“If you give me a pinkie I’ll take the whole arm!” the creative and collaborative director tells LBB’s Laura Swinton
She’s been a performer, a choreographer, has travelled the world, studied filmmaking and even managed to get a degree in advertising on the side. If ever a commercials director meticulously understood every facet of their craft, it’s Karien Cherry. Originally from Zimbabwe and now based in South Africa, she’s considered and collaborative and has a penchant for preparation that allows her to jump on the unexpected moments of magic that crop up in a shoot.
A director on the rise, Karien started her advertising career interning for production company Giant, who now rep her as a director. Just recently, she shot a bombastic spot for South African fast food brand Chicken Licken (with agency Joe Public) and is the first female director to shoot for the chain. The spot, unintentionally, speaks to the billions of people currently under lockdown, working their way through online streaming services - in it a hungry TV viewer sees the characters in the shows he’s watching entice him to Chicken Licken. It’s a lot of fun and, from a production perspective, not lacking in ambition.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Karien to find out about what makes her tick creatively.
LBB> First things first, how are you dealing with the current Covid-19 situation in South Africa?
Karien> I think the optimistic side of it is that we’ll come out of it having re-evaluated so many ways of doing things. I think about how much flying I had to do last year – and actually it. In our industry so many PPMs can be done remotely, they really can.
Industry-wise we’re sitting tight for now; I’ve done a few pitches and seen a few briefs but there’s not any shooting happening for now. On the one hand we can prepare and get ready for when we’re allowed out again and on the other I don’t know how messaging is going to be different, the brand messaging of some projects we were going to work on was all about getting out, living life… the tone of a lot of brands is going to need to adjust.
I don’t see that the need for advertising and content going away but it needs to adapt. It’s definitely an interesting time. I grew up in Zimbabwe, and so it’s not the first time we’ve gone through a major event and it’ll be OK. You’ll come out the other side. You may not be entirely OK, but they are all human stories.
LBB> So going back, how did you get into directing in the first place? It sounds like there were some big challenges in your childhood but was creativity a big part of your childhood?
Karien> I guess I was always a very decisive child. I always knew what I liked and what I didn’t like. I had a very unique childhood, growing up in Zimbabwe, and it was very, very happy. I have great childhood memories – nature and community made up our lives and I grew up with just one TV channel. So directing wasn’t something I really thought of. But my family were into arts and culture, we all played musical instruments, dancing and singing and acting. I had a great love of English literature. So all of these things were a great fit when I discovered that directing was an actual thing.
After school I joined a performing arts touring theatre company as a performer and I spent five years travelling the world. Theatre was my first love and the longer I was with the group, the more choreographing and producing and directing I started doing. I found I really loved being more in the driver’s seat. I spent some time in LA and got to know people in the film industry and thought ‘I could do this’. I eventually came back to South Africa and spent a year freelancing in the industry, getting a taste of what it’s like. I started studying, at which point I met Ian Gabriel at Giant. I was doing my honours and he came to give a lecture one day. He was very approachable. It was the first time I’d seen someone talking about directing commercials and it piqued my interest. I started interning with Giant while I was still studying.
I did a film course and then, when I started working at Giant, I did a degree in advertising. I spent three years making a movie with them and learning that side of the industry.
LBB> It’s unusual to have a director to be so rounded, to understand the depth and strategy of the clients’ needs while also having the raw experience of being a performer…
Karien> I think you can tell that I love a challenge – and I feel like filmmaking challenges every part of me. Strategic, creative, logistic.
I love people and I’m interested in managing people and relationships. I think I’d be so bored doing anything else – I can’t think of anything that would engage so many different parts of who I am!
It’s an unusual journey into it but for me, my personal ethos around directing is that it’s a reflection of who you are and your worldview and life experience. I’d really like to get into directing long form and work on a TV series, performance is my first love, but I don’t have a date that I have to get there by. I feel like the more life experience I have, the better I’ll be when I get there.
LBB> The reason I was keen to interview you was because you did a great Chicken Licken ad recently. It’s a big South African brand and you were the first female director to shoot a commercial for them and it’s so much fun!
Karien> It was definitely the highlight of my career. It was such a creative brief with so much room – and the idea in itself allowed a lot of creativity. There was a core idea, the brief was two lines and there was a dialogue script they wanted to run across the channels and that was it. It was up to us! The idea had a lot of creative freedom in its DNA, and if you give me a pinkie I’ll take the whole arm! I saw the cracks in the window and I jumped!
LBB> The spot jumps through so many different genres and styles. When you got the script, how did you start developing all of these different scenes?
