John McFarlane grew up in a rough area of Glasgow and left St Patrick’s
High School with few qualifications. Despite this, he got a night-school
certificate in advanced mechanical studies and, at 19, he moved to the
US and worked as a racing mechanic in Los Angeles. He became interested
in photography and after assisting a top fashion photographer he got
involved in directing films full-time and came back to London in 1986.
For one of his first films he took a team of 30 Sherpas clad in Paul
Smith suits trekking over the Himalayas, and the result was shown on
His first ad was through Cowan Kemsley Taylor for Katharine Hamnett,
where he filmed a guy walking into an upmarket clothes shop threatening
to spray the clothes with ink unless he’s allowed to steal a suit. ‘The
film is a revenge on sales assistants in smart designer shops who act
all snooty until it comes to paying, and then they suck up to you like
nothing on earth.’
His Coca-Cola cinema ad was done soon after he returned to the UK. ‘I
was looking at the characters in London and I came up with this idea of
taking a fridge around the capital, putting it in Soho, East London,
Brixton - places like that, and filming the people and their reactions.
I wanted to capture what London was like.’
McFarlane’s best-known work is for Irn-Bru through the Leith Agency.
Having cast all the actors, he says, ‘I like people. I like the
characters that I work with and if I get someone else to cast them, how
do I form a one-to-one relationship with them?’ Another ad he cast was
for Sony Handycam, where in one film a young guy bungee jumps off a
bridge and films himself with his hand-held camera. ‘The guy was a
stuntman, and should have done only six or seven takes because of the
danger of a nosebleed, but he did it for us 15 times.’
His latest work, and his first through the production company, Great
Guns, is for a new Mars commercial, which he describes as ‘Mars meets
the man who fell to earth’.
‘I like to transform something from words on a piece of paper into a
film. I’m focusing on ads that I love to do,’ McFarlane explains.