By Published on .

First a star copywriter, now a star director, Britain's Frank Budgen is doing OK for a guy with a will of steel who can't ever make up his mind.

Two years ago, Frank Budgen bought a house, but so far only the builders have occupied it: Budgen himself has been too immersed in directing commercials to oversee domestic scenarios. Over the last five years he has made nine or 10 commercials a year on average; not a vast output by some people's reckoning but, more significantly, every one a winner. With 15 awards in last year's D&AD roundup and 19 in 1995, he is rapidly becoming a record breaker, but this means less to him than being able to say, with evident surprise, "I am proud of most of my work, even if there's a few skeletons in the cupboard." Budgen's colleagues are less surprised by the universal acclaim for his exactingly high standards. Gold Greenlees Trott creative director Jay Pond Jones, art director on the renowned series of Holsten Pils commercials directed by Budgen, remembers him suggesting to the agency's head of television that they change a cut which, on reflection, he'd shot two frames too long. Pond Jones reminded him that this very commercial had already won a Gold Lion at Cannes but Budgen's puzzled response was that this might be so but didn't answer his question. The story indicates the intensity of 42-year-old Budgen's involvement in his work. As he says, "A shoot may only last two or three days but it represents two or three months of my life"-and he means life, not just working days. When asked how he managed to combine directing with being Boase Massimi Pollitt's leading copywriter for five years, he replies simply that, "Well, you just work all the time that's available anyway so it's only the usual problem of there not being enough hours in the day."His departure to join the Paul Weiland Film Company (repped in the U.S. by Case & Partners) as a director ended the now legendary partnership of Budgen and John Webster, the team responsible for a classic series of memorably witty commercials for John Smith's Bitter beer. Webster, already an established hero of British advertising, had reluctantly given Budgen his first directing opportunity when, after a week's hesitation, Budgen casually asked Webster one Friday evening if he would agree to his directing one of their John Smith's spots. Webster reminded Budgen that Courage, brewers of John Smith's, was their biggest client but, testimony to their good relationship, he didn't say no (he didn't mention it to the client either). The resulting commercial, featuring an incredulous wife listening with mounting pleasure to her husband's poetic declaration of love, not realizing it was directed at his beer, not her, later won a Gold at Cannes and five British Television awards-and Webster liked it, too. Webster realized, from Budgen's astonishing amateur photography, that "he was a poet with a camera," but confesses that he-and the production company-never thought he'd make a director, "because he can never make up his mind." He agreed to the Holsten Pils debut because it was based on an existing formula "and Frank could only muck it up-but he didn't," Webster recalls. "He got excellent performances from the actors, showing the great feel for casting that is one of his many strengths." Another, adds Webster, is his "will of steel. Frank is deceptively mild," he explains, "but he's also determined and uncompromising, and nothing will change his mind once it's made up. He's a very good chess player and on one game we played on a plane to the States he refused to resign though there seemed no alternative. But weeks later he called me up with a new move which won him the game."The move to directing was not Budgen's first professional diversion. Having studied fine art at college in Manchester, he reluctantly agreed to join the advertising course "after seeing most painting graduates ending up pushing hospital trolleys." Exposed to the best of '70s advertising, his enthusiasm soared and after college he headed for London and Collett Dickinson Pearce where he and a would-be art director, Tony Kaye, were both rejected, "but Tony refused to leave the building for about three months till they gave him a job." Budgen went on to see Tim Delaney, then at BBDO, toting a portfolio that contained an eclectic mix of illustration, poetry and narratives. He'd decided to call himself an art director, imagining travel to exotic shooting locations, but happily concurred when Delaney called to offer him a job and said, "You are a copywriter aren't you?" "Writing copy was hard, but I loved doing scripts and dialogue," says Budgen. After a year at BBDO he was at Saatchis for two years before moving to BMP, where he at first did lots of print. "My early work was very narrative because I was trying to show off as a writer," he explains. "Then, when I started directing, I was showing off visually, to prove I could do it, I suppose. I'd always loved photography, which is still a big personal interest, and experience in lighting my own pictures has inspired me to light more and more of my own commercials." Budgen is clearly the most hands-on of directors, often choosing or even commissioning the music himself, "because it's too important to be left as an afterthought."His work over the last year is remarkably varied. At one end of the spectrum are the ravishing visuals of "Feeling is Everything," a provocative, sensuous celebration of safe sex for Durex contraceptives, and "A Different World," a simulated drive up and down a mountain for the four-wheel drive Vauxhall Frontera. In contrast, the impact of "Number One," for Audi via BBH, depends on the cringingly self-important yuppie monologue of the young test driver, who decides that Audi is "not my style." And "UFO," for Volkswagen, eschews visual trickery and lingering auto shots for an interview with the stunned proprietors of a rural Texas gas station, amazed by their sighting of this missile identified only by the letters VW.Budgen's commercials for Holsten Pils, featuring comedian Denis Leary, are among his most memorable in terms of public awareness. In "No Shit," where Leary simply reads the content labels from rival beers, tossing each bottle aside in increasing disgust, the script was virtually just a list of ingredients from which Leary's rant could develop. "It was orchestrated chaos really, but if you're employing Denis Leary, it would be crazy to make it too tight," says art director Jay Pond Jones. Beer advertising regulations had required rigorous preproduction scripting, he adds, "but there was always room for something better happening on the shoot day."On