In the director’s chair: Peter Harton on humour and flushing your ego down the drain

In the director’s chair: Peter Harton on humour and flushing your ego down the drain

The latest director to answer The Drum’s questions in our Director’s Chair series is Peter Harton, who is represented commercially by Great Guns.

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?)

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a conductor. When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a musician like my then heroes, Robert Smith and Martin Gore, but my voice is dreadful and I can’t play any instruments, so the next best thing was to work with images.

Most of my inspiration comes from music. My creative heroes are fearless artists like Michael Gira, Genesis P. Orridge and Mark Hollis. They’re always being honest to themselves and their work and evolving without compromise - I find that very inspiring and brave.

In terms of filmmakers, I’m inspired by Aki Kaurismäki, Mikael Haneke, Ulrich Seidl, Roy Andersson, early Woody Allen, David Lynch and Lars Von Trier, who I was fortunate to work for on Dancer In The Dark, back when I worked in the camera department many moons ago.

I’m also inspired by Man Ray, Siouxsie Sioux, John Lautner, Brahms and Peter Sellers.

Outside of work, what are you into?

I wish I could say that I read a lot of books, run marathons and rescue animals…But what I really like is sleeping. Occasionally, I shoot photos on film (you can see some of them here). I have a lot of analogue cameras...too many. I need to stop buying cameras. Somebody help me!

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

I have no idea what I am known for but I would assume (and I hope) that people think I am good at combining a certain comedic flavour with aesthetics. More or less, everything I do commercially revolves around humour, though it’s always been very important to me not to make a big deal out of being funny or telling people when to laugh. Humour needs to be anchored in something more than just a fart.

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 am very open-minded, as long as the idea is very simple and clear. If it can be communicated in one single shot, it’s even better, because then it’s all about the garnish. If it takes a shitload of explaining or if it takes itself too seriously, I’m not interested. It doesn’t have to be comedic. As long as it’s not pretentious, I’m happy to take a look.

I’d like to do more music videos. My music video, ‘Peder - Shadows of My Mind’, recently won Best Thriller/Horror at London’s Thunderdance Film Festival. I have three feature projects in development, and I will probably start working on the fourth season of my Danish Academy Award-winning TV-Show, Rytteriet (The Cavalry) this year.

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

Are there any palm trees or beaches in the script? Let me have a closer look (I live in a cold and grey country). Are there animals or kids in there? Let me think about it (I’m kind of a control freak and when you work with animals or kids, the joke is on you). Heavy CGI stuff…never (a greenscreen gives me nothing).

What's your funniest moment on set?

My funniest moments by far are when I edit. I can’t count how many times my editor and I have been rolling around on the floor, crying with laughter. In general, I just like having fun while shooting - no matter how much pressure we’re under.

There are a lot of bizarre moments though. Back when I was 1st AD-ing, I was working on a shoot for a soft drink brand, where a cow was dressed as a reindeer. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the cow escaped and totally destroyed four gardens in a nice, polished, upper-class neighbourhood in the suburbs of Copenhagen. It was a mess. It gave me a bit of a headache at the time, but looking back I love what that cow did. What we were doing was just too ridiculous. I am sad that no one was shooting behind the scene footage. I think to watch that footage could be healthy for everyone in this business once in a while.

What's your best piece of work?

I am quite fond of a campaign I did for The Danish Cancer Society called ‘Help A Dane’ (case study here). The agency, & Co., was magnificent. The whole process was a blast and we ended up with a campaign that addressed a serious matter without pointing fingers.

Which ad do you wish you'd made?

Oh lord. There are so many good ones out there. I really like Harvey Nichols ‘Love Freebies’ ad about shoplifters. I guess I like the idea rather than the actual directing craft, but it’s really smart. Another one that comes to mind is Spike Jonze’s 2002 Ikea ‘Lamp’ ad. Du Tuesday’s ‘Too…’ campaign from some years ago is really nice - well-crafted, super simple and funny. Taco Bell’s ‘Web Of Fries’ campaign is fun.

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

I believe in total transparency. I flushed my ego down the drain years ago and have nothing to hide. I think honesty is the only way forward when trying to achieve something that is remotely interesting creatively. I see filmmaking as a collaboration and I expect the people closest to me to express themselves and pitch in. Not everyone in this business shares this view, and it can become a bit complicated when you encounter big egos or people who have no idea what they’re doing. Long-story-short, sometimes it flows, sometimes it doesn’t.

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

It has become more anxiety-driven. People are going nuts with self-censorship and political correctness, at least in Denmark, where I live. As a result, the majority of the commercials you see are generic pieces that are hard to tell apart. In the long run, it kills creativity because no one is really willing to make any noise. Smaller budgets are also another big change. Hopefully, both things will change.

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

I have and it has been very refreshing. I like to keep the idea fresh and get from A-Z fast without losing momentum – in this sense, it’s great to work directly with the client. Filmmaking can easily drown in the process and meaningless mumbo-jumbo – especially when you’re dealing with excel spreadsheets and people who are too scared to share their opinions or who do not have any. I don’t necessarily have a preference for working directly to the client; sometimes it makes sense and sometimes it doesn’t. There are good agencies who know what they are doing and there are agencies that have no clue.

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