5 Minutes with… Karen Cunningham
If you’re looking for some inspiration, some motivation to make your dreams a reality in 2017, a chat with director Karen Cunningham is a good way to go. Eight years ago, Karen decided to swap her successful career as a producer to follow her long standing dream of becoming a director. Her first project saw her thrust onto the awards circuit and since then she’s gone from strength to strength – notably working on 2015 sensational Barbie campaign, which turned brand perceptions upside down.
It’s not been an easy journey; the director’s path is littered with rejection, solitude and the weight of creative responsibility. But Karen hasn’t looked back. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Karen to find out what it was like to take that plunge and find out what drives her.
LBB> You started off as a producer, you’ve had your own production company and now you’re a director full time. What point did you get the feeling that you wanted to take more creative control? Had you always wanted to direct or was it something that built up throughout your career producing?
KC> I had actually always wanted to be an actress and I trained as an actress. When work was very thin on the ground I got a temping job in an advertising agency. I didn’t really know what advertising was but I loved it. I loved the people, I loved everything about it so I thought, ‘I’ll just do this’.
I was lucky enough to get on a training scheme and I liked it, but suddenly I was on a shoot one day and I saw this other world. Straight away I knew that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to direct, but there were no role models at all. I started producing instead, which I loved too. It allowed me to be creative and work with new talent. Eventually I started my own company, but always in the back of my mind I had this idea that I wanted to direct.
Our company was reasonably successful but something personal happened to me that triggered me to think, ‘that’s it, I’m going to make this happen’. It coincided with a charity wanting to have a film made, so I wrote it and directed it for them. I won a lot of awards for it… and I never produced another ad again.
This is the film that changed everything for Karen. She wrote and directed Wonderful World, picked up several awards for it... and never looked back.
LBB> I’d guess that about 70% of the people working in advertising are stuck in a role doing something uncreative and would love to make a move to doing something like directing. But on the other hand, it’s a bit scary and you’re really putting yourself out there. What advice would you give to people like that?
KC> My advice to anybody now would be to do what you want to do, follow your passion and don’t hang around doing something else. But having said that, I loved my producing days. I loved running a company. I learned so much and I worked with some brilliant directors – if you like, I had the most wonderful apprenticeship and learned what to do. Not many directors would have that opportunity – normally you’d be straight out there. I find that to be an enormous plus.
LBB> And as a producer you’ve seen the really hard side of the shoot – the challenges, the problem solving, the negotiating – that some directors can be a bit shielded from…
KC> I think knowledge is power, whatever job you do, and if you look at Hollywood directors most of them produce. They know that the key to success is knowledge, that it’s how to get from A to B. Most people I work with have no idea of my background, but what it does mean is that straight away I can spot a weak link if there is one. And that means my back is covered. I also know when I don’t need to worry too. All of that helps me get to the idea that I want to get to. Sometimes people will say something can’t be done, but I know that it can and I know how to do it.
In the end it’s an enormous bonus. There are loads of producers who are incredibly creative in the way that they make things happen and I think that our industry sometimes delineates too much between the role of the producer and the role of the director. They see producers as money people, but there are people in production companies who are incredibly clever. I think it’s hard to be a good director without a good producer and I think it’s hard to be a good producer without a good director.
LBB> When you made that move, what was the reaction from your colleagues?
KC> It was interesting, because people don’t like change. I had people who were incredibly supportive and received some lovely letters from people who I had never met, people running production companies who said, ‘well done, I’ve always wanted to do something like that’. I also had some doubters, people who weren’t kind about it. But at that point I wasn’t really bothered, I was just getting on with my own thing.
People like Lyndy [Stout, Editor at OnePointFour] and others in the industry were really incredible and very supportive. I think some of the doubters were people who were a little bit envious.
Being a director is hard. In a way, running my company was a hell of a lot easier. There’s a lot of rejection so you’ve really got to be passionate and believe in yourself, because for every up there’s definitely a down.
