Creative Director House of Cards

In the Director’s Chair: Tom Shankland on learning from actors & unhealthy obsessions with Roman emperors


By Charlotte McEleny | Asia Editor

February 11, 2019 | 13 min read

The latest director to answer The Drum’s questions in our Director’s Chair series is Tom Shankland, who is represented by Great Guns for branded content. Having worked on TV shows such as Les Misérables and House of Cards, Shankland talks to the Drum about being inspired by actors and why the original Tango ad is still the best ad.

Les Mis

In the Director’s Chair: Tom Shankland on learning from actors & unhealthy obsessions with Roman emperors

Previously in the series, The Drum has quizzed Matías Moltrasio, Jamie Jay Johnson, Emmanuel Adjei, Henry Busby, Andrew Lang, Camille Marotte, Mea Dols de Jong, Klaus Obermeyer, Eli Roth, Mate Steinforth, Pamela Romanowsky, Traktor and Doug Liman.

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

Once upon a time in Italy, my dad took me to an open-air screening of Spartacus. I can still hear the cries of 'Io sono Spartacus!' echoing around the night sky as bats flew across the screen. At the time, I probably had a very unhealthy obsession with very violent Roman emperors, so I'm blaming Stanley Kubrick, Kirk Douglas, Emperor Caligula and my dad for my (healthier?) obsession with the awesome, emotional, inspirational power of cinema.

Outside of work, what are you into?

If I'm not dreaming up shots or cursing budgets, I love being as childish as humanly possible with my kids, leaping around a soft-play area, racing around the kitchen with my one-and-a-half-year-old in the guise of a squeaky anime creature. I like cooking for friends and family, transcendental meditation, pouring over photography books, and anything at all with my girlfriend.

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

My directing heroes like Billy Wilder or Howard Hawks seemed to make musicals one month, film noirs the next, and a classic Western just after that. I like to push myself towards genres I haven't tried before. It was great to venture into the Marvel universe for the pilot of The Punisher, come up for air and then dive deep into Victor Hugo's 19th France with Les Misérables and all of the challenges of a classic literary adaptation and period drama.

I love working with actors and have been lucky to work with some of the best – Tom Hardy (WΔZ), Olivia Colman (Les Mis), Robin Wright (House of Cards), Dominic West (Les Mis), David Oyelowo (Les Mis) and many others. As a director, I've learned so much from listening to the actors. A strong vision is essential but without collaboration, it can end up being imposing and dull. I always enjoy trying to squeeze every drop of emotional truth from a moment, however, heightened, bizarre, or seemingly implausible a scene might be.

Much that I love actors, I'm also a massive Alfred Hitchcock fan, who famously quipped that actors are cattle. Hitch was probably just being mischievous but I've always loved his 'Total Cinema'. A good script and good performances alone don’t make filmmaking. I'm always looking for ways to use every element of the medium to max out on tension and create visual metaphors. Whatever I'm doing, I want to keep the audience on the edge of their seats!

I approach commercials in exactly the same way. Of course, short-form is a very different discipline, but the ingredients are the same: framing, sound, performance, design, the rhythm of the storytelling. I find it fascinating because it’s like a beautiful miniature. You have to work so much more forensically but it is still about pictures, people, and story.

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 love to have adventures I haven't had before. If I'm reading something new, I like that little feeling of fear and excitement about stepping into a story or setting I haven't explored before. The protagonist or people have to grab me in some way. I don't have to love them, I just have to be fascinated by what makes them tick.

Increasingly, if it is drama, I like scripts that try to talk about the world we live in now. I wish I was drawn to escapist entertainment, but I always gravitate to pieces that feel like they might resonate with the audience's own experiences. The Marvel shows I've done might look like superhero fun on the surface, but Black Lives Matter and the tough times faced by war veterans haunt Luke Cage and The Punisher. I'm not automatically drawn to period pieces but there was so much in Andrew Davies' adaptation of Les Misérables that made me think of our current chaotic political situation and social injustices. I'm not interested in preachy soapbox stuff, but I like it when great entertainment also tries to be smart and thought-provoking.

What's your funniest moment on set?

I love shooting and I generally find that the darker the piece, the more entertaining the atmosphere is on set. I made a film called The Children where little kids turn on their parents in increasingly disturbing ways. I wanted it to be a smart chiller about parental anxieties and how people deal with aggression in their kids. Needless to say, everybody was very concerned about making sure the child actors weren't remotely disturbed by the material, so the crew and I went to great lengths to turn everything into a fun game. One of the children we worked with actually got in touch with me recently and sounded incredibly well-balanced.

The kids loved the experience - the adults were completely freaked out! I can still remember one six-year-old going up to her screen mum at lunchtime, pretending to jab a pen in her eye. Once she had learned that she was going to do this for a scene, she thought it was hilarious. At the end of the shoot, the children wanted to keep their blood-spattered costumes as a souvenir. They were incredibly sad when it all ended. Scary film – a wonderfully fun shoot!

What's your best piece of work?

I'm proud of everything that I've done where I felt the vision was at its purest. This isn't the same as thinking of something as 'my best work'. It’s such a good feeling when the gap between ambition and finished work feels narrow. I sometimes think that if I've shot my tone book, then I've succeeded - this is probably true for The Children, The Missing, and Les Misérables.

There were also episodes of House of Cards that I did where we created a dreamscape that fitted the overall tone of that show and that was very satisfying to pull off. Recently, I made a four-part TV series called The City and The City that involved an incredibly challenging concept: two over-lapping cities in which each population pretends they can't see the other citizens. I was very proud that we dug so deep on a very challenging budget to find the right visual language.

Which ad do you wish you'd made?

There are so many. I should probably nominate most ads by Jonathan Glazer for their beautiful, lyrical, filmic sensibility, but just for fun, I'm going to say the first Tango ad because I know Ben, the actor, who nailed that look! I love Ben's face and I found a little part of him in Les Miserables. 'You've been Hugo'd'!

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

In my experience, the flow of information between agency, producer and client on an ad shoot is very good (maybe too good at times! ). I have learned quite a lot from that process of having to be incredibly precise in PPMs about what the shooting plans are. In a drama, you tend to want to balance being clear with execs about the plan for the shoot, but also allowing space for those beautiful happy accidents. In general, I'm a fan of bringing everyone with you on a shoot rather than keeping them in the dark. Much that I love an auteur, it is a bit of a fantasy that directors achieve their vision entirely by themselves.

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

The film, TV and advertising industries have all changed massively in the last ten years or so. I have to say (but maybe I'm biased) that a lot of the most creative storytelling seems to be happening on TV now. This will all change, but there seems to have been a big re-calibration of budgets and creative freedom across the mediums; in TV, artistic freedom and budgets seem to have gone up and vice versa in the film unless it involves a superhero.

Of course, everybody is watching content differently now. You only have to look at Great Guns’ (the guys that represent me for branded work) work to see how progressive and inventive that medium has become across so many disciplines and genres - from branded short films to documentaries to music videos. I love how these long-form ideas are taking hold in the world of advertising. It is a confusing but potentially creative time as the world adjusts to this big transition.

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

I've never worked on a client direct project so 'no comment'!

Creative Director House of Cards

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