Each interviewee in this series has faced the difficulty of deciding how much of their own work to include in their selection, but no one seems to have agonised over this as much as Stuart Douglas of Nice Shirt Films. It was clear that he’d much rather champion films made by other directors than big up his own work.
This is one of the reasons why he’s as far from the stereotypical representation of a film director as it’s possible to be. Quietly spoken and faultlessly polite, Douglas is thoughtful in both senses. It wasn’t a surprise when he revealed that the thought of including any of his own commercials had made him “uncomfortable” and it was only because of arm twisting by colleagues that he’d included anything from his own canon.
His life behind the camera began as half of the stills photography duo The Douglas Brothers. He and his brother Andrew established a formidable reputation in the late 1980s and were celebrated for a distinctive look that was much copied. Like some of their contemporaries, they graduated from photographing album covers to directing pop promos.
Then, as now, pop promos did not pay very well, so the brothers jumped at an opportunity provided by Tim Delaney. Having just won the Adidas account, Delaney wanted to surprise the sportswear giant with an “entirely new approach” and believed he could do this by giving the Douglases carte blanche – “he gave us a bunch of money, the likes of which we’d never seen before, and said ‘Go away. Bring me back films. Bring me back stills. Bring me back anything,’ and so we went to America, toured around, and came back with around 17 different commercials.”
Was it terrifying to be given such an open brief? “No, we thought it was normal. We thought this was how it worked – they just give you a load of money and you make what you want.” To his regret, Douglas has spent the rest of his career discovering how atypical this experience was.
He and Andrew stayed together for as long as they could, trying to make the dual director approach work: “It’s not easy. On set, there’s a machine and the instructions need to be clear. And quite often we would give conflicting directions.”
As the younger of the two, he recognises now that he was trying to grab his “own bit of authority”.
“It became quite fiery. We’d have fist fights on the set, much to the crew’s amusement. And we held it together as long as we could but actually it was really miserable. Miserable for us and miserable for the people around us.
“We called it a day – quite acrimoniously actually – and he went to the States which was good as it gave me some space here and, of course, it gave him space over there. We didn’t talk for about five years but we’re fine now.”
Although it was “daunting” to step into the directing arena by himself, he had all the experience required to quickly established a solo career and he’s been successfully making commercials ever since.
“It’s just so stylish and edgy at the same time,” explains Douglas when asked why he selected Johnny Green’s 2008 Mercedes commercial featuring Josh Brolin. “It gets its tone from the music track (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) which is really dark. It’s really well cut and it’s really well shot. And it’s just full of atmosphere. And because it’s a car that can sometimes have connotations of being driven by gentle old men, it provided a really fresh look at [the brand].”
After delivering such a positive appraisal, Douglas laughingly owns up to professional envy: “I was gutted when I first saw it... because I loved it.”
This leads to a discussion about the way directors can be typecast which is clearly a source of frustration: “I find that I’m pigeon-holed in a number of pigeon holes. There are some people that only know me for car photography.
The majority of the UK industry know me as ‘Waitrose boy’ – you know, pretty landscapes, slightly romanticised versions of the UK. Then there was a spate of work that put me in the sport pigeon hole. I’m quite lucky in that I’ve managed to jump pigeon holes but it can still be frustrating.
“I think – at the moment – people know me for quiet, pretty visuals... for a romanticised version of reality. Whereas actually – inside – I am inside much closer to Johnny Green’s Mercedes than I am to ‘children in sunshiny fields’ so when I see something like the Mercedes film I just think, ‘Damn, that’s really good. I wish I’d done that.’”
“The work that Tom (Carty) and Walt (Campbell) did on Volvo absolutely changed my viewpoint of commercials and how I wanted to work. When I saw ‘Twister’ it was a revelation. Just the way it opens with that little montage... there’s so much emotion was in there. So many great images were in there. And it tells a story in a very, very left- field way about this car. And I thought it was fantastic that Tom, Walt, director Tony Kaye and the whole account team at Abbott Mead got this on air.”
Douglas doubts that it would be possible to get approval for a piece of work like this anymore: “The journey to get a really nice piece of work on air is long and difficult and there’s a lot of opinions that you have to hurdle and quite often – increasingly often – those hurdles can trip you up and what you can end up with is conservative and mediocre.
“It’s especially frustrating when the treatment that’s been approved is scythed down... especially when it’s done using research figures which, on the whole, are manipulated and mean nothing anyway.”
“I am a big fan of the guy who wrote it – Nick Worthington – and I really wish he and his ilk were still in the industry because he was always pushing and pushing to see what we could do to bring some originality... something surprising.
