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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes with… Joachim Back

The Oscar-winning director on joining Stink, his youthful curiosity and the joy of short film

5 Minutes with… Joachim Back

Joachim Back is a director with that rare knack for combining surprising and imaginative visuals with strong character and nuanced performance. Perhaps it’s all rooted in his insatiable curiosity about the world and the people in it – even as a youngster he was constantly meeting new people, which filled his brain with character sketches, a database of idiosyncrasies and an interesting view of human psychology. He was magnetically drawn to the film industry in his home country of Denmark and funded a series of spec ads while working as a production assistant. These days he’s a much-awarded director with all the usual ad industry gongs, but also a very rare Academy Award – which he won for his very first short.

From Audi’s ‘The Swan’ to Chivas Regal’s ‘Big Bear’, the adorable ‘Smallest Bar in the World’ for Amstel and Citroën’s ‘Dog Stretching’, his work is bursting with life and character. And he’s just signed to Stink globally. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with him.


LBB> You’ve just moved to Stink – why now and why were they a good fit for you?

JB> First of all I’ve known Stink and Daniel for twenty-odd years and he’s a dear friend of mine. I needed some change because London is a bit more of a social place to be. Sometimes I have to be in Copenhagen, sometimes in New York and having a central space between them makes it easier to socialise – as you know directors are often quite isolated because they live all over the planet. For me it was logistically the better place.

But on top of that I’ve always been a huge fan of Stink and the creativity and I’m good friends with Ivan Zacharias. There’s a lot of social stuff that can develop creativity if you can get people together to talk about it.

And at Stink – it’s the energy. From the beginning the philosophy has always been focused on creativity. They always thought about creating good stories, having fun and keep getting better, challenging themselves. They have always been like that, as long as I’ve known them. 


LBB> So let’s go back to the beginning – when did you first think you wanted to get into filmmaking?

JB> As a very young child, I was always full of energy, that’s one thing. And when I played games with my friends, it was always quite easy for me to organise the ideas themselves. So, I think that's how it started. 

And then one day I saw Oliver Twist and I got really emotional about it because it’s a sad film – and I remember my mum said, ‘Don’t worry about it, they’re just going to go and drink a coffee’. It took me a while to understand filmmaking; they do a scene, have a pause and drink a coffee, then do another scene. Suddenly I got really curious about that and so I started doing small plays with friends. I loved it and somehow I knew that was what I wanted. 


LBB> And so you got work as a runner and experienced all the different elements of filmmaking – at what point did you realise it was directing in particular you wanted to do?

JB> I’ve met a lot of characters in my life, perhaps it was the way I grew up. It was quite a journey and I met so many people, saw so many things. My glass is quite full of all types of humans because I was so involved. I had curiosity for everything and I wanted to know what was behind every door. And for some strange reason that turned towards me helping other people when I was young. I worked at the government building changing toilet paper. I did so many different jobs and saw so many different homes, I saw so many interesting things, and suddenly when I started trying to tell stories, it was quite easy for me to find the right faces for the right situations. And then I discovered the absurdity of life, in a way.


LBB> So why did you end up this way, meeting so many different people?

JB> It’s just that the way I grew up was a bit chaotic. My dad died early and my mum was a bit out of focus. I was just drifting in the wind, making the most of the time I had on the planet. There were no rules, no systems. That’s probably why I turned out like this. 

I started working really young as a runner and I figured that would be a nice thing to do. I saved up some money and did my first commercial. It felt fun and not a difficult thing for me to do.


LBB> I read when you started your first commercials, you borrowed equipment to make them. I’m curious about how those first projects came about and what they were for?

JB> I did spec projects. The first one I did was an old lady with bad eyesight for a glasses commercial. She sits next to two baskets – one with a cat in and one with logs in. So, she throws the cat into the oven and starts being nice to the wood. That was the first one. The other one was set in the bowels of a prison, like Hannibal.

I did two commercials in one location, so I built a whole little studio there. I had a priest come in to speak to the character who’s about to be executed and he asks ‘what are your last words’? And he replies ‘a damn good beer’. And then I did another one called Film Net – the priest knocked on the TV screen and asked ‘You got film net?’ I spent a lot of time doing it.


LBB> It sounds you were quite entrepreneurial!

JB> It took me quite a long time to pay that one off. Because back then you had to use film and you had to develop it. I was a production assistant, so I made money that way. It was quite fun actually, and I learned a lot.


LBB> And when you were starting out, what was the best piece of advice that you got?

