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Paul W.S. Anderson’s Lessons from Hollywood and Adland

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With Monster Hunter being released this year in many markets as cinemas open back up, the director discusses his movie career and the lessons he’s learned from making ads as well as silver-screen epics

Paul W.S. Anderson’s Lessons from Hollywood and Adland
In much of the world right now a trip to the cinema to watch an audiovisual spectacular is both a faint memory and a distant dream. In the UK, for example, cinemas don’t look like they’ll be opening again until May. Hopefully, that means that Paul W.S. Anderson’s ludicrously epic and action-packed video game adaptation Monster Hunter will be hitting screens there soon, as well as in other markets. Because Monster Hunter’s the sort of epic, exhilarating adventure that you want to be totally immersed in. The monsters are big; the weapons that Captain Artemis (Milla Jovovich), her unit (T.I. Harris, Meagan Good, Diego Boneta) and the mysterious Hunter (Tony Jaa) fight them with are big; and the landscapes they fight them in are even bigger.

Paul’s career has made maximal use of the cinema setting, from the Resident Evil films to Death Race to Alien vs. Predator. But since 2008 he’s directed ads too. Represented by The Mob, he’s helmed ads for brands like Volkswagen, William Hill and Deutsche Telekom. And, as he’s keen to stress, he’s not all about explosions, car chases and fight sequences.

LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Paul to talk about his Hollywood career and how it intersects with the world of advertising.

LBB> Monster Hunter is a huge movie and you’ve already said a lot about how you approached making it. What’s the one thing you’d most like people to know before they watch it?

Paul> As you know it's a movie that's based on a video game. But I think the most important thing for people to know is that you don't have to have any knowledge of the game to go see the movie. We made a movie that stands on its own. So if you're a fan of Monster Hunter the video game, it's absolutely set within that world and it has characters in the world and the weapons and the armour and the monsters. So it's a real love letter to the video game. But if you don't know Monster Hunter from a hole in the head, and you don't even play video games, you don't have to worry. It really is a movie that's for everybody. It's a fun, action, adventure, visual effects feast that you can enjoy whether you know the game or not.

LBB> You have a proven track record of doing that. You've taken video game franchises, and turned them into movies that can stand on their own.

Paul> The majority of the audience for the Resident Evil movies and for Mortal Kombat, going back to one of my earlier hits, were people who maybe had heard of the game, but they absolutely didn't play the game. They didn't know anything about it. We've made movies that are accessible for a mainstream audience. And I think especially with Monster Hunter, it's a fun action adventure film with a lot of comedy in it as well. It's an uplifting movie that transports you to another world for a couple of hours. And I think the state of our world is in right now, it's fun to escape to another world for a little while. That's what you want from a movie right now.

LBB> I’ve spoken to feature directors before who’ve made directing commercials in between epic feature projects sound a bit like a palette cleanser - a refreshing break from the hard slog of longform filmmaking. Does that resonate with you or do you have another perspective?

Paul> I wouldn't describe it as a palate cleanser, because that makes it feel like it's just small, tiny little goblets of sorbet before you have the main meal, or between courses. For me, it's a full meal when you do a commercial. The ones that I do that tend to be quite involved. I always view them not as a different form to a feature film, but just each commercial is like a mini feature film. Each one I approach like it's a film and that's been a good thing, I guess, because people have come to me for what I'm known for, which tends to be big scale and lots of action and stuff like that. I've approached each commercial like it is a movie and shot it in that way. And then that's been really interesting for me because it's not like I consider commercials really different to movies. 

One of the attractions of commercials for me is that I get to work with new people. And quite often those people that I have been lucky enough to meet in the world of commercials, I've been dragged over to the world of features as well. So the two worlds have blurred a little bit for me, I don't see them as separate worlds or even separate disciplines. One of the great working relationships I have is with my editor, Doobie White, who I started working with on Volkswagen commercials. After a whole bunch of VW commercials, I then dragged him into doing the last Resident Evil movie. And he cut Monster Hunter as well. 

Talking Monster Hunter, for example, I shot that movie in South Africa. And I started working in South Africa purely on commercials. It was working on commercials, having a good time and seeing the quality of crews there that really gave me the confidence to go and shoot feature films in South Africa. I'd never worked there before commercials and if it wasn't for commercials, I don't think I would have had the experience. Because it's always a risky thing when you take a movie to a country that you've never been to before, with a crew you've never worked with before. The world of commercials has allowed me to explore working in Cape Town and Johannesburg and see the quality of the crews. I've now done two feature films and a TV show in South Africa. 

I only started making commercials in 2008. Learning about the commercials world was very, very exciting. My experience in the commercial world has definitely had a positive effect on my feature film way of working. And vice versa. They're slightly different disciplines. But there's so many things in common. For me, there's been an awful lot of crossover.

LBB> Are there any particular filmmaking techniques or lessons in general that you've learned from the movie world that you've taken into your commercials?

Paul> It's been a real symbiotic relationship for me. I got into commercials because I'd just done this movie with Jason Statham called Death Race. At that point, there was a lot of car action in movies moving into the world of CG, like in the world of The Fast and the Furious. Car stuff in CG had a kind of synthetic feel to me and I wanted to go back to shooting cars for real. So we spent two years basically building a lot of specialised rigs in order to shoot cars and make it seem exciting, and make people go 'Oh my God! I don't know how they did that in CG, but it looks amazing!' And it wasn't CG, it was real, we're just shooting it in a way that you haven't seen before. 

