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The Directors: Tom Geens



The Johnny Foreigner director on reading from all angles, turning obstacles into opportunities and the excitement of new technology

The Directors: Tom Geens

Tom Geens started as a creative at Rapier and then Howell Henry. In 1997 he and his partner Simon were voted D&AD Young Creative Team of the Year, and represented the UK at the Young Lions competition in Cannes. The pair won fame for their work on TV Licensing, Tango, and Cable & Wireless, and was part of the team that made Howell Henry Agency of the Decade in 2000.

In 2002, Tom started directing for Harry Nash, where he shot spots for Walkers, Sony Play Station and BT. In 2003 he was nominated for the Cannes Young Director Award and then went on to win more awards for his BBC, Ikea and BT films.

He has also been awarded for his short films, and in 2008 he made his debut feature: Menteur (Liar). His latest feature COUPLE IN A HOLE had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2015, and was released to critical acclaim in 2016. Amongst other awards, it was nominated for the top prize at the BIFAS, won a Scottish BAFTA and ended up in the GUARDIAN top 50 best films of 2016.

His background in films, built on a solid grounding in commercials, make him an exceptional storyteller, with a good sense of narrative, and an understanding of how a scene turns. And, having learnt his trade under Steve Henry, he always brings unusual ideas to the table, and lots of them

Name: Tom Geens

Location: London

Repped by/in: Johnny Foreigner

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

Tom> It’s all about the quality of the writing for me. When you feel the ideas are fully explored and the best possible execution(s) has miraculously survived the onslaught of endless meetings. Those scripts you can see a mile off. 

Advertising finds itself the most, in my opinion, in comedy. It is THE platform for the comedy of very everyday banal situations. You don’t really see that as powerfully anywhere else. I guess products are all about finding solutions to very banal everyday problems, so there’s a real relevance and credibility there. Also who really wants to sit through yet another ad-break full of films that take themselves seriously? There’s far too many of them!

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

Tom> First I try to get to the core of the idea of the script to really understand how they are trying to sell and dramatise the product. Then I’ll start looking at the script from all angles for any opportunities to make it stronger, tighter and funnier. This is a really exciting bit of the whole process, I often find myself giggling at the keyboard, seeing where things could go. 

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

Tom> It has to be with the agency and client. There’s no point ignoring their wishes or having an ‘us-them’ mentality. It’s them you have to satisfy. Being collaborative generates the best work in my opinion. When everyone’s aligned, it’s really exciting as to what can happen. I always start with the creatives, really trying to understand what they want to do and how my style of work can help them achieve that. The more people get excited about a script, the easier it becomes to sell it. Enthusiasm and passion are very infectious. Clients are not always the bogey men they are made out to be. ALL parties come into it with an agenda. So the quicker you can establish the common ground between everyone, the quicker you know where to add value and then start really pushing that.  It’s all about clarity of communication. So you have to be open, I think, that what you put in your treatment might not be what will end up on the screen. It depends on the dynamics you have with the agency and client. And it’s that energy that will ultimately shape the end product. 

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

Tom> I don’t encounter many misconceptions. I think my work is pretty clear as to what I stand for and what I like. So there is never much confusion. 


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

Tom> Yes. As I said before everybody has a job to do and that has to be respected. A lot of the time, obstacles can become opportunities. 

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

Tom> Very early in my career, I did some Wotsits i-dents involving a man running around Stockwell with an extremely large bum trying to sit on people. A few times we just let him loose to see what would happen. It was very amusing to say the least. 

In terms of finding interesting solutions to problems, I shot a lot of commercials in Kiev and Moscow and there they are very imaginative in their problem solving. Maybe something to discuss over a pint. 

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?

Tom> Of course, that’s a given. It just makes things all the more exciting. The more perspectives on something, the better. And yes I’m very open to mentoring. I do it a lot in my long format work and I always really enjoy it. 

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)? 

Tom> I’m excited about the new technology and various formats, as it allows your work to live in so many more places. I’m a firm believer that good stories work wherever you put them and in whatever shape. There is nothing more satisfying than making someone laugh from just looking at a small smart phone screen. 

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

Tom> Sainsbury’s – Halloween

I never thought it was going to work this well. I honestly thought it would turn out to be a fairly mundane film. But lots of things came together during the production and shoot. We all remained open to better the script at all times even whilst we were shooting it. The construct of the ending was a brainwave at the eleventh hour, agreed upon by everyone in a sweaty spare room at the location. It turned out to be Sainsbury’s most successful online campaign ever. 

Royal Mail – Redirection

In true Seinfeld Style, this film is all about nothing and so much at the same time. Just observing people pottering about and talking sh*t, what else is there really?

THREE – Go Binge

One of those rare occasions where you feel totally free on the shoot. Like you would on longer format. You can try whatever you want and push it wherever. It was very very exciting and I will never forget that day. At the basis was perfect alignment with the agency and client.

Crunchy Nut – Too Good

It was my last shoot before Covid hit. 5 days and 11 films. I really love the discipline of these short formats. Everything is pared down to the essential. Every second counts. It really teaches you about story-telling, how each department contributes to it and all the amazing levels of communication the viewer picks up on. Despite the short time length, it always baffles me how rich and layered you can still make them. In the viewer’s mind, they live a lot longer. 

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Johnny Foreigner, Wed, 10 Nov 2021 09:59:53 GMT