The Red Rage director shares insight on the challenge of the visuals, 4am muffins and the sensitivity of working with Trócaire
Stevie Russell leans into the warmer side of humans to create visually stunning films that celebrate our better nature. He is a previous winner of the Cannes YDA and has worked extensively at home and abroad developing an accomplished portfolio of commercials, music video and film work.
Stevie has directed commercials for such brands as Orchard Thieves, Ford, Tourism Ireland, Danone and SMA and music videos for such bands as Kodaline, The Coronas, Dean Lewis and Ships.
Name: Stevie Russell
Repped by / in: Red Rage
Awards: CANNES YDA, SHARKS, UKMVA, IMVA
What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?
Stevie > I love the storytelling side of things. That combined with a visual hook is what I get most excited about. The Lidl spot that has just gone to air had that on the page. Lovely creative brief from the team at BBDO. The challenge of the visuals, combined with great writing about the uphill battle facing the sport just clicked immediately.
How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?
Stevie > It’s a balance of getting excited about the thing and trying to deliver on the brands needs. You have to want it. The treatment is often working that out. Why do you want to spend time on this? If I don’t find a really good, specific reason for that I’m usually missing something.
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?
Stevie > You get a sense of things in early calls with agency and always do a search on previous work to get a feel for where they have been heading. It all goes in the pot. The recent Trócaire films I made with Red Rage and Core required some pretty tough research that was completely necessary, both in terms of place, brand and subject matter. Red Rage have worked a lot with Trócaire over the years and there’s a sensitivity to the material and how it is handled.
For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?
Stevie > Getting aligned with the key creative’s is so important for the decision making side of things. Once you’re all singing from the same sheet, it makes the process so much more spontaneous. You can go off piste, there’s a rhythm and the client can see it so they get into it. One big conga line. The magic usually comes in the unplanned moments and they can show up when everyone is moving in the same direction.
What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?
Stevie > The human story is what I’m looking for in the script. That might be in humour, or in narrative, or something visual. Who is this about and who is it for? Casting becomes the most interesting part of the process as a result. I started out as a DOP, so the visual side follows, how is this going to be interesting visually? The passion always follows if those two things are unique and interesting.
What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?
Stevie > This idea of directors doing one very specific thing is a misconception in my opinion. I guess most directors feel that way. I did a piece for SMA and suddenly I’m a baby director. I did have a lot of fun doing baby ads for a while but you have to be careful. The pigeon hole is deep these days. I love to move about if I can. Why is it called a pigeon hole? Bit rude.
Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?
Stevie > I haven’t, sounds serious though. I could use one in life generally.
What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?
Stevie > Well the pandemic has been one big crazy problem and it’s been great being part of delivering solutions this front. Also the shoot I did for Aaron Smith’s song, 'Unconditional', was ambitious on paper. It involved a woman facing a version herself and letting that version go. Moving on. I wanted to shoot it as tactile as possible. It was going to be a bit of a mess, post wise, and budgets are challenging on music videos. Once we started boarding it and seeing the challenge of it, we nearly ditched it. Anyway, we came up with a pretty neat solution that I’m sure you’ll guess if you watch the video.
How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?
Stevie > You bring something specific into the treatment that hopefully resonates with the client and the agency. That something is what you need to protect. They’ve already done a ton of work when you come into the process so that has to be respected, but you also need to make something the viewer is going to get pumped about. That’s often the bigger picture directors need to protect.
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?
Stevie > The work we’re seeing from people that weren’t given that same platform in the past is insanely good. I’m up for mentoring for sure!
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?
Stevie > We shot remotely in Thailand and South Africa for Trócaire which was an amazing experience. To jump into something so different but so similar was weird. You were on set in your head, hunched over a laptop, then the feed would go dead and you’d be sitting in an office at 4am eating a muffin. It required an even closer attention to detail than usual, especially in the casting prep, and that’s never a bad thing. You can always do more in pre-production. That’s my new mantra.
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)?
Stevie > I don’t really think about this too much unless I’m asked to. It’s going to hit you or it’s not. With that in mind, you can’t dilly-dally. You need to get into it.
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)?
Stevie > It’s a fast moving train. I love it all though, especially the nuts and bolts stuff. How equipment is becoming more lightweight, how you can create beautiful stuff with smaller crews, it gives flexibility and intimacy. I don’t get interactive storytelling, you want to be taken on an amazing journey, not have to navigate a limited one. Maybe I’m old fashioned in that sense.
Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?
Stevie > ‘You’re only as good as your last piece of work’ - I hate the horrible honesty of this saying but, in keeping with it, I’ve chosen four pieces made in the last six months. I’m proud of them all, great scripts and collaborators. It’s been a brilliant, albeit weird, first year with Red Rage, Gary and Paul push for quality and like to have a laugh so I’m excited for the future working with them.
Lidl - LGFA Level The Playing Field
Trociare - Not Just a Girl
Trociare - Not Just a Refugee
Aaron Smith - Unconditional