Having spent those two years building all those rigs and gathering all that experience, I thought that it would be a real shame if all that experience and all these techniques go to waste and don't get used again. So that's when I accidentally pushed into commercials. 

The first commercial I did was for VW. And then I was kind of off to the races. I definitely brought those rigs and those crews and that experience into the world of commercials.

LBB> And how about the other way round? Lessons from the commercial world that have made their way into your movies?

Paul> I've taken a lot from that world as well. Like I said the editor that's kind of tied to me at the hip right now, I would never have known if I hadn't worked in the world of commercials. 
Every commercial for me is always a fantastic learning experience because you get to work with some amazing creative people from the agencies. That, to me, is a real creative boon - to work with new people and get new perspectives. I think that's invaluable. I really feel like every time I do a commercial I'm like a dry sponge and I suck up all of this experience and all of this knowledge.

LBB> It's interesting because it's a different dynamic, in terms of how the team is formed, where the director sits within that. When you're making one of your films, particularly as you're a very well known director these days, it's your movie to quite a large degree.

Paul> Very much so. Especially as I tend to write most of my own movies and produce them as well. So it's definitely a process that I'm in control of. When I first started working on commercials, I think maybe that was something that put off some clients - they were a little scared of working with me because they thought, 'He's not going to want to be collaborative, and he's just going to want to do his own thing and won't give a damn about what anyone else thinks.' Quite the opposite. One of the things I love about commercials is the creative and collaborative aspect of it. And I'm actually a very collaborative filmmaker on set, even when I'm doing movies. The collaborative aspect of making commercials is something that I really relish. Getting other opinions and other views is like a shot of vitamins. I think as a filmmaker it keeps you kind of fresh, and kind of in touch.

LBB> I imagine that the commercials you’re asked to do bear similarities to your movies - big, thrilling extravaganzas - and a lot of the ads you’ve made are definitely that. Are there any other kinds of films that you’d like to make in your commercial directing life?

Paul> Absolutely. I think one of the nice things about commercials for me is that I've started to get into areas that I think maybe the filmmaking people don't really perceive me as. Like I did a whole series of VW ads, which went into the cinemas in the UK, and the tagline was, "for real life, not for the movies". And they were all excellent conceits that were then undercut with a bit of humour because the action scene didn't turn out the way you thought it was going to because the VW was just too damn safe. But actually, that's what you want in real life. They were great pieces of comedy. Yes, they had action in them and they had some scale to them. But really they were comedic pieces. The commercial kind of rose or fell on the fact that the audience laughed at the end. And they did laugh and they were very successful commercials. That was really nice for me. Because in the feature film world, definitely, it's not something I'm approached with. Comedy is not something that's generally perceived as my being in my wheelhouse. It was really fun to be able to do comedy, so I do think it's kind of broadening my horizons a little bit. I certainly look forward to kind of doing more contained stuff. It doesn't have to have an explosion in it for me to be interested.

It's not like everything I've done has had explosions. Also, a lot of it, I've done work with Manchester United, for example, where you're working with the footballers, and that's really all about character and personality, rather than about action. Kicking a football around is a certain level of action, but it's not explosions and fast cars.

LBB> Beyond what you said about the rigs you developed for Death Race, what skills do you think you’ve been able to develop as a filmmaker working in big movies that most regular commercials directors might not have access to?

Paul> Also just the level and the amount of experience I've had kind of mounting big, complicated shoots, all around the world, means that the technical aspects of shooting I'm not that concerned about. I know it's going to get worked out and I've got the skill set to be able to do that, which I think does allow me to focus more on performance and concept. I think that is a real boon creatively in a commercial, because you're not spending all your time worrying about 'how am I going to shoot this?' And 'is it going to look good?' For me, I just take that as a given - we're going to shoot it, it's going to look great, and I can work with the clients and the agency to deliver the performance and the quality that they're looking for.

LBB> Your film influences are well documented. But is there any work from the advertising sphere that you find inspiring or something to reference?

Paul> Commercials are part of the fabric of our life. And also, even if I would talk about films that have influenced me, I will talk about a whole series of British filmmakers who came out of the advertising industry anyway. My big influences when I was a teenager dreaming of being a filmmaker were Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Alan Parker. These were the big men of movies who were making very stylish, fun, commercial films that I really aspired to make. They had all been raised in the world of commercials. And that gave their movies a very distinct look. Those British filmmakers of that period really changed the look of movies in my opinion. That's why I've always completely respected the world of commercials and wanted to kind of jump into it, which I finally managed to do.

You look at Ridley's famous Apple commercial, you can draw a direct line between the look of that and the look of Blade Runner. The very kind of dense visual style that develops - you can see it all in his commercials. In many ways he was developing a style while he was making those commercials, and then that finally came to fruition when he started making feature films.

Tony Scott, I was a huge, huge fan of his work. I remember seeing Man on Fire. The level of dense visual information that was contained within that film and the look of it was so strong, so extreme and so different. You could tell that this was a man who wasn't just a feature film director, he'd been immersed in commercials. 

And sure enough, you look at the crews that Ridley and Tony use and used - lots of those people came out of commercials. Working with people like Doobie or people in visual effects, it's wonderful that commercials allow us to get out there and meet and work with new people. Because quite often that's how you discover the real talent.

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The Mob, Tue, 16 Mar 2021 14:50:23 GMT