James Brown's name alone might have the rock 'n' roll clout the client may be going for, but the up-and-comer also totes a value pack of credentials that suggest he's a wise choice. For one thing, he's a man-about-the-world. An army brat, Brown was born in Malaysia and grew up in the U.K. He studied literature and theater in college, then spent four years in Asia, where besides developing a multilingual tongue, he worked as a photojournalist, novelist and screenwriter. He returned to London and got a job at posthouse VTR, where he eventually became junior editor. After hours he'd cut low-budget videos he shot for musician friends, producing a reel that got him noticed. That led to an official directing gig out of a shop called Spidercom, after which he signed with his current production company, Stink, based in London, and he's also repped by its U.S. affiliate, Smuggler.
While Brown certainly has the coolness cred of a clips pedigree, his stylings bear the real-moment, down-to-earth qualities an everyman client like Mickey D's might hope for. "I'm bling-blingless," he laughs. His clips for Faithless, Finley Quaye and Tori Amos have a naturalistic, people-based appeal, and his spots have an in-the-moment vibe, apparent in the thugs and cops showdown that turns out to be an impromptu soccer match for DNA, a cell phone service; and in the PS2's "Trafalgar Square," featuring an impressive guerrilla-style chase scene for a videogame called The Getaway. Such stylings are also apparent in the raucous Hard Day's Night-reminiscent campaign he lensed for Sheraton and Deutsch, featuring indie band Convoy. The hotel project also demanded the ego-massaging skills and ingenuity you'd expect from a seasoned player." We had a scary sideburns moment," he says. "It was like all the worst things out of rock meets all the worst things out of commercials. The client wanted to make the singer cut his sideburns off, but the singer didn't want to. It all came to a kind of big Mexican standoff." In the end, Brown saved the shoot - and the 'burns. Thanks to some clever camera angles he was able to get rid of the unwanted hair.
He developed his POV watching endless rushes as an editor. "People sitting in those air-conditioned bays at four in the morning I find, ironically, are the hardest audience. They're so used to watching all the plastic stuff all day that they're far more cynical, and something's really got to be good to move them. Usually, it's something on more of an emotional level. I guess my sensibility comes from that. I'm that sort of person as well - a bit of a sad hippie. I like to get below the surface and break down the barriers." That's the theater major in him talking, he admits. Now Brown's perfectly happy backstage behind the camera, where he's extremely sure about what he wants. "I basically shoot for the edit suite," he says. "It's like a war zone. You go in and try to come back with what you really want, and that also captures the live moment."
That mentality should have served him well on the McDonald's campaign, the details of which he's sworn to secrecy, although he does say it called upon "the more human" side of his sensibility, rather than the technical side. The massive undertaking took him and his team of directors to Brazil, Prague, Singapore, Johannesburg and London. The travel is physically demanding enough, but Brown also managed to crack a couple ribs on one shoot in South America. Then, of course, there was the meat-hawking dilemma to consider. "The only time I ever sold my soul to the devil before was in Australia," he recalls. "I was selling hot dogs, but I wasn't eating them. One night, I got beaten up by these two big Tongan guys. I thought, That's my karma comeuppance." What hamburgers will summon remains to be seen.