LBB> It’s been eight years since you won the YDA and it’s been cool to see the level of work that you’re doing right now. There’s the Barbie spot, which was incredibly successful, and you’ve been working on global jobs, recently shooting in the States, the UK and France. Did you have a plan of how you were going to get to this place?
KC> Even when I had my own company, I was never about the money. Never ever. When I was working with directors, I was always advising them not to do things just for the money. And I don’t mean that I don’t need the money, it’s just that that’s not the thing that feeds me. When I get a script, if I love it, it doesn’t matter what the money is, I’ll find a way to make it happen. I suppose I’ve always wanted to be the top of what I do. I’m the sort of person that always wants to be the best at what I do.
LBB> I know casting is such an important part of your process. With your acting training, that makes sense now! What’s the key to finding the ideal person or people to work with? Is it an instantaneous thing or do you sometimes have to dig a little deeper?
KC> I spend a lot of time on the casting process. I don’t really know the answer to that question, I just know that when I find the right person I really know it. But I do spend a hell of a lot of time working with actors before I shoot, especially when I work with children.
I think a lot of it is that I have a lot of sympathy for actors. It’s a hard thing to do, to walk into a set and expose yourself and be asked to do ridiculous things. When you know that someone’s on your side it makes you more comfortable opening up. I get how difficult it must be for them to be there. I never cast anyone who doesn’t want to be there.
This spot for Kidzania London from Grey is one of Karen's most recent projects.
LBB> When you’re looking at scripts, what are you looking for? Pitching is such an investment of time and effort for directors – so how do you decide whether you want to pitch for a project?
KC> A good idea. Every single time. A strong beginning, middle and end. A story that I can embellish. When I’m working on a treatment, there has to be that line running through it that I can grow. Funny you should say that because when you’re working on a pitch you can be so invested in it that it takes a couple of days to recover. It feels like you’ve lost something. You have to pick yourself up and go again.
It’s a tough process. You’ve got three, four or five people in front of you who you know can do the job and you’ve got to whittle it down to one. How do you eliminate them? Sometimes, when you meet them the chemistry’s not there and you’re never going to get the job.
But I still treat every treatment as if I’m going to get the job. Always. And then I’ve got jobs that I wasn’t expected to get and then I’ve lost out on jobs that I really would have liked to do. That’s just the nature of the beast.
It’s quite a lonely job and I think being a woman, too, you’ve got to have those leadership skills because it takes that much longer to get everyone on board.
KC> Yes, I always think that the first day of a shoot, if it’s not repeat business, is about proving to everyone that they’ve made the right decision. The stakes are so high. And I think it would be the same for a man.
LBB> It’s also that idea that, as the director, the buck stops with you. You’ve got all these parties to manage – the client, the agency, the VFX team, and everything filters through you.
KC> I love that part of it though. The most important thing that the director has to do is hang onto the creative vision, and that’s what I try to do. It doesn’t mean that you can’t listen or change your mind, but you’ve got to do it in a way that means you hang on to that vision that you had. That’s what you’ve been hired for.
LBB> You spoke about a director having to be a leader.Often when we write about directors we talk about what we end up seeing onscreen. But a lot of it is about being able to empathise, stand your groundwhen you need to, lead people...
KC> When you work with someone who changes their mind a lot it’s very unsettling. You need someone who will say, ‘I chose blue because blue is the right colour’ and to believe in blue… and really believe in blue, not just for the sake of it.
I suppose directors work in different ways. Some people think that if they shout, people will listen. That’s a personality thing, and I’m not that kind of person. Therefore I think it’s about the team you pick,working with the best people for a job.
When I work with a DOP, I’m not interested in telling them where to put the lighting. It’s about telling them what I want to achieve and letting them do that. I want to work with them and I think that’s what people don’t realise. You need the whole team in order to realise something.
Imagine the Possibilities was a global hit and currently has over 24 million views on YouTube.
LBB> I have to ask you about Barbie – if ever an ad really changed perceptions about a brand, that is the one! When you first saw the script, did you think it would have such a massive impact?
