Hamish Rothwell and Damien Toogood are two of the finest directors working in the industry today. Both have numerous awards to their names, having created some of the most memorable ad campaigns in recent years. Crossing The Line decided to sit the two men down with some questions and some wine, and find out more about how each of these talented individuals views the art of directing.
You can read Part 1 below, or clip scroll to the bottom to listen to the Podcast.
Hamish: So Damien, introduce yourself and a bit about what you do
Damien: I’m Damien Toogood. I’m a director and cinematographer, which are both fairly explanatory titles but sort of digging beneath the titles what I do I like comedy and I like stories that move people.
H: Do you like pigeonholing yourself that much?
D: No not at all, that’s one of the problems. I like laughter and tears. I have a love of pretty images, because I came from photography and I’ve always thought that as a good director you can have breadth, but that’s what the market requires, that you be pigeon-holed.
H: I’ll introduce myself before we get in to too much stuff. I’m Hamish Rothwell and I’m a director of commercials. It’s interesting the whole notion. How do you find it, coming from a cinematography point of view? Because I’m got certainly theories about – what’s the word – things have to have substance to work. So say for instance a beautiful image has to have a reason to be otherwise…
D: It has to have an emotional space to it too, otherwise it’s worthless.
H: Yeah, otherwise it’s worthless, right. So how do you feel coming from cinematography to start directing? How do you feel about what you originally thought was the idea of the beautiful image? And then what your idea is now about that, because I’d be interested to hear
D: I’m going to be contradictory and non-committal. How’s that?
H: That’s fair. I think most of our job is doing that, right?
D: I agree entirely – empty images I find boring whether it be a documentary or television commercial or film. But then sometimes you can have imagery that is so extraordinary that is transcends that, but you’re talking about the absolute exception to the rule for myself for the most part. It’s got to have some story behind it otherwise why bother?
H: Absolutely. And it has to have perspective, right? It has to have a perspective that the audience can kind of get in, otherwise it doesn’t work as an image really, for me personally. I think all the best imagery I’ve ever seen does exactly that. It reinvents what you’re looking at, but it also has a perspective so that makes sense and then it can be as surreal as you like, it can be as unreal as you like. But there’s a way in for the audience because otherwise it’s just an image that doesn’t mean anything.
D: Yes! What I find also is this is one of the struggles – first world problems – as a director is, I gravitate towards the things that are beautiful but also still have meaning because that’s what makes it something sublime.
H: But it’s also a thing that we actually have to take on board to achieve because otherwise no one’s going to watch it and no-one’s going to engage.
D: The beautiful images require such resources all the time because of the scale that audiences expect has broadened.
H: Yeah, I’ve always thought that it’s all about context. I think a modern director that’s always got that in the back of his mind is Jonathon Glazer. Under The Skin kind of nails that idea of beautiful imagery but the context is so interesting that it changes the way you feel about what you’re watching.
D: I, unfortunately, have not seen that film.
H: It’s really good.
D: I’m going to put a note into my phone.
H: It’s a classic example of that. They’ve got heaps of shots that are looking out of vehicles that we’ve all shot in between shots that we’re supposed to achieve, and yet, within that context they’re quite exceptional.
D: I always like the film he did with Nicole Kidman – Birth.
H: Apparently, Glazer didn’t like it, I don’t know why. But I think the point is that as a filmmaker, you’re always going to be wrestling with resources, that’s a massive part of what we do. So, as a cinematographer, what was the most obvious thing that you found difficult when you moved into directing?
D: Well, the short version is I was a photographer and then I moved into music videos and then I was directing, but not shooting at the same time because I thought it would be a good idea to separate that. Then I added cinematography to it. But I think to me, they’re quite different parts of the brain – which is why I enjoy doing both. They’re almost totally unrelated, in a way. I find that cinematography is much easier than the directing part – no disservice to cinematographers.
