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The Directors: Johan Stahl



REVERSE director on allowing himself to be the viewer, his relationship with 'Mr. Crossbow' and following intuition

The Directors: Johan Stahl

REVERSE director Johan Stahl balances disarming humanity and razor-sharp technique to tell energetic and emotionally poignant stories through a refined eye.

Some of Johan’s earliest memories as a young boy revolve around his captivation with cinema and storytelling. Following that passion, Johan worked for eight years in the television business, honing his skills by directing, writing, and producing some of the most successful award-winning comedy shows and documentaries for Danish Broadcasting. Johan has an intuitive sense for creating a character-driven universe with a comic feel. These qualities, combined with a strong visual sensibility and the ability to naturally tell fun, fast-paced stories, make Johan a truly captivating and versatile director.

Apart from his commercial directing work Johan is also a founder of DEAR LEADER, a human rights-based sunglasses brand that strives to help promote democracy in North Korea through mass information.

Recent clients include Lexus, IKEA, Newport Beach Film Festival, Kohler, Royal Bank of Canada, Jack&Jones, Carlsberg, IKEA, and GE. Recent agency collaborations include Team One, Garage Team Mazda, and The Buntin Group, among many others.

Name: Johan Stahl

Location: Copenhagen

Repped by/in: REVERSE / US +  BACON CPH / Europe


Robert Winner, Best Long Fiction

One Club’s One Screen Festival, Gold Pencil 

Sundance Festival Nominee, Best Cinematographer

Shots Awards Nominee, Best Online Commercial of the Year

Rimouski Carrousel Winner, Best Short Film

Sundance Festival Winner, Best World Documentary

Rose d'Or Winner

LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?

Johan> I always have this tradition of allowing myself to be the 'viewer' the very first time I read a script - before I start thinking about how to solve it. That one-time viewer experience always tells me whether or not that particular script is something I’d like to invest time and energy in. So, that’s the first litmus paper test. I’ve lately been very excited about scripts that combine strong character work, and good classic storytelling with CGI. 

LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?

Johan> It differs. I always read up on the client, check out their previous work. Then I spend time finding references, perhaps talking to colleagues about the project - and then I engage with my treatment team. 

If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with/ don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?

I always do my research - no matter the brand. I think the massive work that usually lies behind a campaign before it reaches my eyes is important to have as background knowledge before starting to think about how to solve a script - and figure out what layers I can add to the story and the visual universe in an idea. 

LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?

Johan> Of course, a good relationship with the agency and client - based on trust and the common goal of creating something great together - is a must. And something I strive hard to achieve.  Besides that, my relationship with my storyboard artist is important. I’ve used the same guy for years. He sits on top of a mountain in Romania - and draws, draws, and draws. And when he doesn’t draw, he builds carbon fiber crossbows and goes hunting for wild boars. So, I call him Mr. Crossbow. He shares his screen from the mountain top and then I control his hand and we draw each film out meticulously - and those drawings will mean a lot throughout the rest of the process. So, that function is something I treasure a lot. He’s a key figure in the prep phase. 

But then my relationship with my DOP, my EPs, production designer, editor and sound designer, etc...So, I cannot really say that it’s one person in particular. Cliches are good when they’re done right, so I’m going to sound like one now when saying that this is always a team effort to get things right. 

LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?

Johan> I consider myself a curious, versatile human being, so I’m not picky when it comes to genres. As soon as something good creatively comes along or it’s something that I haven’t tried before, I’m interested. I love people and cars in my personal life, so lately, I’ve gone down that route. But I’ve also taken a strong liking towards more VFX-heavy stuff combined with good storytelling. 

LBB> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?

Johan> That’s a difficult question. Hmm, misconceptions about me or my work would come more from people outside the business, I think. Perhaps that I cannot do comedy ads because I haven’t done many comedy ads. But I actually came from comedy and satire television before entering the world of commercials. 

LBB> Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?

Johan> I’ve not had the pleasure of working directly with a cost consultant but I know some who have. And they didn’t like it very much. I get that it’s something that can be useful for a client, so they never get overbilled. But a few times, I’ve experienced that a cost consultant can harm the creative outcome of a campaign when everything is cut down to the absolute minimum. Sometimes, that approach can end up being more costly in the end. 

LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?

Johan> Usually it’s the classic: too little time for too much content. And we usually solve it by working faster and more efficiently. However, a few years ago, when I was doing this project for a worldwide Turkish brand, it required a massive studio build. Six big apartments were set on multiple floors and we had too few days to shoot it all, so it evolved into a constant shoot, day and night. At one point at 3 am, I was talking to the main client about a sun beam we were shooting through the window in what was meant to look like the morning after a massive party in one of the sets. The sun beam was beautiful and looked naturalistic. And she wanted more sun, more sun, more sun. I tried my best using all the diplomatic skills in my power but it spun out of control and, at 3:30 in the morning, I heard myself say, “That’s it, I’ve had enough. I’m out.” And then I left. 

Everything then went quiet. Some time passed. Then, the client approached me again and asked, “Would you like some food in my tent?” We patched things up over an early morning meal and then went back to work with my fake sun shining through the fake windows.

I just recently did a project for Röyksopp where I decided to work with living crabs. The big red King Crab, and three other living crab species. No crab whisperer exists on this planet, so we mobilized all of our wishes through telepathy directly to the crab -- and it worked! It performed perfectly. 


LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?

Johan> I follow my intuition. I trust it and I’ve learned to let it guide me as much as possible. Combine that with the gift of stubborness like a Peruvian donkey, and I usually end up finding the best way of getting a pure vision through to the client/agency. But collaboration is key -- always. I’m not just pushing to get it my way. I’m always doing it for the good of the final end product. And usually the client/agency - when they get that - they spin out of the classic “fear spiral” and feel comfortable with the process. I see my role as someone who should make an already-good idea better. Over the years, I’ve learned to stick to my initial vision throughout the whole process but always be open to better ideas and improvements along the way.  

LBB> What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?

Johan> I think that’s a brilliant idea. I’m always open to mentoring and apprenticeships. However, it’s all about doing the hard work. Working the long hours, finding out how a film crew works, and how to find your position within that ecosystem. 

It doesn’t matter what color or gender or who you love. Just as long as you’re working hard and are striving to be your best at all times, then all doors should be open. For everyone. 

LBB> How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time? 

Johan> I hope that this pandemic will soon be something we can put behind us. I’ve done a number of projects remotely and I think we’re able to find efficiency on some things but overall, we should get back to normal. ASAP. 

LBB> Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)? 

Johan> It’s mostly about aspect ratios and usually, we can manage with cropping but sometimes it tends to lead to double shooting. That's not always budgeted for, so sometimes, all the new formats that are squeezed in throughout the production phase can be time consuming. 

LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work (e.g. virtual production, interactive storytelling, AI/data-driven visuals etc)?

Johan> I would love to experiment more with new technology. As of now, I find interactive storytelling very fascinating. Regarding AI, I'm fascinated by what might happen within the foreseeable future. Especially when we reach the state where the ‘puters have reached the state of “artificial general intelligence.” Then, things can potentially move super super fast -- beyond belief. We might become the ants in the food chain then. If a supercomputer suddenly knows how to disassemble everything into atoms and connect them again…then we’re f****ed.

LBB> Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?

Shell “V-Power”

I think this piece shows a more abstract take on a car commercial even though it’s for what powers cars (at least for a little while longer…) gasoline. It was about the emotions you get when you drive. I’m a big fan of associative cutaways when it comes to cars. 

Newport Beach Film Festival “The Power of Ideas”

This was a pro-bono project, and it was driven by the sheer lust to tell something quirky and out of the ordinary, with almost a bit of an old-school sci-fi feel. 

Nykredit “Family”

Even though this spot is a few years old, it still has a very honest and relatable touch. It’s a classic family story told over time. So, nothing original about it but it does the job and I think that you want to spend time with this family and mirror yourself in them. 

AK “100 Years of Justice”

This was my first time with time travelling and robots and a lot of CG. And I loved every minute of that proces. 

view more - The Directors
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REVERSE, Wed, 21 Jul 2021 09:53:00 GMT