the first day of production, Budgen found himself in a studio almost alone with Leary, the other team members only arriving halfway through the morning. By lunchtime, they'd written the entire commercial and it was shot in that afternoon. "We pretended we were afraid of Denis for the first few hours," Budgen confides, but after working with him over three years he describes the comedian as very friendly and not at all arrogant.Their most controversial production was "Asshole," the beer commercial with a powerful anti-drinking and driving message. Leary is a mocking presence inside and outside of the family car driven by an average guy whom he exposes blisteringly as an irresponsible jerk via the new lyrics of "Asshole," a song originally written by Leary for his own standup act. As Pond Jones and copywriter Robert Saville point out, this one was tightly scripted since it was attempting, successfully, to incorporate cars being driven, the presence of children and anti-social behavior-all things normally forbidden in British television beer advertising. Although limited to television screening after 11 p.m. and in cinemas, the commercial was a double triumph. Besides raising the Holsten Pils profile, it hugely reinforced the product integrity message, on which the entire campaign is based, by extending the idea of integrity into other areas.Other Budgen commercials have insured that he is no stranger to controversy. His "Tumble" spot for Pepe jeans, made with Kim Papworth and Tony Davidson of Leagas Delaney, could have led to an outbreak of teenagers tumble-drying themselves, suggested the British advertising controls authority. The client's brief em-phasized that the commercial should project teenage angst and attitudes, and Budgen and the creatives developed a script that incorporated numerous images of spinning, from hamsters on their wheels to the notorious tumble-drying incident in a laundromat.Though mainstream television viewers in Britain never got the opportunity to make their own decisions about the Pepe commercial, it was enthusiastically received elsewhere in Europe, and the client described it as "wicked," the highest accolade in contemporary jargon. Perhaps Budgen's most amazing commercial is "Static," for London's Capital radio, which represented an unusual technical challenge. The original idea, heavily influenced by Budgen, was to show London in all its aspects, without Capital on the radio dial, i.e. static, with white noise where the station should be. To help produce the "life standing still" effect, Budgen, working with the Dutch freelance creative team of writer Johan Kramer and art director Erik Kessels, enlisted the services of a photographic expert who had devised the technique, never before used in daylight, of filming the same moment from many different angles. With his help, they built a camera with the aid of elastic bands that held a 15-foot-long strip of film with disposable camera lenses placed in front of each frame. They carried this weird contraption on a pole around London and took 125 shots of each subject they'd selected."We couldn't line up the shots, of course," explains Budgen, "but we did devise two shutter speeds, using one elastic band to pull the shutter in dull weather and two when it was brighter." The client was understandably nervous about the results of this "quick, cheap, art studenty experimentation," as Budgen describes it, but was soon reassured when postproduction work with Flame realigned the frames by putting them through the telecine machine. The final result is that of a 3-D effect without the cumbersome 3-D specs; it's one of the few visuals you'll see in commercials where you'll find yourself truly wondering just how they did that.Considering the diversity of his work, one colleague of Budgen's was perhaps right when he said, "The thing about you, Frank, is that you've got no style." It was meant, and was accepted, as an accurate assessment of his output, while taking for granted that all his work was incredibly stylish in its own way. Budget puts it down to being lucky to get good scripts and "perhaps trying hard to push them just a bit more, being a bit experimental." Maybe that's why he's unwilling to commit himself to a precise scenario at the first "difficult" meeting with an agency. "Even if I've got a quite definite image of how a film should look, I try not to say so, because sometimes if things get agreed by people early on, that's it. Usually I've had the script for just 24 hours and I haven't got under the skin of the idea, or else I've got too many ideas. I try to be honest about how we could do things this way or that, because even with the best ideas, there's usually 100 ways of doing them. I consider the 'director's vision' a bit of a myth, and a director with an agenda will seldom get his own way: unforeseen things happen, and keeping yourself open is vital." While reluctant to characterize the current state of British advertising, Budgen continues to be amazed (and enthused) by the idea that a commercial has the power to cut through the visualbombardment within contemporary culture. "Whether it's art or not is irrelevant," he believes, "but some might think that a work on prime time television has as much validity as something hanging in a museum. Ido think commercials will be looked back on as a small part of our culture, though the worst ones will probably be as relevant as the best in indicating what our society was like."So what's next for this "dilettante," as Budgen calls himself, or "true Renaissance man," as John Webster would prefer to describe him? In the past two years he's shot a lot in America, and he loved being there, but would he work in the States? "When American scripts are done well, they're fantastic," he responds, "but the ones I've been sent so far have not been good enough to lure me." Even the recent offer of a multimillion dollar Hollywood feature failed to tempt him, though he admires the level of enthusiasm in the L.A. film industry and movie work holds strong appeal. "I would only go for a really good idea. More money tends to mean less control, and I would rather do something smaller and retain control."One thing he won't be doing is more of the same. As Jay Pond Jones puts it, "Frank was one of the best copywriters, he's now oneof the best directors and he could be one of the best photographers. But the best thing about him is that he never repeats himself and he gets on with people." The sentiments are echoed by virtually everyone who has worked with him; so even if Frank Budgen still doesn't "know what I want to be when I grow up," plenty of

Most Popular
In this article: