THEIR BRILLIANT CAREERS FOR SOME, IT'S NEVER TOO LATE: FIFTYSOMETHINGS PAUL ARDEN AND JEFF STARK ABANDONED STERLING BRITISH CREATIVE REPUTATIONS TO EMBARK ON COMMERCIALS FEATS OF DIRECTORIAL DERRING-DO, AND IT LOOKS LIKE THEY'RE GOING TO BE HUGELY SUCCES
FROM 1985 TO 1987, JEFF STARK AND PAUL ARDEN formed one of the most forceful and effective creative teams in London. As Saatchi and Saatchi's joint creative directors, they regularly produced the kind of coruscating work that insured that, whatever its other problems, the flagship of the Saatchi organization remained the leading award winner in Britain. Stark was such an outstanding copywriting talent that, in 1984, the Saatchis bought his agency, Hedger Mitchell Stark, primarily to acquire his services. Arden was regarded throughout the industry as a brilliant, if quirky, art director.
Today, at the piquant ages of 50 and 52, respectively, Stark and Arden are nascent commercials directors. Stark, who runs Stark Films (he's represented in the States by Headquarters), is just beginning to establish himself after three years in the business. (In Britain, there is invariably a three-year time lag between perception and reality.) Arden formed a production company called Arden Sutherland-Dodd in 1992.
Two years ago, Arden introduced the first Saatchi New Talent Showcase at the Cannes Festival, and Stark was among the directors whose work was unveiled. "One of the ironies now," says Jeremy Sinclair, chief executive officer at Saatchi & Saatchi/London, "is that he might end up being featured in the next Showcase himself." And, while both men admit they were nervous when they first saw their names on a slate, neither thinks that age is a pivotal problem.
"I started with a sense of panic," says Stark. "I looked through the camera and thought, that looks boring. How do I make my mark? I considered using strange angles or funny lenses. But my confidence has grown. My ambition at 50 is to be named the Most
Promising Newcomer." Says Arden, "It was very scary at first. People keep telling you something will work, but you don't believe it. I've now discovered that if you know what you want and try hard to achieve it, everyone else will try hard too. I'm having such fun-it's never been better. I may be over 50, but I reckon I've got 30 years to go. You don't have to retire in this business."
Unsurprisingly, their work to date has been very different.
While Stark is emerging as a comedy/performance director, his reel is most remarkable for its Wellesian reliance on deep focus cinematography combined with overbearing foreground elements, almost invariably with a comic bent. Noses, ears and even the kitchen sink-the latter in a commercial for DuPont Corian surfaces-can dominate the foreground with unwavering looniness.
Arden has taken-or, more accurately, been taken down-a more conventionally art directed visual route. As he puts it: "I don't think I'm going to get too many dialogue scripts." A campaign for The Sunday Times uses fast-cut imagery to suggest that the paper contains all the news that's fit to print; a test commercial for Right Guard anti-perspirant consists of a single, seamless panning shot that sweeps over the roofs of Soho, stopping only at such eye-catching delectations as a man exercising with weights in a window and an electronic billboard delivering a message about the product.
While the commercials business is being overrun by directors 30 and under, Stark and Arden prove that life indeed can begin at 50. But how does the industry regard their sudden emergence as the new kids on the block?
Arden's switch to directing excites more comment than Stark's. After all, Stark is merely the latest in a long line of excep tional writers (including Alan Parker, Barry Myers and Paul Weiland) to move into film. It's not overstating the case to say that Arden is regarded as a genius, albeit an errant one, in the field of advertising art, so his decision to change direction late in his career leaves many London creatives quite stunned. "He's the last member of a noble school of admen-the barking-mad enthusiastics," says Gerry Moira, a partner in London's Woollams Moira Gaskin O'Malley. "In the 1970s, all top agencies had their eccentrics-novelists and poets who'd suddenly come up with a brilliant idea. Now that Arden's gone, there aren't any left.
"How will he do as a commercials director?" Moira wonders. "I think he needs a product that's upmarket, quirky and visual, with a huge budget. He'd produce something terrific."
According to Jerry Green, exec CD at McCann-Erickson/London: "Arden was a genius in print, and his influence on TV has been very strong. I also think he's had powerful influence on Jeff Stark because, funnily enough, Stark's first few commercials were highly stylized and looked like something Arden could have produced."
It won't faze anyone to learn that Stark and Arden have contrasting personalities. Stark who has flirted with standup comedy, is direct, joking, confident; Arden, who typically and capriciously announced his resignation from Saatchi by ringing up the trade press, is intense, restless, guardedly candid-and also, by the way, quite charming. As he talks, Arden seems lost in thought and continually moves around his office, one minute staring out of the window, the next kneeling on a chair. When he shows you his commercials, he issues such caveats as "This one's too yellow" or "of course, there was no idea in this one."
When they worked together, says Stark, "Paul used to say to me, 'I see this idea as blue,' and I'd say, 'What do you mean, blue?' There were two ways of looking at him-either he was mad or he was coming at the idea from a totally different angle. I chose to believe the latter, and we did some nice things together. We had mutual respect. In fact, we talked about setting up as directors together, but the timing was wrong." Among the nicest things to emerge from their collaboration was British Rail Intercity, a campaign that, as most of the industry knows, involved another key personality: director Tony Kaye, a man whose idiosyncrasies make Arden's look positively mundane. Stark and Arden wrote and art directed the initial prize-winning spot, "Relaxez-vous," a 60-second number in which people, logos and objects are seen, variously tinted, taking it easy on a train.
Stark seems determined to become a major player in the film production business. A year ago, he took over the expansive-not to mention expensive-Soho offices vacated by Ridley Scott's ever-growing RSA company. He currently has four or, arguably, five directors on his books: Roger Lunn, Robert Golden, Nick Hamm and a duo known as Joe Public. Public, Lunn and Golden are familiar names in the business. Hamm is an excellent TV director-he made three highly regarded TV films with comedian Rik Mayall last year-who has yet to win the imprimatur of the industry.
Apart from wanting to have a significant presence in the market, Stark is building up a roster of directors for another, more personal reason. He needs people to cover him when he's involved in other activities: working in the States, a direction he seems increasingly likely to take; writing and directing political broadcasts for the Labor Party, an unpaid divertissement; or making a feature-and, yes, Stark does have specific plans for his entree into movies. "I've got several scripts in mind and, in a year's time, I expect to be making a film," he says. "I'll shoot it wherever I can get the money, but I'm not interested in doing the Hollywood thing.
The 'City Slickers 2' route [currently being taken by Paul Weiland] doesn't interest me at all. I want to do something a lot cheaper, more experimental, more innovative-and I intend to continue with commercials."
Stark last year made his first commercials for American agencies, all of them shot, ironically, in Britain. In the aforementioned DuPont commercial, for BBDO/New York, a couple are being shown around a pristine new house and the images are intercut with shots of the kind of chaos that can be caused by children and animals. In the Lubriderm skin cream campaign for J. Walter Thompson/New York, dry skin is graphically represented by an alligator entering a pool. Though all the ads show Stark the animal trainer at work, none of them properly hints at his unquestionable skill as a performance director.
"I like the idea of being a transatlantic director, spending half mytime in New York and half in London," he says. "I've got more scripts than I can handle in Britain. Now I hope that the volume of work starts to build. American screen actors are so much better than British ones."
Arden runs a much smaller-scale operation than Stark. He and his young producer, Nick Sutherland-Dodd, are based in a modest Soho office and neither has immediate plans to hire more directorial talent. Shortly after the company was set up, Arden took a full-page ad in Britain's Campaign magazine to announce the fact that, "Like you, I need a brave client." The subtext ran: if you want a big jingle number, a quick joke or a crass demonstration, don't call Arden Sutherland-Dodd-and, given his reputation, it's unlikely anyone would have anyway.
Though officially new to the game, Arden says he feels as if he's been directing commercials for years. "As an art director, I was always involved completely in the making of commercials. I storyboarded everything and produced detailed shooting scripts. I chose the music and controlled the editing. In a sense, the director was only working as a lighting cameraman. I wasn't labeled 'director' because the agency wouldn't let me direct." (One of the spots he intends to put on his showreel is a droll and luminously-shot vignette commercial for Trust House Forte hotels. Though nominally filmed by Brian Griffin, Arden claims credit for all the imagery.)
Curiously, Arden is not overly impressed by the other talent on the British ad scene, and has some very upbeat things to say about American commercials. "I watch TV more than I used to and the commercials don't impress me," he says of the U.K. "The standard of execution is very high, but the standard of ideas is appalling. In many cases, the execution is the idea. That was always the trouble with the people like Adrian Lyne and even Ridley and it applies to Joe Pytka too. The craft of filmmaking becomes so exciting, so intense-they're obsessed with how things cut together filmically to look terrific-that they forget about the idea, if there is one.
"Ideas are so much better in the States. Because the rules are so tough, the ideas have to work that much harder-and necessity is the mother of inven tion. They're not just copying the old Doyle Dane '60s advertising, which was ridiculously good, but coming up with something fresh."
Despite his admiration for American concepts and his obvious desire to work in the U.S., Arden has no agents or associations in the States.
Though neither arrogant nor xenophobic, he rather hopes that the world will come to him. As he pithily puts it: "I can assure them that there's a good production company waiting."
Their relatively advanced ages notwithstanding, both Stark and Arden have a great deal of good will on their sides. John Hegarty, a partner in Bartle Bogle Hegarty and widely regarded as Britain's leading creative guru, says of the two: "They've both got very good prospects. What we as an agency are increasingly looking for from directors is an attitude-a different way of looking at things. Alan Parker and Ridley Scott had it, Tony Kaye and Tarsem have it and I'm sure Jeff and Paul have that ability too. Jeff uses the camera in a distinctive way-it owes something to 'Citizen Kane,' but why not?-and Paul has a kind of manic eye, which adds interest and involvement and tension to a film. Age doesn't