The first part of the conversation takes place at the Holly Bush pub in Hampstead, London. After texting ahead to request an order of roast beef, Dougal arrives an hour late and then reveals he needs to leave in fifteen minutes to catch a train to the airport. He suggests an alternate venue...
D: It would be quite funny, though, if we all got on the train to Stansted.
G: This is it. This is how Dougal gets us to go to Prague.
E: I know. Maybe a good place for us to start, Dougal, is for you to talk about how you go about collaborating with so many people on something, all the crew and everyone, but still keep the thing feeling like your own.
D: When I was starting off doing little small things on video, you did it all yourself because it was only on video and it was a really small idea. But the more people involved, you're trying to not dilute your vision. I think, if you want to make it look distinctive, tell them exactly what you want.
G: I would agree with that. Yeah, it's weird, I always find that the way people are always saying, What kind of work do you want to do, right from the beginning trying to put you into a little category. And it takes long enough just to work out actually what you like doing.
D: But you're doing quite a lot of different styles at the moment.
G: Yeah. Basically you try and work on the scripts that you like. That could be anything. If you, Dougal Wilson, are sort of doing really funny stuff, but then you do Orange "Dance," something that's really photographic, it changes the kind of scripts you get.
D: I suppose ad agencies have got to narrow down their choosing criteria by just simplifying everything and saying, "He's the guy that uses funny looking casting." There's not much you can do about it really, because there are so many people out there.
G: Traktor, their whole approach had affected everyone's casting for such a long time—"We want a Traktor feel." Or, "Oh no, we don't want a Traktor look."
D: They were definitely really influential for me. Everything they did seemed to be really funny and distinctive looking. They seemed to create a little world, not just in the story, but the art direction and the photography. They were definitely the people who made me want to become a director, more than anyone else. Apart from the promos guys like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze.
G: Do you find that the longer you're doing it, the more it helps?
D: I don't know. I did this mobile ad, ages ago, that had Wyclef Jean in it. Was sort of a bit of a break for me, because I hadn't really done much before that. It's not that the creatives didn't trust me, but they just they wanted to know every single decision that we were going to make. It was quite tiring, but that doesn't happen so much now, naturally because I suppose they trust you more when you've done more.
E: That was the most proactive pitch I've ever heard of. You got on a plane and flew to Tennessee, for your treatment.
D: Yeah, I thought, what's the harm in going to Tennessee to find some locations before we've actually got the job. We showed we were incredibly eager when we did it. I think if you have an opportunity, you've really got to seize it. But, thinking back, it was a bit desperate.
E: I don't know, I didn't see it as that, hearing about it back then. I've also found that the jobs that I've loved, in the end, are always the ones that I'm the most proactive and excited about.
D: Hmm. Yeah. Same here. So, Guy, what jobs recently have you really seized? It strikes me, that all the scripts you've taken, you've actually made more of than the scripts offered. If I was a creative, I would probably give stuff to you because, you'd put loads more in. Is that paying off, do you think?
G: It pays off when you're trying to build a reel. But always, and I think that you guys are the same, I just assume that every job is a showreel job. Especially Eric, every script you do, you want it to be perfect. I think we all approach it the same way, we want to make it really good. Otherwise it's hard to be motivated to do it in the first place.
D: I want it to be on the showreel too. Especially Eric?
G: Especially Eric because I think Eric...
D: Is quite picky?
G: No I think Eric's better at holding out for really good scripts.
D: You saying I do shit occasionally?
D: But, if you held out, I mean, what sort of scripts would you get?
G: I don't feel I'm at a point yet where I can assume something good's going to come in. If something good does, I agree with Eric, it's easier to come up with good ideas. When something not so good comes in, you go, Here's an idea of how you can make it better, but at the same time you know how sensitive some creatives are.
E: Part of that is a personality thing. Guy is the most positive person that anyone I've met has ever met.
D: It's almost scary how positive Guy is. Eric, the last thing you did was a little while ago, and presumably you've had quite a lot of scripts since then.
D: Are you very comfortable sitting back and waiting for the next thing?
