Watching Nicholas Barker's reel, you could easily imagine yourself back at Doyle Dane Bernbach, New York, circa 1969. Not that his work is determinedly or consciously retro, but special effects and other modish chicanery play little part in his output. Mostly, his spots feature people, generally American, talking to a static camera in a gently or sometimes heavily ironic fashion.
The clients include McDonald's, Honda, Clarks shoes and Volkswagen Polo; the mood is low-key and cunning; the results are arresting and funny. Oddly enough, his most recent campaign, through Bartle Bogle Hegarty for Brooklyn chewing gum (aimed primarily at Italy) is almost entirely silent, but the emphasis on performance remains the same. One of the spots takes place on a New York subway; another is set in a Florida retirement home. Both are droll and beautifully observed. Barker, with his carefully framed vignettes, is a classicist.
His first film, a semi-documentary called Unmade Beds which has yet to be picked up by an American distributor, is shot in the same idiosyncratic style. Coolly and dispassionately and with very few cuts, Barker's steady camera records the observations of four desperate New York singles looking for marriage candidates. Self-absorbed but not self-aware, the hapless quartet pour out their sorrows, and their often unintentionally hilarious comments are, perhaps cruelly, intercut with voyeuristic, through-the-window shots of couples enjoying normal relationships. It's consummately funny, ultimately sad. The film, which cost just over $1.5 million, took three years out of Barker's life.
"I spent 18 months wearing out my kneecaps raising money, and then a further 18 months casting, writing and shooting it," he says. "Before making the film, I wrote character profiles of the four protagonists I wanted to feature in it and then interviewed more than 1,000 people in New York to land the right four candidates."
Barker's perseverance seems to be paying off. Unmade Beds won the Best Film award at last year's Stockholm Film Festival (previous winners include Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs), and Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times called it "the word of mouth favorite at the Toronto Film Festival." At the Critics' Week of the Venice Film Festival, Unmade Beds won against such competitors as Cop Land and In the Company of Men.
Barker, 42, has been directing commercials -- now through James Garrett's London production company -- for three years, and he's represented in the States by New York's Chelsea Pictures, which helped, along with the BBC, to finance Unmade Beds.
Barker was not an early convert to celluloid. In fact, after Eton, Britain's premier private school, he spent four years studying social anthropology at London University. "I think it shows in my work," he says by way of an aside. He then joined the BBC and became a director of radio drama. His career there was unconventional. He produced the first play to be broadcast by the BBC in pidgin English, and adapted for radio the internationally acclaimed South African drama Woza Albert.
In 1983, he moved to BBC TV -- "with great difficulty," he says -- where he initially directed such highly-regarded arts programs as Bookmark and Arena.
In the late '80s and early-to-mid-'90s, he devised and directed three seminal documentary television series: WashesWhiter, a satirical portrait of post-war Britain seen through vintage TV commercials; Signs of the Times, a comedy of manners about good and bad taste in British homes; and From A to B, a comic sequel to the latter that chronicled the thoughts, dreams and anxieties of British car enthusiasts.
Barker's TV work was controversial -- criticism ran the gamut from "incredibly tedious" to "absolutely riveting," and Barker acknowledges that he "ripped up the grammatical rule book of documentary filmmaking" -- but it certainly influenced advertisers, who lost no time in co-opting its style and content.
"Through their agencies, two clients -- Esso and Volkswagen -- got in touch with me and asked if I'd be interested in making commercials for them," says Barker. "I'd always had an intellectual interest in advertising, so I thought I may as well get in on the act."
The VW spots, for BMP DDB Needham, worked out fine, but the Esso campaign, for J. Walter Thompson, was, says a still irate Barker, "Totally fucked up. They added syrupy music to it and ruined the radical concept."
Undaunted, he continued making commercials and preparing Unmade Beds. He moved from the Redwood production company to James Garrett, the longest established and most staid production house in London. "I deliberately joined the least groovy production company in London because I wanted agencies to use me for my own abilities, not because I was a fashion item at a trendy production house," he says.
Barker, articulate and candid, is not encumbered by false modesty, nor should he be. On the commercials front, he has worked for agencies including Leo Burnett, St. Luke's (the hottest thing going in London), Saatchi & Saatchi, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, along with the aforementioned BMP and JWT.
According to John Hegarty, BBH creative director, "I think [Barker] is very insightful. Given the right briefs and allowing for the fact that he's got a very documentary background, he can be brilliant. He's lovely to work with and he makes helpful contributions to the scripts. I think he's getting better and better."
Barker describes himself as "a frustrated stills photographer." He says he draws more inspiration from fine art photography than from contemporary independent filmmakers, though he admires people like Jim Jarmusch. "In a sense, I do stills photography with a movie camera. I let my DPs light, but I insist on framing everything myself."
He doesn't want to be pigeonholed as a 'real life' or cinema-verite specialist. Indeed, there's a caveat on his reel reading: "Stop thinking of me as a real life director." What he does want, he says, is to be regarded as "a classic director who makes films that are enduring and well observed. Maybe I'm not too imaginative, but I think I'm bloody good at observation. I want my work to be funny, painful and true."
He's a writer's director, he adds. "I like strong, simple ideas that can be well-observed and simply executed. My style is incredibly formal. Why use three shots when one will do? I'm not interested in pretty imagemaking -- too many people do that already. Increasingly, I like to work with agencies who'll let me contribute to the scripts. I find the cleverer the team, the less egos they have. I want the freedom to write. When I fuck up, they can intervene."
Says Jane Atkinson, a copywriter at Leo Burnett who worked on his McDonald's spot: "He was brilliant to work with. He's got this edgy, cool observation, which is terrific."
Barker says he intends to devote the next 12 months to making commercials and promoting Unmade Beds, as soon as it sees distribution. Of the movie, Barker says, "It's an odd, innovative film about love and loneliness in the big city. One of the most gratifying things is that people who see it find it hard to get out of their heads. It's like slow-acting poison. They're able to quote from it verbatim, and the same thing happened with Signs of the Times and From A to B."
He likes people to listen as hard as they look -- "a legacy, I suppose, of my radio days," Barker says. "If viewers think I'm being cynical, then that's their prerogative, but I prefer to feel I show a genuine empathy with the characters I portray."
Barker clearly has an ongoing love affair with the U.S. He wants to make his next feature here, and he's keen to make his ad debut with Chelsea Pictures (whose Steve Wax produced Unmade Beds). If his U.S. commercials are half as funny and moving as his movie, here's one Brit whose career won't be short-