Toyota Tougher Than You Can Imagine is big in everyway – big production, big laughs – was it a big hassle to make?
Hilux was a pretty rare case of having enough time and enough money to be able to pull off what we wanted.
It’s strange to say, but the challenges were never insurmountable. We had so much prep time that we knew exactly how it was going to work out. We had a magnificent group of people at all levels, and I was working with my friend and right hand woman – director of photography, Ginny Loane. We talk in this strange combination of sign language and facial expressions. She can tell what I’m thinking just in the way I hum under my breath.
Queenstown played nice as well. There was moment on the last day when the legendary first AD, Joe Nolan, turned to me and said he’d never been on a shoot in Queenstown that had been so lucky with the weather. And he’s shot more commercials than I’ve had hot dinners. Over five days, we had light snow for about two minutes, and that was it. And two days after we wrapped, the worst storm in fifty years hit, shutting down airports and stranding our remaining crew in the casino. So we were lucky in that respect.
Was it your treatment that won you the job?
I think the treatment probably went a lot of the way to getting attention. It helped give a certain expectation, and got us in the door. From there it was explaining it in person.
We had some A3 concept artwork drawn up, and turned it into a kind of epic comic book. I remember sitting in the waiting room flicking through it, some toy cars in my lap for props, and thinking, if nothing else, this will be memorable.
I also played the music that ended up in the final commercial in that first meeting. I didn’t tell them until much later, but it was from an ad for a theme park in the UK that I saw as a kid. It stuck in my mind from age five, and I think by the end of the job, everyone was humming it – whether they wanted to or not.
Were any ideas dropped?
I originally had quite a few supporting characters that we saw along the way – climbers on the snowy hill, a kind of old man ‘wanderer’ in one of the later shots. I was trying to build a Terry Gilliam themed world with these slightly eccentric moments, but in the end these smaller details fell by the wayside to make more of what we had. I also saw the chimp as being more of a Napoleonic character, though this got pared back. And I think the bike was Steampunk influenced too. All flights of fancy, and maybe a bit extreme, but not in a Gilliam sense.
Did you storyboard every frame or was there room for some magic moments?
We boarded about ninety percent of it. The end sequence where the Hilux and the boar/chimp juggernaut are side by side was a bit more fluid. We knew we needed just enough to get the feeling of moving at speed, and still see the details in the characters.
The most magic moment for me was on the first day. We spent most of it shooting the guys at the dairy. We did maybe twelve takes to get the driver into his story, and have him feeling loose enough to take a few chances. It just kept getting better, and on about the seventh take, Mike (the driver) just threw in the ‘hold onto your steak and cheese’ line. I knew that was a golden piece of dialogue that we could hold the story around, so it was a great moment.
Is this our first major foray into special effects? Did it take forever to do the post?
This was our first major step into something of this size. I’d been around the processes enough to know how to execute it. Plus, we never wanted it to feel too effect driven, so a lot of the time we kept reminding ourselves that it had to feel in the realm of reality, no matter how absurd the moment on screen was.
“We’ve got our ducks in a row,” Damon (our 3D supervisor) would say, and he was right. I think it was six weeks of post from memory? There was never any stress though, because Assembly and Blockhead (our 3D and 2D guys) threw all their spare hands at it. They had enough time to put in that final ten to fifteen percent, where lava goes from simply being put in the frame, to being finessed down to the smallest, most molten detail. Though I did feel for Stefan Coorey, our lead 2D artist. With each passing week, he’d look more exhausted. A few days from the end he turned to me and said “every night, that damn boar is sitting there, staring at me in my dreams”.
You won festival accolades with your graduation film Cargo. Would you like to direct more films or are you focusing on commercials for the time being.
Before Hilux, I’d just finished shooting my fourth (and probably last) short film. I don’t think films and commercials are mutually exclusive, you can just do commercials more frequently. Both disciplines allow you to work with great people and hone your skills. I’ve got a few bigger film projects planned, and when they’re ready they can start moving to the foreground. For now, I’m going to finish the short, keep writing, and keep doing commercials.
The narrative of Cargo looks dramatic and yet your recent work is more humorous. Was this a conscious decision to move into comedy or do New Zealand scripts for commercials tend to be funny?
I’d like to think I can make any script work, and bring a cinematic angle to it. The last two just happened to be comedy. For MySky, we used Alexander Payne and Wes Anderson as inspiration – they’ve got a great sense of subtle comic timing. I liked the potential for absurd humour in Hilux, so we used Gilliam as a reference. For each genre, I have my inspirations, and I try to bring a little piece of them into each project that I do.
Aside from Toyota what are the other pieces of work that you are most proud of and why?
I’m proud of each commercial in its own way. House of Travel was a mammoth undertaking, achieved with a small, jet-lagged team – traveling economy. And just to get to the end of the MySky shoot was a triumph over insanity– 63 shots in two days. I’ve done almost all my ads with my producer Nikki Smith – she’s a key collaborator and part time therapist. I’m always proud to turn to her after a shoot when we both know we’ve got it. That was the feeling after we shared a hug on the final shot of Hilux – achieving something we’re proud of.
I’ve just finished another Hallenstiens ad, and that’s my favourite for now. We had no time (two days shooting in the sleepy quiet that is Mexico City), a low budget and very loose parameters. It was like working on a film again, a pretty open process, non-actors and a small crew. And the first time I’ve needed bodyguards.
What’s the best piece of advice about film making anyone’s ever given you?
I met Alfonso Cuaron at Venice, when Cargo was screening there. I’d be lying if I could remember anything specific he said, but we talked a lot about keeping things simple. He wasn’t into forcing audiences with emotionally leading music, obvious or expositional dialogue. At that early stage, it was great to listen to someone who trusted and respected the audience enough to let them fill in the blanks. A lot of the time on set, I think about that – not trying to be obvious about what we say or how we say it.
Who in the creative film making world would you most like to have a conversation with?
If they were alive, I’d talk to Kubrick and Tarkovsky.
But I’d take their living incarnations – Jonathan Glazer and Andrey Zvyagintsev.
Glazer is effortlessly cinematic and such a chameleon. You never know what he’s doing next. When I was a kid in the UK, I remember his work in the ad breaks was more interesting than the programs themselves. Considering it was often Blue Peter and cartoons like Thundercats, this was no mean feat.
I’ve always wondered what it would have been like in that era of advertising in the UK – multi million dollar projects and huge personalities coming together. I think he’d be the one to ask.
I’d ask Zvyagintsev how he writes and prepares his films in such a structured way. Every frame says something without being heavy handed. I’d love to know if there is any truth in the myth that his debut, The Return, was made for less than half a million dollars.
How long have I been with thick as thieves?
I’ve been with the guys at Thick as Thieves for about a year and a half now. Nik Beachman met me at the Qantas awards when Cargo was nominated a few years back. I was there with my twin brother, and I think he did a bit of a double take when I shook his hand. He liked the film and asked if I’d ever thought about commercials. I learnt about the pitching process from Nik and the specifics of treatments from Alex Sutherland – he taught me more in a few months than years of film school ever could.
Production Company: Thick as Thieves
Director: Leo Woodhead
Executive Producer: Nik Beachman
Producer: Nikki Smith
Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi New Zealand
Client: Toyota Hilux