5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes with… Sara Dunlop

Production Company
London, UK
The Rattling Stick director talks music, logic and how Dave Trott gave her the break into the industry

Tenacious. If there’s one word to describe director Sara Dunlop, it’s tenacious. Her body of work is not so easy to pin down. She can do effortlessly stylish monologuing, as with her recent Burberry films. You want raw, emotional dance? Check out her moving new spots for the children’s charity Barnardo’s. Surreal Latin American cityscapes? Yup. An urban remix of Aesop’s Fables? She’s got your back. Sky diving? Yes again (HTC). But the thread that weaves through her career is dogged tenacity. 

And when you learn that her first ever job as commercials director was for industry legend Dave Trott (a job, by the way, she got in the most impressively ‘fuck it’ way ever), it all comes into focus. Sara is a director who is all about taking challenges and turning them into opportunities. Isn’t that what creativity is all about?

That creative risk-taking was celebrated this year at Cannes. Not the ad festival. The proper one. The film one. Her short film Dreamlands was shortlisted at the world-famous film festival, where she introduced the faded beauty of the dilapidated British seaside to international directors and critics.

LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Sara, fan girled quite embarrassingly about her 2007 Sky Billboards ad and the 2015 Transport for London spot ‘The Tortoise & The Hare’, got a fierce off-the-record story about a certain smizing US reality show (our lips are sealed), and dug into what makes Sara tick...

LBB> When did you realise that you wanted to become a director?

SD> I can say the film thing came in super early; when I was 12 or 13. And the first camera I got to touch was a VHS video camera. It wasn’t even one that belonged to my school, it belonged to a different school. The first music video I made, when I was 13, I edited by borrowing my next door neighbour’s video recorder and pressing play and record. I fucked it up five times, so I had to start it again. It was for a Lou Reed song – which makes me sound super precocious! 

My mum used to have a day job and a night job for a while, so when she used to pick me and my brother up from school we used to go to the cinema. It was when you were able to go to the cinema and stay there. We would watch the same film twice, and we went at least three times a week… and sometimes the film didn’t change, so we would watch the same film six times a week. But we wouldn’t care! My brother’s a promo producer, so I wonder if that affected us both the same way?

LBB> That must have been amazing for you as a future-director. You could watch a film once for the story… and then concentrate on the details all the other times! 

SD> I watched American Honey a couple of days ago and it really bugged me because I’m writing at the moment and I couldn’t stop analysing it. Normally the first time I watch a film I’m a child, or, y’know, a normal audience member. But with that film, I was analysing, I don’t know why. The protagonist was the same age as the one in my story, Andrea is a female director. I kept asking myself ‘why are you doing that to Andrea’s film? You don’t do that to anyone else’s film? Is it that she’s where you want to be?’ 

LBB> I read an old interview with you and there’s a great story about how you first got your foot in the door. Apparently, you were hunting out spare scripts or cheap jobs and you came across Dave Trott, who gave you your first job. I thought it was inspiring to see your initiative as an industry outsider trying to get in…

SD> I think I made it sound less naïve than it was. I worked in a cinema, Screen on the Green, and my friend worked in the head office. He had sent a fax to the head office thanking them for agreeing to screen his charity commercial about Third World debt, and saying that all he now needed was a director. My friend didn’t know who he was and she rang me saying, ‘this guy was looking for a director’. It was luck. So I went, ‘oh yeah, tell him I’ll do it’. He faxed the script and said that I needed to prepare how I was going to direct it. 

I went to his office – it was proper posh – and I didn’t have a clue who he was. Obviously now I know! The funny thing is, over the years, I’ve never seen him again. I’ve told people the story, he might have heard something or not… but I haven’t been able to see him again to thank him.

It was luck, in a way, but also a bit of tenacity because I did rise to the occasion. It wasn’t brilliant, but I didn’t fuck it up either. I think it was the guts to be the director.

LBB> It’s one of those clichéd things that people say, but it can be so true: sometimes the thing that holds you back is your own self-doubt. You could have easily said, ‘oh no, I couldn’t do that.’

SD> It’s literally ‘fake it till you make it’. Even to this day, to do certain things the only thing that stands in my way is confidence. And I think that’s true for every creative person. I was talking to a friend of mine who said, ‘it’s whether you can take the hits or not and brush them off’. When you get wounded or criticised, can you learn from that and carry on?

When people say they want to be a director and ask me how to do it, I say, for one thing you’ve got to just stand up and BE the director. And two, you’ve got to just keep trying. The more you practice the better you get.

LBB> If creativity is about doing things that haven’t been done before, that carries a degree of risk – how does that work in an age when brands are arguably becoming more cautious?

SD> I think it’s about being open to the unknown and helping clients feeling comfortable with that. One of the most difficult things that’s started happening now is that people have started saying from the first meeting, ‘play me the music that’s going to go on the ad’. Don’t do that. There are times when you thought something was right, when it totally worked in your head but, actually, something completely different ends up working better. 

It’s already getting so prescriptive with the treatment: how it’s going to look, how it’s going to feel, so that’s one thing I think you have to leave. Everyone’s trying to control everything… and control is good but you need to leave a little bit of freedom. 

