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BRU Grit: Behind Irn-Bru’s Comedy Cowboy Punch Up



Stink Films director Ben Whitehouse talks us through the Good, the Bad and the BRUgly of the Irn-Bru’s exuberant saloon brawl

BRU Grit: Behind Irn-Bru’s Comedy Cowboy Punch Up
Scotland’s favourite soft drink has launched a cinematic BRU-niverse with a filmic new campaign from its long-standing agency Leith. Long known for its irreverent, edgy humour (how many brands do you know that would release a 30-second meditation on the word fanny? Or send Disney-esque critters to the chopping block?), this Western-inspired outing features a saloon brawl that Begbie from Trainspotting would be proud of. The punch-up unfurls as characters fight over the best way to describe the distinctive yet hard-to-describe drink – feeding into a wider social media call-to-action, where fans of the drink can win a year’s supply by sharing their take on the best way to describe IRN-BRU’s taste.

The theatrical ad, directed by Ben Whitehouse and produced by Stink Films, draws from classic Westerns as well as more modern cowboy movies like Shanghai Noon, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Django Unchained. Packed with detail, it’s a thoughtfully crafted spot that’s full of playful production and costume design.  

Ben chats to LBB’s Laura Swinton about blending Irn-Bru’s distinctive humour with the cowboy genre to create an ‘ownable’ brand aesthetic, and heading over to Romania for an epic shoot and the importance of reflecting the real diversity of the Old West.

LBB> What was it about the script that really stood out to you? 

Ben> Well, it’s not every day that you read a script which is a really simple and succinct idea, framed within a giant punch-up, complete with people smashing chairs over each other and punching each other in the face! My immediate reaction was “are we really allowed to do this?” And when the answer came back “yep”, I told my team at Stink I had to shoot this. 

LBB> Irn-Bru has never been a brand that's afraid of near-the-knuckle humour - I can't think of many brands that would embrace a full-on punch up in their ads! What sort of conversations did you have with the client and the agency about how far to push things with the violence and slapstick?

Ben> When we did our first call, I was pleasantly surprised that the team at Leith wanted the fight to be as realistic as possible. They didn’t want to pull any punches (!), they didn’t want slapstick, which was music to my ears. However, having shot a few movie pastiches in my time, I already knew that when it comes to violence and mild peril, you have to be at least one step removed from reality to avoid the blue flashing lights from Clearcast.

So, the conversation we had was all about tone. My thoughts on movie pastiches were that if you make an ultra-faithful homage, then it’s not something the brand can own. Success in that approach is that you’ve fooled people into thinking they’re watching a movie, not an ad. I strongly felt this needed to be its own thing that belonged to IRN-BRU. In the end I think I pitched something like, ‘the western romanticism of a Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ mixed with the deadpan and quick-fire wit of ‘Airplane!’ and shot with the modern comedic eye of ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ or ‘Back to the Future III’. Hopefully we got somewhere close to that...

LBB> How tricky was it to weave that quite distinctive Irn-Bru humour and tone of voice into this Wild West context?

Ben> It wasn’t too bad actually! We’re referencing the movies, which means there’s lots that we can refer to regarding tone and style. For example, visually I knew I wanted it to look like a modern comedy western - so The Coen Brothers’ ‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ and deadpan US style comedy was what we were aiming for. Then I set about watching every Western worth a look, which yielded lots of great ideas that we wove in. For example, the shot of the IRN-BRU cans being shot impossibly quick was inspired by Gene Wilder in ‘Blazing Saddles’. 

I also involved the editor, Ben Campbell, at an early stage, as he’s so great at trying to make each and every moment as hard-working and funny as possible. So really it was a process of putting as many ideas on the table as we could and cherry picking the ones that made us smile and laugh the most.

LBB> What other specific Westerns did you draw inspiration from?

Ben> Many. As I’ve already said aesthetically ’The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ was a key visual reference. It’s very crisp and modern with strong comedic characterisation and 16:9 framing. Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’ was a reference for its heightened, cinematic lighting, and obviously our hero ‘Man with No Name’ at the end. I also wanted everyone’s make-up and hair to be really enhanced, with boot-polish like tans and heavy perspiration, which was inspired by Sergio Leone classics like ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’. In terms of humour and performance, ‘Back to the Future II’, ‘Blazing Saddles’, ‘Shanghai Noon’ and ‘Airplane’ were all part of the conversation.

LBB> I’m really curious, how familiar you are with Irn-Bru yourself - both the drink and the historical ads - and what you made of it?

Ben> I’ve never really drunk fizzy drinks so I’m not that familiar with that shelf in the supermarket. But I am familiar with their advertising. They have a long history of really irreverent and edgy ads, so when the opportunity came to work with the brand launching into a new cinematic direction, I leapt at the chance. At the end of the shoot, I’ll admit to trying a few cans with some of my cowboy actors - but a fight broke out pretty quick when I suggested it tastes like fizzy camomile and honey!

LBB> How on earth did you choreograph the fight?

