Amidst busy working days for Shona, we managed to grab her and tell us a little bit about one of her most recent creations – Rudy.
Rudy is an award-winning coming-of-age drama set in the heart of rural England. It follows the emotional journey of a teenage girl who finds herself being tested by her relationship with her father and responsibility for her younger siblings. She feels increasingly pushed out when her home gets opened up to a paying guest. Through a newfound friendship with a boy from Coventry, she discovers fun, freedom and autonomy.
“Rudy” is a film that centres on love and loss, youth and innocence, holding on and moving on. What inspired you to create this film and pursue these themes?
The initial story was triggered by me losing my dad and also losing a friend who left a teenage daughter. The months after this I would drive past a house in the countryside every week, I started creating a story about a girl who lived in that house, dealing with her own loss and trying to find some kind of reconciliation with her own feelings, whilst also trying to get on with life.
You collaborated with Akira Kosemura on the musical composition for the film. How did you two meet and what was it like working so closely with one another?
My son loved his music and suggested I ask Akira if he would give me permission to use one of his tracks or even possibly compose a track for the film. I got in touch with him and after seeing the film, he loved it so much that he offered to compose all of the original soundtracks. I was bowled over, his music is so wonderful and I loved working with him. Because of the time difference to Japan, he would compose in his day and send over the tracks and I would put them into the edit and feedback, and although we were a long way from each other we worked really well together.
The visual style of “Rudy” looks beautifully natural and nostalgic, somewhat akin to Sean Baker’s aesthetic. What led you to choose this style?
Graeme was the cinematographer on Rudy and I was originally both a photographer and cinematographer before I started to direct. Both of us are drawn to visual storytelling. We didn’t have much in the way of budget or crew so we had to be inventive, improvise with camera moves and often embrace what light we were given. We chose particular times of the day to shoot, when the light was right, and so operated in a more organic way.
Most of the production was done locally and with minimal crew, do you always approach your work this way?
Over the years I have had the good fortune to work on projects with decent budgets, which in turn has allowed me to have bigger crews. However, I often think it is because Graeme and I originally came from film school, that if there is no budget, we slip quite comfortably back into shooting in a simpler way. Rudy had a minimal crew because of the lack of financial resources. Some may see this as a limitation, however, in many ways it was very liberating because it allowed us to be very light on our feet and getting what we needed in simpler ways.
What were some of the hurdles and challenges you faced while putting all the pieces in place for this production?
The main difficulty was the lack of money to throw at situations to help resolve them. We knew from the outset that this was going to be a labour of love film, and once we accepted that we did not have funding to make things go quickly, we embraced the fact that we had to make it at the pace we could afford. We managed to get over most hurdles, finding inventive ways of shooting and we were given a lot of generous support from lovely people along the way.
Meet a few of NERD’s Talent & New Biz team – Lydia Kaufman, Maria Leal and Lorena Perez!
They are responsible for discovering new talent, executing NERD’s new business strategy and pitching to our agency & brand partners across the globe. Let’s dive deep into how they work their magic and help make NERD what it is today!
What was your first new business win? ML: My first win was with a lovely team from an agency in Spain around 12 years ago. While it was my first ever project and I got a little stressed, everything went swimmingly and to this day the team from that agency are good friends!
LP: It was around 12 years ago when I was working on breaking into the Spanish market. It was a job for the local government in Barcelona and my first ever win! I remember how frighteningly exciting it was, and even though I felt a little anxious I soon realised that everything was going fine and there was really nothing to worry about.
LK: My first ever business win was on a job for Sony with the team from Saatchi and a directing duo called Si & Ad. It was my first job in the industry, and it was their first job too – overall very exciting and a great start to doing what I love!
What was the best piece of advice you got early on?
Everyone: Do your best, be honest and never give up! Persistence is key.
How has the business of ‘selling’ in the creative industry changed since you started?
ML: Budgets used to be bigger and the projects were less fast-paced. Nowadays we have to work quicker and with fewer resources but in a way that’s had the added bonus of making us even more creative than before 😉
LP: We are presented with plenty of new opportunities as businesses adapt to the needs of the market – a bigger online presence with new platforms like TikTok and other forms of social media. Working from home in a way has made things easier as you can connect with just about anyone from around the world.
