Director Watch 2003

Creativity talks to ten directors on the rise.

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A pair of goofballs crashes the Huxtables' boudoir.
When Russ Lamoureux first started directing nearly three years ago, the former agency creative admits that he had no idea what he was doing. Nevertheless, the first spot he directed already reflected an undeniably deft hand with talent and comedy. The commercial, which he also wrote while freelancing at TBWAChiatDayN.Y., followed the lovably cocky "Austin," a precocious Ian Shrager-in-the-making who struts around an Embassy Suites hotel, extolling its virtues to his little pal. "I'm not a film school guy, I'm not an ex-photographer," Lamoureux says. "I just know characters and comedy. With Embassy, I think I got lucky because I really focused on the parts I knew and let the people around me do the other things."

No doubt the former copywriter sharpened his sensibilities during stints at agencies like Lambesis, Goodby Silverstein, and Chiat. Now that he's signed to Hungry Man, the N.Y.-based 33-year-old continues to build character in all sorts of ways -- via broad, comedian-based work for Nick at Nite and The Martin Agency, in which hapless goofs stumble into sitcoms like The Cosby Show, to darkly inflected comedy for MetroTV, out of Union, featuring a disgruntled woman who calmly spears her deadbeat beau with a fork during their dinner date. The sagely downplayed humor no doubt benefited from Lamoureux's insane attention to talent. Beyond holding marathon casting sessions, Lamoureux notes, "I think there's something to be said for letting actors do their thing," often giving them room to improvise their lines. Which doesn't mean his cast gets free reign. "Restraint is one of the words I use a lot. I often tell actors, 'I want you to do this expending the least amount of calories possible.' It's about trying to find ways to keep it subtle. The humor I'm drawn to isn't delivered like it's comedy." Lamoureux also pulled off new stunts, literally, for Toyota and Saatchi/L.A. in which a daring posse demonstrates via Jackass-style experiments, the feel of driving a Tacoma. The extreme fare seems appropriate for the former skateboarder, who also captured the freewheeling, festive side of b-ball for PowerAde via Wieden & Kennedy/Portland. The director says that the spate of athletics work may be training for his next goal. Also an avid cyclist, Lamoureux notes, "outside of directing, I basically ride my bike all the time and follow the tour. I guess I'm really trying to push my way through. I want to shoot next year's Nike work with Lance." (Ann-Christine Diaz)

Ricardo Montalban turns up in a cameo.
In a reversal of the usual film career track, at the age of 43, New Zealander Alison Maclean is an up-and-comer in commercials, having already staked a substantial claim in features and episodic TV. After studying sculpture and film at Auckland University, the biggest boost to her early reputation, she says, was the 1989 short film Kitchen Sink, a creepy black and white story of a woman who finds a shrunken, tentacled thing in her drain, which eventually becomes a man. It's disturbing enough to be worthy of David Cronenberg, and it led to Crush, her first feature, made in 1992, which starred Marcia Gay Harden and was co-written by Maclean. This "complicated story of infatuation and revenge" played at Sundance and Cannes and was critically well received. So too was her 2000 feature, Jesus' Son, starring Dennis Hopper, Billy Crudup and Holly Hunter. In the meantime, Maclean, on the heels of "a small development deal with Disney," had moved to New York in 1992 and landed some TV gigs, including the very first two episodes of Sex and the City. "No, I had no idea what it was going to become, but it was a great experience," she says. She's also directed for, among others, Homicide and HBO's Subway Stories and Carnivale. Earlier, she shot several music videos for Natalie Imbruglia and had been thinking about commercials, but it wasn't until she met Park Pictures executive producer Jackie Kelman, about three years ago, "that things started happening," Maclean recalls. "It took a bit of time to get my work seen and to get those first few jobs, as it always does -- I made some PSAs to get me into it."

