This is me: Director Fred Rowson's quest to explore characters

The director behind the recent Pride in London ad tries to make characters as real as possible.

This is me: Director Fred Rowson's quest to explore characters

Ever since I was a teenager, watching Taxi Driver on VHS, I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. Before that, I wanted to be a zookeeper – so it was a big jump in career ambition. When I started, I had no idea what I was doing; I was making it up as I went along. As a director, you have to just go and do it.

The first film I made, when I was 16, was a fake documentary about a guy who thinks Bigfoot lives in his local park in south London. I’m from south London and it starred my neighbour. I’m kind of still making films like that but with bigger budgets.

I’m really interested in characters. Even when it comes to commercial filmmaking, character is my way in. I pay attention to who the people are and the emotion in the story, and try to make those characters as real as possible.

I made a short film called Pauline about a woman who believes her oven is haunted. It was inspired by two things: a video on the internet about a woman who thought her toaster was possessed by the Devil, and the Enfield poltergeist case in north London. Pauline is a good example of the way I like to approach characters. You start out feeling one way about her – she’s quite annoying – and then you end up empathising with her. It’s picking someone who you may not immediately think you want to spend time with, and then you get under their skin a bit and find a common ground.

The brief for the Pride film was to go through 50 years of LGBT+ history but for it to feel like one shot. It was very low budget and the creatives were nervous that their idea was too big for what they could afford. I said to them, don’t worry about the technical aspect – you can get so bogged down by that. You can make any film for any amount of money; if it’s something people feel passionate about, they will work on it for less. The difficult thing is getting the emotion right.

We knew the film was going to get judged with an even bigger magnifying lens because it’s for, and about, Pride. Our reaction to that was, let’s make it more rebellious, controversial, emotional and grassroots. This year, more than any other year, there’s been a conversation about the commercialisation of Pride. So it was a happy accident that this was the year when the film for Pride had to be really back to basics – two fingers to commercialisation, looking at the establishment and holding it to account.

We shot it on a soundstage, surrounded by black curtains that were removed in post-production so it looked like an infinite black void. I didn’t want people to watch this and wonder where they were or why, but just to focus on the emotion.

The idea for it to feel like theatre came early on. From the beginning, we approached it as if we were shooting a drama rather than making an ad. When you’re shooting an ad, you have a conversation about every single thing down to the colour of the cabinet in the kitchen. But with narrative and dramatic work, you’re not so prescriptive. As a director, you’re encouraging people’s creativity and pushing them to do the best job they can, and there’s a real element of being surprised by what they give you and then going with it. It’s letting the happy accidents happen, which you don’t often get with commercials. That was something I pushed for because I wanted to make sure the one-shot concept didn’t feel sterile. Let it be a bit messy.

I’m writing a feature film about two guys called Phil and Ian who are married in their sixties. Their relationship is falling apart, and one of them is planning to break up with the other one. But before he can, they’re abducted by aliens. After they’re abducted, Ian’s personality starts to change and his husband starts to think, who is this man? Do I even know him any more?

Whether it’s a feature film or commercial, you’re always selling something. You know what you’re selling in a commercial, but in a feature film you’re selling an emotion, idea or philosophy of life that you want to convey. At the end of the film or commercial, are we landing this message? When we get to the end, do you understand that this is what you’re being sold?

Fred Rowson is a director at Blink who has created work for Years & Years, Giffgaff, Art Fund, River Island and, most recently, Pride in London. His first feature film is being developed by BBC Films and the BFI, via the iFeatures scheme.