The potential is there.
You just have to mine it.
Back in the 1990s – together with his partner at AMV BBDO, Tom Carty – Campbell was responsible for a number of seminal TV commercials such as Dunlop’s “Tested for the Unexpected” and Volvo’s “Twister,” both directed in 1993 by Tony Kaye and today considered to be prime examples of how far the medium of TV advertising could be pushed artistically. And, of course, there is the Guinness “Surfer” spot from 1999, directed by Jonathan Glazer and rated by many as the very best commercial ever made. This magazine featured an interview by Hermann Vaske with Campbell and Tom Carty back in 1995 but it was an all-too-brief affair – and published long before “Surfer” even happened. Twenty years on, Michael Weinzettl thought it might be interesting to revisit Campbell, who, over the past three years, was creative director at TBWA\London and has since also written for the big screen in the shape of the screenplay for the third feature film – “Under the Skin” – by “Surfer” director Jonathan Glazer. Selected by the Guardian as “Film of the Year” in 2014, and to be found on many other “Best of the Year” movie lists, it stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien roaming the streets of Glasgow in search of male prey and is based on a novel by Michel Faber.
Hello, Walter: Twenty-five years ago, we at Lürzer’s Archive. featured the very first ad created by you and Tom Carty, the “Keep on Moving” commercial for Kiss 100 FM. Was this one of your first projects at Abbott Mead Vickers? When did you join that agency? What had you been doing before?
The Kiss FM project started when we worked at BBDO before the relationship with AMV happened. Tom was a serious soul boy and had a slight connection to some of the people at Kiss – at the time a pirate station. Then later, when they had the license, they got approached by several very big agencies, so it wasn’t easy to win it.
We were at BBDO after leaving TBWA, where we’d won some awards, mostly for radio ads. We wanted to do TV, but then everyone did. I think I just overtly moved toward it by doing things. Instead of a car, I bought one of the first Video 8 camcorders Sony introduced about 1985/6 (it was one of their first chip-based camcorders), and I started shooting test films with the help of my brothers, who were at St. Martins College at that time. Making these test ads allowed me an understanding of how to make my creative directors believe I could do TV.
How did the collaboration with Tom Carty come about?
I joined Dorland’s and just got stuck into as much work as possible. I learned a lot quickly and soon started to build a book for my next move. Then, very unexpectedly, Tom Carty approached me to work with him. I was very surprised as he was well established there, and the agency obviously valued him. However, I soon understood he wanted to spread his wings, and I think he saw me as a sort of raw energy, someone who worked hard and had similar taste.
What about the old separation of art director/copywriter – you never worked in that compartmentalized way, did you?
The fact that we were both writers never came up between us. We never discussed it. I would art-direct anything I did as a given as I was handy with a pencil. He knew this as I’d done a little bit of work on some projects Tom was working on as part of how juniors worked on pitches at the agency (this was well before he approached me, but he obviously got the idea from those interactions).
Did you ever meet with resistance because you refused to stick to the traditional art director/copywriter roles?
We just did what we did and got fully committed to whatever project we worked on. As for resistance, we did have some people insist that one of us be one thing, and the other be the other. I would more often go down as the art director because I could draw, and I did it as a given. But we would both write.
What were some of the high points in the long cooperation between Tom Carty and yourself?
One of the projects I most enjoyed was working with Tony Kaye on Dunlop. It was a bit of a challenge to get him on board, some people in the agency weren’t keen on the Tony aspect of it. At the theoretical stage, we got a call to see David Abbott about it. I simply brought Tony’s reel up to Abbott’s office. I think I said something like I didn’t think we’d be doing the project justice if we didn’t work with the best director around.
David watched the reel intently and stopped it after just two ads, VW’s “God Bless the Child” and “Relax” for British Rail. He just stopped it without making any sign one way or the other, picked up the phone and rang someone. All he said was: “I’m going with the lads on this one.” Then he smiled and asked what else was going on. He had an amazing ability to take the negatives out of the equation.
It was a great time to be working at AMV because it was a place that had a discipline and moral conviction (no tobacco advertising, no toy advertising, etc.). I think Abbott, Mead and Vickers created a kind of karma. It was all about doing the best work and the best job for every client. That ethos had been established by the work AMV made, not through conjecture or fancy theory but rather through their honest and serious relationships with clients. That, plus an almost parental relationship to the people who worked for them, made for an environment in which everyone was giving their best and putting their energies in the right direction.
