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‘Dirty Dancing’ Super Bowl commercial director swears Eli Manning’s dance moves aren’t CGI

Director Aaron Stoller talked to SB Nation about how he filmed this commercial masterpiece with Eli in only five hours.

Aaron Stoller is the director behind the best Super Bowl 52 commercial, a beautiful recreation of Dirty Dancing involving Eli Manning, Odell Beckham Jr., and the actual New York Giants offensive line. The Biscuit Filmworks director has done Super Bowl commercials before, but may I humbly suggest that this is his magnum opus?

A good Super Bowl commercial immediately captures your expectations and flips them upside down. Everyone knows Manning, but mostly for his two Super Bowl rings and iconic Manning faces. His brother is the film star, with insurance company jingles and infamous Saturday Night Live skits. Eli Manning never had moments like that ... until Sunday.

The whole thing is perfect, from Manning’s purposefully goofy dancing to his O-line joining him to Beckham Jr. being lifted up in the air. These big football boys have moves, I’m telling you, and it’s no surprise that everyone was a fan. Even Chad Michael Murray!

I chatted with Stoller about the commercial, the process of making it, and the reception that it has received. Here’s our conversation, which has been lightly edited and condensed.

So how do you actually tell Eli Manning that he’s going to star in a Dirty Dancing remake that’s going to air live during the Super Bowl to, what, 100 million people?

It’s interesting. Before Eli got there, on rehearsal day, we were hanging around and I was chatting with the equipment guys and those people, just doing a dry run to see how it would go with those guys. They were all just crying. Like, “I can’t believe you guys are going to do this. Does Eli know?” Yeah, he knows. And then, you know, we sat down and walked through the storyboards together and explained to (Eli) that we cannot play this as a joke. You should just be focused and play this as straight as straight can be, and that will make it hilarious. And the guy, obviously, delivered.

I’m sure Eli, because he’s older, has seen Dirty Dancing. Had Odell seen it before?

You know, that’s a great question. I do not know. When I sat down with Odell, I actually played the scene from the movie for him on my phone.

It was in the Giants’ locker room, and that was our meet and greet. It was the day of the shoot, walking through the boards, and showed it to him. Watching his face while he watched that video was one of the greatest things ever.

I can imagine. And the thing is, Odell has all sorts of things he does off the field, but this is one of the most interesting things I remember seeing from Eli outside of football. He doesn’t do as many commercials as his brother. Do you think getting Eli is this unusual setting influenced why it was so well received?

Yeah, I mean, we’ve seen Eli in commercials before, and very funny ones, right? There was something a couple years ago, DirecTV or something, where him and Peyton were playing policemen. He’s got comedic timing. He’s got chops. He gets it.

I think the combination of his skill set in an environment he was comfortable with — we shot it at the Giants’ practice facility, you know, so it was on his turf.

Literally.

Yeah, literally. I think he was very comfortable with that.

Right. Did the actual reception to the commercial surprise you, people saying it was the best commercial of the Super Bowl? Or did you know?

When I first saw it, in the early stage, I was like, ‘This could be huge.’ I just knew it. My sister-in-law, and I just know so many people who can do this whole dance. We all realize how hard this is going to hit and resonate. Like, people are really superfans, and passionate about this. I had a feeling, I did. I thought it was going to be special.

That’s good! That what people want to hear!

For me, it was just like a perfect recipe.

I am curious about your background, and what it’s like filming a Super Bowl commercial that’s much shorter while also guaranteed to have about as large of a stage as is possible.

Yeah, I’ve done Super Bowl commercials in the past, and I work with a lot of athletes, so it wasn’t anything out of the norm with it. But the pressure’s on. You want to deliver for these guys, and it’s a huge opportunity to go do a Dirty Dancing spot for the Super Bowl. You got to deliver.

And the tough thing was just the time. When we shoot commercials, usually they happen over multiple days. Something as precise as this, I think we shot it in five or six hours. It was super fast.

Yeah, and that was my next question. So five or six hours — how quickly does everyone pick up the choreography and things like that?

Eli came in the day before and worked on it. When I saw him the morning of the shoot, I was just laughing to myself, imagining him in his living room just practicing. [laughing] And I was like, ‘Were your daughters watching you,’ and he just kind of giggled. Look, I’m a flat-footed, pear-shaped man, and these guys are professional athletes. It’s mind-boggling how coachable and how quickly they pick this stuff up. It’s next level. I think for guys like us, it would have been an impossible task. It would have taken weeks of training, and really tough. But they’re pros. They just get it. They’re so coachable and so athletic, it’s crazy.

And Eli really does lift Odell, right? That’s not CGI or some computer wizardry?

Certainly. There’s no CGI.

I like to imagine that the first shot was perfect, and you knew the first shot was perfect, but just for your own enjoyment you ask them to run through a few more takes, because I can’t even imagine how amazing that must have been to see it live and in the moment.

Yeah, and we shot that first. Lots of stuff can go wrong, but if I have that moment, we have something. So we shot that first and kind of backed into (the rest of) it. When that happened, you just punch the person in the arm standing next to you and grin ear to ear.

Is there anything amusing or ridiculous about the filming of this commercial that the public needs to know about it?

I mean, I don’t know if people know this, but that was the real O-line. Maybe people do, but watching those guys rehearse and learn the dance was one of the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Just imagining them in the corner, because they came the day of, and they’re learning it in the corner. Just seeing these massive men throw that dance was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

And I’m sure the back and forth between them, and their quarterback, and the star receiver, was just something you had to be there for.

It was exactly what you would think it would be. These are guys who have grown up in locker rooms and they’re pretty good at making fun of each other, so it was fun.