The Thomas Thomas director on working in different cultures, why he never sits down on set and how Frank Budgen inspired him to enter adland
There’s something restless about Hadi. He’s always on the hunt for a new story to tell. He’s always in amongst the action on set. He thinks nothing of getting up at 4am in the morning with a DoP in tow to capture a magical sunrise in the middle of summer. And no matter how great the job is that he’s just finished, he always ends up with a nagging dissatisfaction and an urge to top it with his next project. That hunger has seen Hadi shoot all over the world – including 2014’s wild Johnnie Walker Flame spot with Leo Burnett Beirut. Recently he’s spent a lot of time working in the French and Irish markets in particular – bringing some visual flair to the Irish storytelling prowess and some narrative sense to the gorgeous imagery of French creative. Earlier in the year, the Londoner has found another, more local home, joining forces with Thomas Thomas film. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with him.
LBB> You joined Thomas Thomas earlier in the year, which is the first time you’ve been properly represented in London for a long time. What was it about Thomas Thomas that made it the perfect place for a homecoming?
Hadi> The reason I didn’t join anywhere up until now was because I didn’t feel that any other home was quite right. There are more of us than ever, there are loads. There are gazillion producers, gazillion directors, gazillion everything. I was working and I kept thinking I would come back to it in a couple of months, but when people would call me up, the fit wasn’t quite right. I talked to Philippa [Thomas, MD] and Trent [Simpson, deputy MD] and I thought, ‘I like the sound of these guys’. We must have met half a dozen times and the more I met, the more I liked. The main reason I hadn’t joined any of the other companies was that either they had someone else there who was already like me or they just had loads of directors. I felt that at Thomas Thomas there are six or seven of us and we’re all doing different things. And they were good people to talk to too.
The angle of me coming back home… I live in Ladbroke Grove for God’s sake! You couldn’t get any more local! It takes 20 minutes to get into town. I spend more time on planes or at an airport than anything. I think it’s a good time to be back.
LBB> How did you get into directing in the first place?
Hadi> I went to film school in Covent Garden in London. I finished film school and bummed around for ages, hanging out with my mates, working in a bar. I had a great time! But one day, I said to myself, ‘look, you have to do something with this’. I got a job helping out on a film shoot – it was called Restoration and Robert Downey Jr. was in it. I thought, ‘I can do this. It is not as bad and as difficult as it seems.’ I’m sure a lot of us say that! I did a couple of things on my own.
Radical Media called me, mainly for the States and France. Radical’s a Radical empire. It was great in terms of introducing me to the States and all of that but it never really kicked off in London. And then I was at Outsider for two or three years, with Robert. After that, I took time out and carried on working and my next port of call was these guys.
LBB> You’ve been doing a bit of work in Ireland - that’s a market that’s doing some interesting things, how have you found working there?
Hadi> They’re definitely doing interesting things. Like everywhere else at the moment, the days of the director receiving the script and running away with it – those days are gone. So in Ireland, like everywhere else, you have to work hard at it. But they have a lot of trust in me and they give me a lot of space. I think good work is borne out of a collaborative effort. That was the key thing. Everybody forgets it, it’s only up the road, it’s 45 minutes on Aer Lingus. One thing Ireland does have is that it’s a smaller country and they’re challenged with the budget – and when you’re challenged budget-wise you have to find another, creative way to make it work. That’s what the Scandis do best too.
LBB> France is a very different market too. France often feels very much about the craft and the detail – compared with, say, Ireland which is a nation of storytellers. How do you marry that up?
Hadi> I was taking the piss out of them the other day – you’re so obsessed with the visual medium and you don’t give a shit about what it’s saying. The pretty pictures are, I think, maybe my pull in a way – I’m a very visual storyteller, I like cinematography, it’s a key component of my work, which I think appeals to the French. But I think they also like that I challenge them a little bit and bring the narrative aspect to it. I try to bring the British essence, or whatever it is we have here.
The cultures [of France and Ireland] are so different and you learn so much. In France the other day, I’m on my way to a shoot and they send a car to pick you up. And I see the same runner waiting for me, and he opens the door and it’s a brand new business class Mercedes. In Ireland it’s a lot more humble.
The Irish love a chat. They’re very, very good with words. They write very well. I appreciate that and I understand what they’re trying to do. And I bring the visual language! If you think about it, that’s the pull.
I challenge both sides. If you challenge them as a child, then you’ve lost the battle before you’ve started. But if you can engage them in a conversation and say, ‘have you thought about this’, most of the time people listen. The worst thing a client wants to hear from a director is, ‘if you want to do this, fine, I don’t think it will be very good’.
LBB> When you get a script in, what’s your starting point when trying to find a way through it?
