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The Directors: Malcolm Green

The Directors 231 Add to collection

Writer and director Malcolm reflects on the production process, authentic stories and the excitement of new technology

The Directors: Malcolm Green

Photo credit: Ziggy Mandell

As a writer, film director and creative director, Malcolm Green has won over 1600 international film, creative and effectiveness awards advertising and promoting cars, planes, beers, spirits, governments, online retailers, supermarkets, telecom networks, banks, pharmaceuticals, charities, political parties, social movements, cereals, hot drinks, cold drinks, burgers, health foods, DIY products, fashion, teachers, media owners, shipping companies, hair and beauty products, travel companies, airlines and more. From Cannes Lions to IPA Effectiveness to D&Ad's to Clio’s to One Show to British Television Arrows to ... well, pretty much everything. His work has helped transform businesses, raise share prices, fund charities, recruit teachers and health care staff, and changed the way people bank, shop, vote, GIVE BLOOD and even have sex.

Name: Malcolm Green 

Location: London, UK. (Although at least 50% of my work is  elsewhere) 

Awards: Most recently: Cannes Dolphins (Grand Prix/Best  Director/Best Film + 8 category Gold’s for Maersk Heart of  Trade); 34 Global Film Festival prizes for my short film ‘EDEK’.  LA Humanitarian Director of the Year 2019. Previously:  Cannes, D&Ad, OneShow, BTA

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

In many cases, they are the scripts where there is no script. I love it when there is a  simple idea, but the freedom and flexibility to allow the film or spot to find itself. This is inherently a more documentary approach, but with the added anchor of what we casually call ‘the idea’. This approach encourages a collaborative and organic way of working, particularly when filming on location and with non-actors. Of course, this  method is not right for every brief, and some scripts are much tighter and thought through than others. Particularly, if there are definitive setups or written dialogue. In these instances, these are the things I look for: Clarity. Does the script make sense? Will the audience ‘get’ it? Do all stakeholders share the same expectation of message and intent? Next, what I call Mortality of Duration. So many scripts for 30 or even 60  second spots are overwritten and over-length. That will end up as a compromised film. Better to write it as a 20 script with the extra ten for expression and execution. Third, does it give us the chance to make something different? Something that will stand out, get noticed, make an impact beyond it’s paid reach? I’m still unhealthily competitive, but that does mean that I’ll work fucking hard so that our film can exceed it’s potential, both creatively and commercially. Finally, Emotion. Does the script move me in some way? Make me laugh, cry, angry? Does it activate me? If a script does any of those things to me on paper, then my gut instinct is that it will also move the audience. In terms of what excites me, I have to say that almost everything does. I can see the potential in pretty much any idea. I’m easily excitable :)

How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot? 

To me, a Treatment is part of the production process. Although it’s a lot of work, I insist on writing and designing my own Treatments. It’s how I begin to explore the idea, visually, tonally, sonically and executionally. Regardless of whether the script is mine or someone else’s, my first iteration of a Treatment often goes fairly deep. I tend to introduce different ideas or thoughts. That’s because I like to have something tangible  to discuss with the team, so that we can create a unified vision. But the treatment will often be organic and will be updated through the process as different people are brought into the 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? 

Initially, I really like using that moment of brand ignorance. It’s a window of opportunity where I will often be at my most objective and share an affinity with the viewer if they are similarly unaware. However, once past that, I research everything possible. I want to know as much about the target audience as I can. What else do they watch? What do  they share? What moves them? What music are they into? Who are they? Then I need to know the goals behind the film. What does everyone involved want it to achieve? What do they expect the viewer to DO once they see it? How do they want the audience to feel? I know ROI and KPI’s are not the sexiest acronyms in the world, but I find them helpful. I also want some understanding of the brand. What’s it’s tone of voice and emotional palette? Most importantly, I need to know where people might  see the film. Will it be in the palm of their hand? Vertically or horizontally? Stereo or mono? To me, this is all part of the prep to make a more effective film, creatively and strategically. It also helps me understand different people’s views further down the line. However, it’s also my job to create balance and to remind myself and others that the audience may not share the knowledge that we’ve all gained through research and  strategy. I have to still hang on to some of that Brand Naivity that I had at the outset.

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

Every relationship is vital and I try as hard as possible not to prioritise or create a ‘hierarchy of respect’. My role is similar to that of a conductor, and although - like an orchestra - not everyone is a soloist or will be playing their part at the same time, each individual is an integral part of the piece. Obviously, the nature of relationships will have different nuances. The conversations will be different. The tension points will be different. And at different stages of the production, individual relationships will come to the fore, particularly on the creative side. With my DP. Editor. Music Composer. Colourist. And each of those links have to be as open and respectful as possible. I guess though, if you pushed me to highlight one relationship that is unique, particularly when working with non-professional cast, it would have to be the person in front of the camera. I feel an incredible duty of responsibility towards them, their presence and their story. Trust is an essential on every set, but the trust these women and men place in me and my crew is sacred. 