Now she's into it, with the current Dunkin' Donuts "Voiceover" campaign, from HHCC, featuring bizarre characters (including Ricardo Montalban) intoning Dunkin' coffee copy to increasingly nervous strangers. She also has distinctive comedy work for Quaker Breakfast Squares and Harvard Pilgrim health care on her reel, and she's easily positioned in that coveted comedy/dialogue mode, thanks to her background. Though that's not the only place she'd like to be. "The agencies that have come to me have done so because they're interested in performance," she notes. "It's mainly about mood and character, more than a cinematic look. I'd love to expand that into more visual kinds of storytelling." (Terry Kattleman)

It sounds suspiciously like fiction when Matthias Hoene, 25, says that he's dabbled in German porn, but a look at the first-ever spot he directed might indicate otherwise. "Doggie Style," for Club 18-30, in which a randy mutt romps about pleasuring various bitches at a vacation village, features the positions galore and cheesy '60s-style resort music worthy of an X rating, at least on Animal Planet. Portrayed in a moody and sophisticated filmic style, "I wanted to create a real hero character; I didn't just want to make a filthy, funny spot," Hoene explains of his commercials debut, which earned him a Gold Lion in 2002. "I wanted to really feel the passion in what was going on in the script and create this main dog who was the hero of the village, this lovable rogue who's got a very skillful yet a very humanitarian outlook on life and in how to treat the ladies." Although "Doggie Style" stands out most notably for its simple storytelling, the rest of Hoene's reel reveals his fluency in effects and animation, as if following in the footsteps of his Partizan forefathers. One spot for T-Mobile integrates whimsical floating 3-D type into live action, and a voting PSA for the U.K.'s Central Office of Information places an actor shot on bluescreen in a highly stylized, apocalyptic universe, all created in CG. His clips slate includes one for Fat Boy Slim, featuring South Park-style animation set to Japanese variety show wackiness, and another for Tom McCrae that applies time-shifting scenery to the track's meditative rhythms. "Everyone's a little confused with my reel because it's so wide ranging," admits Hoene.

Born in Singapore, Hoene was raised in Berlin and studied at Central St. Martin's College of Art and Design in the U.K., where he developed his tendencies toward artistic experimentation. "I really strive to know all the tools in the box and to know about everything, whether it's effects, camera angles or prosthetic makeup," he says. Though he landed a top industry honor fresh out of the starting gate, he's eager to expand his repertoire. "At the moment, people like to stereotype me as a visual effects director, but I would like to do more funny work in the future," he says. Currently, Hoene is bidding more commercials jobs and is set to shoot a film for Sony's next series of Dreams shorts, out of Y&R, through which he hopes to build on his performance- and humor-based work. "I always like to be a little bit subversive, a bit cheeky and naughty with things," he says. "I don't get a chance to do half as much as I'd like to." (Ann-Christine Diaz

A new Juicy Fruit flavor leads to office combat.
At first, the biggest mark U.K. directing team Blue Source had made in the States was sending Dirty Vegas into the Mitsubishi universe. It was the video on their reel that turned Deutsch producers on to the "Days Go By" tune that ended up in a commercial for the Eclipse -- a spot Blue Source didn't get to direct. Nevertheless, in the past few months, the duo, Rob Legatt, 36, and Leigh Marling, 39, has emerged with much promise on the U.S. commercials scene with some fresh work for Pizza Hut, featuring a wacky cheese-devoid town, and, more recently, character-driven comedy for LaSalle Bank and Cramer-Krasselt. Most notably, they were behind the twisted scenarios in BBDO/Chicago's recent work for Wrigley's Juicy Fruit. In one spot, a runaway piñata rabidly attacks kids at a party when one child lands a pack of the gum. In another, zany mayhem ensues in a run-of-the-mill office when a drone rips open a pack and his officemates pounce on him from out of the blue, camouflaged in outrageous disguises, as when a window crumbles to become a man wearing a jigsaw puzzle costume that mimics the skyline view. "I suppose we have a penchant for making things quite filmic and treating things in a more realistic way," says Marling of "Office." "When you read it on paper, it's quite a mad, wacky idea, so our approach was really about putting it in an everyday situation."

Blue Source hasn't even been directing for three years, but "this has been 15 years in the making," says Legatt. The former carpenter met Marling, a former aircraft parts salesman, on the dance floor while both were seeking solace from their dead-end jobs in the creative momentum of the U.K.'s acid house scene. Legatt then went on to become an entertainment journalist with a sideline in filmmaking, while Marling opened a creative boutique called Blue Source, which became known for its record design and print advertising. When a music video eventually came through the shop's doors, Legatt joined Marling, and soon enough they were directing Fat Boy Slim's "Bird of Prey," their breakthrough clip. As for the pair's take on their craft, "I don't know that we have a particularly definable style," Legatt says. "We have an attitude that can range from broad comedy to poignant, romantic, stylized stuff, but we don't we like to analyze it too much." And you can't overlook the influence of their blue-collar roots. "I think that Leigh's experience with aircraft parts and my experience with wood really helped to give our work the proletarian aspect that makes it so popular," Legatt chuckles. (Ann-Christine Diaz)