Hadi> I came into the industry because of the likes of Frank Budgen. I loved what Frank was doing – I thought, ‘Oh my God, is that advertising? It’s better than film – I wanna do that!’ I just thought it was insanely good. What I liked about Frank’s work was that it didn’t matter what the brief was, you would not see ‘Frank’, you would just see the best job. He was almost like the ultimate chameleon, he could bend himself into whatever the job needed to be. That’s what I find inspiring.
So, when a script comes in I try to think, ‘where are we trying to get with this? What are they trying to say? What’s the purpose?’. The overall message is the most important thing, and then you have to ask, how do we get to that with this film?
LBB> And how do you choose what projects to work on?
Hadi> It’s something that’s trying to tell a story that I haven’t told before. That’s the most important thing. I tell it in a completely different way.
There are a lot of ads on telly. All I’m asking for is that, for the 30 seconds that one of mine comes on, the viewer goes, ‘oh, that’s interesting’. You just want that pause for a moment.
My son and I were watching telly the other day and he said, ‘that’s good daddy, it’s the sort of thing that you would do’. It’s the weirdest compliment you can get! Whoever directed that, well, they made a little eleven-year-old go, ‘what’s that Daddy? That’s nice’.
LBB> If advertising had that real attraction for you, have you ever thought about creating something that’s longer form?
Hadi> The long form has always been interesting to me. If you’re into storytelling, you want to tell stories. You don’t care if it’s a 60-second ad or a documentary. I think long form gives you that bigger platform to tell stories. I was working with a creative director recently – and I don’t know if he meant this as a compliment or an insult – but he said, ‘why haven’t you done a film yet Hadi?’ I said, I’m working on a couple of things now that I think are going to kick off next year. And he replied, ‘shall I give you the answer? You put so much effort and energy into telling little films for 45 or 60 seconds that it eats up your creative space.’
LBB> When you’re on set and working with the crew and the cast, how do you get the most out of everyone you work with?
Hadi> I’m very hands on. I don’t sit down. People always organise a director’s chair for me and I never use it. I’m very close. I try to encourage people by being active myself. It’s important not to distance yourself from the work and sit down with a cup of coffee and tick things off. I find, for me, it doesn’t work. It does for other directors, but I need to be up next to the camera. I was looking at my rushes the other day and I’m always running in and tweaking something! Someone had spilt something, and the art department were about to go in and sort it. I was running in to wipe it up! I need to be involved. And I think because I’m excited and need to feel involved, everyone else comes along.
LBB> What about with actors, how do you like to work with them?
Hadi> Same thing. We talk. In advertising we treat actors very badly. We say, stand there, smile. We treat them like they’re just props. We need you to smile for two seconds and shut up. So I try to be fair and I try to put myself in their position. I don’t want to be a prop director on set – I would not like it if a client stood behind me saying, do the shot, get on with it, go home. So I try to treat actors the same. I’m very close, I ask how they feel it went, I’ll play their shots back for them and ask them what they think. I’m trying to engage them in the process.
LBB> Looking at your reel, what are the projects that you are really, really proud of and stay with you?
Hadi> Honestly, if I’m totally honest, they’re all disappointments! You have in your head that you’re going to blow them out of the water – but what you have in your head is always much bigger. There’s an Irish job at the moment that everyone seems to like but I always question why. It’s not trying to be modest! My best job is yet to come.
LBB> It keeps you hungry…
Hadi> We do things, we get better. And I know the realities of production. In the summer, the sun comes up at 4am or 5am and sets at 10pm. So, you’re not going to get sunrise or sunset. So, I’ll say, give me the lenses and the camera and I’ll go out with just the DP and get that shot in the early hours, on our own. Simply because we can. I choose to work with people who are aligned like that. We all get paid well, we get well treated – if that’s all you want, I don’t think it’s enough. You have to want to go the extra mile.
LBB> You’re a director who just loved the medium – who are the filmmakers you keep going back to and who you admire?
Hadi> There’s a guy out there called Jacques Audiard, who’s just insane. He did a film a few years ago called The Beat That My Heart Skipped, a French film that was a bit like Mean Streets, and I thought, ‘wow what a film’. My wife and I were blown away. He had a new film out called A Prophet, and my wife said, ‘shall we go?’. I said, ‘well, prepare to be disappointed, there’s no way it can be as good…’. We went to the cinema and half an hour in, I was sitting there with my head in my hands thinking, ‘holy fuck, I’ve got to go back to school’. This guy is so good, above anyone else out there. He’s just made his first English language film – and how’s this for a cast? – it’s a western with Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, John C. Reilly, Rutger Hauer. It’s called The Sisters Brothers.
What Audiard combines – which not many people do – is that thriller excitement with the artistic approach. He marries the two exceptionally well. I love Audiard as you can tell!
LBB> And outside of film, what are you into?
Hadi> Football. I’m a bit of a football nut. Football is the beginning and the end of most things. I’m a big Tottenham fan. I don’t know why! A lot of people like football, but I’m an obsessive. I play on Sundays once a week, and my 11-year-old son plays seven days a week. That’s our thing, we talk about it all the time.