Ben> With a really great local stunt coordinator in Bucharest called ‘Horse’, who has hands like shovels, and his really great team of stuntmen and women. I’ve done a couple of fights before, so when writing the scripts and boarding the shots I had a reasonable idea of what was possible and what wasn’t. With this project, the biggest challenge was casting; we needed actors who looked the part, who could act and who could fight. Once we had the cast and the boards, we did a full day’s stunt rehearsal, where we basically shot the whole thing on an iPad, and our actors got a chance to practice getting punched in the face!

LBB> Where did you shoot the spot?

Ben> Castell Studios in Bucharest, Romania. They’ve got an amazing western backlot which was built for the movie 'Cold Mountain'. The best thing is it’s not just facades, many of the buildings such as the bar, church and hotel have complete working interiors.

LBB> The production design and costuming is all great - what was the process for developing all of that like? Who did you work with and what details were particularly important for you?

Ben> My production designer, Adrian Cristea, and costume designer, Ramona Creanga, were both local and did a fantastic job. Normally we would fly heads of department in, but the budget didn’t allow it. However, because of the western backlot, they shoot a lot of westerns and movies here, so these guys had lots of great work on their reels and I was confident that we were in safe hands from the start.

I love the craft of art direction and styling, and geeking out on the details of a particular era or movie genre. With this, I just had hundreds of film references, stills from movies, historic photos of the real Wild West, which were compiled into mood boards and shared. My brief was to make it as authentic as possible, to find ways to elevate the world comedically and to make it as warm and dusty looking as possible. The warm tones were to bring it into the IRN-BRU brand world. The exaggerated dustiness (stolen, sorry, inspired by 'Shanghai Noon’) was to help underline the thirst-quenching properties of IRN-BRU and make the fights look more dramatic and heightened. Again, this was all part of making this fight comedic, hyperbolic and one step removed from reality.

LBB> How did you cast the spot - what were you looking for? And was it more about the ability to sell the Western side of things or comedy chops?

Ben> When creating any movie scenes, the casting is crucial. With such short time to work in, you need faces that just fit the genre, so the audience know quickly what type of character they are. My casting director Lesley Beastall did an amazing job of finding the three main roles of, the ‘Dusty Cowboy’, the ‘Villainous Gunslinger’ and ‘The Man with No Name’, who were cast from London and Lisbon. This was an especially tough casting because as well as needing a specific look, they also needed to have comedy chops, and fighting skills.

The biggest challenge, however, was delivering on my desire to make this as diverse a western as possible. I’d read during my research that the Wild West was much more diverse than Hollywood would have us believe, because it took place in the decades after the abolition of slavery; it was estimated around a third of the cowboy population was black, whilst another third was Mexican. It felt, to me, a good opportunity to undo some of the historical whitewashing - whilst also using diversity to make the spot feel as modern as possible.

However, whilst the main roles were all cast colour-blind, and in the end we cast the amazingly charismatic Angolan actor Hoji Fortuna as our ‘Man with No Name’ hero, it was incredibly hard to cast black cowboys and cowgirls in Romania. Whilst we found a couple of good black non-actors, such as the chair smash guy, we couldn’t find as many as I wanted which was disappointing.

LBB> What were the biggest production challenges?

Ben> This was shot in February 2021, at a time when the Kent variant was big in the news and the UK was thought of as ‘plague island’. That meant we had to quarantine for 14 days before the shoot, in order to do seven days of work. We also lost several local cast members and stunt performers to Covid. It was challenging, and the constant swabs up the nose wasn’t much fun, but it was of course totally worth it. The production team did an amazing job of making sure Covid didn’t compromise the final product.

LBB> There's a lot going on in the spot - what's your favourite detail or character? (I love the guy making his way from the bar, clutching a bag of crisps in his mouth… very relatable!)

Ben> Me too! I love the guy with the bar snacks and round of IRN-BRU. He’s a Peruvian non-actor and I had cast his brother in a French commercial that I’d shot in the same studios two years before. I wanted as much diversity as possible so literally the first thing I asked for when we landed was to track this Peruvian family down. He’s never acted before in his life and was so game and pleased to be involved. The idea for this character came to me when I was trying to think of the funniest reaction to the first table getting smashed...

LBB> How did you approach the edit?

Ben> My editor, the brilliant Ben Campbell at The Quarry, was involved in the script and boards from early on, including cutting board-o-matics, all voiced by Ben and his assistant. So, by the time we shot the spot, including extra shots for the director's cut (which became the cinema edit…), the edit was pretty clear, and it was a question of picking the best takes. There was of course a bit of back-and-forth with Leith and IRN-BRU themselves but with everyone sharing the same goal of making the best and most fun spot possible, it was a smooth edit and I’m very happy where we ended up.

LBB> I'm curious, do you know if this ad is going to run just in Scotland or is it more of a wider audience? 

Ben> Er, it’s nationwide. And as far as I’m aware, it’s the first campaign not to play on the brand’s Scottish heritage. However, we did manage to sneak in a pair of Glaswegian nags by way of doffing our Tam o' Shanters...


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Genres: People, Storytelling, Comedy, Action

Stink Films, Tue, 13 Jul 2021 15:07:26 GMT