For me, there was a sense of expectation there, and all I wanted to do was live up to it. We had a very specific brief to focus on ideas, scripts, stunts, ads, and make them as well as we could. We had great account people who had real relationships with clients and who wanted to make those working relationships better by increasing sales and making the brands they worked on more famous and more dynamic.
They had been trained in this essential ethos, all laid down by Abbott, Mead and Vickers with a wonderful sense of professional camaraderie. It was a business, but business was first and foremost human.
Who would direct was the big question we faced at that time. Tony Kaye would have been my choice because I knew I could rely on him to make the most of any idea, but he had moved into serious production on a feature film, so that just wasn’t an option. Finding a replacement for him was key.
In the end, I wanted Glazer because I loved the work he was doing in music videos. The choices he made, the artists he worked with, and his casting were always top-notch; he also had an amazing sense of pace and tone. We discussed other people, but Glazer was the only one I was interested in. As soon as I started working with him for real, I knew he was the right choice.
How was the surfer imagery produced?
The whole Guinness project was very key as big changes were afoot: Tony Kaye wasn’t available, and around this time talk of David Abbott’s eventual retirement was in the air.
I came to the line “Good Things Come To Those Who Wait” because I knew that the anticipation of the Guinness was a very important part of the ritual of Guinness drinking. (Although what took me there was that the brief specified: “Don’t talk about the fact it takes time to pour the pint – this isn’t something we want to highlight.”)
I got the brief on a Thursday evening and wrote quite a few scripts over the weekend, also began to create and unearth lots of visuals that worked to the line … all playing in the area of time, expectation, and ambition. It was a rich area.
As I said, I knew the expectation of the Guinness during the pour was core to the Guinness experience as many of my friends were Guinness drinkers. Many times, I’d seen how deeply they would engage looking at the pint being poured. I’d see how their imagination was firing at the thought of it.
One press image I found over that weekend was a beautiful but very simple shot of a Hawaiian surfer looking out to sea with his board across his knees. That surfer had that same look in his eye, a sort of longing and satisfaction combined.
In the pitch, the main client (Andrew Fennel) made a remark about this visual, saying he’d love to do something with surfing as he’d started working with surfers in Cornwall.
At that time, surfing wasn’t big in the UK – or even in the world – but the way Fennel spoke about it intrigued me, so I went down there to have a look and started writing an idea about a bloke looking for, or dreaming of, the ultimate wave. I was thinking of how this ultimate wave might come into being. What incredible force would make such a wave? One idea was about a pod of whales powering through the depths in formation to create this epic wall of water, stuff like that.
While I was tinkering on that, we were just starting work on the production of “Swimmer,” the story of an old boy who was a local hero because he’d been to the Olympics. In a reenactment of his big moment, he’d race against his old time from the games, the same time as it took to pour the pint. (This celebration of a local hero was based on a priest back in Belfast who was a very good runner and had, to the joy and excitement of the parish, competed at big events.)
Anyway, a big part of that story was actually about the brother of this local hero. The brother’s bar was a focal point for the mythology that sat around the Swimmer’s story.
I’d briefed Glazer that I wanted this bar to have a nautical feel and that we should research images of Neptune, especially with the sea god rising out of the waves, seaweed in his hair and his golden trident glittering, maybe even riding on a shell.
Anyway, that research threw up the Walter Crane image of Neptune’s Horses. As soon as I saw it, I knew this was the element I needed for the “Surfer” story.
If there were an ingredient that made the script fly, I’d say that was it. The previous film, i.e. “Swimmer,” had done well, growing sales by 12% in a saturated market. So confidence was high, and our feeling with this project was all about the ambition to do something with the same impact – and more.
Other boundaries were set in a similar way. David Abbott was handing over to Peter Souter. At this time, everyone’s conversation was about how do we make work that AMV produced hold that creative ground? But Peter Souter’s conversation with me was all about how do we make it better. I was very encouraged by that, and I felt the mood was “Full steam ahead.”
What do you think about the state of film in advertising right now?
I think the mood of those working in film for advertising is full of energy for creative exploration. There are lots of interesting talents, creatives, directors, clients, agencies all looking to make something remarkable. The key is joining the talent with the opportunity. With more and more ways to play with ideas, more and more opportunities to create more involving conversations with digital, live events and so on, I can only imagine more and more cool work getting made.
