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GET READY FOR MEHDI CALL IT FROM PERSIA WITH 'LOVE': AFTER PAYING HIS MUSIC VIDEO DUES, IRANIAN-BORN MEHDI NOROWZIAN IS HEADING FOR BRITISH COMMERCIALS STARDOM. CAN THE STATES BY FAR BEHIND?

By Published on .

MEHDI NOROWZIAN, BRITAIN'S HOTTEST NEW PROPERTY IN commercials direction, could be forgiven for indulging in just a little of the hype that has been liberally applied to his own work. Instead, he exhibits a disconcerting frankness about his reluctant entry into commercials, made on the rebound from hated employment as a director of music videos: "I was scared of what I imagined to be a rigid, formal way of working and apologetically prepared to be dismissed as an arty-farty prat."

Consequently, when he received an enthusiastic reception from the first production company to see his reel, he thought they were "taking the piss," but after two or three similar encounters, his confidence grew. James Bradley, managing director of Redwing, where he eventually signed, tells it like this: "When Mehdi called up, I had actually stopped the time-consuming task of seeing new reels, but because a mutual friend had introduced us, I agreed to look at just this one. As it turned out, I found it difficult to contain my excitement, not wanting to appear overenthusiastic. In six years of seeing roughly six new reels a week, most of them highly competent work from film school or graphic design graduates, I had never seen anything that blew me away like Mehdi's short film, 'Love,'|"-a, stylized, choreographed enactment of the hesitant coming together of two young lovers, which looks a bit like a collaboration between Merce Cunningham and David Lynch.

No analysis was necessary, continues Bradley. "I immediately gave him the budget for three more shorts, we modeled his showreel and targeted individual agencies that are opinion leaders and risk takers. Within four weeks, Lowe Howard-Spink said, 'This is the man we must use for our new Stella Artois Dry commercials.' They started shooting two weeks later, by which time we had negotiated a huge fee for an untried director and set up the first shoot in Australia."

The result is a riveting study in "obsessiveness," as Mehdi describes it, that provoked the agency's reaction of "What drugs do you take?" when he showed the storyboard he'd created to accompany the voiceover. But as Lowe copywriter John Silver explains, "We were impressed by his meticulous preparation and virtuoso technical brilliance with camera speeds. The quality of the rushes was stunning." His oddly-angled sequence of a Lynchian manic "ant-hunter" seeking some unspecified treasure under harsh sunlight corresponded brilliantly to the enigmatic tagline, "It's out there-somewhere," though the casting of that character and of "the nice, interesting victim" that he envisaged as the crazed seeker after Stella in the parallel commercial-a man whose dental fillings are receiving embarrassing radio signals-gained him the nickname "no-compromise Mehdi." Meanwhile, his reel had also attracted the attention of Tim Delaney, who signed him to direct Leagas Delaney's Adidas commercial starring tennis ace Stefan Edberg.

"Mehdi's reel stood out for its defined style and point of view, which was particularly appropriate for the young, modern audience Adidas aims at," says Delaney. "We wanted something fresh-looking and were prepared to give him his head, unencumbered by commercial pressures. In the event, Mehdi accepted the responsibility in a nonindulgent manner, making good use of his time and enhancing a sweet idea without wandering around."

As he praises the total professionalism exhibited by Edberg, whom he encouraged to be himself, thus avoiding "the personal interpretations that actors always want to explore," it becomes clear that Mehdi believes in a conventional division of labor. One that allows him to be an interpreter, while keeping intact an idea generated by the agency creatives in collaboration with their clients. He resists any personal involvement with commercial compromise and reacts against phrases like, "The client thinks it's a little startling." "I'm happy to complete a commercial within a strict time structure and stick to an idea," he explains, "but it's important to be accurate from the outset: there's no time to be polite."

Tim Delaney also comes in for unstinting praise for "sticking to his

BY JAN BURNEY

Call it from Persia with 'Love': After paying his music video dues, Iranian-born Mehdi Norowzian is heading for British commercials stardom. Can the States be far behind?

Brew velvet: MehdiNorowzian, and a pair of frames from anexceedingly bizarre Stella Artois beer commercial

job and letting me get on with directing." For his part, Mehdi has no desire to muscle in on the agency creatives' scriptwriting role, though he enjoys coming up with ideas about how to express the script. In spite of his verbal fluency, he has always been drawn toward visual rather than literary expression, possibly because he only began to speak English when he arrived in London from Persia (as he insists on calling it) 20 years ago, when he was 15. "Bred and born by the Caspian Sea," as he puts it, with his slightest trace of idiosyncratic English. He has plans to make a short film about the background to his youth sometime this year when there is a potential gap in his directing schedule.

Meanwhile, he has an astonishing agenda of proposals lined up for somebody who has only been in the business for a year and who only entered it in his mid-30s. Filmmaking began much earlier, when he was studying fine art at college with no particular career goal in mind. He discovered then that what he enjoyed doing most was making things by hand, and he constructed a series of installations featuring lifelike plaster cast figures. Dissatisfied with the static nature of photographs, he began to record them on Super 8 film before having to dismantle their short-lived existence. There followed a year of making films with a bunch of friends, using someone's bedroom as a studio, before going on to the film course at London's Royal College of Art.

Leaving in 1986, "wanting to be a film director but with no idea of what a producer or anything else was because I'd been in control of every aspect of my college films," including the final year half-hour production, Mehdi made a video for a friend's band. This gave him access to the industry and he was rapidly promoted from runner to assistant director when he joined a music video company. In between directing clips for everyone from Cliff Richard to Simply Red, he continued to write and film shorts with friends. Most disappeared into television stations' reject piles but with "Love," Mehdi felt he'd made a breakthrough.

"It was the first time I'd reached a real synthesis of ideas by shooting and lighting it in a certain way, directing the music and saying a lot with sound and movement. I felt like I wasn't struggling any more, that the vocabulary had clicked and I'd found a language."

So, thanks in part to the language of "Love," Mehdi is now literally calling the shots for a series of spots distinguished by his wacky, witty camera angles, distorted faces and landscapes and stark lighting and sound. But how much mileage is there in this highly stylized approach and where else might he want to apply his talent and techniques?

Mehdi emphasizes his openness to a wide spectrum of filmic styles and narrative approaches, a claim borne out by his nomination of David Lean's pastoral epic, "Ryan's Daughter" and Andrei Tarkovsky's lyrical films as all-time favorite movies. This contrasts strikingly with his tribute to Tony Kaye as best commercials director, but hints that a Norowzian feature film would be a more traditional affair than his current work might suggest. In any case, he hopes to be making both features and commercials in the next five to 10 years. He'd be happy to go to Hollywood, "a good place to work and to come back from," though for relaxation he prefers the tranquillity of Scotland to sun-soakedresorts.

Surprising, perhaps, in view of his hot native land, but the contrast is typical Mehdi.u

Peel me a drape: frames from 'Silk,' one of several intriguing short films on

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