’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.