In the director’s chair: Pamela Romanowsky says ‘ultimately, we’re marketing to people and we all long for connection’

The latest in The Drum’s Director’s Chair series is director Pamela Romanowsky, who has made feature films including The Adderall Diaries and ads for many brands, including Dove.

In this interview, Romanowsky discusses her urge to work on a big automotive campaign, and probably one of the funniest moments on sets we’ve had on this series. To catch up with other articles, see what Doug Liman had to say, or creative collective Traktor.

Who or what inspired you to be a Director? (or who are your creative heroes and why?)

The Coens, Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze. I grew up in small town Minnesota, and driving to Minneapolis to see indie films at the Lagoon and a punk show at First Ave was my escape and inspiration. Since I grew up well outside a film culture, the first time it really sank in that there was a specific individual who was the author of a film was while watching the Oscars in 2000 with a big group of my high school friends.

That was the year of Magnolia, Being John Malkovich, American Beauty and Boys Don’t Cry, and it just suddenly clicked that among the hundreds of names in a credit sequence, there was a specific point of view being presented here: a human being who wanted to reach out with their experience of being in the world, in hopes that another human being would understand it.

I think that’s the most beautiful thing, to risk that kind of vulnerability, to be willing to put on the skin of someone else and understand them, and to ask the audience for the same compassion.

Outside of work, what are you into?

A dear friend of mine said, “what I like about you is that you have the same feeling that I do- that you just want to squeeze all the juice out of life while you can.” I’m into saying yes. I love adventure, I love connection, and I love inspiration.

Practically, that means I love riding my motorcycle, hording the largest fireworks available, dressing up for premieres and getting extremely dirty camping, buying fruit from anyone selling it on the side of the road anywhere I travel.

I love eating anything and everything, the museums and galleries that make New York the best city for inspiration, and the network of family, friends and colleagues who are willing to do it all with me, talk about each others’ rough edges and why we love them, and laugh till our faces hurt.

How would you describe your style of commercial/film making? What are you known for?

Empathetic. I work across television and films, so my strength is in character-based drama, and I’m proud of my versatility.

I think that real humanity and an emphasis on performance is critical no matter what you’re shooting, and that cinema is the art form that provides the most exciting opportunity for the marriage of substance and style.

It allows us to see from points of view outside of what we’d ever normally experience day to day.

Have you got an idea about what sort of projects you’d like to work on or are you quite open minded about what work comes your way?

I’m crazy about cars and motorcycles and am dying to do some big automotive work that’s thrilling, epic, character-led and FUN. On the flip side, I love projects that are connective: ultimately, we’re marketing to people and we all long for connection.

Why not lean into that and put some real feeling and humanity into your communication. I think that advertising is about selling a feeling, not just a specific product.

When you’re looking at scripts and projects that come in, is there anything in particular that you’re looking for?

Passion and clarity of message. Whatever the tone and content, everyone wants to be a part of something that’s presented with genuine passion.

It’s a massive privilege to do what we do, and it’s a blast, and we have to remember that when we’re being rained on for twelve hours in the middle of nowhere.

I also love to work with people who know what they want to say and believe in the strength of the message.

What's your funniest moment on set?

EXT. Downtown LA – Dawn – Fake 1893

The sun is rising on a film crew at the end of a very long night outside a gothic building in downtown LA that can only be shot from about six angles to look convincingly like the year it is meant to be, 1893.

A group of people carrying torches and dressed in blood masks, animal skins and skull masks enact an elaborate and gorey cult ceremony while a man is cut in half with a pendulum, a la Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

As the blood bath and Latin chanting reach a fever pitch, a beat-to-shit Toyota Camry screams around the corner, takes the mirrors off several cars as it swerves wildly before crashing into a fire hydrant conveniently located about two feet outside the frame currently being shot.

The bloodied 1893 sex cult stops chanting and turns to look at the wreck as steam rises from the hood. The director (this is me) calls cut, and tentatively approaches the wreck with AD and set medic in tow.

A man, completely naked from head to toe, steps out of the driver’s seat, where he has clearly been engaged in… something stimulating. His passenger, a fully dressed woman, also emerges. They stagger away from the car, unbothered by their nudity or smoking wrecked car. Both squint into the rising light, starting to register the torches, skulls and massive lake of blood coming from a disemboweled man.

They look at each other, shrug. The woman says to her companion, “Man, downtown is weird.”

What's your best piece of work?

I’m proudest of The Adderall Diaries, my first feature, and of a short Zulu language film I made for Dove chocolate called Khethiwe and the Leopard.

Which ad do you wish you'd made?

The Levi’s Go Forth campaign. I love poetry and to see these wild expressions of Americana and youth integrated back into contemporary culture with the same ecstatic spirit of freedom was so inspiring.

How well does the information flow between client, agency and production company on a job?

Good communication is everything. The most successful projects I’ve worked on have always had clarity, transparency and genuine passion for our shared goals. If you want to get somewhere extraordinary, or really anywhere at all, you have to make sure you’re all rowing in the same direction.

What's been the biggest change to the industry during your career?

The recognition of our massive diversity problem and the consequences it has on the content we create and the culture we affect. I’ve been asked about being a female director in every interview I’ve ever done.

This conversation has been going on long before I started working, but the genuine recognition that our culture is warped and negatively impacted by presenting images from only a 1% point of view feels like a major turning point.

Have you worked on any client direct commercials (no agency involved)? What's been the difference?

I have. I think both can be successful ways of working. The ideal strategy really depends on the scale of the project, the clarity of the vision, and the time you have before shooting to define and elevate the creative.

A good idea can come from anywhere, and as a director, I’m there to help bring it to life and connect with the audience. No matter who my creative partner is, that’s always our goal.