From Donkey Punch and ITV series Victoria to Pampers' 'Pooface', the Great Guns director discusses history, acting, genres and a whole host more
‘Study the past if you would define the future’. Olly Blackburn has a thing for an apropos quote, and this nugget from Confucius could have been written just for him. A keen student of history, Olly was all geared up to pursue a career as History professor, but a Fulbright scholarship to study film at New York University sent him in a different direction. The ‘muddy fields and tepid coffee’ of filmmaking was too much to resist. But he didn’t leave his love of history in the past – it informs everything he does. And while that historical influence might be more obvious in his recent ITV series Victoria – a dramatization of the life of young Queen Victoria, starring Jenna Coleman – it also seeps into the psychological dynamics and interpersonal politics of terse 21st century thrillers like Donkey Punch.
Donkey Punch, a hedonistic sexual thriller set on a yacht during the heady days before the 2008 global recession, brought Olly to the attention of global film fans – but his commercials reel reveals an eye for composition and the subtleties of human behaviour. His Cannes Lions-winning Pampers spot Pooface (produced by Great Guns, who also represent him) is a slo-mo meditation on the experience of taking one’s first shit.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Olly.
LBB> Well before becoming a director you had a role in the Oscar-winning short film, ‘A Shocking Accident’ as a child! How did that opportunity come about? And what are your memories of the shoot? Do you think that it had any bearing on you pursuing directing as a career?
OB> It was – like life – completely random. Some producers came to my school looking for a boy who could look like a 10 year old Rupert Everett. For some bizarre reason they decided it was me. I learnt that filmmaking is desperately boring if you’re not up to something behind the camera and that my knobbly knees do not look good in a close up. I also learned that acting’s really difficult and you should leave it to the professionals.
LBB> And you studied History at Oxford – something that must have been handy for your work on Victoria! – Why did you decide to focus on history? Is it something that influences your approach to directing?
OB> I adore history. For me, history is psychology, society, economics and random fate writ large. It’s philosophy given human form. And it’s the raw material of every story ever told. To study history is to study humankind in action, in all its glory and worst savagery and everything in-between … that informs how I tell a story and work with actors every day I’m on set.
LBB> And what led you to switch up your ambition from becoming a history professor to pursuing film?
OB> I was going to do a PHD till I had the great honour to win a Fulbright award - which took me to NYU film school and the glittering lights (because they’re on the wrong transformer), muddy fields and tepid coffee of filmmaking instead.
LBB> Donkey Punch was your breakout feature film – and, given that you co-wrote it, you didn’t give yourself an easy time as a director (violence, sex, the technical challenges of shooting at sea, the very raw and vulnerable performances from the cast). What was it that convinced you that this was the story you wanted to tell?
OB> I wanted to make a film, and I wanted to make a film that could find an audience, and I wanted to make a film that would be remembered. The vagaries of filmmaking are so intense every movie could be your last - so this struck the three points.
At that moment in time, right before the 2008 crash, it felt like everyone was living in a bubble of instant gratification; take every day as it comes, don’t think too hard about the future. I had this instinct to tell a story that showed how that mentality – combined with fear, shame and naked self-interest – could create its own chaotic dynamic and bring everything crashing down.
I also wanted to make a film that reflected the world I knew, which is much more fluid and loose than what we normally see. Often in British film you have posh films about posh people and gritty films about gritty people; I wanted to bring both these worlds together.
Then there was the genre: genre is an incredible tool for prising open big ideas, things like horror (what we fear), sci-fi (what we want or don’t want to become), crime (what kind of society we live in) can make for some of the most acute dissections of who we are. For me, the original ‘Robocop’ is one of the most accurate films ever made about the society we’ve shaped and ‘Don’t Look Now’ is one of the most profound films ever made about grief and loss...
There’s something about the visceral extremities possible in genre that allows you to peel open elements of humanity that remain closed otherwise and explore deeper. It’s not comfortable and it’s not always fun, but you get to go to places other stories cannot reach. And there was also the psychological thriller side - quite simply the question of what you would do in such a situation? Each character responds to events quite differently, they rely on their own agendas to get the best result from this shitty chain of events and, funnily enough, everything they do to make things better for themselves only makes things worse for everyone (that’s the history degree kicking in, right there) when they’d have been much better off trusting each other. That really interested me, and makes for classic Hitchcockian thriller dynamics… so it was all of those things – and a few more besides – that made me incredibly excited to tell this story. And once I’d made that decision… fucking well get stuck in!
