CTL CONVERSATIONS – DIRECTING – PART 2: With Damien Toogood and Hamish Rothwell

By - CTL
September 13, 2017
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How do you interview Damien Toogood and Hamish Rothwell together? Both men have built up an enviable portfolio of some of the most memorable commercials of recent years, and as such, have a wealth of experience in the art of directing. CTL sat them down with a glass of red, and rather than get in the way, let them tell some hilarious on set stories from their time in the trenches of commercial world.

Read the interview below or listen to the podcast HERE.

We begin PART 2 of this instalment as Damien and Hamish talk about the role of a director.

Damien: One of the core abilities that a director must have nowadays, that I’ve found, is to be a showman. You’ve got to go into a room, a room full of people, and you’ve got to put on a show. You’ve got to convince them. And if you don’t have that ability….

Hamish: Yeah, but I think it’s always been that way, I think it’s always been part of a director’s role. The whole thing is a show, for everyone involved, all the way along the process. So, from the moment it starts, it is a performance in a way because you’ve kind of have to take everyone on some sort of journey – and that sounds like a load of wank, but it’s true. Everyone has to be invested in what you are doing at every step of the way. You need them on this journey with you, and to do that there needs to be an entertaining element to it, whether it’s serious or funny or whatever, it doesn’t matter. Each stage of it is like a performance in itself, otherwise it dies, I think.

D: And also, they are all making a leap into the unknown as well, because we are being hired for the visualisation of something, so you can’t expect that they’re going to be able to see the tonality…

H: Yeah, and half the time it’s just something you can’t explain. If you had to explain every tiny minutia of everything we do, you’d never do it.

D: Haha…I’m never going to explain exactly what something is going to be like before I shoot it. And if I could, it would probably be shit!

H: When I was at film school our lecturer, who was a variety reviewer, had been working for Varity, Hollywood Reporter and Time Out for a long time, so long that he used to get invited on set. I think it was Rope, the Hitchcock film, there’s a scene where it is one shot of Sean Connery sitting on the bed, and he asked: ‘what do you think the filmmakers were trying to achieve there?’ It was hilarious – the next 40mins were a bunch of people talking the most bullshit you’ve ever heard in your life – me included, when he just said: ‘No, you’re all wrong, they had wasted so much time, and only had that set for an hour. That’s what they came up with in that moment.’ And that is what filmmaking tends to be. You have a really good plan, and then it all turns to shit, and you just get something done. Being open to that is part of our job.

D: There’s a frame of mind that you end up in during shoot day that is completely intoxicating. Again, invoking a cliché, a shoot day is like a drug, it truly is extraordinary, you throw yourself in and you’re so invested in that moment and you have to make it work.

H: I think that’s what the planning is all about, knowing what that moment really is. If the shit hits the fan, you can just boil it down to that one thing and get that, even if all the other stuff isn’t there.

D: Do you find yourself being called into account to describe exactly what it is you will be after from moment to moment on a shoot?

H: Yeah, but that’s part of the performance, isn’t it? Sleight of hand almost, the reality is that you are going to have a really good plan, and you are going to turn up and achieve that one thing you have to achieve.

D: You know where I work out that one thing I’m going to achieve? Call-backs. That’s why I like the system of having the creatives in the call-backs, and when they see the process, for me I tell them that the call-backs for me are like a shoot day, because that’s the day that I let it play out on front of me and that’s the day when I realise what’s that moment that we need to get.

H: I think call-backs are one way that you find out the team that you like working with. It’s great to find those people who are prepared to understand the potential of something in its raw form. So, if you’re working with someone who is freaked out by that, it’s impossible. Because you’re constantly working with something in its unfinished form, even right up until the edit. You need to be working with people are prepared to take that punt and go into the process with you.

D: The edit process, particularly with comedy, is something that you absolutely have to be part of that process, and in some cases, when you’re not part of that process, you can easily turn what I know are good rushes, into something that is dreadfully unfunny.

H: Yeah, because I think filming is actually like creating the colours for a painter, and editing is actually painting it. I think that’s where people get mistaken about the idea of having the director involved in the editing the process. For me, that’s a continuation involved in the taste of the whole process. Kind of like you’re taking the one person who knows what it could be, out of the room. I man, they’re not necessarily going to be right at that final moment, it’s totally cool to get someone else involved at that point – I mean, personally, I don’t really believe in the idea of a director’s cut – the idea of it is self-indulgent in itself. I think most good directors would be happy to take on opinions at that stage. I suppose it’s about getting the right one.

The worst thing that’s ever happened on set?

D: Now, I’ve got a funny story…do you want to go first?

H: I was a shoot in Bangalore, India and I honestly thought we would never get anything shot. Ironically, it’s one thing that I’m most proud of and one thing that I enjoyed the most as a shooting process, but at the time, I thought we weren’t going to get anything shot. I couldn’t see how we were going to pull all of this together. There was crazy shit happening! Roads were supposed to be shut down and nobody would listen to the police, so there were people on the roads and then all the Ads were trying to stop vehicles, and they couldn’t do it, and then the vehicle we were on turned out to be very dangerous. But it all worked out in the end. It was the one experience that taught me – and this is back to the chaos theory – a bit of chaos clarifies that filming has to be an experience, and the more removed from chaos that it is, the worse that the end result will be, I think. You need that element, that spark. It can’t be too clinical otherwise it’s dead.

D: We were shooting Hyderabad and I had eaten chicken, and had what you could call ‘an upset stomach’. I was DP’ing and directing so I was operating the camera and everything. So I had this dreadful circumstance that was slowing down the day. I’m not even invoking a cliché here; my wife is Indian and I eat Indian all the time. But this one time…yeah, it was having an effect and slowing down the shoot. So, the production company recognised this. And they bought me nappies.

