Frank Budgen: The Midas Touch

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Frank Budgen has the Midas touch. He shot only four commercials last year. At last month's Cannes International Advertising Festival, Reebok's "Sofa," the NSPCC's "Cartoon" and Nike's "Shade Running" each won a Gold Lion, while Nike's "Tag" took the Film Grand Prix. For good measure, his one still-photography shoot, for the upmarket London sex shop Coco de Mer, also took a Gold. Budgen had only just finished taking the previous year's accolades in May, when his extraordinary "Twist" film for Levi's had taken an extremely rare advertising Gold at the British D&AD awards.

But the man himself is refreshingly down-to-earth about all the plaudits. In fact, a more feet-on-the ground star director you could not wish to meet. He had to be brow-beaten to Cannes to accept the awards by Paul Rothwell, his producer/partner (alongside fellow director, Chris Palmer) in Gorgeous Enterprises, which won the Palme d'Or as Production Company of the Year. The lean and wiry Budgen, 47, had been in Los Angeles, where he was in postproduction on a TBWA/Chiat/Day Adidas spot. Leaving aside the observation that he must be the only man on the planet to have worked for Nike, Reebok and Adidas in one year, he says he went to Cannes to collect the trophies because it was "the first company thing I've done in ages."

So, in Gorgeous' quirky offices in the heart of London's Soho, across the table tennis table that passes for a boardroom table and surrounded by a skeleton, a model shark, a stuffed ostrich and a selection of religious icons, I ask Budgen, Does winning at Cannes matter? Especially when you are unquestionably one of the top two or three commercials directors in the world?

"It's a good question," he says thoughtfully. "In the overall cosmic scheme of things, winning at Cannes doesn't matter one little bit, but then, what does? It gives me personal satisfaction to know that a cab driver or an awards jury appreciates my work. I guess it matters on the night. Paul called me and said I had to come, and then in an hour, a dozen different people phoned me to say the same, and so I went.

"For me and Chris," he continues, settling into a canvas chair throwing a leg over one arm, "this is so not a business. We do run a company. But we don't consider ourselves businessmen in any way. Maybe it's England. It feels like a grocery store in a village compared with America. We bump into each other in the corridor, suggest buying a new fax machine, and that's the AGM [annual general meeting] for a year.

"It's good for Gorgeous to be seen in the U.S. as a successful company, Budgen goes on. "As individuals we're well known. I'm not really out there looking for work. I do three or four jobs a year. When I open a script, I'm like, 'I hope it's crap, I hope it's crap.' And, normally, it is crap, and I think, Thank God."

I laugh, and then tell Budgen to be serious. However, over the course of the next two hours he makes it very clear he is serious. He and Palmer have worked out a financial arrangement whereby the director who shoots more makes more out of the company, and the success of Gorgeous since its inception five years ago has allowed Budgen that extra flexibility to work as little as he wants without affecting anyone's bottom line but his own.

So, not unreasonably, I ask what does he do in between those jobs? Budgen laughs: "Good question. I am quite good at sitting in a chair and staring. I do too many things. I talk films. I read. I am writing. We have a film development side. You know, I do photography as a hobby, and the occasional campaign. I got into music for six months - you know, Logic Audio. I was up till 3 or 4 a.m. every day. Then, after six months, the computer crashed and I lost everything except one track!"

He certainly could not have "only" shot four a year at the Paul Weiland Film Company. He learned his craft as a director there once he had quit a starry career as a creative at what is now BMP DDB. "He'd have had a few words," quips Budgen. His Weiland-directed "Points of View" spot for The Guardian newspaper, which won the Cannes Grand Prix in 1987, is one of the most famous commercials in advertising history, and he also created many of the Foster's "Paul Hogan" and John Smith's Bitter spots.

At my prompting he concedes that he became a director because having seen others in action, "the good and the bad," he simply thought, "I could do that." He had vaguely wanted to be a film director before becoming an adman. "If anyone wanted to learn to direct, I'd simply tell them to get a stills camera, " Budgen says. "I'd get a camera with different lenses and learn that the depth of focus on a wide-angle lens is much greater than on a long lens, or the way light falls on a sphere. You know, the basics."

Budgen was originally better known for comedy, but worked hard to get away from being typecast in any one style. He argues that you can control the direction of your own career if you stick to your guns. It helps, perhaps, that he appears to have such clarity about both how he works, and what he will not do. "People will laugh, but I suppose I am quite decisive when it comes to the actual shoot," Budgen ponders. "I can now say in meetings, 'The way I like to work is . . .' and people will actually allow me that. I won't know the exact results but I know that if I create a situation, then something will happen within the parameters we've talked about. It's about knowing when to move on; knowing that you've got three days and that the sun will go down in 10 minutes.

"So much goes on in the mind," Budgen continues. "You think about an individual's performance in that scene, their overall performance, then there's the lighting, the shot sequence. Production always wants you to go faster." Budgen describes directing as "like trying to play chess in the back of a bumpy van. You can do it, but there's people driving, things falling around you, and you're trying to concentrate on something that's like laser surgery. It's only in the edit that the room stops moving."

Budgen, like Bryan Buckley (see Creativity, June 2002), says he likes to keep a little distance between himself and his crew. It's one of the reasons he enjoys lighting his own shoots. "The joy of lighting is that when you say, 'Check the gate on that one,' instead of spending the next 10 minutes hanging around chatting and having a donut with the agency, you're busy. They can't touch you."