A man aspires to drive a Peugeot.
Matthijs Van Heijningen is one of those rare few inspired by the cockroach -- more specifically, Franz Kafka's protagonist in The Metamorphosis. "The guy suddenly finds out he's a beetle, but he still thinks like an office clerk," he laughs. "He frets about what his boss will think if he doesn't show up for work, but he doesn't freak out about being a beetle. That level of absurdity, staying serious while the world changes into a complete mess, was really an inspiration to me." His reel reflects this sensibility, as in "The Sculptor," a Cannes audience favorite in which a young Indian man resolutely bangs up his jalopy, ultimately sculpting it into the shape of a new Peugeot. Van Heijningen just wrapped a new spot for the client, a massive effects gig in which a man's sheet-metal dreams literally become reality. "I think my characters are pretty believable, but the things that happen to them are quite absurd," he says.

In general, Van Heijningen, 38, prefers storytelling and comedy over serious fare. "Nobody asks to watch a commercial; I think you should entertain people one way or the other, unless it's for a charity." His dramatic work, however, doesn't need any force-feeding. A Gold Lion-winning PSA for the U.N. emotionalizes dry statistics via still photography dimensionalized in post. "At first, we thought about using stock footage that showed horrible images, but it became pretentious and a bit boring, so using pictures from photographers in 3-D maybe makes it more interesting to watch." Whatever statement he tries to make, Van Heijningen believes "your commercials should be personal. If you don't feel a personal attachment to what you make, it's somebody else's and probably won't have a soul. Sometimes it's difficult to defend, but the trick is to inform everybody upfront of what your aim is."

Upfront, his aim was to be a lawyer, looking to do something different after growing up on the set with his father, a Dutch filmmaker. But, inspired by an ad for Central Beheer, a client for whom he himself later went on to direct, Van Heijningen turned back to film. The spot was "was about an arrogant bastard who drives a very luxurious car," he recalls. "He watches television, sees a hypnotist on the TV and gets hypnotized forever. It was very well executed and I thought, Wow, if commercials can be funny little stories, maybe that's for me." (Ann-Christine Diaz)

Xbox: Gold Lion winner and Grand Prix contender.
Lionel Goldstein was conceived during a drunken afterparty at Cannes in 2000, when Belgian directors Koen Mortier and Joe Vanhoutteghem, both 38, were commiserating over the frustration they experienced with all the agencies that had turned them down for the humorous high-concept work they hoped to do. "Our showreels are very visual," explains Mortier, "so we decided to create another person that did funny work." The newly born Goldstein indeed went on to shoot the comedy commercials his creators had longed for, including a local road safety PSA in which literally lead-footed folks clumsily plod through quotidian scenarios, and a Frisk gum campaign, for Wieden & Kennedy/Amsterdam, which landed the duo the trophy that cheekily inspired their alter-ego's moniker, the Gold Lion. The work illustrates ludicrous brain-testing situations, as in one spot where a dim bulb distinguishes a real horse from a lineup of men clearly done up in equine guise.

The rest of the reel follows ridiculous suit with other characters: a Dutch fire brigade that drenches the distressed with water, even though the 911 isn't about an inferno; ambitious reporters for DeMorgen Newspaper who stealthily plant themselves in the heat of the action, including one hard-boiled journalist who, during a cocaine raid, emerges from a man's butt gloved in a XXXXXL condom. Most recently, Goldstein just launched into a round of spots for Fox Sports and TBWAChiatDay, fresh off of snagging another Gold Lion for their ear-pong spoof for Xbox and BBH/London, featuring a table tennis champion who uses his Dumbo-like ears to paddle his way to national sports hero status. "The type of work we do feels smart, but in way, it's sort of dumb," observes Vanhoutteghem.