JB> Just keep going! I think the best thing is to have curiosity. Try to analyse why you’re using that type of lens, that type of light. Question a lot of things and that way you can shape your tools to be one piano and you can play all the keys. And watch a lot of movies, even the black and white ones. Then I think it’s also good to constantly keep shooting – if you are curious enough, you will always learn with everything you do.


LBB> What I noticed about your reel is that while you don’t have one style and you always push to be inventive visually, the thing that runs through them is the performance and how you work with the actors. Quite often with directors you get either ‘performance directors’ or ‘visually interesting directors’ – your work is always surprising to look at but always underpinned by strong performance. How do you get that balance?

JB> I think it’s pretty much what it is, because I’ve seen so many characters in my life. And on top of that, I like to tell stories with interesting characters.  


LBB> In terms of the performance side of it, what do you find is the key to getting the best from the actor you’re working with?

JB> I think, mostly, you find a character that’s not far from the role they’re going to play - then you’re adding nuances to it. I think that’s what makes good acting. Or you find a really good actor who can do different types of characters, then you just have to find the right talent and see what happens! But mostly I think it’s getting a character that’s close to them in their daily life. 


LBB> And then of course in Audi ‘Swan’, you turned the car itself into a character. It’s a few years old now but many people still cite it as their favourite ad of all time. 

JB> I think I loved that I could make a car into a human being. I must say the idea was so strong and so clever, so it wasn’t so difficult for me to bring the emotion out of it. I also looked at the first Audi car, it was so ahead of its time that it felt like an ugly duckling. For me it’s about trying to find the fairy tale and I thought we did it really well.

LBB> Something I also wanted to ask you about was your short film, The New Tenants, which won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. It’s quite interesting timing because it’s Oscar run-up time now. I’m really curious about that experience because speaking to some directors I know, the journey to get there is a bit of a slog, going through festivals. What was that experience like for you on the run up? 

JB> The funny thing with this one, my dear friend Pawel Edelman, who is the DoP and has done a lot of Polanski’s movies as well as a lot of my commercials, said, ‘Come on, you need to do something longer, I love your language’. I said okay. So we did it. We delivered it an hour before entries closed for Oscars, so there wasn’t much of a run up. We were shortlisted… and then we won!

What was most interesting was the timing. There was a recession and I thought the world was turning into a madhouse. No one knew what was up or down. I just thought that was such a great fun story to tell in this time – people blaming each other for the wrong things!

I love that cast. Unfortunately, one of them is not with us anymore, David Rakoff. He died shortly afterwards.


LBB> I’m curious, having worked on a project like that, whether that fed back into your commercial work, or you learned something from creating something of that length, with very character-driven storytelling.

JB> For me, it was such a nice place. I love what I’m doing, even if it’s just 60 seconds or 30 seconds. And then I was allowed to do it for 18 minutes. The process was quite the same, but it was longer. I liked the experience of being in a place that was quite small, it gave me more blood on my teeth to keep going. 


LBB> You’ve done some branded films, longer pieces of content with agencies. Did that come after ‘The New Tenants’?

JB> That came after. But it was also a trend in the business. It was in the early stage of the Internet, no one really knew what its uses were, but you didn’t have to worry about the numbers and media spend so the only thing you knew you could have was that it would be as long as you like. It was also good timing for the short film, how the business looked and where it was going. I think it bloomed by itself. 


LBB> Have you any plans for more personal projects, perhaps another short film, if not something longer?

JB> I do have something longer actually. Still trying to get it off the ground but it’s quite a nice story. It’s a quirky one but it’s quite charming. It’s quite complicated but a really fun script. It is a complete fairy tale about what society is today; there is no room for the pauses and great times any more. 


LBB> I guess that’s the thing, features are a lot longer than commercials which are ‘script-shoot-done’.

JB> Yes, but it’s always a process. I have other things developing, and then I’m doing some studio pitches and other things. I’m constantly trying to look and get things done. I just love the process though.


LBB> Outside of your own work I’m really curious about what you enjoy?

JB> I like to be in my garden, funnily enough. I sound like an old man but I’m not that old. I just love to be in my garden. 


LBB> Do you have any creative heroes or people who inspired you in your career?

JB> Inspired me? When I was younger, I wanted to be Steven Spielberg. When I was a little bit more mature I wanted to be Fellini. 


LBB> And what are you looking forward to in the coming year?

JB> Good creative ideas and to do it with a bunch of people who I like. That’s one thing… and the other is to get this little movie off the ground. 

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Genre: Strategy/Insight