LK: The main change happened with the rise of digital- these days we can just send a link with a showreel! When I was starting out one had to visit all agencies in person, find a TV to show the work and make sure everything is in working order.
How do you usually find new talent, is there a secret NERD recipe to it?
LP: I always think about creativity, diversity, passion and innovation. We need to be at the top of the game if we want to do well in the market!
LK: There is no secret recipe for finding new talent. I always look at various publications, socials, and awards, as well as just explore new work from everywhere. I also like to look into different festivals where up and coming directors usually come from.
ML: When I think about NERD’s talent, I think about freshness, a very open and receptive mind, bold and adventurous creativity, and of course a huge dose of professionalism and heaps of team spirit.
What are your thoughts about the process of pitching that the industry largely runs on?
ML: I think pitching is ok as it’s a way of communicating creatively with the agency and the client, sharing with them how we see their “baby” materialised.
LP: Clients are trusting us with their brands and they want to make sure we will take care of them. NERD’s approach is bespoke and carefully crafted for each creative brief we receive.
LK: I always thought that every company pitching for something should get a fee out of it – it’s people’s time, money, effort and I have always said that. However, we all know – you’ve got to be in it to win it!
How do you tailor your approach according to the kind of person or business you’re approaching?
ML: You always need to adapt your approach – either creatively, economically or even technically. It’s a kind of psychological test and an opportunity for you to learn and grow.
LP: I do some research on the client, the work they have done and then I choose to present what is the best for them. Then you adapt and learn to prepare for the next round. The main advantage we have is the sheer volume of visual styles and approaches for almost everything.
LK: Research and tailoring for each specific brand – every time, all the time!
New business can often mean hearing ‘no’ a lot and quite a bit of rejection – how do you keep motivated?
ML: Never take things personally. Motivation comes from being with a team and trying to bounce ideas between each other. I also find it good to do explore things outside of my professional life which helps me to remain passionate about all aspects of life.
LP: Always be positive and take the learning opportunities – always keep the relationships with the client open and continue to pitch to them. It all works, as well as the importance of understanding that there are so many reasons for not moving forward and you should not take it personally.
LK: There is always a risk of rejection, worth remembering that it is a numbers game and the good will come.
How important is the alignment between the talent and client in your opinion?
ML: It’s absolutely key, talent and client should be completely aligned! There should always be a dose of differing opinions, as this is a sane way of evolving a super creative project, though, they should always have a sense of alignment between them.
LP: If the client and talent are not aligned the project could be in jeopardy. The talent will advise the best way of achieving the results but the client needs to agree on the concepts. Teamwork makes dream work!
LK: It is vital! We have nothing without the alignment between the talent and client, the best work is created by having a perfect match.
The advertising and marketing industry often blurs the line between personal and professional friendships and relationships… does this make it easier or more difficult and delicate for you?
ML: If you act and work with honesty and integrity it can’t be difficult.
LP: You need to learn how to separate the personal and professional. Always be transparent and honest so you don’t generate false expectations.
LK: If you are friendly and can build good relationships it makes it all easier. It is always nice to know someone more personally rather than keeping it strictly professional.
NERD is known for its diverse and inclusive roster, what goes into matching the talent and client briefs ensuring you make just the right pairing?
ML: There’s a delicate balance to be struck when it comes to finding the right talent for a brief. There should be a combination of the right styles and techniques, but also there are specific briefs that require shared values and ways of seeing life – that’s when finding the perfect pair make all the sparks fly!
LP: The important thing is to really understand who is the right talent for the brief – and having diversity in the team helps bring very different ideas and perspectives.
LK: It is all about understanding what the client really wants and what their brief is about. To have the best pairing, I look at the personalities and their creative brains. A lot of it is also about gut feel – when I see a script I always have some directors pop up in my head as I am going through the brief.
In your view, what’s the key to winning projects?
ML: I think the key is trust. Your clients always need to feel that they are in good hands.
LP: The clients always need to know that we have the right solution for them and that we will do anything we can to make it work!