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

Probably authentic stories of real people. But with a visual and sonic aesthetic that adds something more ‘creative’, subversive and artistic than what we might call ‘Reality TV’. I’m passionate about working with emotion. It’s powerful whatever the platform. 

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

Ha! Perhaps that I make expensive highly storyboarded singing TV ads featuring celebs! Yes, I used to do a lot of them in a previous life - and I still love the genre - but now I work in a much more fluid, authentic and, to my mind, more creative way. I’m also far more involved in non-traditional media and new technology than many people might perceive. And, obviously, I’m not nearly as nice as people think!

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

Yes, lots of times. Usually with no negative issues. Listen, I come from a modest  background and have had my own businesses. That means I understand value and  don’t like to waste money. I’m also inherently aware of the amount that clients spend on what we do for them. That comes with responsibility and respect. On the other hand, most cost consultants I’ve met are also keen that the client’s investment is given the best  chance of success. That means using budgets wisely and not cutting in areas where it will be detrimental to the finished product. Let’s face it though, technology has helped us enormously. It’s enabled us to make more and better content for less cost. That’s good, not bad. From my side, the more tech-aware procurement becomes, the more helpful and effective they will be as well. 

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

Our job is full of crazy problems, but the most recent one was this. I was shooting a piece in the UAE, that was meant to feature three different creative people - a Brazilian Graffiti Artist, a Fashion Photographer and a Digital Game Designer. The afternoon before we were meant to turn over, my EP casually informed me that the Photographer wasn’t responding to calls or emails and had gone completely AWOL, presumed to  have left the country. There were no subs on the bench either and we had full and very tight schedule of locations. My only thought was to scour the city looking for someone ‘creative’. After a few hours and with no success, I wandered into what seemed like an empty warehouse, where a young Syrian guy was paying a guitar made from a cigar box. Turned out that he’d built the guitar himself. That was what he did professionally. He let me try the guitar, which sounded great (yeah, even with me playing.) I got chatting to him and said ‘How would you fancy being in a film?’ He asked me when. ‘Er.. tomorrow.’ Luckily, he didn’t have a lot on the next day, so he agreed. And he was fucking amazing. Much better than the original photographer bloke. That shoot was full of crazy problems, but solving them was brilliant fun. My advice - crave crazy problems!

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

Good question. But I’m not sure an idea is something to be protected like an endangered species. An idea will usually grow, and that’s often a result of collaboration. Yes, there’s an integrity in the original seed or script and it’s useful having people involved who can almost act as ‘gatekeepers’, so that the momentum of the journey doesn’t force us to lose sight of the destination. But, often, it’s my job to ensure  everyone maintains their curiosity and peripheral creative vision. That means being open to new thoughts that can occur along the way - happy accidents even - and embracing how they may add to the idea, not detract. We always need to be united in our overall vision, but that usually means resisting the temptation to be taken prisoner by the storyboard. Listen, it’s easier and lazier for a director to just ‘shoot the script’, but  that’s not really why we’re hired, is it? Having been on the agency side of the fence though, I know that it’s always better when a director is open and shares new ideas, rather than hiding them and trying to execute them by subterfuge. I know that a lot of  directors’ don’t trust the agency or client and prefer to hold them at arms length, but I find that a bit disrespectful. It’s just not me. Once we’re shooting, we’re all part of the crew and the fewer territorial walls or barriers, the better IMHO.

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? 

My thoughts are the same as my actions. It’s not just a nicety, it’s a necessity. My work is improved by inclusiveness and diversity within my teams. Not by a little. But by a lot. Having made so many films about people who are often socially excluded, I believe with a passion in sharing opportunity as widely as possible. I’m currently developing a film about young people in prison. As a result, I spend time each week mentoring ex offenders and, when we film, we will be including former prisoners behind the camera as well as in front. 

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? 

I already tend to work with much smaller crews than one usually gets on ads, and I find it creatively fulfilling. But I’ve realised that technology means we can even get tighter without losing quality. That should mean we can make more stuff for the same amount of money. The challenge for me is that so much of my work has taken me to remote parts of the world, which have been impossible to reach. That’s hard to replicate on zoom. So, I’m looking forward to getting back out there - my curiosity is at bursting point! On the other hand, I’ve been able to write and develop alternative projects, which I’m excited to develop. Ultimately, I’m a big believer of the ‘Beauty of Constraint’ model of creativity. Embrace restrictions and learn from them. Equally, this has been a unique moment where agencies, filmmakers, and brand execs have shared the same experience as customers and audiences. That will enable a degree of empathy and understanding that’s often missing in our industry. That can make our work better and resonate more. On an even more personal level, like so many, I have lost a parent to  Covid. And there is no emotional experience that doesn’t affect your creativity in one  way or another. 

Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working? 

Rigorously. So, that means not editing to a big screen if the format will be on a mobile phone. If there are multiple channels, including TV, I will still often start with the vertical video rather than the ‘hero’ ad. It’s like putting one’s brain sideways, allowing you to see the world from a different angle, changing the visual vocabulary and making something  true to the shape and tactility of the platform. 

Interestingly, when we then cut for landscape or TV, our approach is very different than had we cut for that medium first. We come with a different perspective. If someone is holding your content in the palm of their hand, that’s a very different experience to watching it on a wall. Visually and sonically. Effectively, you are ‘facetiming’ your audience. It’s more intimate and  personal. It’s also more ‘in the moment’. I do feel, however, that a viewer’s attention span reduces with the size of the screen. Plus (and this might sound like a sop to clients) logos on handheld content are inherently too small and too late. It may not feel it, but whatever the format, it still needs craft.

What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work? 

To my children’s amusement and my DP’s despair, I’m a perennial early-adopter. I love new toys. And I’m consistently excited about what technology can help us do. Even though I’m conscious about the human role in creativity, I’m super-aware that we are only touching the fringes of what AI and Machine Learning can achieve. It’s what puts a  vehicle on Mars, so I’m sure it can handle a lot of we do. But, like everything, it’s a collaboration and a balance. Would I listen to Data input on a video or film? Of course. I’d be fascinated. And although from my vantage point I’d love to say that Human Beings are inherently random and unpredictable, I know that in reality, we aren’t. Not as much as we think. But we are fun. And we cry. And we make mistakes. And that’s not to  be taken lightly. But I’m open-minded. New tech doesn’t always replace the old ways of working, it can enhance them. 

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

I guess all four examples are pieces of work that encapsulate different aspects of my philosophy and process. With EDEK, it was the challenge of finding a new door into an old familiar room. To tell a story that has been told so many times and make it relevant and topical to a new, much younger audience. The making of the film was very experimental, much through necessity as design and the process was organic all the  way through. Making an ‘interview-based’ documentary like it’s a music video, cutting words as if they are beats on a track and using the edit as a way of determining what  additional footage was needed. Also, there was a real responsibility towards the main cast member, an 85 year old woman called Janine who had had such an unimaginably tragic childhood. I know that the word ‘disruptive’ is a modern cliche, but the initial idea of making a Hip-Hop retelling of a story of the Holocaust was exactly that. The fact that the film, made for almost no budget, reached a global audience, won numerous awards at film festivals, resulted in a large government grant for the client and is now used to teach history in schools - was a huge endorsement of a rather unorthodox way of working. 

The Salmon Sisters is just one film in a whole series that I was asked to make for the  shipping giant Maersk. To be honest, it was a dream brief: to go round the world, making short films about different people who want to make a bit of a difference, whilst sharing something of their own lives with the rest of the world. In a way, that’s what Trade is about. I’m really proud of the campaign, not just because of it’s creative and  commercial success, but also of the way we approached it’s execution. A tiny crew with a mix of guys who’d made commercials along with kids who made YouTube and Instagram videos. All working together, both collaboratively and competitively. And just constantly breaking rules. Like encouraging the client, who was an amazing guy, to really be part of the team and capture footage and content himself which ended up in  the edits. The song that opens Salmon Sisters, like all the others in the series, was homegrown. I wrote the words, Kevin Pollard wrote the music and the incredible artist Bryde sings. Ultimately, the film gave me the chance to meet some amazing people, each of whom describe themselves as ‘ordinary’. When, of course, everyone is actually extraordinary. So, this particular film features two Alaskan sisters who work as both female fishermen and founders of their own online fashion brand. 

‘Pearls’ is something I shot a while ago. I asked the oldest cast ever assembled for a short film to give one piece of advice to the younger generation. Their answers were beautiful, funny, naughty, poignant and, IMHO, well worth hearing. It was the first time I’d collaborated with cinematographer Daniel Trapp, whose patience and love for a cast of ‘real’ people made me realise how important it is for everyone on a crew to show respect and attention to those in front of the camera. Unusually for me, we shot on film, partly to slow down our filmmaking process and be more frugal and selective when filming. Different workflow that seemed to match the subject. 

This video for the charity Norwood is the antithesis of Pearls. It’s made for an audience  who consume their content by hand. Which, ultimately, is the the crux of the subject. It’s about how organisations like Norwood, working with the mental health of children and  young people, are seeing so many more cases of stress, anxiety, depression and despair as a result of social media addiction. Of course, their remit is wider than that, and this  video is part of a whole series of films dealing with many aspects of their work. But this particular video was conceptualised and expressed knowing it had to work on the very  screens that cause the problem. Again, a very emotional experience meeting some  inspirational people.

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Malcolm Green, Thu, 08 Apr 2021 09:12:44 GMT