CAMPAIGN CRAFT: PROFILE CHRIS CUNNINGHAM - Promos prince of darkness sees the funny side/Chris Cunningham has left angst and Aphex Twin behind to direct commercials

’He’s a nerdy-type with a penchant for porn,’ I’d heard and, living up to his billing, Chris Cunningham greets me in a dark, den-like office surrounded by porn doodlings and sci-fi paraphernalia.

’He’s a nerdy-type with a penchant for porn,’ I’d heard and, living

up to his billing, Chris Cunningham greets me in a dark, den-like office

surrounded by porn doodlings and sci-fi paraphernalia.

Hiding behind a greasy curtain of hair which he smoothes with the palms

of his hands, I can barely believe this is the award-winning director

everyone’s raving about. How did this shy bedroom-dweller talk to

Madonna, let alone direct her?

How did he create the award-winning and diverse effects in promos for

Madonna’s Frozen, Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy and Windowlicker; and

Bjork’s All Is Full of Love? He only looks 19.

Cunningham is in fact 28 but vents his dark imagination with a

child-like openness. It is this, coupled with intense dedication (he

regularly curls up under his desk for the night when consumed by a

project) that has made him one of the UK’s most sought-after directors.

Record labels, Hollywood studios and ad agencies crave his talents. He

has at last succumbed to the advertising industry and has announced his

retirement from music videos. Two recent Cunningham efforts are a TBWA

Nethwork Nissan spot running in Europe and the new ad for Sony

PlayStation through TBWA’s London office.

So will Cunningham miss the glamour of the pop world? Hardly. After

shooting ’Windowlicker’, a feast of wobbling body parts, Cunningham

shunned a night out with its stars for a night in front of the telly. ’I

wish I had the personality to take advantage of it all - the parties and

getting caned - but if I do go out, I leave after an hour,’ he says.

For the same reason he dreads awards ceremonies, which is unfortunate

for someone who scoops so many. The brilliantly disturbing ’Come to

Daddy’, which was too strange for terrestrial TV and was only screened

on MTV at night, won the MCM grand prix du jury 1997, best video and

best editing at the Creative and Design Awards and two silver pencils at

the 1998 D&AD Awards. Then his video for Frozen - in which Madonna

appeared as a black witch writhing in the Mojave desert - won an MTV

award for best special effects last year.

Other videos, for Portishead and Squarepusher, gained him four more

Music Week awards in May this year including best director and best

video. He also won best video at the American MVPA Awards. Meanwhile,

his latest work for Bjork and Aphex Twin have attracted widespread


Some would question Cunningham’s suitability for the world of

advertising, after all you can hardly see him directing a Sunny Delight

spot. His work creates the impression that he is, at best, a techie

weirdo obsessed with the dark side of humanity, at worst, a bit of a


In person Cunningham is neither. He comes across as a nice bloke, the

kind you would share a pint and a bag of crisps with down the local


’People think I’m super-dark and weird, but my videos relate to the

music. If there’s weirdness in the film, it’s because there’s weirdness

in the music,’ he explains.

Cunningham gets most of his inspiration from electronic or classical

music and the results are not always dark. For Bjork’s All Is Full of

Love he creates more tenderness between the two robot protagonists than

you can imagine most human actors producing on-screen. ’I wanted to get

real emotion in that. When I was a kid, I didn’t just watch sci-fi films

but films that made me cry. I’m interested in how you can do that, how

you can press people’s buttons.’

Cunningham has so far managed to incorporate all of his childhood

pre-occupations into his career, which began at Pinewood Studios in

special effects. He hopped through the sculpting, illustrating and

model-making departments, eventually landing a job on a now-shelved

Stanley Kubrick film. From there he blagged his way on to the Activate

roster and became a promo-director. In 1997 he joined Black Dog Films,

part of RSA, directing Madonna, Portishead, Dubstar, Squarepusher and

Aphex Twin videos.

Working on commercials, however, has been a revelation. ’I now

understand why there are so many bad commercials around,’ he says. ’With

film, everything is organic, but with commercials, everything is

discussed until it’s killed. I’m not being arrogant by saying that. I

think I’ve been spoilt by the freedom of videos.’ Bjork, for example,

gave him total creative control.

So does this mean a shortlived career as a commercials director? ’The

Nissan ad almost killed me. Everyone thinks the client is the

troublesome one, but it’s the agency. They are so worried about

second-guessing the client, there is no room to move.

’However, the PlayStation client and agency were very flexible which has

given me the incentive to do more,’ he says.

Trevor Beattie, creative director at TBWA GGT Simons Palmer, the agency

behind the ’mental wealth’ campaign for PlayStation, respects the

director’s views: ’He’s a visionary and is not the type of person you

can tie down, which means he’s only right for certain advertising. He

reminds me of David Lynch. You expect them both to be foreboding but

they are very childlike.’

Both believe people will be provoked by the commercial which features a

celtic cyber pixie named Fi-Fi. ’I expect people will say ’what the fuck

is that about?’ laughs Cunningham.

The ad, like most of his work, is meant to be funny rather than


The aim, he explains, is to go back to the playground. ’I’m suspicious

of people who intellectualise their work. Creativity should be

instinctive and reflective,’ he says.

And Cunningham wants more jolly briefs. ’My favourite ads are ones which

make me laugh, like the Batchelors ad where the dog eats the plate of

noodles. I would love to get scripts like that.’

There’s no doubt they’ll come flooding in.