LK: Remaining professional, being honest, approachable and knowing that you are going to give it your 100%.
What’s your advice for anyone who’s not necessarily come up as a salesperson who’s now expected to sell or win new business as part of their role?
Everyone: Truly believe in what you are selling and try your best!
NERD: Gamal’s story is about the complex challenges that ethnic minorities sadly have to face to this day. How did you come to know Gamal’s story, and when did you realise that this was something that everybody needed to hear?
Cherish: I first heard about G when I attended a workshop for LGBTQ+ people of colour. During the workshop there was a breakout session to discuss role models within the community and G’s name came up. While I didn’t actually know the details of his story at the time, I reached out to him to generally make contact. G and I built a friendship from there and along the way he shared details of the challenging parts of his journey. He was keen on sharing his story in the hopes that it could help and inspire other people. I knew that this was an important story of overcoming self-hatred and that is a universal journey that could connect with audiences.
NERD:Gamal is proud of who he is and has taken ownership of himself, his past and his identity – all of which he now uses to help better the lives of others. How has his story impacted you personally, and what impact do you think it will have on others?
Cherish: I hope the impact of hearing G’s story will be the same for others as it was for me. While G’s story is shocking and triggering in parts, making the film and meditating on these themes have been healing for me. His story provided an opportunity for me to reflect on pivotal moments I’ve had with my identity and the impact they have had on me. I think everyone can relate to being told directly or indirectly that there are parts of who they are that aren’t good enough. The intention behind this film is to make conscious what is largely unconscious when it comes to self-hatred.
NERD:Race and gender identity are common themes in your work. How do you tell stories to people who have so few touchpoints with the issues facing minorities?
Cherish: Identity as a whole is an area that I am interested in and we all have a sense of self. My approach to storytelling is to tell specific stories in universal ways. In that way, whether someone can directly relate to the struggles of marginalised communities or not is less relevant. It’s ultimately about the emotions that drive our collective experience of humanity and those feelings transcend race, sexuality, class, gender etc.
NERD:There’s a clear exploration of identity, as well as a rallying cry for equality and inclusion. Why did you choose to centre the story of an individual rather than a group of people?
Cherish: G’s story alone touches so many important moments in recent British history. From the Black communities’ resistance of oppressive policing, to the push for LGBTQIA+ equality and the aftermath of the West African ‘farming’ phenomenon, where white families took care of Black children outside the remit of local authorities. There were so many important touchpoints in his story alone that allowed us to speak to several bigger societal issues. Because of this, I didn’t feel like we needed more voices to tell this story. Some of my favourite films are ones that tell big, complicated and nuanced stories through one persons’ perspective and that is what I sought to do with The Black Cop.
NERD:Gamal’s story is inspiring but heart-breaking. Do you have a message for all the young people of colour out there who are silently internalising many of the same conflicts that Gamal faced growing up?
When we think of racism or any other form of bigotry we think of the big events and give little attention to the daily subtle comments and actions that can negatively impact self-esteem. I want us to acknowledge those events, the impact they have and begin or continue a journey of healing.
Rafa dives deep into the thoughts on how to find the best possible ideas, why he needs to print the scripts and what it takes to be a guy from ‘now’,
What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?
Scripts choose me! People who get in touch with me usually already know what I can do for their projects. That’s why I don’t usually get scripts that could be difficult for me to end up shooting. I feel lucky because this saves the agencies, my producers and me a lot of time used in unnecessary pitches. The scripts that catch my attention the most are those where I can really tell a little story and provoke emotions to the audience.
How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?
First and foremost, I print everything. I need to see a script on paper so I can draw on it, move things around. On the first day I never try to do anything with it, I just go away from my desk and spend some time with my family to let my mind relax trying to keep the project in the back of my head till the ideas start appearing by themselves. After that, I try to imagine what points of the treatment will help me explain what I would do with it. Mechanic typing comes then, I let everything I have flow naturally into the treatment.
What I don’t do is to start the process looking for references. It might be an ego thing, but I let my mind come to something on its own, look within myself. I, of course, can come to it naturally, although it might have already been created and it is perfectly normal. I do need references anyway, no matter how much I dislike it, because I need to find a way for the agencies and the clients to visualise my proposals. Although, I still think it is good to come up with something on your own first.