E: I'd always rather be shooting something. At the same time, I'd rather be reading good books than working on something I wasn't totally into. When I do take on a job, I know it's something that I want to put everything into.
G: I think that's one of the most admirable things. [Eric,] you kind of rocketed up the whole ladder, and it always seems like a lot of the jobs you get are the best scripts in town, so they're also the hardest ones to get.
E: I think I am being sent good scripts and campaigns. Right now what I'm looking for is that one opportunity for me to expand things. But even from when I first moved here [to London] and my reel was just short film and a couple of spec commercials, I've tried pretty hard to make sure I was taking on jobs that I genuinely felt drawn to.
G: I've got this theory now about mobile phones or cameras on sets. You know people on Sony "Balls" or those jobs are taking their cameras out because they want to remember it. People running naked in Finland [Mentos] was like that and cheeses rolling down the street [Doritos] was like that and the Alien [Wrigley's] and all that. I realized that that's what I'm looking for in a script. Either a really good idea or it's just got to be interesting.
D: Sure. But the last advert I did was with the bicycle going along the street with no one on it, for Orange. When we shot it, it looked quite dull. And everyone was cold and miserable. That's sort of the opposite where you just sort of think in the back of your mind that it's not in the camera at the moment but it will be when we've finished it.
G: No, but I don't mean that you know that it's going to be a good job. I mean that you know you're enjoying it.
D: I like it when everyone is having a really shit time on set.
E: The time when I feel like I know, at least if it involves performances, is just before you start shooting. When you pull the actors away from wardrobe, run it all through, change it. I think that if there's a time when I know it's working, it's then. It's the most personal time between you and the actors, because there's no casting director anymore, no wardrobe people, no agency, and you're not shooting yet.
D: We really should go.
For the second half of the talk, Guy and Eric retreat to Guy's flat, while Dougal calls in from a train and then from the airport lounge. The phone rings.
G: Hello hello hello hello. Can you hear us?
E: So let's try to burrow a little further beneath the surface here, since we do know each other.
D: Okay. Guy, your work, the one that you've just recently done that I particularly like is the "Dragon's Den"[for the BBC]. Compared with other things you've done, what made that a more pleasant project?
G: Well, it was a really fun job to do. You know how it is working on TV promos. The budget was nothing but we were attempting to make it look like something that had been made with an unlimited amount of money. And that became the really fun thing about it.
D: It feels like a big budget when you watch that.
G: Eighty grand or something. It meant things like getting a helicopter for an hour, and then shooting in Latvia. We needed the horse to cross the river and you could actually get people to clear stones out of the river, because it was Latvia.
D: So what you're saying is, because it was in Latvia, you got cheap Eastern European labor.
E: Dougal, what do you like about it?
D: I like the way it has everything—lovely photography, big cinematic action shots, and then before it gets too wrapped up in all this, it very unexpectedly becomes a really funny script. And I think the casting of [the main character] is particularly good. His voice just makes you laugh, especially when he's talking about the stand-up snoozer. Also I just found the idea of rubbish inventions particularly funny. Especially when you build it up with that much melodrama.
G: I think it got kind of weirdly received on Adcritic. It obviously didn't make any sense at all to an American audience because it was all coming out of the program, really. And so some of the comments were like, thanks for making me watch a guy ride a horse for forty seconds.
D: The Wrigley's job you did was ages ago. I mean that was the first big job of yours that everyone saw. Do you think you've carved a style for yourself since then?
G: At the end of the day, most of it, I think, comes out of the script. This next one I'm doing -- it's got to be made like a documentary -- it's going to affect the style of it. And Wrigley's, for me what made it funny when I read it as a script was, How could we treat it so the beginning bit felt like you're taking the viewer in a certain direction, and then the middle bit is all as ordinary as possible. All the decisions that you make are I think, what makes people's work interesting.
E: Well that's what style is, in the end, right? It's all of your little choices. So how about you, Dougal? Do you ever say to yourself, I want to actively put my mark on this? Or is that just something that happens naturally when you say, I want to make this the way I think it should be made?