Karien> It’s a bit of a dream job for any filmmaker, there are so many different genres. I don’t know when I’d ever do a zombie scene or a period piece or sci-fi. I had so many different ideas.
I’ve done a couple of montage scene ads before, where the story progresses through a series of vignettes and one of the things that I’m quite serious about is focusing on pace and rhythm. I think I’ve got a keen understanding of how to pace an ad. I just mapped it out the way I could see it in my head – and music always helps to unlock that. I look for a track that strikes the right tone and rhythm and I write with that on in the background, repeating a million times until I never want to hear it again!
LBB> From a production perspective, there must have been so much to juggle. How did you approach that side of things?
Karien> There’s no lack of ambition here! We shot in and around Johannesburg. We had five weeks of prep and we shot for four days. It really is a logistical puzzle. I enjoy the strategic, logistical part of working it all out. It was super ambitious. There was a lot we had to shoot but part of that was really good prep. I like working with people who are better than me, so I can up my game. And I like working with people who will stand up to me, rather than just saying yes. The work is infinitely better because of the fights that I lost.
I hate walking onto set unprepared. Werner Herzog has a quote, “chance is the magic of cinema”, but that chance can only happen if everything else works. I like being prepared so that when something unexpected happens, some magical element that we didn’t think of pops up, we can jump on it.
LBB> You seem to have a really natural instinct for comedy – where does that come from?
Karien> Comedy, I’ll admit, is something I totally fell into. My earliest work was really quite emotive. That was my natural go-to. And somewhere along the line I got a comedy brief and I just really enjoyed it. I think the challenge of comedy is something I enjoy – comedy is hard! Doing something emotive and serious I could do with my eyes closed.
I don’t know where the funny bone came from… I’ve always admired humour in others, I enjoy a witty retort. Maybe there’s also something in that what I grew up through – humour’s a great coping mechanism. I have a really wonderful family and a great childhood but we had always been in countries and regions that were dealing with quite serious political and social issues as part of everyday life. My parents were missionaries, my dad worked with refugees and you learned to use humour as a way to stay positive.
Somewhere along the line I found a knack for that thing. It’s super rewarding to get comedy right… but it’s easy to get it wrong!
LBB> When you look for a new project, what stands out in a script or brief?
Karien> I always work from the inside out. I find it hard to work on a treatment unless I truly understand the essence of the idea, and so I guess what attracts me to projects is strong ideas, good concepts. Something that’s clear.
I think we all see a lot of briefs that are a bit muddy. An idea that started off doing one thing and is now doing something else. It’s difficult to simplify that to the essence of a single idea. I’ve been doing it long enough that I can spot that in a brief. It took me two minutes with the Chicken Licken brief to realise what a brilliant idea that was. I try and use every project to challenge myself as a filmmaker and to push my cast.
I love performance work, I love storytelling. I’m not particularly drawn to the pretty pictures with no meaning; it comes down to meaning. There has to be a story or idea – I’m a storyteller.
LBB> In terms of the ringmaster side of directing, how do you approach leading a team?
Karien> I don’t subscribe to the director-as-auteur school of filmmaking. I think it does exist and there are geniuses out there, but that’s not me. I feel like if the films I make are better the stronger the collaboration is. I surround myself with a strong core creative team and ultimately I’m the captain, I steer the ship, but I view them as collaborators. We work it out together. They really are the people you go to war with. I’ve learned a lot of trust.
The most crucial decision-making period is deciding who I work with. You’re almost casting crew members. And once you’ve assembled your A-Team, then you’ve just got to run with it. We bounce a lot of ideas and I want people to be able to share. Sharing stupid ideas is better than not sharing them. I really enjoy that process.
LBB> Is there any kind of commercial project – perhaps a genre or sector – that you haven’t had a chance to try yet that you’d like to work on?
Karien> I am cognoscente of not being pigeonholed as a comedy director. I have done a variety of other work as well, so I don’t think it’s necessarily the case. But a beautiful narrative that has the space for high production values and craft, I would love the opportunity to do something like that. A piece I really like last year was the BMW story of Bertha. Something in that kind of vein that has a landscape, a cinematic world in which you’re telling a story. That would be a dream brief for me – if BMW’s listening!
LBB> And what do you do to recharge and refuel creatively?
Karien> The usual – movies, reading, music. But to be honest the biggest thing for me is just living life.I recently started swimming in the ocean every morning, doing some open water swimming. It’s amazing, it makes you feel alive. Getting into the world and living a beautiful life - that recharges me more than anything.