Were you interested in film from an early age? Which films made an impression on you?
Oh yes. I’ve always consumed music and film voraciously. I’m also genre agnostic. Mary Poppins (1964), Robin Hood [Disney animated] (1973), Time Bandits (1981), Gremlins (1984), Days Of Thunder (1990), Metropolitan (1990), Kafka (1991), Miller’s Crossing (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Defending Your Life (1991) and JFK (1991) – that’s me in a nutshell. Case solved.
Can you tell us a bit about your route into filmmaking?
I went straight from high school to film school, in Johannesburg. Although I’ve always had long form ambitions, South Africa never generated television or films of pedigree. But the advertising was world class.
I have always been drawn to great narratives, strikingly told. I was a huge fan of the initial wave of British commercials makers, who moved into features; Ridley and Tony Scott, Adrian Lyne and Alan Parker. As well as the next generation of American commercial and music videos makers that followed; Jonze, Fincher, Mills.
It was only in South African advertising, that I saw the route to how to work on that level. So, straight after film school I held out for a gig working at a top-notch commercials production house. Six months out of film school I did get my job as a creative researcher. I was lucky enough to be taken under the wing of the co-owner and flagship director, Lourens van Rensburg. Two months into my gig, Lourens was prepping a big VW campaign – there were four ads, but they had money for three – and Lourens told the agency that the company would do the fourth, if I could direct it. He sent off my showreel, which consisted of a spec spot and experimental film I had made at film school. The agency agreed. I shot the ad and it won a Silver Loerie (South Africa’s premier advertising award).
I continued with my research duties and a few months later, the company passed me a great pro-active script for a church (yes, a church). It later became a Cannes finalist and got me featured on the Saatchi and Saatchi New Director’s Showcase. I was 23 years old. From that point on, I started working in various international markets.
From Marc Sidelsky’s KFC commercial
Having spent most of your life living in Johannesburg, you’re now moving back to your birthplace, Canada – what prompted the move and what experiences or perspectives will you be taking with you, having learned and shaped your craft in South Africa?
There are two important components to the decision. Firstly, I have a young son, and my wife and I believe that Canada possesses a kind, sensible and responsible society that would benefit him. My wife is Canadian too – and after many years with us being surrounded by my brothers and mother in South Africa – it’s time for the other grandparents, uncles and aunts to get some screen-time.
The other reason, professionally speaking, is to reposition myself geographically. I want to be physically closer to the North American, British and European markets. I also find that South African creative has generally become increasingly insular – often relying on an inside joke, social commentary or a colloquial saying. The work doesn’t really travel anymore. I’m aiming for bigger budgets and bigger ideas. I will miss my superb collaborators – South Africans have an amazing can-do spirit. I’ve learnt how to do a lot, with a little. I’ve trained myself to be precise, because there is little margin for error.
Your casting, styling and set design feel meticulously chosen: does that reflect the way you work in general? How much of a perfectionist are you?
Something is either right or it’s wrong… in my mind. I’m either excited about an actor in a role… or I’m not. I always have a firm gameplan in mind – framing, the cuts – how the story is told, but I do remain open too. If I see an opportunity on the day or the actor does something new, I’m always ready to recalibrate.
I do spend a lot of time doing framegrabs in the post process – drawing arrows on all the frames for clean-ups – and the polishing of the final product is very important to me. I’ll also go home after an offline edit, with the cut on my computer and replay it incessantly, a hundred times. I just want to absorb the rhythm of it. The repetition helps me get a sense whether something is off in a performance, if a shot runs a few frames too long, whether a shot needs to be re-racked etc.
As for being a perfectionist in general – I’m definitely not the ‘not a hair out of place’ guy! I’m staying in an Airbnb at the moment, I’m out of town for a shoot, and there is stuff strewn everywhere, it’s far from crisp and immaculate.
Shelflife: Stussy x Nike
There’s a real range of shades of humour displayed across your work: from deadpan to whimsical and shocking. Do you think of yourself as a naturally funny person? What’s the hardest thing about writing and directing comedy?
I’ve always been told I’m very funny! I think the various shades you mention goes back to my film influences, which are varied and eclectic. I also love that fact that my work has been considered very funny and visually striking: I adore the fusion of elements. I know that with comedy, it’s myself that I have to please first. The biggest hurdle is winning my own approval. I have to smile or giggle deep inside – then I know. That goes for writing or watching on my monitor on-set. I’ve had other people on-set think something is fantastic, and I know it sucks. It’s important to think of your original intention and not get swung by the thrill of the shoot or the zany art department.
What we like most about your films for Shelflife is that they swerve the usual cliches associated with fashion films yet still manage to put the product at the heart of the narrative. Did you consciously set out to make a riposte to the ‘typical’ fashion film?
I actually did. In the last couple years I’d worked on a few campaigns for local fashion retailers. I’d begun to ponder the tone of most fashion advertising. Why couldn’t it be concept-based? Why couldn’t it be funny? How about an engaging, stylish, darkly amusing tale where the clothes were integrated seamlessly [and were] key to the plot? No-one needs to see more ads of people posing against a graffiti wall, holding flares or staring humorlessly into camera. So that was my headspace.
But it was always important that I retained some of the category lessons I had learned – focus on the product, make it look amazing, shower it with love. The goal was to be smart, witty, unique and beautiful, not just beautiful and vacuous.
Shelflife: Stussy x Nike
Do you ever draw on your personal life for inspiration for your films? Where else do you find creative inspiration?
Sure, in the “Stussy x Nike” film alone; my actual dog’s name is Teddy, my brother is the dentist in the film (a job he enjoys professionally – that’s his practice)… but I’m not a ‘hat guy’.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned in 2020?
Use your time. Professionally and personally. We all had long periods of self-reflection last year, it was scarily quiet. But if you remained calm, it was easier to hear yourself.
Marc Sidelsky on set
After winning an 1.4 Award, what else is on the cards for you this year?
From my new base in Vancouver, I’ll be hopefully shooting beautiful, hilarious work, in a multitude of markets. Aside from winning the 1.4 Award itself, it’s very empowering to see oneself featured next to such brilliant filmmakers who I hold in such high regard.
Interview by Selena Schleh
Marc Sidelsky’s website
Shelflife: Stussy x Nike and Shelflife, Nike MMW
Written and directed by Marc Sidelsky