How FCB New Zealand and director Daniel Warwick told one of the strangest cautionary tales you’re likely to encounter
Anti-drinking campaigns are tricky. There’s a balance to be struck. You’re never going to engage by resorting to moralistic finger wagging… but the campaign needs to make a strong point in order to save lives. The stakes are high.
FCB New Zealand’s latest film for The New Zealand Health Promotion Agency (HPA) manages to walk that line, while also being a complete mindbender. Understanding their target audience of 18-24 year olds with scalpel-sharp incisiveness, the creative team have harnessed the power of FOMO to create an ad that’s authentic, utterly relatable and delightfully, unforgettably weird.
The spot follows hapless young boozer Mark as he’s whisked away to the ‘Department of Lost Nights’ and is replaced by a bobble-headed dummy. It was produced by Scoundrel and directed by king of whimsy, Daniel Warwick; together with a crack team, that included DP Ginny Loane and production designer Neville Stevenson, they transformed an abandoned shopping centre into a banging nightclub and a surreal brainscape.
LBB’s Alex Reeves turned to FCB creative team Melina Fiolitakis and David Shirley and director Daniel (who has just joined the Biscuit roster for the US and UK) to find out what went into this weird, wonderful project.
LBB> What was the original brief? Where did you start from?
Melina Fiolitakis and David Shirley> The Health Promotion Agency wanted to address our nation’s binge-drinking culture. Alcohol related harm costs New Zealand taxpayers $4.9 billion each year. And, while they make up just 10% of the total population, 18-24 year olds by far make up the greatest proportion of those who drink alcohol excessively. In fact, more than one third of this group consume alcohol in a way that’s categorised as “harmful”. The brief to FCB was to work to reduce binge drinking by providing this key group with an incentive – a compelling reason to moderate their alcohol consumption.
LBB> How much science went into the idea? Or was it more personal experience that inspired it?
MF & DS> The concept was definitely one we could relate to and came from real experiences. Yep, it’s happened to us, unfortunately – you get a bit eager, overdo it, and you’re left the next morning grasping at shreds of the night that was… “Who was that guy with all the taxidermy animals?”
But, the concept was also based on some serious science too. The same study that pointed to 18-24-year-olds making up the greatest proportion of excessive drinkers in New Zealand also revealed that this same group were more motivated by the fear of missing out on social experiences than the health benefits of sensible drinking. This insight became the basis for our strategic approach and even informed our creative storytelling, with FOMO becoming a central theme to the narrative. We wanted it to be just as bewildering and frustrating for the audience as it is for the “hero” of the story – seeing these beautifully random, out-of-context memories being wheeled past and thinking, “WTF happened on this night out?”
LBB> Was the idea always this weird or did it get progressively more surreal?
MF & DS> Yeah, the idea was always pretty weird, but is it wrong that it’s always made complete sense to us too? Stickers being slapped on the best parts of your night, as they’re repo’d by overall-clad workmen just felt like such a perfectly feasible explanation for blackouts. It’s a story we were excited to tell and luckily, our director, Daniel Warwick loved the story too and brought his own brand of crazy to the table. He added so many beautiful flourishes and made it even better.
LBB> Daniel, what was the script like when you first saw it and what were your first thoughts?
Daniel Warwick> The script by Mel and Dave from FCB was a true piece of brilliance and the idea was so whacky that I immediately fell in love with it. I must say it was right up my alley in all its abstract craziness.
I also immediately felt like they asked me because I‘ve had enough experience with those kind of nights... anyone who knows me can probably confirm my manic partying drive. Very fun but a bit pathetic, to to be honest. So, I felt equally guilty and honoured at the same time. And it felt like a calling, which meant I really wanted to do it, no matter what.
The main challenge was to make it funny, entertaining and then let it drift into a painful psycho world to actually make the headache kick in visually (and acoustically). It was really important to get the message across without raising a finger too much and also without just being silly.
LBB> Depicting people on nights out is notoriously hard to do authentically, but I think you did an amazing job! What do you think was key to that?
MF & DS> The short answer – we had a great director and a very talented cast and crew. We wrote the story to follow a familiar arc for a night out – starting at a small local bar, building to a big club, and rounded off after the bars close with a low-key party with mates. So, it felt like an authentic progression, but the cast and extras were just so at ease and brought such enthusiasm and realism to their roles – they really made it for us. It’s funny, the club scene was a set built in an abandoned shopping mall, so it could have felt a bit weird and awkward for all concerned that we were all jumping around, acting like lunatics. But, we enjoyed it so much we just wanted to make that club for real. Watch this space.
