A recent diagnosis of diabetes has provoked a combative response from Jeff Stark. He’s determined to get fit. Bristling with vitality and soaked with sweat, the 69-year-old director arrives at the West End offices of Another Film Company for his Desert Island Clips interview having cycled from Putney after playing three sets of tennis. It’s a regime that would challenge a man half his age and it says a lot about Stark that he can take it in his stride... and it says even more about him that he wants everyone to know that he can take it in his stride.
“Not yet”, is his answer when asked if he’s ever directed a feature film. He’s not joking. Throughout our conversation, he consistently talks as though he’s roughly halfway through his career and there’s no indication he slowing down.
Jeff Stark began his career as a client before becoming a copywriter and then going on to become a director. It all started at Currys, where he was assistant advertising manager, a role he suggests he was pushed towards because of an inability to do anything more productive.
He says he was so lacking in confidence when he joined the company in 1964 that he impersonated Sean Connery at his interview. A tactical error – when he was given the job, Stark was obliged to maintain the accent until he felt it safe to let it fade away.
Feeling he’d “gone through the wrong door”, Stark quit Currys to become a copywriter at the unglamorous-sounding Agricultural & Technical Advertising. For the first time in his working life Stark found a positive outlet for his boundless energy – and the short attention span he’d always found to be a disadvantage was suddenly an asset.
A few years later, Stark was earning a good living churning out holiday brochures, but he was distracted by an awareness of a revolution happening in advertising... one he was desperate to join. He and a friend put together a reel of fake radio ads and this compilation eventually found its way to Jeremy Sinclair who liked it so much that he invited Stark to join Saatchi & Saatchi.
At 33, Stark had finally vaulted the perimeter fence and made it into the playground where he’d always wanted to be – and it was every bit as much fun as he hoped. Six years later he left Saatchis to form Hedger Mitchell Stark – a start-up that he ultimately sold back to the agency he’d left. One of the conditions of the sale obliged him to become creative director – a role he fulfilled for four years before he decided to quit advertising forever and sail around the world. Look how well that’s working out.
The first of Stark’s ‘Desert Island’ selections is Julian Dyer’s 1996 ‘Lifeboat’ commercial for Alka-Seltzer which he admires for its “beautiful simplicity”. Featuring two shipwreck survivors drifting in a lifeboat, the passage of time is established until, in the final shot, one of them has disappeared and the other is popping the advertised product into a glass of water. The voiceover opines: “Alka-Seltzer – when you’ve eaten something you shouldn’t have.”
It isn’t surprising this ad appeals to a director who used to be a copywriter: “Every director comes at it with something that’s second nature. If you’re an art director then making it look nice is second nature but telling the story is tricky. For me casting and performance are the intuitive bits – they’re second nature. When I started as a director, I worked really hard at creating a look that was mine.”
After a while this distinctive look began to prove counter productive: “Once I’d shown I could do it, people started to say ‘oh, here he goes again’ and I didn’t want that.” Like the Sean Connery accent he’d used to get a job many years earlier, he gently distanced himself from it.
Stark identifies veteran director Barry Myers as an influential figure. Myers had directed a number of Stark’s scripts when he was at Saatchi & Saatchi: “He was quite tyrannical but he was a good, good director and I used to just stand and watch him and take in what he was doing. He said to me: ‘when you start directing, the first few jobs you do will be really good and then you’ll be awful for a while when you get lost in the toys – the smoke machines and the fancy lenses’. And he was absolutely right... you end up saying: ‘I’m going to use this piece of equipment on my next commercial – whatever it is.’” Stark laughs heartily before adding: “Then you come back to what you know and you learn how to use the toys with restraint.”
“When you write a commercial, you can see it on the projector in your head and then you hand it to a director and he can see it on the projector in his head – the difference between the two is that agency creatives don’t pay any attention to the timing. A director can look at a script and say, ‘that turn will take half a second and that movement is a quarter of a second’ and so on and this is a part of the process that agency creatives don’t necessarily understand.
“So when I was a copywriter, I used to think: ‘if only I could get rid of this director then I could make the commercial that I can see in my head’ and most of the time I felt that I could have made a better commercial ... and I don’t think I was wrong. But sometimes – when I was a writer – a director would deliver a piece of film that was better than what I thought I’d written ... but not often.”
Stark recommends John Webster’s ‘twenty for thirty’ rule: “If you’re writing a thirty second ad then write one that could work in twenty seconds; if you’re writing a forty second ad then write one that could work in thirty and so on... allow the idea time to breathe. These days, nothing has much time to breathe.”
Stark moves on to his second selection: an ad made by legendary Chicago director Joe Sedelmaier for Alaska Airlines: “He was a big influence on me. I took what he did and made it more wide-angled; more extreme. Although he’s known for that distinctive visual style, the performances are always terrific.”
Having worked in America for 18 months before he became a director, Stark was extremely aware of work made by directors from across the Atlantic: “The other great American director I admired was Howard Zieff. He worked with people like Richard Dreyfuss, Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman before they were well known.” It’s a roll call that suggests Zieff was not so much casting commercials as scouting for major talent but, for Stark, the significance of the star names is Zieff’s ability to “cast people who can deliver brilliant performances”.