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

SD> Firstly, even if it’s a magical story, there has to be some level of authentic logic to the world. If it’s just nonsense and I can’t find where it grounds itself, I get confused. I think sometimes with writing scripts, people just get a bit excited and think they can throw all that out the window. I have to have the logic of the world. 

For example, I love the world in a film like The Lobster. I understand the rules of the world and it’s consistent. 

There has to be character and emotions and a story that I like… and a story that I believe that will work in the timeframe. There’s no point having a story that won’t work in 30 seconds, or a story that you can’t develop into 30 seconds. There’s something about the alchemy of the time length that is important – and that’s getting really interesting now with online content. You need to say to people, well, where do you want to land? Can that be a 30-second film, a 60-second film and a content film? It’s slightly different, telling a story in three minutes. It influences the length of the shots, how you move the camera, how you’re going to edit it.

LBB> So has the growth in online content been a good thing for you?

SD> It can be exciting. You have to ask those questions at the beginning of a project and it has to be the right project. But doing longer form content and being able to develop stories further is exciting for a director. You just want to shoot more! I want to tell more intricate stories with more character development, and the more time you get the more you can do that. 

But if you want to do a 30-second spot and a longer film, it has to be crafted for all those different time lengths. You don’t want to do them all roughly, you want to get them right. It’s not impossible but these things need to be thought through. Directors are control freaks into the precision of the craft. 

LBB> Talking of longer form branded content, you recently did some really cool films for GQ and Burberry, starring actresses like Sophie Turner…

SD> I’ve got a good Sophie Turner story! At the end of the film, she hears the door and she looks around. Every time she did it, she looked so pained and dramatic. I said, “Sophie, we’ve got to lighten it up because it looks like someone’s going to come in and kill you.” And she said, “If you’d played Sansa Stark for the last seven years, every time the door went YOU’D look terrified too! Every time there’s a knock at the door, there’s a shot of me looking terrified.” That self-awareness was brilliant. 

LBB> You wrote these films too – how did that work?

SD> It was with Conde Nast video, their content agency, and they were the go-between with Burberry and Rattling Stick. One of the things that attracted me to the project was that I was able to write the films. There were lots of names flying around about who those actresses would be, but it was low key and not too much pressure, which would give me the chance to see what they were like too. We wanted them to show their own character, take their personas as actresses and turn it round. 

LBB> The stories have a lot more time to breathe and there’s a lovely low key humour to them. How did having that extra time change things for you as a director?

SD> For me the biggest challenge of it all was that low key-ness. To be nothing. It had to be in that hotel, one location per script, so you’ve got no bells and whistles, no visual tools and you have to do a monologue. That’s where the phone call idea came in – my logic-brain was saying “you can’t just have them talking to camera, that’s really weird!” For me, the phone became the device and it becomes interesting because you’re trying to figure out what the other side is saying. 

And working with fashion brands was interesting. Someone like Burberry isn’t really used to having someone talking in their films, so I felt the pain of an agency on my twelfth re-write!

LBB> Fashion films have evolved and grown so much in the past decade – what are your thoughts on that?

SD> Fashion brands love the idea of film but they’re still getting used to being outside their comfort zone of film. For years they’ve done amazing stills campaigns with incredible worlds and imagery – but just taking that and putting it on film doesn’t work. That’s just models moving around a bit! A lot of models are amazing in a still, from one angle, but as soon as you get them moving around a bit they can be quite awkward. The translation isn’t a direct one. I think magazine publishers like Conde Nast understand that and they have whole divisions of smart people who understand film to manage that process. They can do documentaries about people, so many different areas, and I think it’s got a lot of potential.

LBB> What’s interesting about your body of work is that it transcends so many genres and tones. Is that variety something that you’ve deliberately tried to pursue?

SD> Yes, it’s not by luck… it’s by ADHD! I don’t want to do the same thing twice, but you can’t design the next job. You can’t say, ‘for my next job I will only do X’ because you’d be waiting years. 

It’s kind of instinctual, but I’m glad you think that. I don’t want to be pigeonholed. There are things about my work that are consistent and there are things that are different and that’s a good place to be. It keeps you interested and interesting; interested enough to keep trying new things and interesting enough for people to want to keep employing you. 

LBB> So you can’t control where the next job is coming from, but is there any kind of project that you haven’t done?

SD> I think I’m funny but no one ever gives me comedy! (laughs). And I’ve never had a car ad. I don’t even know if I’ve pitched on one. Regardless of the brand, it’s the story, the idea and the integrity of it that interests me – and the challenge that it could present. 

LBB> One piece of yours that I love is the Tortoise and the Hare. When you first saw the idea, how developed was it? And what did you want to bring to it?

SD> That’s a classic example of it being about the process and not closing down creative avenues that this idea could take. The idea was about a bunch of kids going to a fancy-dress party dressed as hares and a bunch of kids dressed as tortoises; it was a re-telling of the fable. 

I started off in the first treatment saying ‘let’s not have masks, let’s do it with other tropes to explain that they’re hares and tortoises’. There were lots of little clues. And then that evolved, but some of those clues, those mannerisms, stayed and the masks came back in. 

