The Directors in association withLBB Pro User

The Directors: Matt Huntley

London, UK
Johnny Foreigner director on being paid for your opinion, starting at the bottom and how he'd be happy to never shoot remotely again

Having originally studied graphic design and photography, Matt Huntley got his break in the film industry working as an assistant director and production manager on a raft of commercials, music promos and features. After shooting a number of test spots, he made the jump into directing after being commissioned to write and direct ‘Trimming The Fat’, a short for BBC Films. This lead to him signing with Outsider where he worked for five years shooting films for clients such as Barclays, Vodafone, The Sun, Budweiser, Samsung and Fiat. He has collaborated with many agencies at home and abroad including BBH, Ogilvy NY, Krow, MullenLowe, Grey, WCRS, Special Group Sydney, The Viral Factory and AMV BBDO.

Matt has worked across many disciplines, from shooting indigenous tribes in the jungles of Tanzania to playing video games with elephants in Thailand, he loves the thrill of the challenge, riding into the unknown. Pushed for a preference, his heart really lies with writing and directing comedic actors. Over a number of shorts and commercials he has proven that he has a great eye for casting comedic roles and drawing out fantastic performances. An incredibly collaborative director, he loves nothing more than digging in to find the best way of telling a story.

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

Matt> Normally it’s just my initial reaction - is it a good idea? You can see the good ones play out in your mind almost immediately. I’m always looking for something new to try so originality is a huge draw but if it fits into my wheelhouse of tricks I’m also pretty content.

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

Matt> I try to put myself in the client’s shoes; how can I communicate my vision in the most succinct and informal way? Although I’ll always go into technical detail on lenses, movement, lighting, the leading aspect is to tell it as a story, as if describing it to someone in a pub - how does it look? How does it make the audience feel/react? What is the key message we’re trying to get across?

References are always important but I think you can overload a treatment with too many visuals and either confuse or give the wrong impression of what you’re trying to achieve.

LBB> 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?

Matt> Luckily my partner works in branding and she has been unbelievably useful over the years in providing additional information and helping to focus on strategy and message when I hit a blind spot. 

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

Matt> It has to be with my DP. I’ve had long, fruitful relationships with producers where you genuinely feel like a creative team and other times where they just deal with budget and agency/client management. Without a DP who shares your taste/vision the whole process can feel very frustrating.

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?

Matt> It’s really a combination of visuals and performance. As much as I appreciate beautiful cinematography, those jobs don’t get me as excited as a good story or brilliant dialogue. I like bold camera work, well designed sequences that help to tell a story with great actors.

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

Matt> Everyone knows you can pigeon-hole yourself as a director (cars, kids, animals, comedy, etc). I tend to focus on comedy performance, it’s what I enjoy the most and I think I’ve carved out a certain sensibility and look, but I started out doing a lot of doco-style films in wild locations around the globe and I really miss the challenges and rewards of those projects - working with a small crew, improvising and finding the story. There is something very romantic about being far from home in foreign cultures.

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

Matt> Not directly, it has always been the production company/producer’s domain. I understand the necessity but it can become very frustrating having your budget and expectations chipped away.

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

Matt> Logistically it was driving a Morris Minor through the streets of Kibera in Nairobi for a wide crane shot with a few thousand curious locals in the frame. That was resolved by negotiating with local gang lords and hiring freelance soldiers. For the most part it’s trying to coax a decent performance from somebody not used to being told what to do - footballers, royalty, children. There was also a week in Thailand spent trying to get an elephant to play with an iPad but that’s a whole other story.

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

Matt> Over the years I’ve realised that you are being paid for your opinion. If your vision doesn’t gel with theirs then you’re probably not the right director for the job. The main issue I find at the moment is trying to keep the original idea on track and not let it get diluted by people losing confidence or attempting to tick more and more boxes.

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?

Matt> I started out at the bottom, in-house and on set and although you were often up against nepotism I always felt that the industry worked well as a meritocracy. It is not a place that, for the most part, tolerates laziness or poor attitudes, especially in the lower ranks. I have noticed a lot more diversity amongst runners and assistants and a real willingness to ask questions of those around them. I was really lucky to have a few decent directors and producers that helped me when I started so I’m always happy to return the favour. Ultimately though I think to get into the top jobs you still just have to be focused and put in the hours… and have luck on your side.

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?

Matt> Hopefully it has made everyone more grateful to be working! The main benefit has been the use of video calling which honestly saves so much physical travelling to and from meetings. The whole process feels a lot more economical, not just financially. That said, I’d be happy to never shoot remotely again.

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)?

Matt> I try not to concern myself too much with where the work will play out unless it’s a specific format issue. I think you get into dangerous waters when the platform starts to dictate the creative.

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)?

Matt> Ideally everything should come down to storytelling and communication and how to best achieve that for each project. So I’m happy to embrace any evolving technology that helps the process. I predominantly work with more traditional performance so it’s not a huge factor but I’m always excited when the opportunity to work with an FX team comes up.

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

Matt> ‘Lobsters’ is a short I wrote and directed which did really well. It is a perfect calling card for me in terms of idea, tone, cast, camera movement and lighting. 

‘Made by Barclays’ is a longer form piece illustrating the history of the bank. It has a lot of moving parts- multiple locations, name actor, FX, a lot of camera rigging. It was a huge challenge at the start of my career, not just in terms of budget but finding the right balance with pace, humour and drama.

‘Clever Dick’ for Calor Gas is a really sweet film done for very little money but I think we got the casting just right and gave it a definite look.

‘Bride’ for OFGEM (which I believe never aired) is a favourite purely because of the performance. The actress walked in and nailed the audition, all we had to do was stick her in the frame and turn over. I think we used the first take.

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