Shaking off the French directing stranglehold on counter-cultural themes illuminated by the likes of Romain Gavras and sidestepping the current trend for all-things-aesthetically-LA, Yann’s work gives voice to a new and very British sensibility. It’s not the Britain of Hovis ads and Danny Boyle opening-ceremony theatrics though, but instead one that’s much more deeply rooted in close observation of youth coming of age in the late-and-post noughties.
Yann’s credits include the stonking BAFTA-nominated zombie satire Dead Set and the elegantly observed Top Boy set on an East London housing estate, and commercials for Home Office and most recently Grolsch.
Your background is actually in directing drama right? Can you tell us how you got into that?
Yes, I have predominantly directed long form, though I am making a conscious shift this year. After Top Boy I decided to throw myself into commercials and hopefully direct my first feature film at the beginning of next year. I love the discipline short form entails and the level of craft you come across. There’s a lot for me to learn from the medium and I’m really enjoying myself at the moment. Just what I needed after the 13-month commitment that was Top Boy.
I basically started as a runner, mainly on music videos, many years ago. I then became an edit assistant and eventually started making short films. I then thought I better get some education and did a Film BA at LCP. After graduating I just couldn’t get a break directing fiction. That was where my heart was at, I was desperate to tell stories. I applied for every scheme in the country more or less and kept getting knock backs. At the time a friend of mine was working for an anthropology research company that specialised in ethnographic research. She introduced me to them and that’s how I stumbled into making observational documentaries.
That period was a major influence on how I work now. It really taught me to observe people and never lose sight of the emotional engagement you make with the actors, it’s key, above all else. I think we just want to know about people and how they react in situations whether extraordinary or mundane.
After a couple of years making these observational films I went to the NFTS to do the Fiction Direction MA and was relentlessly shooting, I cranked out something like seven short films in two years. I signed with Stink for commercials and ICM in London and LA for drama upon graduating and it just rolled on from there really. Drama happened to kick off a lot quicker than commercials for me.
You’ve collaborated with some amazing talent, including the darkly comedic Charlie Brooker. What was it like killing Davina McCall off in a zombie attack in “Dead Set”?!
I’ve been really fortunate with the writers I have collaborated with. Lucy Prebble, Charlie Brooker, Peter Moffat and Ronan Bennet. I have learnt so much from them. It’s all about holding out for material that excites you, that scares you almost at times. Ripping Davina’s throat out remains a highlight for me thus far. It was a real two fingers up to the whole Big Brother thing. Davina was great, she was completely up for satirising it and is actually a really good actress. Charlie’s clever acerbic voice was great fun to direct, I hope we get to make a film together someday.
Your reel also shows an ongoing engagement in issues surrounding youth and a social awareness that a lot of directors shy away from engaging with. What is it that draws you to that sort of honesty in your work?
I guess so, I haven’t really thought about it like that. It’s honestly not a conscious agenda or strategy. I just go one step at a time and see what engages me next. The next long form project I am set to direct is a visceral chase thriller called 71 set in Belfast at the beginning of the troubles. I never had an agenda or burning desire to make a film set in Ireland during that period. I was sent the script and utterly engaged from the off. I wanted to tell the boys story at the heart of the film. It’s always the characters that hook me in, not a subject. I’m not a polemicist, I simply want to tell engaging stories about people that move me.
Your new Grolsch spots feel like an evolution in the tone of your work as a director – a different kind of darkness (with humour) and a shift in cinematography. Were you conscious of wanting to go in a slightly different direction?
Yes I have been wanting to try a different aesthetic and material. I’m actually eager to do more comedy for instance. Not that these are comedy, but when the opportunity arose to try something new with these scripts, I leapt at it. I think it’s important to keep pushing beyond your comfort zone.
Is the Batman / Nolan nod intentional or are we reading into it?!
In my mind I was always approaching the Journt Grolsch spot as if it were a neo noir graphic novel. I didn’t have Nolan in mind when I was directing the film, though I love what he does. Once we were in the edit we were experimenting with music and the editor Patrick Ryan put it on as a punt really and we immediately felt it was right. So in the end it was definitely an intentional nod. We borrowed, or stole, the music as it helps to nail the tone quickly I feel.
Director: Yann Demange
Production Co: Stink