H: You’re trying to achieve a part of the puzzle with cinematography. But directing is trying to pull all of the pieces together.
D: Yeah! I even enjoy the cinematography more, and again, no disrespect. I just think it’s about being in the moment very much, whereas directing is all about resources, storytelling, complexity, how is it all coming together? Does it work?
I think the actual job of a director is to protect everyone else from the actual process in a way. To stop them worrying about the process, so that they can stay in the moment and come up with something cool. That’s what our job is.
What made you want to get into directing and was there a defining moment?
D: I wish there was…
H: I don’t think life is that easy, is it?
D: I guess I really liked music videos, around the 1990s.
H: Aw that was a great time for music videos!
D: It was! Extraordinary time. So yeah, I enjoyed watching music videos, and many had a lot of social context at that time instead of being ‘beauty without context’ like we were talking about.
H: Yeah, I went through film school around the same time in London, and was around when Glazer and Gondry were doing amazing things, and I think at that time, there was something unique about the music videos. They were breaking boundaries and the music was going in different directions, and the marrying of the visual concept and execution with the music felt very different all the time, and it wasn’t necessarily commercially minded.
D: Yeah, absolutely. There was loads of good stuff out then. I always remember that Garbage music video…
H: Oh yeah, and you had Radiohead too. But even the commercials of that time felt brave and different, some of them at least. Things like the Dunlop commercial that was totally surrealist.
D: So, what made you get into directing? Was there a defining moment?
H: I don’t know, life’s a bit messier than that, I suppose. There’s all these myths that people talk about, like oh yeah, I started making movies when I was 12 with LEGO and all that kind of stuff. But you know, I grew up on a chicken farm, so I had none of that kind of stuff going on. I grew up in Wellington, and I remember around that time there was a whole bunch of people starting from scratch in a way, in the arts and film community. So, what I saw was people just working their arse off and doing some interesting things, on a really small level, and then being propelled internationally just because people enjoying what they did. So first I started acting, then a whole bunch of us restarted the comedy club at university that had died, then we had a theatre, so we started putting stuff on. Because the community was so small, you’d kind of brush up against Peter (Jackson), and the NZ Film Commission were funding people out of Wellington as well, so it became quite a healthy, though small, community. But because it was small there was no pressure on anyone, and because there was no pressure, people just kept trying different stuff. And the ones that kept trying ended up doing well.
D: Do you think some creatives have a moment where they realise or make a decision that ‘I am going to spend my life doing something I enjoy, and not in the way that society has it structured out in what you could call normal terms’?
H: Yeah, absolutely. I had a massive problem with authority. So, I think that’s what served me the most. I studied music at university, so the music department there had a very strict idea of what they thought was good, and if you feel outside of that, you were persona non-grata. I had a few moments like that where I realised, what I am doing is connecting with audiences, and that’s really happening. It’s not just me in my bedroom doing shit. It’s us writing music and performing it to people onstage, and the audience responds, so you kind of get this idea that you can do it, rather than sitting in your bedroom and wondering if you could do something.
D: Funny you should mention music. My Dad recorded Opera records for the ABC, and Mum was an Opera singer, so that’s how they met. So, I was determined at 11-14 to make a living in music. Then I realised I couldn’t compose, so I briefly thought about having a normal life, then I found I had an ability to take nice pictures as well. So, I remembered actually thinking at about 18 or 19, I might end up in a life of poverty, but I’m going to do photography.
H: Which at 19, is a mental thing…
D: It was! And expensive.
H: People don’t realise it so much these days but something like photography or film making were expensive crafts back then.
D: Even 25 years ago it was something like $40 a roll of film.
H: I lucked in because I was living away from home because I was living at university in NZ and I needed a job. My friend couldn’t take the job he was offered at the NZ film commission, so I took that on a part time basis, and then when I left university I left to take it on full time, so I was incredibly lucky. That kind of pushed me into a part of the industry that was real. You weren’t on the sidelines thinking about how great it would be if you could borrow a camera and film something. You were suddenly at the hard end of arts funding, and seeing how much work people had to put in to get stuff made. You need a community of people who are willing to go on a journey with you to film something.
