When directing a spot, "I try hard not to do cheesy," says Ringan Ledwidge. The 32-year-old director, newly repped out of Park Pictures in the U.S. and Small Family Business in the U.K., was especially put to that task on Mother/London's debut spot for the "Real World of Coca-Cola" campaign. In it, British singer Sharlene Hector saunters down a street crooning the Nina Simone tune "I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free," handing out bottles of Coke to passersby, each of whom suddenly appears delighted. Clearly, the idea ran a high schmaltz risk, but the spot emerged unscathed, maintaining an easy, feel good vibe -- like a post-millenium version of "Hilltop." In fact, "I Wish," originally intended for the U.K., pleased the Coca-Cola folks in Atlanta so much they decided to air it in the States.
"It just looks incredibly simple," Ledwidge notes. But in reality, it was one of his biggest challenges yet. For the 60-second one-take, "all the timing had to be exact. You've got hundreds of extras and they've all got to react in exactly the right way -- not overact, or underact. It was really taxing." This from a director who has orchestrated massive car crashes for Toyota's "Car Chase," flattened a guy against a bus for Nike's "Sport Happens" campaign, and created tornado-like conditions on set for Nascar and Cliff Freeman.
Coke "I Wish"
"To be honest, I don't think a lot of people would have touched that spot," says Mother creative director Yan Elliott of "I Wish." "But Ringan's not afraid to try new things and he totally got what we were trying to achieve. He made it feel fresh, very natural when it could have been so staged." That achievement is based largely on Ledwidge's ability to work magic with actors. "The best thing about him, he's not an ego at all," Elliott adds. "He's incredibly easygoing, even under pressure, and he just sidled up to the talent and gave them direction, without any pomposity and with complete patience."
"First and foremost, the people in the commercials are what interest me," Ledwidge explains. "Whether it's action or dialog, I'm really fascinated by the cast and wanting to make other people watch them, whether it's by their look, their voice, their movement. That's my start point." Indeed, Ledwidge's oeuvre is full of insanely watchable characters: a man and woman in a Guinness spot whose tension turns into an erotic tussle in the rain; a hard-boiled P.I. who hunts down a chocolate-loving Bonnie and Clyde-like duo for Nestle. There's also the Cannes Lion-winning "Self Defense" for VW, featuring people who strike Tai-Chi like poses that turn out to be driving exercises, and one for Quiznos featuring a wolf-raised dude who suckles his lupine mama's teat.
Beyond actors, "I really get into pre-production and am quite specific about taking down shots," Ledwidge says. Mother's Caroline Pay and Kim Gehrig worked with the director on an eerie yet fanciful spot for the launch of U.K. gossip rag Sneak, which features a high school girl who explodes into bright pink fluff, unable to relay the latest rumor to anyone. "We were really blown away by his attention to every aspect -- music, references, visuals. He completely got on board, ran with it and expanded the idea," Pay says. "We do such daft, silly stuff all the time, and Ringan gives us a way to do beautiful, big film."
The self-trained Ledwidge graduated with a degree in graphic design from London's Ravensbourne College and spent three years in Europe, the U.S. and Middle East "half bumming around and half taking lots of pictures," before breaking into commercials "quite jammily," he says. After just five years directing, Ledwidge recently opened his own shop Small Family Business, with producer Sally Humphries, after the pair left the now-shuttered Harry Nash last fall. He's also checked off an enviable client list that includes VW, Guinness, Toyota, Nike and adidas -- for which he's currently jetting around Europe shooting soccer studs, via 180/Amsterdam. Levi's is the only major brand he can think of that he might like to have a go at, but frankly, a new experience trumps any big name, he insists. "It could be for a toilet roll, it could be for Nike. The things I tend to do are just really simple, good ideas, but with a slightly different take on something, that I think I can move somewhere interesting." Indeed, his reel is notably diverse, full of odd situations spanning a gamut of genres -- but as far away from cheese as you can get. "I'm quite interested in ideas far outside of reality, but I like making them feel real, like this could happen. I think the believability of it is at the root of all my work."
(This article appears in the March 2004 issue of Creativity.)