DW> I guess I‘ve been out enough to get inspiration on how to make the scenes realistic. Slightly pathetic again. I thoroughly enjoyed creating a kind of Berlin underground techno club in an old shopping mall in the centre of Auckland. I was trying to create the vibe of that magical club hour in the right place that you really don‘t want to miss out on. My friend DJ Koze did the beats for me on this which probably helped a lot. And of course the outstandingly wonderful Ginny Loane who was my DOP. She is just AMAZING! It’s a shame we couldn’t have just had the wrap party right there and then.
Then the classic beach scene with that random hippie dude who always seems to turn up on any beach in the world with a guitar to get on your nerves with hideous Jack Johnson shit.
I must say I was a bit sad that we couldn‘t do even more scenes that would‘ve dialed up the craziness. A disastrous games arcade scene where our hero mannequin would’ve been lying in the duck-fishing tank or so... or a proper mess in the kebab store or even a tattoo parlour fail. But we only had limited amounts of money, so we stuck to the scenes that were common and relatable.
LBB> The film looks like it was a lot of fun to shoot! Were there any really memorable moments?
MF & DS> So many! Watching our lead actor hang out with his mannequin double on-set was an endless source of entertainment. His girlfriend’s birthday was coming up the following month, so we were tempted to give him his doppelganger as a present for her. Fun times! The greatest fun on set though had to be the removal men between takes. Their ability to all move in that awkward, glitchy way you see in the film, is down to them being trained dancers. So, between takes became like mini dance battles, with the most entertaining being the “backpack kid” dance-off. If you haven’t seen Backpack Kid steal Katy Perry’s thunder, look it up. You won’t regret it.
DW> What I loved most is how we transformed the above mentioned derelict shopping mall into three sets. I really fell in love with the idea of having an escalator in the set of the Department of Lost Nights. Also for that weird transition out of the bar. It was quite a challenge as our budget was limited. But together with fantastic Neville Stevenson [production design] we came up with the idea of fabric as walls. It felt soggily psycho and hypnotizing at the same time. Perfect. Then we shot the night club there and also the bedroom as a set build. That whole location was just mental. I loved it.
LBB> There are loads of comic highlights! Are there any moments you like that we might have missed?
MF & DS> It’s the little, odd things that still make us laugh – the way Mark says “Me?”, like he’s a pubescent teen character from Scooby-Doo who’s just been asked to investigate a creepy attic, or watching a mannequin have an intimate moment with a beautiful woman. But, our favourite might just be all the awkward hand holding – our removal men are quite partial to a little clasping. They hold Mark’s hands as they lead him into and out of the Department of Lost Nights. And when his hands aren’t available, they make do with each other. It’s sweet really.
DW> All those squadrons in their amazing brown costumes (by fabulous Bob Buck) were actually highly talented electric boogie dancers. They feel quite crazy but their crazy dance moves got chopped up a bit in the edit unfortunately.
Also I had initially written into the treatment that our hero would have a kind of oven flap on the back of his head and the squadrons would pull out his singed brain on a tray like a burnt turkey. I guess that was a bit much for client and agency... but I would‘ve LOVED to have shot that.
LBB> Can you talk a bit about the general look of the film? It's really distinctive!
MF & DS> We had a story that took place in two worlds. Firstly, the real world – a night out which feels authentic, but also pretty epic – an adventure you wish you’d been part of. And secondly, we had the opportunity to create the Department of Lost Nights; this other world no one had ever seen before.
We needed it to feel awkward, isolated and unpleasant for its occupant, but also rich and entertaining for the viewer. Soft pinks, rounded shapes and gently drifting curtains, reminiscent of a brain, were set against the oppressive tedium of a dated North Korean accountancy firm aesthetic – an escalator providing the only portal into this bleak realm, just underneath real life. Into this world we installed: glitchy removal men, replete in brain-sleeved overalls; a stern, slightly manic receptionist, who appears as a set of powerful eyebrows in an equally powerful tailored brain-suit; and displaced memories, wheeled by like surreal, FOMO-inspiring dioramas from a natural history museum. Our aim was to strike the perfect balance between “I so don’t want to be there” and “I can’t look away.”
DW> I was aiming for something quite subversive and entertaining at the same time. When that pink set was being pre-lit I couldn‘t believe I had yet another pink scene on my reel. But it seemed right for being inside the brain and subconsciousness. It feels quite new, which I‘d still love to dial back slightly if I could. Just a bit more run down with the feeling of more use and abuse over decades would be great. In our budgetary possibilities that type of heavy patina was pretty hard to achieve. And it still works really well.
But yeah, if I could still tweak - a bit more dated accountancy firm would‘ve been ideal.
The framings and light in collaboration with Ginny were the key to making it look real but with a smack of cinematic juiciness at the same time.
All in all it was a true delight to bring such a wonderful script to life. All people involved were highly dedicated - agency, production, post and all crew. It was wonderful to meet and work with such a fantastic team of hard-working lunatics!