In reality, there's a kind of fuzzy science to the Goldstein brand of wackiness. Many of their spots, like "Ear Tennis," have an absurdist documentary feel, which stems from the team's preferred M.O. The directors like to work in an open-ended manner, preferring to collaborate with agencies on concepts rather than to execute detailed scripts. On shoots, they keep setups simple in order to allow a freedom for both actors and crew. "We only do one take, and if we don't like it we go on and improvise on the next one," notes Vanhoutteghem. "It's not like directors asking actors, 'Can you do this again?' We want the action to be really realistic and fresh. If you repeat things, you can feel it in the acting and we don't want that." Talent is crucial to Goldstein's humor, and the directors are dead set on working with extras instead of professional actors to keep expressions genuine and, perhaps, naive. "What we hate is humor when characters think they're funny, when people act funny," insists Mortier. "Our characters don't know what they're doing, so they do funny things, they become funny, because of their innocence, in a way. We kind of abuse people."

Indeed, on set it's double the punishment, considering Goldstein is not actually one, but two directors. And if directives from dual mouthpieces create a mixed message, that's even better. "We don't prevent confusion, we create confusion," laughs Mortier. "The actors should be confused, that's the goal. If there's no confusion, we don't do good work. The only important thing is to keep the concept in mind. The rest is all changeable and can be filled in." (Ann-Christine Diaz)

Office workers compete.
"What we wanted to do was take a word that was loaded with so much negativity and try to turn that into something positive," notes Acne executive producer David Olsson on the origins of his Swedish collective's name. In just three years, the team, which currently consists of seven members, has already carved out a respected but twisted rep in Europe, backed by a strong visual and comedy reel. Docu-comic spots include a man decked out in black from head to toe who streaks through a nudist camp for H&M, and "Pirates," in which floor-phobes spend their lives doggedly avoiding the ground until their bag of chips falls on the carpet, changing their ways forever.

Acne's American debut, and breakthrough, features a remarkably real and hilarious depiction of banal cube life amusement in spots for Wieden & Kennedy/N.Y.'s ESPN "Without Sports" campaign, in which office workers play shelfball. "I felt very comfortable that they were going to nail the basic comedy, but more important, they had a way of adding the details that I love to see in spots," says Wieden's Kevin Proudfoot, the writer on the campaign. "They came back with ideas like having one of the guys not wearing any shoes because it helps his game, which actually turned into a huge part of another spot. It's these little things that make it so much richer." Beyond details, the spots took Gold at Cannes and became one of the most internationally awarded campaigns of the year.

As for the inevitable Traktor comparisons, Olsson claims that Acne's creative universe is larger. "They're really nice guys who make great film," he says of Traktor. "But we have different areas." Besides commercials, the Acne line of products includes online games, music, and the Action Jeans line, which has made it onto the rumps of stars and into the pages of Entertainment Weekly. "I think the creatives here really find inspiration, because while somebody's looking at new fabrics to design a new jacket, somebody else is making a commercial," Olsson says. (Ann-Christine Diaz)

What great lengths some people will go to for an autograph.
Thor Saevarsson, known simply and heroically as Thor, is from Iceland, the least populated of all European countries, with four-fifths of its land uninhabitable. So maybe it's no surprise that his work consistently shows a deep appreciation for human beings. Or maybe it's a big surprise. Who knows with an Icelander? At any rate, "In character-driven commercials, the challenge is connecting with the audience as soon as the spot starts," says the 24-year-old Thor, who is repped by Stink, London. "You have to have believable characters right from the get-go. It's very important that I work with the actors before the shoot just to get them into character."

In that vein, Thor owes his Silver and Audience Awards at the 2002 Nike Young Directors Awards to a spot called "Autograph," which, without a single word of dialogue and with great pathos, shows us the inner life of an obsessed autograph seeker. The fan, after being snubbed by a famous runner, begins training for the day when he can go stride for stride with the pro. In the end, the protagonist goes from poseur to real athlete, and he trades the autograph for the respect of his idol. Making it look easy, Thor convincingly takes us through that transformation in 60 seconds.

Thor's five-year education was earned over the course of 50 commercials production jobs in Iceland, as he worked his way up the PA ladder. And since Iceland is not the cheapest place to shoot, he worked with some of the top American and European directors and DPs. "So many car commercials are shot in Iceland," says Thor, "so I feel like I grew up on them. One of my next goals is to shoot one myself." Thor, who names Bryan Buckley and David Fincher as influences, is unusual in that he claims he has no aspirations to be a features director. "I enjoy the attention to detail and precise storytelling that commercials demand," he says. "And I enjoy making characters that people can relate to. From the moment you receive the script from the agency, that creative process begins and it is what I love to do." And, no, he doesn't carry a hammer. (Adam Remson)

Siraj Jhaveri lives up to his Indian name with, for example, a festive, outrageously detailed and choreographed Bollywood-style spot for Orbit gum, in which a forlorn husband weeds out his lost wife from a dancing bevy of beauties, via just her pearly whites. He's also got a Bollywood-style clip for Laurent Garnier's "The Man with the Red Face," and amusingly heartfelt promos for MTV India, featuring a man who gets slapped silly at the barbershop and a sprightly boy who wanders through Bombay streets singing and dancing as he sells chai. But the fact is, though his parents are Indian natives, Jhaveri, 31, was born in Pennsylvania, raised in the U.K., and is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design.