D: So that was your lightning strike moment?
H: I think so yeah, because one of the guys there ran the film festival, who was also on the board, so you were exposed to all the films that showed there, and generally able to see films that nobody saw back then. Because of course there was no internet. In the end, you end up understanding just what is required.
D: Do you ever think about your career as being a series of lightning strike moments? I always think that if A/B/C hadn’t happened, it wouldn’t have led to D/E/F and so on…and sometimes they feel completely random.
H: Haha, yeah. I have a theory that it’s kind of like performing onstage. And you realise that you can’t control how you’re perceived, but you can control being in the moment and having an opinion about what’s interesting enough to present to someone in that moment, and what happens then is that you’re a victim of your own self in that moment. So, the only thing you can control is yourself…
D: Can I ask you about your acting…
D: Haha…yeah, because I have this idea that I had the acting bug, and I put myself in front of camera couple of times and watched it back, and it was terrible.
H: It’s honestly the most horrific thing you can put yourself through. To this day, I have huge respect for performance because it is so hard to be selfless or un-self-conscious in that moment. I think that’s the only job I have. I think the actual job of a director is to protect everyone else from the actual process in a way. To stop them worrying about the process, so that they can stay in the moment and come up with something cool. That’s what our job is. Shot construction? Whatever…I mean that’s a craft, that’s something you learn. The way it looks? Sure. But the reality is the one thing you cannot fuck up is the performances. If you don’t have that, or if you don’t have something that is in the moment, you’re done, and it’s not going to be good.
D: Indeed. I find that while there are any number of enormously talented people who contribute collaboratively to the process, the one’s I’m truly in awe of are the performers.
H: Yeah. What I learned is that I wasn’t very good at it, but I was quite good at getting into that moment. So, what I’ve taken from that is the ability to protect the actors from all of the bullshit, and just helping them get into that moment and be protective of them in that environment. It’s really easy for everyone to watch a take and judge it, but you have to be the one who can watch it and think ‘what do I need to get out of it, and what do I do to protect it from dying?’, which is becoming harder and harder.
I love it when there’s a very tight schedule and there’s no time to triple analyse everything, because everyone is forced to make quick decisions.
How do you create large collaborative teams?
D: Well, it’s not that I don’t collaborate well, but I don’t really think about it. I get in this headspace and go down this path. I suppose as I’ve gotten older, and probably more as a cinematographer, that you realise the value of a good gaffer, who is a craftsman all of his own.
H: Yeah, but you can be surprised by people, right? It’s an interesting one. I think as a director you’ve got to be constantly assessing everyone’s abilities. Like, what do I need in this moment? Who will help me get whatever I need, right now? I’ve always felt like you don’t necessarily have to have a team, because that requires money or enough consistent work to always work with the same people and develop with the same people. But sometimes people go on different journeys and you’ve got to change who you’re working with just to reinvigorate what it is you’re doing.
D: I think that’s one of the nice things about working in different countries, facing the challenges and seeing how different people work. It’s about putting yourself in these different situations and finding yourself in chaotic situations, which is sometimes great.
H: Haha…yeah, I’ve always found a bit of chaos is good, because you need the process to be a little wrong-footed sometimes.
D: I love it when there’s a very tight schedule and there’s no time to triple analyse everything, because everyone is forced to make quick decisions.
H: Sure, I find a lot of the time it doesn’t matter what decision you make, as long as you make one. There’s a bit of that going on in any film shoot. The chaos helps that because you’re forced to make decisions. The only problem you get these days is that there’s often too many people able to make those decisions, and it’s not that they are wrong, it just leaves scope for a bit of questioning. Don’t question any decision, just make one and live with it!