How I got here: James Rouse

The director tells James Swift how he went from hotel management to shooting ads, via a few ad agencies and a stint as a product designer.

  • James Rouse

    James Rouse

  • Harvey Nichols - 'sorry, I spent it on myself'

    Harvey Nichols - 'sorry, I spent it on myself'

  • Marmite - 'Love it. Hate it. Just don't forget it'

    Marmite - 'Love it. Hate it. Just don't forget it'

  • Volkswagen - 'Think Blue'

    Volkswagen - 'Think Blue'

  • Trojan - 'Trojan games'

    Trojan - 'Trojan games'


James Rouse started directing in 2003 and his debut, a viral ad for Trojan, won a gold Lion at Cannes. Since then, the Outsider director has been steadily pumping out great work year in, year out.

But, even by Rouse’s high standards, 2013 was better than average. He shot standout spots for Volkswagen and Harvey Nichols, and was the man behind the camera for one of the year’s biggest ads: Marmite’s "Love it. Hate it. Just don’t forget it".

Campaign spoke to Rouse as he prepared for the release of Downhill, his first feature film.

My upbringing wasn’t particularly creative. My father was a chartered accountant, which is about as far away from a creative career as you can get, although possibly somewhere deep inside of him was a creative soul. But he was part of that generation that wasn’t encouraged to share that side of him, so maybe he invested it in numbers.

I studied hotel management at university. I had this idea that it was going to satisfy my creative urge, that it was about designing hotels and working out what it was all going to look like. It was almost the antithesis of creative work.

My first job was as a salesman for Pepsi. I had a manager who I didn’t get along with. It was my most spectacular clash to date. That really spurred me on to say: "I can’t do this, I have to follow my heart."

I enrolled in the School of Creative Arts and that’s how I got started in advertising, but not in directing. After school, I joined Bainsfair Sharkey Trott, then Euro RSCG, then DDB was the last one.

I was a copywriter and an art director, but I think I’m better at directing. I love ideas but I wasn’t good at the office side of life. As a director, you’re always out and about, meeting interesting people, and it’s exciting. I found the agency environment quite difficult.

I had a break from the industry after spending time at agencies. I started my own company, making bizarre versions of clothes-hangers and egg-timers. The most successful product was a flat-iron place mat that looked like a heatproof ring.

The products sold well – one even got into the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But I’m a bad businessman and made no money in one-and-a-half years. No money. Also, I didn’t like management.

I was a creative director for a brand-building consultancy when I was around 30. I was just trying to find my way; trying to figure out how to direct my energies.

The birth of my son drove me to find something I was passionate about. If you’re passionate about something, then you have a better chance of succeeding at it. After going to Spain for six months to learn the language [Rouse’s wife is Mexican], I thought: "Now I have a child and need to find a career."

I met the lovely Ed Robinson and Matt Smith [founders of The Viral Factory] when they were starting their careers. They were gracious enough to have faith in me – I’m not sure why. Anyway, they allowed me to direct a wonderful campaign for Trojan.

The ad [‘Trojan games’] was ten years ago, at the birth of viral film. We managed to get a script through that would never be bought by a major brand today.

I wouldn’t say I knew that I would be good at directing when I first started. I’m not sure I even was good at it then. I just knew that I loved it. I remember thinking that no job could be better than this.

Even now, the Trojan ad would be a challenge for me because it involved naked actors. We had cast athletes in the ad instead of actors and they hadn’t been told they were going to be naked. I had to deal with a Hungarian weightlifter who didn’t know he was going to be naked and had to talk him down from walking off the set. I also had to inspect some poor woman’s merkin. I looked at it for about half-a-second and said it was fine.

The best piece of advice I ever got was from my late father. He told me to be kind to people.

I’m not sure what my biggest mistake has been. I make them all the time. I once pointed out to an actor that she must get offered a lot more middle-aged parts these days. She asked me what I meant – I said I didn’t know.

All the Adam & Eve/DDB ads I did last year were great. The Marmite ad was brilliant to work on and the baby ad [Volkswagen’s "Think Blue"] was such a challenge. The subtlety of the performance required from the actor was so delicate and we had a good baby-wrangler.

Harvey Nichols’ ‘sorry, I spent it on myself’ was such a strong idea. It was the first time I have ever got to work on a product that was itself funny. It will probably be the only time in my career too.

I don’t think my career has changed since directing the Marmite spot. I got work before then and I’d like to think that I’d have continued to get work without it.

I remember saying to someone that there’s a chance that people would be upset with the Marmite ad. But our intention wasn’t to take the piss out of people who do an amazing job. We were spoofing the [animal rescue] programmes.

I’m a North London man through and through. I started in Camden and ended up in Queen’s Park.
I would consider living abroad – I want to live in the sun. But there’s a sense that, if you’re in London, things are more likely to happen, which I think is probably true. We could move to Los Angeles, which I have considered… Maybe still.

The biggest difference between making a feature film and making an ad is the catering. We ate ham-and-cheese sandwiches for three weeks [when shooting Downhill]. One of the cast members even made up a song about it.

Making a film was incredibly satisfying, creatively. It was also a brutal amount of work. If I knew how hard it was going to be, I probably wouldn’t have done it.

I thought that making the movie would be the hard part. But getting to the next stage – actually getting the film into the cinemas – was even harder. It could have stayed on the shelf, but I thought it had to have a life to have a chance of giving something back to the people who helped make it.

We’ve started getting our first reviews back. The responses have been great so far.

I find criticism very difficult. I take it very personally. When you make a movie, so much of your own self goes into it. It feels like it’s me they are judging. I know they are not, but that’s what it feels like. It’s not healthy and I drive my wife mad.

It’s a privileged role to be a director. The challenges you face are so extraordinarily diverse.

My favourite film? I have always found that question tough to answer. There are films that I like and would highlight as being excellent. I loved Sideways and it played a role in influencing my new film. But is it the best film ever? No.

Whatever level of directing you do, it’s something that’s all-encompassing. Some people don’t want that and I totally respect that. I often question whether I am doing the right thing. Most directors are quite obsessive.