Budgen deflects questions along the lines of, "Which bit are you going to use?" with ease because, as with most British directors, his role doesn't end with the creatives waving him goodbye two days after the shoot when a rough cut has been delivered. "I put that in upfront now in the U.S., and say, 'Look this is the way I work/we work in London, and it's not the way you're used to working.' And most people understand that," he says cryptically. "I completely get involved with the music and the dubbing and everything in the edit. Even though they say they understand, I still think they're surprised when you're still there two weeks after the shoot has ended and you're listening to music tracks. You do get the feeling they're putting up with you rather than wanting you there, but it's important."

Budgen has some surprisingly blunt views on commercials making. One is his startling admission that he is "still amazed at how much commercials cost to make." And, no, he doesn't really see where all the money goes. "I keep saying 'I don't need this, or I don't need that.' I just need time and stock, really. But, even so, you turn up and there's these 12 shiny trucks and you think, What are they all here for? Especially in the U.S. Even if I just have a 16mm camera on sticks, I turn around and there's a huge monitor and they're setting up rows of directors chairs, five deep! Plus, all the catering! It's a bigger show over there."

Budgen claims not to have a minimum budget below which he won't touch a job, but also admits that he has "done" the one-gag, one-day shoot. He talks repeatedly of preferring a 60- or 90- second format because it allows him to build something. The idea is to lull the viewer into his stories. Sitting near him at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes during the ceremony, it was clear that he was himself lulled - he was studying his own work with extraordinary concentration. Why? "You know, it's funny when you make something, you watch it so many times that you're sick of it. Then you don't see it for a few months, and it's funny. You think, Oh, that jump was a bit abrupt, or . . . But, yeah, I am proud of my work, definitely. That's what it's about."

Which is why - although he is very careful how he phrases this - Budgen is determined to establish a new way of working with clients to ensure that he is just as proud of his future work. He refers to the former Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO creative, Tom Carty (Guinness, Dunlop, BT, The Economist and much more) as an inspiration in this regard. Carty, now a director at Gorgeous, and his partner Walter Campbell (now a founder of CDD), appeared to have their own mini-agency at AMV BBDO, with clients who knew not to expect the ordinary, but who were also included much earlier in the process.

Right on cue, Carty bursts into the room, and makes a mocking worship motion, chanting, "We are not worthy, we are not worthy." The two seem genuinely delighted to see each other, and Carty cannot praise Budgen enough, ending with, "Fucking brilliant, mate, fucking brilliant, and what a nice guy as well."

Before leaving to cross Soho to The Mill, Carty concurs with Budgen's take that the future key to radical work in an ever more conservative industry is direct personal communication with the client upfront in the process so that the "dreaded" preproduction meeting is much more of a formality. Budgen appears to have an agenda here. More than once he refers to clients who "just think that directors are hired hands on day rates, desperately grateful for the gig." It is clear that despite his apparent Midas touch, he has had a series of frustrations that have left him uncomfortable with the ad process, if sympathetic, overall, to clients. "I just have a problem with the arbitrariness of opinions," he says a little plaintively. "It's not their opinion vs. my opinion. I care that the idea works. I'd never want to take the product out of the ad, so that people don't feel cheated if they don't know what it's for."

He continues, "Some of the scripts that I do, I think, That's a big leap for a client to make. I admire them for it. But then, they nit-pick all this crazy little stuff. I don't really get that. When you agree on everything upfront, then you have to have that location, etc. Losing spontaneity becomes more expensive.

"Nike tends to make huge decisions very quickly," he adds. "They can go completely against you - like dropping a whole commercial you've been working on for weeks - or it can be, 'We like that :60, let's make it a :100.' Nike is brave."

So, I ask, Does Nike leave you alone to get on with it? The pause before the resulting "no" is almost comically pregnant. It is easy to see why he concludes, "It would be interesting as of now to change the system a little." If anyone could, Budgen certainly has the influence right now. His stock couldn't be higher - not that he sees it that way. "I don't really feel that much of a key figure in the industry. I don't read Campaign [the U.K. advertising magazine] anymore. I will have heard of the directors in your list [Creativity's Top 100 Directors, June 2002], but not know them."

This applies most of all to Jonathan Glazer, the other current British director superstar. With typical nonchalance, Budgen says the two "bump into each other twice a year, and mean to have lunch or something." In a very beguiling way, Budgen is a fascinating combination of ambition and determination, while giving off an air of passivity; that he is someone who just lets something happen. Take movies, for instance. He admits to not having pursued his first movie as "single-mindedly" as necessary. He does get a lot of scripts, mostly American, but he is trying to find something that "breaks the mold." He references Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich as a touchstone. "Have you seen Spider-Man? I don't know what the fuss is about," says Budgen honestly. "Charlie Kaufman [writer of Malkovich and Michel Gondry's debut, Human Nature] is one of the most interesting writers out there. And then there's Alan Ball [American Beauty, Six Feet Under], but . . ."

But then he is hardly a Hollywood insider, and is genuinely out of the loop on American pop culture. He hadn't even heard of The Osbournes when I interviewed him. Regarding movies, Budgen quips that every year, his "standards are getting lower," but it's one line of self-deprecation too far. You do not get to have the Midas touch if you are not an absolute perfectionist. The key to Budgen's current success is as much about what he will not do, as what he does. It's why he will go on hoping scripts are "crap" until another "Tag" comes along, and then he will absolutely get fired up - and not just at the prospect of competing head on with Glazer for the job!

As I leave him making plans to watch a World Cup soccer game with Malcolm Venville, the photographer, it is obvious that much as Budgen claims not to enjoy interviews he clearly has a lot to say. It is - as he says about his work - always about the quality, not the quantity. Yes, he may be leading a charmed life right now on both sides of the Atlantic, but as Budgen might say, a little less bluntly: you make your own luck. In truth, the only luck involved in his commercials is his own good fortune in being given the talent in the first place. And, yes, he really is a nice guy, too.

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