H: Hahahahahahaha….

D: Honestly, this happened. They brought me these, and it was 40 degrees, and I said to them ‘Really? You honestly want me to sit here, behind the camera, in nappies, shooting this TV commercial?’ They turned around and said ‘Don’t worry, we bought the expensive nappies, and the elastic is very good.’

H: Hahahahaha…

D: It’s true! I couldn’t make that up!

 

H: When I was at film school, there was an idea in the 90s that everything could be worked out. So, for instance you had this series of images that you wanted to be a quick cut sequence of something cool that was going to communicate something perfect and when people saw that they were like oh fuck that’s amazing. There was an idea that this could be done back then. I just think everything like that that you saw, wasn’t like that at all. The idea was that when they had shot it, but the editing process fixed things, or weird accidents on the day of shooting had fixed things, or whatever. The one thing that I’ve learned is that you’ve got to have a really good plan, and have a really great vision for what you think it should be, but then you also need to be extraordinarily flexible. Then on the flipside, you have to execute that, but also have your head also able to look at it, and go ‘that was cool. You know, that wasn’t what we planned, but that’s okay, it was cool. Let’s move on’ – you really need to have those two sides of your brain working at the same time.

D: What I really enjoy in the pre-production process is to talk about the tonality, the feel, the mood and all those nebulous aspects are what will drive the day. It drives me insane to talk about ‘what kind of shoot, what kind of sock, will they be walking to left or right’.

H: I think there are subconscious things in the back of your mind that you know. In western culture, we read from left to right, so there’s these theories that there is an ease of movement from left to right, and a non-ease of movement from right to left, but they’re all tricks. The reality is that each shot has to do what it needs to do, and that’s your judgement to do it a particular way that feels right, or wrong, for the right reasons.

D: I think it doesn’t matter about all those other things, because for me it does all come down to that nebulous idea of tonality. Will the tonality sit, and how do I get that, and how will the tone sit with what the client wants?

H: I think that’s one of the key things. One is the tonality, and how do we get that right so that it’s watchable. And the other thing is that how do we translate the idea of what would be alpha male bullshit, which most advertising falls into, and how do we communicate that so that it doesn’t feel like alpha male bullshit? So that it doesn’t feel like Top Gun?

D: Haha…well yeah, because advertising by its very definition is trying to sell you something.

H: Sure, but I would argue that all storytelling is trying to sell you something. Whether its music videos, good advertising. I’m not talking about what I would call rudimentary advertising – this is how much it is and you can buy it here at this price. I mean, that’s fine, it is what it is. But what we’re trying to do I think is to try and associate an emotional state or a feeling with a brand. The more you try and clarify it in a room, the less it makes sense.

D: Because it sounds like you are trying to swindle. You’re talking about nebulous things, and it sounds like you’re trying to avoid the question because you’re not talking anything specific, you’re talking in these generalities, and sometimes you can see people looking at you like you’re a snake oil salesman.

H: So, my question to you is, how do you approach script selection? Obviously, we’re all a victim of what we get offered, but what’s in the back of your mind for script selection?

D: For me, I enjoy working on set, I enjoy cinematography, so I tend to always try and find the positives. My glass is always half full. I’m irrationally optimistic. I always look at a script and think about how good it could be, which can be seen as being a little less selective than some other directors.

H: Nah, but even if you are selective I think you have to approach them like that, or else you just wouldn’t bother.

D: Also, it comes back to lightning strike. There’s stuff I’ve done and not been overly excited, and it ends up being lightning rod that leads on to the next thing, and you can’t always predict what it’s going to be. Having said that, there have been some stinkers…

H: We’ve all done them. Everyone who has ever been anyone has done them.

D: I think the older I get the easier it has become for me to pick them out. You can see them coming a lot better. The worst thing is when there is a stinker with a big price tag attached, because there’s a lot of pressure, to make it.

H: Yeah, but I think the reality is that if you’re any good, you don’t have to make that much money. You will still make enough on the jobs you do want to do. If you live like that, the day is going to be horrible, and you’re going to pay for it. It will be horrible. No, you don’t have to live like that. So, in respect to the selection, what do you look for?

D: Well, in comedy at least, I look for a succinct expression that is going to be funny. Simplicity, succinctness, and on the briefing sheet, while there should be an idea of what is required, I look to see if there is an openness to let the idea breathe, letting it grow and evolve. What about you?

H: I’ve got a couple of caveats. One is that it has to make me feel like it’s something that I haven’t seen before, in quite the same way, and it obviously has to work in my mind. But also, having said that I want to make sure that everyone knows what its foibles could be, even if it’s not said out loud. You just need to feel like people know the foibles so that you can then avoid them.

D: Shoot me if I sound like an AD Guy, but I also think there has to be something in there that at least feels like it relates to the product. It has to make me think that the two are related.

H: Well that boils down to the truth of it, right?

D: Yeah, because otherwise it’s just a bad ad, and you’re not going to be able to make it work.

H: I agree. I think maybe when we started out you could get away with it by making it look cool, but now, no way.

D: Otherwise you’re making a spot that everyone talks about but nobody knows or can remember what it is for, and what’s the point in that?

Are there directors you admire and why?

D: I don’t think we need to cover that one. We’d probably say a lot of the same things anyway…I’ve got 20 names I could rattle off but it would just sound like a roll call.

H: Yeah, I think it’s anyone that is out there making cool shit. It could come from anywhere. Anyone who keeps trying to do something that is spontaneous and kind of in the moment, I would say that is someone who is interesting. I think to be able to navigate the tones that are allowable now, there’s so much stuff being made, to navigate all that and still come up with something that is pertinent, is very tricky. So, anyone who is doing that, hats off to them.


Read Part 1 of this interview HERE.

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