forward to 2000, when Reardon was working for DDB Chicago, who counts Budweiser among their clients, and met a guy who showed him a short film he’d recently shot.

In the film, the guy and his friends greeted each other with “Wassup.”

“It was scary how close it was to me and my buddies,” said Reardon. “It was that post-college time, we all lived together, and we would [entertain each other] by saying ‘What up’ in all these strange voices.”

Reardon was convinced that if two guys found this compelling, millions would, too. Budweiser was dubious about building a campaign around a bro-ism. But they resolved to run it as a “little urban-market” string of ads, and sent Reardon off to shoot some spots.

“Whassup” debuted — and became a quotable phenom immediately. Budweiser’s stock gave a pleased spike. The commercial cleaned up at Cannes.

What did Reardon get out of it?

“A bonus check for $250,” he said, “and a baseball bat that said something like, ‘Way to go, slugger!'”

There was something else, too: a bunch of Hollywood moneymen in his ear, telling him there were opportunities out there for him.

So Reardon walked. “The day my contract ran out, I told DDB I was gone, broke up with my girlfriend and moved to LA.”

He was 28, and he held a trendy sort of favour among agents (a favour that became fresh in their minds again when he produced this spec spot for Nutrigrain and hit yet another cultural nerve — more than 22 million views overall).

Getting into their offices was one thing — getting them to take him seriously as a director proved to be quite another.

The first offer that came in was “Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo.” Reardon turned it down. Then he turned down another silly project. And another.

“When you start rejecting scripts, it wears on people,” he said. “But I was afraid if I did one of these, I’d never do another movie.”

So he kept waiting until, finally, his second agent handed him a script called “Convention” (by screenwriter Christopher Painter).

The movie’s focal character is an inventor who’s hailed as a genius for building a 5-sided box — until it becomes clear that each time he folds it together, he tears a hole in the universe.

“It’s like ‘Being John Malkovich’ in tone and in… the aspect that it’s very hard to explain,” Reardon said.

But it’s intriguing some Hollywood A-listers.

Team Reardon recently extended an offer to Christopher Walken, whom Reardon would love for the part of an old packaging industry mogul. “He has a brilliant sense of humour but knows how to use his dangerous self, too,” said Reardon.

And no matter how the movie does, he thinks he made the right decision holding out for this kind of movie — inscrutable, “visually arresting,” and decidedly not right for Rob Schneider.

“From being in advertising, I always knew,” said Reardon. “Do crap, and you lose your luster as someone who stands for something.”