“With Levi’s ‘Drug Store’ you had (Michel) Gondry directing and he brought all his tricks to the table – it’s genius the way he creates things in his head. And in the end it’s just a wonderful piece of storytelling. Lovely ending – the first time you see it, you don’t know where it’s going.”
Douglas’s next selection is an Australian road safety film directed by Sean Meehan – another director on the Nice Shirt roster: “I put this in because I think it’s a really accomplished piece of communication. It was important that not everything on my list was chosen because of visual reasons and, although this is very nicely shot, it’s not stylised in any way.
“What’s great about it is that the performances are fantastic; they’re so naturally observed. There’s such a light touch from Sean at the helm and I think it’s a quite brilliant bit of directing – and then, like all good Australian road safety commercials, when the twist comes... fucking hell – the first time I saw it, I almost fell off the chair. I didn’t see it coming at all.”
Part of the film’s success lies in the audience’s immediate engagement with the two protagonists and Douglas acknowledges that this is “a very particular skill and a lot more difficult than people sometimes recognise. Ultimately that’s our job... to communicate a story.”
Because of his route into the business, this was a skill that Douglas had to develop over time and he describes it as “a very gradual process which involved listening to a lot of knowledgeable people – when an experienced creative contributes to an edit, you might be thinking: ‘you’re messing with my pictures – what are you doing?’ but actually if you’re open enough to give them a chance, you can see what they’re trying to do – they might not want your favourite images – but if the film then communicates its point better then that doesn’t matter.”
The third person in the room in this scenario is the editor and Stuart Douglas has nothing but praise for the work they do: “I love editing. I love the skill of editing. I love what editors do. And I think a great editor can make or break the material that we bring.”
Douglas chose Peter Thwaite’s Castrol commercial because “it’s a fantastic visual analogy using a photographic technique. I don’t know if it was the creative’s idea or whether it was Peter’s idea. I suspect it was Peter’s idea and I want to think it was Peter’s idea... using a time-lapse approach to photograph traffic at night with long exposures and – to give the connection with what Castrol does – he’s moving the camera. So the traffic is jagged and sharp... and it grates and you can feel it and then gradually it starts to smooth out and it becomes liquid movement. It’s just a great visual technique and it perfectly describes the product without spelling anything out.”
“I’m not known for my comedy work,” Douglas in a perfect deadpan voice as he introduces a hilarious commercial for Canal+ as his next selection, “but I can appreciate good comedy. It’s well shot, well told and just really funny.”
Does he think ads like this that have very funny punchlines stand up to repeated viewings? “Great writing never gets tired,” he says before explaining how it’s possible to introduce elements specifically designed to reward subsequent viewings – he and the creative team will sometimes devise “little surprises that you might not get first, second, third viewing but will reveal themselves after repeated viewings and can add to the strength [of the commercial].”
Douglas’s next selection also has a strong punchline – Frank Budgen’s commercial for Stella Artois featuring a soldier returning to his home village with the man who heroically saved his life. “Look at the craft skills – the visuals, the scenic direction and the performances are all fantastic. It’s just a great little story, well-told and it incorporates the product into it’s reasoning. It’s a perfectly executed TV commercial.”
The only selection directed by Douglas himself was a trailer for a series of nine two-minute films “released over a number of days to tell a complete story. It came out of Dare when it was still pretty much a digital agency. It wanted something a bit different for Sony Ericsson. They had a basic notion of what they wanted – a guy who’s lost his memory who somehow uses the phone to figure out who he is. Not a terribly original premise but we were then given total freedom to write the script. It gave me a little taste of what it would be like to make a feature.”
Is this an ambition for him? “I would be lying if I said ‘no’ but I think you need a certain kind of personality to have the determination and the tenacity to break into it and even though I think I could do a good job, I’m just not sure. I remember Jonathan Glazer telling me that [making a feature] is like being beaten around the head with a baseball bat every single day and I’m not sure I’ve got a strong enough personality for that. Having said that, I’d love to.”
If ruthlessness and ego-driven self-certainty are required to direct a feature film then Douglas may be correct to think that it’s beyond him. It probably wouldn’t have occurred to someone with the ‘determination and tenacity’ he describes to use an interview to heap praise on directors they admire rather than upon themselves. Indeed, he wanted to include a ninth commercial so he could express his admiration for the most recent John Lewis Christmas ad – he thinks it’s astonishing that Dougal Wilson manages to make us care so much about a love story between two characters made of snow.
But with a bit of luck he’ll be proven wrong about features, the right project backed by the right people will come his way and we’ll all get the opportunity to see what he can do on a larger canvas. He’s succeeded at everything else he’s tried so there’s no reason to suppose he wouldn’t triumph again. After all, he may be a very modest man but his talents are anything but.