His Orbit spot was truly a labor of love; "I had a 50-page PowerPoint presentation for this commercial, because I wanted to bring this attention to detail, to be as authentic as possible. You look at it and see new things each time, and I think that sort of repeat viewing is a pleasure." His meticulousness extends to videotaping his spots before the actual shoot day, when possible, and on set he likes to digitize and pre-edit everything as it's captured on camera. "I want the clients and the agency to feel really comfortable and know that I've thought of everything, because I like to have spontaneous moments happen. Going in with everything rendered at every step makes everyone feel safe, and then we can be funny and spontaneous."

Jhaveri's sensibility also bears the edge of anyone raised in the MTV generation. One spot for Sony Playstation captures the mad choreography of groovesters during an impromptu underground danceoff, sans the cheese factor that could easily ooze from such a feel-good scenario. There's also a dark, comedic Russian spot for Inobat batteries, where a flailing boxer emerges from his torpor to bust out some breakdancing moves. Outside of spots, Jhaveri directed an introspective documentary, Ma Baap, about his parents' divorce and is currently working on two features, including one with Monsoon Wedding screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan. "One of the overall ambitions of my career is to simply be a filmmaker," he says. "I don't really want to be a commercials or music video or feature film director -- just a filmmaker. I try to keep an open mind to all the formats." (Ann-Christine Diaz)

Ikea has furniture for any budget.
Following in the deep creative tracks, so to speak, of Traktor, Sweden's Stylewar, a directing team of seven men, is the latest inductee into the bicoastal Smuggler stable of helmers. Although Stylewar appoints a team leader on each project, the group, unsurprisingly, feels their best work comes through collaboration. With a batch of six visually sophisticated Ikea spots, through Crispin Porter + Bogusky, to Stylewar's credit, stateside agencies likely will be learning to appreciate decisions by committee. "You can go blind when you are deep into doing complicated special effects and animation," says Stylewar director Filip Engström, "and working together can help you choose the right visual. If someone on the team doesn't know which shot took more time or money to do, they may choose the effect that uses the fish line over the 3-D animation, simply because it is better."

Four Stylewar directors studied graphic design at Stockholm's Forsbergs School of Design in the 1990s, while the others bring 3-D animation and/or film backgrounds. With the group's understandable tendency toward graphic design, agencies may be hearing more design-oriented, rather than special effects, solutions when working with Stylewar. However, the timing for such a change may be just right, the Stylewarriors believe. "It seems that people aren't so impressed anymore by special effects," says Stylewar's Oskar Holmedal. "You can see spaceships crash into mountains and nothing impresses you about it. We're not extremely interested in special effects; we're more interested in using them as a tool to tell a story."

One standout Ikea spot, "Pony," features different living room packages at various price points, all visualized for the viewer. Furniture grows out of the floor and walls as an unsuspecting family gathers around the television. The visuals, all done in 3-D, convincingly look like contraptions on the set. The sound, the design, the interaction of the live-action characters, all contribute to this very realistic effect. From this, it comes as little surprise that Stylewar does its work almost entirely in-house. In a market dominated by boutiques, this will undoubtedly be an adjustment for U.S. agencies.

"We got the feeling that Americans were amazed at how involved we were in everything," says Engström, "but I think that is the North European way. We have opinions on telecine and audio and how effects should be done, and we don't want to leave it until it is done. But I definitely got the feeling that it is normally not like that in the United States."

"We're used to doing everything, which is very common in the world we come from," adds Holmedal. "Americans are used to controlling more things, but I think we've managed quite fine so far. With Ikea, we were very lucky to have such a good client come to us with such great ideas." We can't wait to see what they do with a non-Swedish client. (Adam Remson)

(This article appears in the November 2003 issue of Creativity.)

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