What about the epic telly advert that your commercials epitomize so superbly?
Again, I see the epic advert as a form urging from all fronts. I see that same ambition in idents, in digital films, in live events. That moment of big impact and special effectiveness is still sought after, of course, and with exactly the same ambition as ever. There may be some complication in getting through layers of approval, but it still gets done if the correlation between the agency and the client is aligned properly.
The genre – if trying to do the very best ad for a brand is a genre – is still the same. The question is, how do we reach for a bigger impact? The industry is going for it as ever, and the connections between client ambition and creative insight will be made, I’m confident of that.
And those processes, especially in the digital arenas, are opening up and more and more, and the confidence to play with the medium properly is growing. There has been a little psychological lid on things, I know, little barriers that have still to be breached for some clients but different brands are at different stages of coming out of a low confidence cycle, yet some are ready and feeling bold enough to express their ambition.
I think the conversation there is going to get accelerated more and more. Recently, I just did a spot for Coco De Mer with Rankin and the way it spread through digital platforms was amazing – we reached something like 62 million impressions with zero paid-for media but, even more remarkably, we saw the audience take the film and play with it.
Some of the films and adaptations we’ve received are so cool and so involved you feel how much more connective the digital conversation can be.
So it’s obvious there is a real power and potential in this media, and the work that people like Chris Milk are making shows how much vitality there is out there.
As a writer, you’ve been involved in “Under the Skin,” one of the most fasci-nating feature films of recent years – and not only to me. It figured prominently in many “Best Films” lists of that year. I understand you contributed to Jonathan Glazer’s film debut, “Sexy Beast,” and also to his second film, “Birth,” but for “Under the Skin” you got your first credit as writer.
Yes, I had gotten involved with him on other films, videos, and even advertising projects, I simply brought solutions when he needed them, so I guess that, without planning to, I had put myself in the frame for that transition. I was a little involved with “Sexy Beast” really in a low-level conversational or motivational way. I was sort of part cheerleader, part conciliary.
On “Birth,” I had a couple of interjections, we had a chat about it at the script stage, and later I got more involved with the edit – and this was a dynamic learning process for me as I got to see, first hand and in detail, how the production process for features worked. It was a fascinating process; we had lots of laughs and, to cut a long story short, the film opened to some very cool reviews.
About a year or so later Glazer came asking me to look at “Under the Skin.” I was hesitant to get too involved because I knew he’d been working on it for a quite a while with various writers. And, yes, he was obviously very stressed about how the script was panning out, and he wanted me to make notes. He gave me the script on a Friday afternoon, but I couldn’t fathom from the manuscript what exactly he was trying to make. Over that weekend, we had a brief chat during which I asked him overtly what he was going for. He said he wanted to make a political horror film.
This at last made some sense to me, so I largely ignored the pages he’d sent and wrote an opening to a political horror. It still had some very tenuous connections to elements that were in or around the script I’d read, but I simply wrote the beginning of a story that had the sort of inference and images I thought he would love to shoot. It was about 15 pages of paranoia, intrigue, and strangeness, and when Glazer read it and liked it I think it opened the game up for him and made the conversation he could have about the film more interesting. The next day, he then asked if he could read the pages I’d written at a meeting with Film 4.
I said if he thought it would help that’s why it had been done. Apparently, the meeting with readers at Film 4 went well, and not long after calls started to come from producers on the project asking me to get more involved.
I deferred to Jonathan and advised the producers ringing me that the pages were just a guide, a framework, or a perspective from which to work. About two weeks later, Glazer came to see me with the news that he wanted me to get involved properly.
I went to work; it was clear what was there, and that it flowed from Michel Faber’s book but it also felt to me like this might be the problem as they’d consistently gotten too attached to the book to create a screenplay Glazer wanted to make.
I think one of the themes in the book was an idea of these things, forces moving around us, and that we don’t even really want to know about them because we don’t want to face it.
Of course the aliens in the book are us, and they are highly advanced yet they’re shutting down their consciousness so as to carry on taking the things they desire despite the effect that has on another sentient creature (also “us” in the book, I believe). The thing is to achieve that complexity on the screen. One early idea I had – one I knew would help achieve this – was to use hidden cameras. I knew this was the perfect way to show Laura’s character evolve when out in the world acting as a lure, and a hunter would be able to see that interaction for real.