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?
In my commercial work, I’m there to help sell a product/service, and to associate the companies and their brands to certain feelings or ideas. We always need to distinguish the brand from their competitors, how they’re different and how we can show it in the best possible and more effective way. There’s always a moment when I need to do some research, market research and also ask the agency/client some questions to help me understand where they are at and what they are looking for. The best way to get a genuine, interesting spot, is to make bespoke work.
For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?
I think the most important is trust and collaboration, with everyone – producer, creative team, management, crew, etc. An important part of my job is to help solve their problems, read between the lines, and come up with the best ideas!
What type of work are you most passionate about – is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?
Fiction, storytelling, recreation of reality and anything that involves testimonials. Errol Morris is a director I look up to and I often think that I would feel at home facing a lot of the testimonial and commercials projects he has masterfully crafted.
What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?
One of my biggest frustrations is when people think there’s no script or mise en scene behind my work, that everything happened for real. My ability to make something that is fake seem very real is what I am also known for. But it is sometimes difficult to imagine that kind of work for people who haven’t been following the process. They usually think I am lucky with getting a lot of real stories, told by ‘real’ people, when in fact, there’s a lot of hard work in writing scripts, casting actors and all other things. I’m mostly about fiction!
What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?
It was one of my personal projects, a feature film. I had a scene with one very complicated and strong actor. He had to wear a gorilla mask, you can imagine, as an actor it might be quite frustrating. Then he got really angry because of something I didn’t really understand. He is German and he started shouting in German, so what I had to deal with was a person wearing a gorilla mask, shouting in the language no one understood and I was the person in charge, who had to fix everything. What did I do? I went up to him and said “Wait a minute, do you realise I have a gorilla shouting at me in a foreign language in the middle of a set, can you help me solve this?”. After a deep pause, he smiled, we both laughed and the conflict was resolved.
How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?
In the commercial world, I really fight for finding the best possible idea that works for both me and my clients. The client knows the brand, I know filmmaking, and we create harmony of those things together.
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?
I tend to be open to anything that makes me see the world from new different angles, I like meeting new people and hearing different and sometimes controversial ideas. I have different friends, I have worked with different people and I am very happy that I am able to learn from people who come from a different background than I do.
Although, I do not specifically look for anything but my doors are always open!
I mentored quite a few people who are now directors and actors. I wish I had more guys like me when I started, a mentor who would advise and help. This is essentially why I am mentoring everyone who comes to me and needs my help.
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?
I wanted to think that this pandemic would make us better than we were, same with the economic crisis. I tend to be optimistic and I have learned a few things myself.
Working from home has certainly made us appreciate our loved ones more, as well as the change in work ethic. For me, it was no new working from home, I live in Mallorca and I do most of my work from there, so I was trained to work from home for years 😀
Your work is now presented in so many different formats – to what extent do you keep each in mind while you’re working?
It depends on every project, sometimes you need to put more effort in one of the formats and create others to support the main point of the campaign.
Depending on the format you shoot it, you always need to remember those extras to make it work across all platforms.
What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work?
I am a guy from ‘now’. As soon as something new comes out, I will be one of the first people to try it out. I was one of the first guys in Spain who started shooting with a RedOne camera, when people were afraid of digital video, and will be happy to continue to incorporate new technologies in my work as soon as they come.
With new technologies, we should always keep ourselves at the top of the game. For me, it is applying my unique ideas to this new technology, it gives you the advantage over others and I would suggest everyone to do the same.
Award-winning director Hylton Tannenbaum has directed a staggering 200+ commercials during his 20 years in the industry. He has built up a diverse range of directing abilities and styles and favours performance, humour and storytelling in his work. Hylton has worked with a vast variety of brands and agencies and has picked up numerous awards including two Cannes Lions.
NERD Productions Director Fausto Becatti received an incredible response to his new breakthrough piece, ‘Be Indie’, including a 5-star review from notorious advertising critics site David Reviews. Here, we take you behind the scenes of the phenomenally outspoken and incredibly diverse two-minute film…