Then it was about figuring out the type of mask. We tried papier-mâché ones, elaborate designs. In the end the agency and I both said that we wanted them to look like cheap masks you’d buy from a local shop. And it’s amazing how expensive it is to make something look cheap! We thought we’d just buy them – but they don’t exist. Then we decided to try and make them using model makers, but these people who make masks and models are so artistic. There were these identical twins who were spraying them and we were laughing because I kept rejecting their versions – they were too beautiful! 

This is how crazy it gets. All those little things… it’s such a cliché but the devil is in the detail.

LBB> It’s one of those spots that I have seen so many times at award shows, and one of the things that keeps it fresh for me is that it doesn’t sit in one easy box. There’s urban realism, modern dance, a little bit of whimsy… 

SD> I quite like the twist of genres. I do like heightened reality. My shorts are in that space and Barnardo’s is too, and I’m quite happy in this area. The authenticity is important to me, but that twist is exciting. But if it’s going to have that twist, it must have the shoulders to stand on, some solid foundations. When things get ridiculous I lose interest.

LBB> Another spot that is rooted in real life is the Sky Billboards spot. It shows São Paolo shortly after billboards were banned. I was wondering what it was like as someone immersed in the world of advertising to be shooting in a cityscape completely devoid of advertising? 

SD> It’s the love-hate of advertising! I think anyone who works in advertising is aware of what the world outside of advertising thinks of advertising. We’ve all got our own lines of what we think is right and wrong within that. 

That spot was done on spec – there was no money to make it. I was in São Paolo finishing a job. I had been in a studio and I wanted to do something in the city, so I asked some creative friends of mine to write something. We Googled ‘São Paolo’ and the first news story that came up was that the mayor had banned billboards. My friends were at WCRS, who had Sky as a client. What you would think was a crane arm to shoot those billboards, we actually had our cameraman (who is still my cameraman to this day) standing on the back of a truck. The roads in São Paolo are so bad! I didn’t know how good it was going to look and we had to do a lot of stabilising! 

The music was the thing. That was one time I found it and listened to it going round São Paolo going: ‘this is the song, this is the song, this is the song!’ All the money went on the track!

LBB> You’ve mentioned music already; as a director, how do you like to work with music?

SD> I can’t write a treatment without listening to a piece of music, and when I’ve got it, I listen to it over and over again. It’s not the track that’s going to be in the final film, but it just gets you in the mood. 

I do work with Leland Music, I like them there, and there are a couple of other companies too. And the agency has ideas too. With Barnardo’s it was a creative who found the track. I feel that it’s my responsibility to find a good track. A good editor will feel that it’s their responsibility. And if you work with good creatives, they should feel that it’s their responsibility. 

Music is very subjective and emotional and that’s the tricky thing to navigate – if you’ve got that gut feeling but someone else doesn’t, it’s… well… gutting. 

LBB> I wanted to ask you about Dreamlands, your film that was screened as part of the short competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s set in the British seaside town of Margate, with its seaside funfair and it explores teenage sexuality – did the story or the place come first?

SD> Good point. It was really together. I grew up in south London and my mates and I used to go down there to Dreamlands – or Bembom Brothers as it was known then. There’s something about those seaside towns that gets me, and always has, visually. I like the ugly-beautiful aesthetic and I find it really has that. There’s brutalist architecture and real beauty, the skies are wonderful – Turner painted down there. There’s optimism and darkness at the same time, and that’s what the film is all about. 

It’s a coming of age film and it’s at that crossroads, where you’re trying to decide the kind of person you want to be. It’s good to experiment and it’s not judging or anything, it’s just saying that these choices are hard to make.

LBB> Part of the inspiration behind the story was about young people and sexuality in the age of the Internet. How did you get into the mind-set of the 21st century teen? 

SD> It’s grounded in authenticity, but I’m not doing social realism. I can go beyond that. If you were doing something realistic about teenagers, they’d be on their phones the whole time barely speaking! I wanted to have these themes that would resonate with teenagers but I didn’t want to be restricted. 

I suppose I have a fear about the desensitisation that comes with sexualisation of teenagers… but I guess I was also trying to say, ‘how does a young woman negotiate being equal?’ Being able to see herself as a sexual person. It’s always bugged me that if girls sleep with lots of guys they’re called slags and if boys sleep with lots of girls they’re studs. That was something I’ve always found really difficult. I think now is a good time but it’s not less confusing. I think the younger age group is more aware, and conversations about feminism are happening again and that’s really good. Asking those questions… but it’s no easier to navigate that path… it might be harder.

LBB> I once saw an interview you did at the Google Beach in Cannes where you said you were a self-confessed luddite – to flip that, as a director, what’s your most useful piece of tech?

SD> Spotify. Yeah, to have all of that resource available has revolutionised the way I search for music. I remember in the past, when I did a job abroad, I used to take CDs, cases and cases of them. I think it’s amazing. You can send playlists, add to it with creatives, it’s brilliant. And you can do it on your phone. You can see how techy I am – that’s as high tech as I get!