Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards
Your Shot: Behind the Scenes on Droga5’s Hennessy VS ‘Major’
Advertising Agency
New York, USA
Ruben Mercadal gives us an exclusive and in-depth look at the making of the brand new Hennessy film that celebrates cyclist Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor
The flagship films of Droga5’s ‘What’s Your Wild Rabbit?’ campaign for Hennessy VS have become something of a major advertising event. Films celebrating passionate pioneers, like speed-racer Malcolm Campbell and father/son explorers the Piccards, are lushly-produced pieces of cinema and hugely inspiring. This year’s film is about the ground-breaking early 20th century cyclist Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor. Directed by Radical Media’s Derek Cianfrance, this spot may be full of speed and drama, but don’t whizz past the details. Every aspect of the film has been meticulously researched and crafted. Once you’ve watched the campaign, go ahead and Google Major to see just how impressively cast, styled and art directed the spot is. 

In the middle of this tour de force, making sure that the ambitious production came together in a way that truly honoured the determination and drive of its subject, was Droga5’s associate director of film production, Ruben Mercadal. He spoke to Little Black Book to take us through how the team brought Major’s story to life.

Check out the film below and a behind the scenes film and teaser film further down the page.

(All photos by Paul McGeiver.)

LBB> How did the project come about?

RM> Last summer Hennessy tasked us with producing a new 2018 ‘What’s Your Wild Rabbit?’ campaign, which celebrates the theme of pushing one’s potential through the stories of extraordinary individuals. 

Now in its sixth year, the campaign has featured celebrities like NAS and Manny Pacquiao while also publicising the stories of lesser-known heroes, like speed-racer Malcolm Campbell and father/son explorers Auguste and Jacques Piccard.

As always, our goal is to craft a beautiful, compelling narrative around the heroes we feature. Our aim is to elevate their stories and hold them up as models of excellence and, in doing so, inspire the target audience and consumer.

The challenge was to find a new and unique story and subject matter, especially as the bar was set so high with previous work. 

The brilliant senior creatives on the project (Marybeth Ledesma and Phil Hadad who were also the creative leads on our last Hennessy film ‘Piccards’) spent many weeks doing deep research and looking for suitable people that could be a potential match for the campaign strategy. It wasn’t an easy task as the pool of people becomes smaller every year and they went into a lot of creative rabbit holes, however when they showed me a summary outline of Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor’s story and legacy, we were blown away that his story was not part of everyday mainstream culture like other incredible historical and iconic athletes.

LBB> The details are incredible. What sort of research did the team have to do?

RM> The historical and unsung nature of Taylor’s story required weeks of research. Creatives drew early inspiration from old photographs, books and online resources, but needed to dig deeper into Major Taylor’s mind. His autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World, self-published in 1928, was instrumental in helping us understand and interpret his story. We supplemented our research with a digitally archived collection of newspaper and magazine articles saved by Taylor and his family.

Taylor’s great granddaughter, Karen Brown Donovan, was also involved early on in creative development. It was important to all of us that we handle Taylor’s story with care and respect. She graciously provided further insight into who he was and guided us with more information and artifacts from his career.

Once they started fleshing out the creative concept with David Droga and our ECD Alexander Nowak in terms of a script and a fully formed campaign idea, I knew we had all the ingredients for another exciting Hennessy campaign. Our clients got on board very quickly with Taylor as the subject matter for the 2018 campaign, which was fantastic. 

LBB> Why did you choose Derek Cianfrance to direct?

RM> The creative deck we put together for directors - with the script the client had signed off on - perfectly encapsulated the inner rivalry story that Taylor endured at the height of his career, continuously pushing himself, so that no other rival existed.

At the start of the 20th century cycling was the world’s most popular sport, and Taylor was its first international superstar. By 1898 he held seven world records. Despite numerous obstacles, Taylor became an international celebrity, going on to dominate various world tours and earn fans around the globe. At the height of his success Taylor was utterly dominant. With the script we wanted to celebrate him as the greatest athlete of his day - which he was - a man who continually pushed himself and left no worthy rival to speak of.

When the creatives and I started to put together a directors shortlist, the list was not too long as we have a lot of important qualities that we need for a project like this. We had some superb directors who pitched on this. Derek was a director we all loved and had admired for a long time. He was actually the last director we spoke to and when we met him the synergy between Derek and all of us creatively was very exciting. Alex, Phil, Marybeth and I all walked out of the meeting saying how excited we were to read a treatment from him.

His treatment was stunning - beautiful, highly cinematic and with a perfect outline of the narrative arch. He had submerged himself into the heart of the inner rivalry story in a way that brought out the magic of his story and we knew that Derek would treat the subject matter with the respect, sensitivity and admiration it deserved. We were very excited to start to collaborate with him.

LBB> Why did you shoot in Ukraine?

RM> From a production point of view, we wanted to shoot in a cycling velodrome that was period accurate and that meant it needed to have an old wooden track floor. I had talked to a lot of service companies before we awarded to Derek / Radical Media and completed my own research, so I had an understanding of what might be potentially available. We scouted all over the world for velodromes (USA, Canada, Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, South Africa, all of Europe, Australasia, etc.) but ruled out all the modern ones. There aren’t many old ones left in the world. Our final shortlist was one in Prague and one in Lviv in Ukraine, close to the Polish border. Creatively we preferred the one in Lviv as it was as if time had stood still there and the huge windows were perfect for scale / photographic needs. 