D: Well. The things I've been doing have tended to be quite open in terms of interpretation. The Becks ad, for example, was four people dancing, and there's a lot of decisions to be made after that, it's not all in the script, I suppose. Or the couple dancing around the house. It's really more of just an idea and then you write the script as you compose the shots. So I suppose that things I'm into maybe come out of that a little more easily. But then, looking at those things I mentioned, I don't know what you take out of those collectively and say is similar. Maybe you can tell me. It's very hard to be objective about your own stuff, isn't it? I don't really have any idea what my style is.
G: I always think of your music videos as being much closer to what's in your mind. Think of someone like Michel Gondry, he's done some of the best ads ever shot, but he's defined by his music videos. And Dougal, some of the videos you did obviously have an effect on what kind of scripts you get. Orange was so delicately done and it felt so different to anything you'd done before. One of its strengths for me, also knowing you, was how different it was to what anyone expected.
E: So was that a deliberate choice you made to take a left turn? Or was it simply, what you wanted to do with it?
D: We weren't really sure what the dance style should be. It wasn't supposed to be goofy but it was like a Hollywood dance routine, like Singing in the Rain or something. It wasn't even going to be one shot, just an old couple who could do all these nifty moves. And then we said, this feels a bit conventional, this could end up being a bit cheesy. The creative director Steven, he suggested DV8, this style of dancing. When I saw that, then I could make the decisions a lot easier. That made me think OK, all one shot, it should be gentler and subtler. That told me what to do about art direction and photography, even lighting.
G: Eric fell asleep, Dougal.
E: I didn't really fall asleep.
D: OK, so Eric, I don't know, I'll go out on a limb here and say that the style of your stuff, in commercials, may be the most consistent, in terms of, well firstly the scripts you've chosen to do ...
G: Because they're all good?
D: And also, the look of them. I'm not saying they all look the same, but that definitely there's a definable style. Would you agree with that?
E: Between the three of us? Between the three of us I think that's true.
D: And I'm not saying it in a pejorative way at all. But it seems you're very focused in the way you look at things.
E: Sure. What is that way?
G: I think it's all to do with the subtleties in the performances. The ideas are normally good, and then it becomes all about how to make sure that everything is treated very subtly so it becomes far more interesting than it was on paper. And potentially, they're all scripts that could have gone badly. It's much more delicate to make it work well.
D: That applies also to the look of them. They have this elegant, quiet tone which seems to match the action. The understatement of the performance extends to the look as well, the photography and the grading and the art department. Do you agree with that?
E: Sure, I don't disagree with it as an idea, and I can see those consistencies across a lot of my work, even Neighbor, my short film. When someone talks to me about something I've done, often words like "subtle" or "understated" come up. But I don't choose to do something understated. It's that when I get into the specific choices of filming a scene and watching a scene, being the person that's watching it play out for the first time—I suppose when things are more subtle, then a little look or gesture or inflection, those little things can suddenly become very, very meaningful. Or very effective. Or funny. To me it doesn't even feel subtle, it just feels like the way it might actually happen. If it's that kind of script.
D: I think that your visual style is definitely in tune with the performances, and that's a good thing. The whole thing feels very coherent.
G: Obviously we're talking now for an American magazine, so it's mostly being read by creatives in America. You being American, do you reckon your style is affected by a more European approach? Your approach seems like it could stand out in the States. It hasn't got a sitcom quality about it.
D: Can you ever see yourself doing something completely different in style?
E: I would love to. Of course. I've talked to Partizan about this, too. I would love to work on something that's purely visual, that's storytelling, that doesn't necessarily have to be comedy.
G: Like what kind of thing?
E: Hmm. Well, I mean there's so many things that could. My favorite ad last year was probably [Stella] "Ice Skating Priests."
G: But that's still, that's a very subtle story, for an ad.
E: Yeah but it's also pretty visually striking. I don't know, Dougal, what ... are you still there? Dougal?
G: Oh, we lost him. That's handy. I guess he's gonna call back in, he must have got off the train.
(a few minutes later, reconnected)
G: So, just a question to you, Dougal, you must be getting loads of stuff from the States. Because now people know your work, so I guess it gets harder, because you want to hold out for something really good ...