He identifies a 1970 commercial for General Motors featuring Robert De Niro as his third selection. It’s a typical example of Zieff’s work and Stark demonstrates how well he knows it by reciting the whole ad with an authentic Italian-American accent. His impersonation is actually a good deal more animated than De Niro’s performance in the ad, demonstrating that the ‘projector in Stark’s head’ is still looking to improve every film he sees.
Jeff Stark’s fourth Desert Island Clip demonstrates his own ability to unearth talent when casting, as his ad for Tango was the first significant appearance by a young James Corden. “It was a ‘cattle-call’ type of casting and it was actually a choice between him and Russell Tovey – both of whom went on to become ‘History Boys’.”
Stark remembers talking about the final decision with HHCL’s Jonathan Burley: “I said, ‘he’s really good but he’s fat and it’s for a fizzy drink... is that really what they want?’ But he was very relaxed about it, he just said, ‘yeah... it’s Tango.’”
In the commercial, Corden is taunted by ginger-haired bullies representing the advertised drink. This was 1998 and Tango relished its reputation for controversy – it was no surprise when the commercial was banned after just two weeks.
“If we’d gone with Russell Tovey then who knows ... but [Corden] was great. A lot of it was improvised. There’s a bit when they’re all copying him and he goes, ‘eugh’ [Stark provides an impersonation of a pitiful groan] and they all go, ‘eugh’ and then he says, ‘that’s not even a word’ and they all say ‘that’s not even a word’. You don’t get to that point sitting in an office and writing on a piece of paper.
“I love the theatre of excruciation. I love Abigail’s Party and I thought about choosing a scene from it as one of my clips; and I love Ricky Gervais. I love the thing with the midget [Life’s Too Short]. A lot of people thought he’d gone too far, but I loved it because it’s excruciatingly embarrassing and true.”
This accounts for the first of Stark’s non-advertising selections – a scene from Robert Altman’s 1975 film ‘Nashville’. Bogus journalist Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) is flirtatiously interviewing Bud Hamilton (Dave Peel) at a party hosted by Bud’s father – a famous country and western singer. Opal draws Bud into admitting he has musical ambitions of his own and persuades him to perform one of his songs. But his intimate recital ends abruptly when Opal realises Elliot Gould has arrived at the party and she departs without appearing to notice Bud hasn’t finished his song. As Stark says: “it’s wonderfully embarrassing and sad”.
Jeff Stark isn’t content with merely creating comedy on film. He was a stand-up comedian during the early days of the Comedy Store alongside “Alexei Sayle and those guys from the Comic Strip”. This is part of a life away from the world of advertising that also includes the aborted effort to circumnavigate the planet accompanied only by his wife: “I got bored with sailing around the world around about Tonga so I got this Bulgarian guy to sail the boat back and I flew to London.” He isn’t specific about which route home his wife chose.
“Boddingtons was fun to do,” he says of his sixth choice – a spoof of a famous Cornetto commercial. Instead of an ice cream, a pint of the Manchester brewed bitter is snatched from a man aboard a gondola. Once again, part of Stark’s pleasure comes from a sense that he had unearthed a star: “Anna Chancellor was the girl in the boat and she was nobody at that time, couldn’t get arrested, and she ended up marrying the camera operator [Nigel Willoughby] from the shoot.”
He says: “I like doing spoofs, especially spoofs of arty-farty ads as you get to do all the stuff with fancy lenses and smoke and mirrors... you can be as pretentious as you like and then you get to do the comedy put-down at the end. And the higher you build it, the funnier it is at the end when you knock it all over.”
Stark’s second non-advertising selection is also a spoof. It’s ‘Putting On The Ritz’ from Mel Brooks’s film ‘Young Frankenstein’ and features Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle doing their own version of Fred Astaire’s famous dance routine. It’s very funny. He also expresses enthusiasm for a remix by Club Beluga: “It shows how good Astaire was... so much better than Michael Jackson; just so much better.” When it’s put to him that Astaire devotees aren’t keen on interfering with the original footage, Stark is unequivocal: “oh, I love it ... it’s improved the archive material.”
“Why did I choose that?” Stark asks aloud about his final choice – Ridley Scott’s ‘1984’ ad for Apple. “I was thinking: ‘what’s mould-breaking?’ It has a movie-like quality. It’s quite Tony Kaye-ish in a way. It’s all mood and it has a great atmosphere about it. It’s incredibly visually powerful, and I know I couldn’t do that. It’s not the kind of thing I could do. I actually admire it because I couldn’t do it.”
This admission highlights another facet of Jeff Stark – for all of his considerable achievements, he recognises his limitations. He has accomplished so much but you wouldn’t really know it from the modest way he talks. He’s wise enough to know that success is partially down to being in the right place at the right time, and he appears happy to allow people to discount the scramble it takes to get there and just think of him as lucky.
Right now, Stark is considering a return to the stage as a stand-up comedian: “I’d love to do a whole routine about getting old.” And if that doesn’t work out, there’s always the prospect of that feature film he’s never made or the possibility of flying to Tonga and completing his voyage around the world. And in the meantime... more commercials.
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