Tommy Turtle (line producer) was already in Hungary wrapping a project when we awarded the job, so he proactively traveled to both Prague and Lviv to physically assess both potential locations in terms of pros and cons, so him and I could chat in depth about both. The Prague one was also great but it was indoors, a lot smaller and with no windows unfortunately, and Derek and all of us felt that the Ukraine velodrome was perfect. The big production consideration was that we weren’t going to be in Kiev but 300 miles away, so that meant traveling most of the key equipment / crew from Kiev in the middle of winter in trucks and not being close to the main production centre of Kiev, where our service co (Radioaktive Films) was. However, we knew we had to push to make the location work, as it was perfect creatively.

LBB> What type of production team was brought on board?

RM> Derek as you would expect, had an incredible key team working with him, from Roman Vasyanov, our fantastic DP - he’s worked on feature films such as ‘Fury’ and ‘Suicide Squad’ and also spoke Russian which was a big plus with the local Ukrainian crew - to Ged Clarke, our production designer and Zelda Sellars our costume designer. Tommy is also a superb and very experienced line producer.

The period piece attention to detail was second to none. Costumes were made or hired in London and Prague and brought to Ukraine. Major’s replica bike was painstakingly rebuilt in record time in the UK (along with the secondary bikes), from archive and museum references. The art department was lovingly recreated down to the smallest details. Derek is a purist and real filmmaker who wants audiences to emotionally connect with his work and his objective was always to make the race sequences look and feel real but also to make them feel both old and modern at the same time - we didn’t just want a historical film, we wanted it to feel modern too, in keeping with the Hennessy brand. 600 extras were used for all the crowd shots, to make the race feel authentic.

The Mill also partnered with us perfectly throughout pre production, shoot and post to compliment the creatives and Derek’s vision in terms of seamless and invisible VFX where needed (for example vortex sequence, etc.). 

LBB> What were some of the biggest production challenges that you encountered on the shoot?

RM> Our biggest challenge was pulling off the stunts and racing sequences which involved a lot of in depth prep during pre production, with our Ukrainian stunt team. 

We needed to cast a real cyclist with velodrome racing experience or it wouldn’t feel authentic. We were lucky to find an athlete who could not only race but brought the character to life. Our lead playing Taylor was great and up for the challenge (and it was his first time acting), so a lot of logistical and technical considerations had to be taken into account when working with him for all the cycling scenes. We couldn’t afford for him to get injured in any way. 

The wide vortex shot was also very challenging technically (the camera pulling out from ‘Major’ at race level to the top of the stadium seats), but Roman, our DP, mapped out an incredible plan with a rig/crane that gave Derek the jaw dropping scale that he wanted, without losing camera focus etc. Lomo anamorphic lenses were used throughout the shoot, and often four different cranes plus large scale lighting set ups.

The forest, though metaphoric, was inspired by a passage in Taylor’s autobiography and we peppered the film with other subtle details from Taylor’s life. These forest sequences were also challenging as even though the location was magical with the thin, tall trees, it was bitterly cold for our actor and crew. We built a racing track in the middle of the forest and with the snow that fell, it gave the crew a lot of physical and technical challenges, especially as we had a lot of night time shots.

The beam sequence was also challenging physically for our actor but he really worked hard to give us everything we needed:

We wanted the campaign to have a very filmic and highly cinematic film quality. Originally we had wanted to shoot on 35mm but due to various logistical reasons (such as availability of film labs), we decided to shoot on HD but with various special retro lenses inspired by the great works of Sergei Urusevsky and other great cinematographers that Derek and Roman had discussed with us. 

Also, once our editor Paul Watts had cut the films, post production and VFX was completed, and colour was finalised by Tom Poole, we sent the films to London to be outputted onto a 35mm film print at Cinelab in order to give the campaign that final rich, cinematic quality we wanted to achieve. 

Audio wise, Philip Kay scored the music to picture for the main film and we crafted the sound design frame-by-frame with Q Department to compliment the music and bring out the emotional arch of his journey.

LBB> The whole Hennessy campaign is driven by the idea ‘Never Stop, Never Settle’. Given the level of detail and craft in this spot, it would seem that that ethos was something the team really lived and breathed! How did the Marshall Taylor story and the overall message of the campaign inspire you?

RM> We all felt very inspired by Taylor’s story - in the face of so much adversity, he persevered and had the drive and ambition to pursue his dreams, break world records and become a trailblazer. He became an unrivalled world champion and never found an equal adversary. 

We were excited to bring to life the spirit of Hennessy’s ‘Never stop. Never settle.’ ethos through the remarkable, yet widely unknown story of Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor. We wanted to do justice to his story, so every aspect of the films had to be authentic and true to him, based on all the research we did (our lead actor even loved his new Taylor haircut with a line down the middle).

LBB> It sounds like such a mammoth project - what have you personally taken from it?

RM> Overall, it was a special project with a whole team that pushed on all fronts, from a craft point of view, to make a film for our clients that would be in keeping with the rest of the D5 Hennessy work.  

I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have worked with a lot of world class, top directors but working with Derek has been one of my career highlights. We all learned so much from him about filmmaking, the importance of craft and storytelling and it’s a journey I won’t forget.
Work from Droga5 New York
Nature’s Bounty
Chill Train
Coors Light