Behind Johnnie Walker's Walk

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For a storied brand to use its history to sell its present is nothing new, but when BBH, London and HLA director Jamie Rafn unveiled Johnnie Walker's "The Man Who Walked Around the World" last week, a new standard may have been set.

The six-minute, one-shot short film stars Robert Carlyle, strolling down a gravel road in the Scottish countryside, recounting Walker's progress from humble grocery to global whisky brand -- all with the help of a few carefully placed props that vary from a wall of TVs and family portraits to a full whisky bar and a highland cow, all appearing along the road with impeccable timing.

Rafn spoke to Creativity about the agency brief, working with Carlyle, the menace of Scottish midges and more.

What was the mandate for this job and what was your process like in figuring out how you wanted to execute it?
The brief was this fantastic script by Justin Moore at BBH which reduced 200 years of Johnnie Walker history into five and a half minutes of monologue. At the very first meeting Justin and I discussed how brilliant this would be as a real single take but I don't think anyone else really took us seriously. The more we talked however the more it became apparent that this really needed to be done as a single take. Needless to say this caused a certain amount of anxiety for the the powers that be, and I had to do the usual assurances that we had plenty of Plan Bs. The problem was I just knew that anything less than the real thing would not be anywhere near as good, so my Plan Bs were somewhat under-developed to say the least. After the first day of shooting when we hadn't managed to get one usable take I did start to wonder whether my bluff was about to be called in a fairly spectacular way! Thankfully Robert pulled it out of the bag in the very first take of the second day and went on to give us brilliant take after brilliant take. The sense of relief around video city was palpable.

You've said you researched other films with one-shot sequences in preparation for this. Which ones were most helpful? Alexsandr Sokurov's Russian Ark must've been in there.
Yes, I watched them all. Russian Ark is a whole feature shot as one take and is truly spectacular. I also re-watched A Touch of Evil, Goodfellas, Atonement, Code Unknown, Rope, Boogie Nights... all the usual suspects. One of the biggest challenges we had was sustaining a six and a half minute single-take film with only one person talking. Apart from the piper at the beginning there were no other characters for Robert to feed off, so the props had to stand in as a sort of character. Working out what they should be, where they should turn up (in relation to him) and when they should turn up was a key part of sustaining the audiences intrigue in what was going on.

What made you choose Carlyle in the first place and how did he meet/exceed your expectations?
I literally cannot overstate how brilliant I think Robert is. He was the natural choice for the role. In terms of expectations I think I only had the ones anyone would have had about Robert. He's our DeNiro. He's a legend and it did worry me slightly that he might not take the project seriously and might be difficult to direct. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He was incredibly easygoing, charming as hell and incredibly professional. It was really interesting actually. I often wondered what it is that made someone like him as successful as he is. There are of course all the things you'd expect - like the talent etc. But the thing that really struck me was just how hardworking he was. The pressure he put on himself to get it right was amazing. The take we ended up using was the last one of the last day -- take 40 at 8 p.m. By the time we finished that take there was this collective euphoria in video city. The light was gone, everyone was shattered and desperate to get to the pub. Robert sidles up to me and asks me if I wanted him to go again.

With less post-production, what was the pre-production process like and how did it differ from a more traditional project?
My producer (Steve Plesniak) and I did loads of prep. The moment we got the brief we went off to Hyde Park with an HDV camera and started walking it through. Steve would read and drop index cards with things like "cow" written on them while I staggered backwards with the camera. By doing this again and again we could work out the spacing between the props and areas where we might need more or less. We then transferred that process up to Scotland on the recce, so that by the time we were ready to shoot we were very well prepared and knew exactly what all the potential problems were from a technical point of view.

The location was absolutely perfect, but you probably couldn't have found a more difficult place to shoot a one-shot film considering the hills, unpredictable weather and a gravel road. How did you find it and what was the biggest challenge in working there?
That part of Scotland is unbelievably beautiful. Narrowing down where we'd shoot was one of the trickiest things. We ended up doing that on one of our last trips up there before we were due to shoot. Steve and I went up with (director of photography) George Richmond. We'd seen some photos of the area and they looked great. George worked out which particular portion of the path was the best from a lighting perspective.

The biggest challenges were technical. In spite of all our preparation the things we couldn't account for were things like the midges. The whole crew was covered in Skin So Soft (which did next to nothing) and had their jumpers pulled over their heads. This was OK for all of us behind camera but it wasn't really going to work for Robert who somehow managed to deliver his lines, hit his marks and give an amazing performance whilst ignoring the multitude of midges swarming around his head.
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