I showed Glazer some footage I’d shot with very simple little rigs I’d made to make my camera invisible, very makeshift things like fake crisp packets in which the camera could be housed and shoot unannounced. The results of people being unaware of the camera were undeniably strong, and he was immediately captivated by it. He took the footage off to show his technical guys at “One Of Us,” and we built the idea into the script.
I knew the look on the face of an ordinary bloke in the throes of what he felt was a real event with a real woman would be much more potent that any trite little interchange of words between actors, and I felt that only the reality of that feeling would reveal the conceit involved. What I thought was amazing was that someone like Scarlett would have the sheer boldness actually to do it and to open the door to these blokes in the middle of nowhere. It has to be said much of that is down to Glazer and the ambition he inculcates in actors.
Of course, along the way there is persuading to do, and to show what we might achieve with the hidden cameras, I wrote many situations and for each situation many different sorts of exchanges between different kinds of men and Laura. This was done to explore how this approach with an actress set adrift in the real world would work, and to arm ourselves with the variations of inference and suggestion we might need in each situation.
These examples of the nature of the different men, the way in which they might/would be in these real scenarios, the various trajectories their experience would take them along… all this thinking did more than inform how the impromptu situations would play out. Writing these scenes as examples preloaded the process with the information needed to steer those interactions with questions and words and attitudes that informed our story and moved on the development of the Laura character in subtle ways.
Often, just the nature of how she would extend the lie, or how the interplay of different lies or different truths would land in a moment, or how different situations would play out and sit next to each other in the edit, was the detail that moved the character and story on.
You didn’t read the book – why not?
I got what had interested Glazer in the book very quickly, and I felt that, beyond a very potent core idea, it might almost be holding the process down, so I overtly wanted to disengage and move past it. For me, defining that ability to take something we want regardless of the cost to someone or something else was the incisive notion – “meat is murder,” etc. I felt the core challenge was to make the audience feel the conceit and the cruelty of that theft.
The notion in the book was related to moral questions around “meat” – with us humans as the “meat.” I wanted to try to make it a more disgusting conceit and try to define the worthlessness of life when we turn a blind eye to taking what we desire at the suspension of any other considerations. (This is the bigger question we face now as a civilization: we can’t simply go on indulging our base instincts for food and breeding and waste. We have to evolve a better version of ourselves.)
So the idea of an alien force that was so sophisticated but has zero connection it’s their prey, and yet has created a thing that was in a way completely the same as that prey, offered a very complex weaving between “us” and “them.” So I wrote situations that unpicked the difference in as subtle and as disturbing a way as I could.
The detachment from the people drowning, the killing of the hero in his exhaustion … the leaving of the child on the beach. The return to the beach by the protector simply to clear evidence, with the abandoned child still screaming for his mother and father, and all the while the zero connection from the hunters. So there is a lot made of me not reading the book: that choice was made because it was simply that I felt I understood what was captivating in the story.
I wanted to find a truly cinematic way to reveal the questions at the center of the book and to do it in a cinematic way that drew the audience toward the darkness of this feeling. And I wanted to create a sense of something seeping into this creature through her interaction with the world as a sort of hope.
Have you since read the book?
No, I still haven’t read the book but I did buy it recently, and I’m looking forward to setting aside some time to enjoy it.
Do you have plans for more films?
I have two other projects that I’m excited about but I’m superstitious, so I won’t say too much about them.
Apart from Jonathan Glazer, are there other film directors you admire and would like to work with?
There are so many great talents about. I could do a list … but one I’d love to find a way to work with is Cary Fukunaga. I loved “True Detective”. It was a deft immersion into a story that unfurled perfectly.
What feeds your imagination?
I get involved in things, I listen a lot and try to imagine what might happen next in situations, in books, and in films especially.
The biggest creativity killers today?
Same as they’ve always been: a lack of confidence sometimes, sometimes a lack of energy, sometimes a lack of taste.
Advice to someone starting out in the business now?
Be brave, be committed, and get to work!
Is it still a good time to work in this business?
I remember being told, in 1989, that the glory days of the business were over. Maybe they were but it’s never felt that way to me. I’ve always felt like this industry is full of potential and full of promise; you just have to mine it.