Feature

Changing Direction

Two creative stars talk about why they ha ve decided to go behind the camera to direct their own films - The Man Who Married Himself and 44 Inch Chest.

GARRICK HAMM

I never set out to be a film director in the way that I did a designer, it just happened. It was Martin Lambie-Nairn who introduced me to the magic of moving image, but I think it was my curiosity, as a designer, that led me to directing films. Designers love to know how things work. I'd watch a film and feel compelled to read the script behind it.

Design is set, a signed-off layout, a place for the logo. It's all very permanent. What I like about films is that things change in front of the camera and after in the edit suite and, ultimately, when people see the film, when it can be interpreted differently.

While many pitfalls are well documented, I found the biggest issue to be time, or rather the lack of it. You will always run out of time, regardless of whether you've got a £50,000 budget or £50 million.

When the first assistant director pulls you aside and says you're two hours behind and that you've shot in one morning half the amount of film stock you have for the entire film, it hurts. Your head thumps and you cut a scene, when there isn't one in the script to cut, or cut the amount of footage shot. You can almost cope, until later in the editing room someone wants to jump to another shot and they can't, because you didn't shoot it. That hurts. That really hurts.

Deadline and delivery are two words you learn very early on in your design career. Neither I, nor my design agency for that matter, run around at the 11th hour trying to find a "big idea". While filming, I like to be in on everything early because when I panic, creativity is the first thing to go.

If you're ahead of yourself, be it directing a film or designing an Absolut bottle, you can concentrate on refining, improving, tightening and making the thing better. That's when it's enjoyable and that's when the ideas flow.

One of the drawbacks in coming from a design background is that it is very easy to be seduced by the visual. That's why on the making of this film I surrounded myself with a small group of people (my wife being best at this) who would tell me straight if I didn't really need something, or if it propelled the story on too long.

One of my learnings from my first short film Lucky Numbers was to surround myself with experienced crew. Directing this film I had a well seasoned crew who have worked with Kubrik and Eastwood. I was also blessed with a group of special actors.

Being the D&AD president helped enormously. I met Richard E Grant through D&AD and Michael Seresin through Alan Parker. I couldn't have made the film without either of them. Richard's name made attracting cast and crew much easier and Michael met me every week for lunch to talk about the quirky look, the rhythm of shooting, the set-ups, locations and camera moves. This is the man who shot Harry Potter and Angel Heart. He gave me so much confidence. I also met my wonderful producer, Tessa Mitchell, and Therapy Films through Malcolm Venville after a D&AD lecture, and it was Tessa who introduced me to my commanding first assistant director, John Dodds. All three were amazing and I never want to shoot another film without them. I should also say there are many people without whom I couldn't have made it, who didn't come from a D&AD connection.

While working at Williams Murray Hamm, I review and direct the designers daily, so directing the likes of Richard and Emilia Fox was similar, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that in the taxi on the way to the first shoot, I was the most nervous I've ever been in all my 43 years. But once I got there, it felt very natural and I loved every minute.

I'm under no illusions. There are hundreds of directors out there and just as the world doesn't need another logo, it probably doesn't need another film director either, but I can't help it.

In the end, film and design are both "designed". The script has a designed structure to it, the world you create is designed and the framing has an obvious design element to it. But the most important part of a film, when all the pieces of the jigsaw come together, is, without doubt, a story.

Our briefs, at WMH, have always been like scripts. It's all there in black and white, a road map for where the designers need to go. Although our heritage has been in packaging design, more and more we are creating brand films and campaigns.

Ultimately, how to hook a person, how to keep their attention and how to make them feel about what they are seeing, this is the world of both design and film - consequently, I strongly believe the two can feed each other.

- Garrick Hamm is a creative partner at Williams Murray Hamm.

MALCOLM VENVILLE

There are basic similarities between commercials and film, but the word "commercials" itself is fairly broad. If you make glamour or automotive commercials, the transition to film could be difficult. The work I'd already done in commercials had been based on my photographic background. I could polish up the pig's ear a little and make average commercials look pretty good. I started as a photographer shooting print and poster work so I had some grounding in at least communicating a basic idea visually.

Based on the work I was doing, I was invited to direct in Los Angeles at Propaganda Films by Dave Morrison and Steve Golin.

I'd done a short film for the BBC and Channel 4 and that had done well so I started to meet producers and agents over there. There wasn't much going for me in London as commercials directors were generally not part of the film industry with notable exceptions. In Los Angeles, producers loved them. There was a story that Jerry Bruckheimer would wait outside Propaganda handing out scripts to directors.

Making commercials is a good film school. Working with cameramen and women, editors and musicians, I learned from Janusz Kaminski, Chris Doyle and Emmanuel Lubeski how to block a scene and avoid repetition.

Assistant directors such as Peter Kohn and Bob Wagner who worked on Withnail and Fight Club etc shared how various directors operate, how they adjust actors and deal with the politics. I edited Nike work with Angus Wall, who is David Fincher's editor; he was an inspiration to work with. Often on long drives to locations I listened to them talk about such things.

Trying out different techniques in commercials not only benefits the director but also the projects. Some agencies and clients love passionate and experimental directors. I learned a lot from good creatives and for that I'm grateful.

The creatives who inspired most were Tom Carty and Walter Campbell of Guinness "surfer" fame. They taught me to turn everything upside down and start again. Working with them woke me up from a slumber I'd been in. We were filming a low-budget Kiss FM ad that needed a shot of a human heart beating. I suggested SFX or an animatronic heart but they kept saying no, they wanted a real heart. Eventually, a surgeon passionate about film let me into one of his bypass operations with a camera, dolly and crew. I ended up shooting a live heart operation at Papworth.

Working on various sporting campaigns brought me into contact with personalities who take some dealing with such as Ronaldo and Tiger Woods. Eliciting an expression from a confused soccer player is, strangely enough, worthy preparation for working with actors.

When I used to attend voiceovers, I'd hear creatives give over-complex direction to actors and I realised how simplicity overcomes almost anything and how giving direction can be damaging. Direction works best for me when it's childishly simple!

Micro-managing actors is normally done in commercials, but it can be a disaster in film. Giving an actor too many actions and feelings confuses them. Storyboarding is important for commercials, the board is the contract. If you don't get a shot from the board then there is trouble, yet in a movie, storyboarding drama is limiting for me.

Being a first-time director is a privilege because actors love first-timers and Ray Winstone was a great support. I didn't need to motivate the actors at all; quite the contrary, I had to detune them to get more subtlety, especially in close photography. Actors have their various idiosyncrasies and the important thing I learned is that the players need to be listened to. Once this is achieved, they will go there even against their will.

It's a negotiation.

One thing that is shared by both agencies and actors is the comprehension of the idea. If as the director you understand the material, then the actors and agencies will generally respect you; if they suspect the opposite, then they'll pity you.

There's something special about shooting commercials in London because the culture of good agencies is centred on the world of the director, where he or she can bring their values rather more than being a paid-up flower arranger. The communication of a neat and simple idea of a commercial is amplified into a longer format. What's important is the support you receive in the process of doing it.

- Malcolm Venville is a director for Spank Films.

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