LBB> And how did you work with the actors to get the performances you did? I know that much of the film was, unusually, shot in sequence – why was that important?
OB> It’s 90% in the casting. Des Hamilton was my casting director, he does all my commercials too (including #pooface which won a Cannes Lion for casting). Together we spent nine months casting Donkey Punch in his flat in Camden (as I’m a very clumsy person, I almost trashed it several times by mistake). Meanwhile my co-writer David Bloom and I were writing the script and I was preparing the shoot, so the casting process helped inform the story and character motivations all the way.
By the end of that process, I was confident we had exactly the right cast of actors ready to give their all for this story, which is really important given how intense it gets and how believable it had to be. As for shooting in sequence – it’s always the best way for an actor to harness the thorough line of emotions. But particularly when you’re telling a story like this where so much is emotional cause and effect.
LBB> I love the fact that the story – as extreme as it is – is rooted in real life observations. I read one interview where you say that the ‘donkey punch’ concept came from a conversation at a stag do, where one of the guys present seemed to have an unnerving interest in the topic… I really liked that observation, that it’s something so small you might have just ignored or forgotten it. As a director and writer, do you find it hard to switch off from ‘observation’ and ‘material gathering mode’?
OB> I’m always observing. And always encouraging actors to root their performances in real human behaviour. Which can mean pretty much anything – we humans are incredibly unpredictable and counterintuitive at times.
LBB> The ITV miniseries Victoria, which sees you swap the action thrillers of Donkey Punch and Kristy and Glue for something very different. What was it about the project that appealed to you?
OB> Daisy’s [Goodwin] writing was so good and so was the cast. The amazing, amazing cast was led by Jenna Coleman, who I’m convinced has an Oscar win in her future.
I’d never really studied 19th century history so it was really interesting to learn about the background, what drove people – Victoria came from a completely dysfunctional family. So much of her early life was about not repeating her mother’s mistakes. And though I’m known in my features for the crazy dark stuff, I love a good melodrama: Sirk, Ophüls, Visconti!
LBB> What was the most interesting challenge for you as a director working on Victoria?
OB> Achieving the very most with the resources at hand. We were making what everyone wanted to be a lush cinematic drama series that would look like the very best feature film - but on a fraction of that kind of budget. It’s the great reason to work in British TV – you have to learn how to do these things and it makes you a better filmmaker. A supportive producer and channel really helps.
LBB> When it comes to commercials, what do you look for in a script?
OB> Powerful idea. Strong humanity.
LBB> Looking back at your commercial reel, which project are you proudest of and why?
OB> Pampers Pooface. I had a really collaborative relationship with Matt Butterfield and Ben Mills at Saatchi’s, shepherded very wisely by Kate Stanners. We managed to create a piece of work that reflected what we all wanted to achieve: basically the awesome, mind-blowing experience of what it’s like to take a shit for the first time. I wish Sigmund Freud could have seen it.
I’m also very fond of the two TV license comedy spots I did for Tim Riley and AMV – we made them six years ago and they still get played today. There’s something very timeless about Tim’s warmth and human touch.
LBB> Comparing your commercial work with your TV and film projects I thought it was interesting to see that, compared with your high octane, narratively-driven, pretty psychological films, the commercials allow you to play a lot more with composition and aesthetics. Was that an intentional thing?
OB> Nope, just the way things panned out. I’d love nothing more than do a high octane Nike ad – my features show that I can.
LBB> And how do you feel the different sides to your work feed into one another?
OB> Two sides of the coin. Without darkness there’s no light. Without hate there’s no love...
LBB> Since January, you’ve been posting ‘Words of the Day’ to your blog, interesting quotes from writers, rulers, philosophers, the odd Norse God... Why did you start doing that? How do you choose which words to post – and what quote has been your favourite so far?
OB> Wow – someone’s actually reading them!!! I love a good quote. A really good one can completely flip how you see things, like: “The cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the man who calls himself a fool at least once a month.” (Dostoyevsky)
Dunno about favourites, but I’m always partial to a bit of Johnny Rotten: “I’m not here for your amusement. You’re here for mine.”
LBB> What’s on the cards for you for the rest of the year?
OB> Good commercials!!! Finding the right next TV project. I’ve got a couple of films that I’m working on too.
LBB> You say your spirit animal is an octopus – why so?