On Commercials

I am grateful for making so many commercials—often one a week, for a few years in my twenties—it was my personal film school.

It would be difficult going back to commercials. I was lucky enough to make them during the so-called ‘golden age’ when we had complete freedom to improvise and re-work the scripts during the shoot to make them better. That’s impossible these days because every syllable has to be pre-approved by a dozen committees.

I did very few (commercials) in the last thirty years. When I did, I had a piece of paper in my top pocket that said,

“Reminder: I am but a hired hand. Nod and smile. Bite your lip. I am but a mere labourer in the ditches of advertising. I must hold my tongue and think of the large cheque and my kids’ school fees.”

It’s awkward making a commercial after directing films. On a film, if you’re happy with the take you just move on. On a commercial you’re forever looking over your shoulder at the agency people huddled around the monitors in the “video village”… “OK for you?” you say politely, through gritted teeth.

Ridley (Scott) and I cleaned up in commercials in London in the early seventies. If a script said, “We see beautiful girl running towards us, in slow motion along a Caribbean beach…” Ridley did that. If the script began, “We see two overweight people at a food counter talking…” I did those.

We were originally greatly influenced by the advertising done in New York in the late 60’s, by agencies like DDB and directors like Howard Zieff. Then the research and planning guys took over on Madison Avenue and so, for the next thirty odd years, the best work was done in London.