D: I started getting stuff from the States really just in the last year. I haven't actually done one in the States yet, and usually it's been because I've been doing something in the UK. And I haven't been quite into the American scripts as much. I guess if it's the first thing people might see in America you've got to be a little more careful than you would be normally.
E: Ok, movies, what are the last two movies you've seen, Dougal?
D: I saw Dodgeball on DVD. Which I thought was pretty good. And before that I saw Code Unknown. How's that for two contrasting films?
E: Pretty good. I just saw Time of the Wolf two days ago. Michael Haneke also.
D: I think he's superb, Haneke. There's something incredible about him.
E: I think there's something frighteningly good about him. He's so good that he actually frightens you.
D: They're like horror films. Except without much gore. Well, apart from in Hidden. Have you seen any of those, Guido?
G: No. You lost me.
D: What have you been doing Guy? You're supposed to be watching films. You're a director. When you see [Haneke's] films, it feels like he's the omnipotent presence, but instead of being a benign deity smiling down on his world, he's actually pretty malicious. I think he quite enjoys watching his characters get into unpleasant situations.
G: Are they good films?
E: Yeah. They're so perfectly made, truly disturbing. I remember the first time I saw Funny Games, I came out of the theater thinking, That may be the best movie I've ever seen and I wouldn't recommend that anyone I know ever sees it.
D: But, yeah. Dodgeball. There are some great gags in Dodgeball.
G: Did you watch them on a date, Dougal? Together in the same night?
D: No I watched them this weekend, away. I, um, I went surfing this weekend and...
G: (laughs) I love that. He's just dropping it in.
D: (laughs) I thought Dodgeball was stupid, but intelligently stupid.
E: He saw them on a date, which went really well for like the first two hours.
G: Then he put Dodgeball on.
G: I watched Matchstick Men at the weekend.
D: That's a great film. I told John Mathieson to make my Orange ad look a little bit like that. The interiors. (airport intercom) Oh hang on, it's the loud lady. (loud lady gets louder) Sorry... Hold the line.
(A prolonged conversation about dvd extras ensues. Dougal likes the special features on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Eric likes the director/writer commentary on The Limey. Guy reveals that he has seen On the Waterfront in every available language and, after some encouragement, performs part of Brando's "contender" speech in Italian. They decide to wrap up soon.)
G: I think, all three of us, what we've got in common is that we've all worked in an agency as creatives, and I just find it so easy dealing with creatives and agencies. I don't know, if it's a difficult job I let them feel really, really involved. It is hard, when no one's happy, if you do a job where there's tension it makes it a lot harder.
D: Yeah. I know, it's awful. I can't really work when everyone's tense. It makes me feel really guilty. I can't really handle guilt. It's really hard to work when there's tension.
G: But you do hear stories about these directors who won't communicate. It's like, you get so important that you can't even do your job properly.
D: Yeah, you get someone else to write your treatment...
G: This is one thing I wanted to talk about. I mean, we all write our own treatments, right, which isn't really rocket science, but I think a lot of directors... Maybe I shouldn't even be saying this because it's treated like an industry secret. That people don't write their own treatments.
E: I find it actually to be really helpful, to go through the process of writing a treatment.
G: Yeah that's what I say. Totally.
E: I don't think it's a secret that there are treatment writers and all that. But I don't think that really happens here.
G: No, it doesn't happen in Europe, but in the States a couple of times I've been really busy and they've been like, "Do you want us to get a treatment writer in?"
D: I think it's weird. Why doesn't the treatment writer direct the ad?
E: So much of directing is all of your ideas.
G: A lot of the time, trying to work out what you're going to do with a job is forced on you by writing a treatment. In the process of writing it down, you're forced to make decisions. So I thought we could talk about it a little bit, sort of raise this issue that people use treatment writers, which is just crazy. And get us more work in the process, because we're three directors who don't.
D: I think I uh...I uh...
G: Gotta get on a plane?
D: Yeah. And also, I've got to get off the phone so I can call my treatment writer so he can get on with it tomorrow morning.