KC> I loved the script as soon as I saw it and it resonated with me because of this whole role model thing. I thought back to myself, never really having any role models. I did in the acting world, but not as a child, really. It really struck a chord with me as an idea and we were able to grow it with the creative team.
It literally turned Barbie on its head. When it was first released and it started going viral and was on the front page of all the newspapers in America we all thought, ‘wow! This might do alright!’
LBB> The whole film hinges on these little girls giving these performances. They’re obviously having lots of fun and some of them are taking it so seriously! How did you work with them?
KC> I always think of children as small adults. I don’t belittle them. They often have these quite adult personalities. I think that’s why I was hired – to find these girls who could represent America but, at the same time, bring something else to it. We cast and cast and cast. I wanted to cast girls who were these people. For example, the little girl who was the brain surgeon was naturally a very bright girl who wanted to be a scientist. She was incredibly brave because she walked into that auditorium, in front of all these people, with nothing but an ear piece (that was how I was reassuring them). It really did come down to casting – the five girls were wonderful.
LBB> I think my favourite is the girl coaching the football players; you can tell she’s in her element!
KC> There were some wonderful lines from the creative team. ‘Knees up like a unicorn!’ is one that everyone seems to love.
The interesting thing about that job was that we only had one take for each scene. With the football team, once the surprise was out it would have gone flat. With Barbie, so much came into the preparation.
LBB> Your Unicef spot is one that I really liked because it revealed a dark side and some real sinister, tricksy storytelling that felt very different from many of your other projects. Is that something you’d like to explore more of?
KC> I loved it. That was a real passion project for me because it was for Unicef. But I like that world where you’ve got a chance to tell a bigger story.
What often happens in advertising is that you do one thing and that’s the only thing you can do. And yet, if you can get a performance out of a six-year-old, working with any other actor is going to be easy peasy!
LBB> Well, one thing I know you wrestle with is that idea of being pigeonholed as a director who works so well with kids. I wonder if Free The Bid will force agencies to be a bit more open minded?
KC> I hope so. The thing with Free the Bid is that it’s going to open a wider conversation. I’ve already pitched on a job that I know I wouldn’t have been invited to pitch on without Free the Bid. Whether I’ll get it or not, I don’t know, but it’s fantastic.
Whether you’re male or female, if a door opens for you and you’re any good, you’ll walk through it and shine, and if you’re not, male or female, it’ll shut. It’s as simple as that. Anything that opens a door to you and gives you an opportunity you may not have otherwise had is a fantastic thing and I hope it happens a lot more in 2017. There’s no doubt that women are pigeonholed.
I always think it would be great not to have names on treatments, just label them A,B,C, and D. I wonder how differently they would be affected by their choices? I’ve also spoken to people who have a much more unisex name who feel that it’s stood them in good stead. I think what’s interesting about that is… shouldn’t you be defined by your talent and not your gender? Whether you’re male or female, you should be defined by your work. It would be interesting to give a job to a male director, a female director and perhaps someone else from some other diverse background to see whether or not it does have an effect on tone of voice?
In all honesty, I think that your talent comes down to where your passion is. Whether you’re male or female, if you have a passion for an idea or a story or people, you’ll tell it well.
LBB> You mentioned that when you got into the advertising industry there weren’t really any women directors who could serve as role models – it’s that ‘see it, be it’ thing I suppose. But more generally, are there any artists or directors who have inspired you?
KC> It’s interesting because even when I went from account managing to producing, people said, ‘how the hell do you do that?’ The jobs are quite similar! There was a female director – there was only one – and I used to look up to her, I used to follow everything that she did and I thought, ‘isn’t that amazing, to have the balls to do that’. Let’s face it, that’s what it is: confidence. Confidence is such a key thing. If there’s nobody showing you the way, it’s quite hard to stand up and do it. When you’re older, it’s slightly easier.
I’m confident now. Because I’ve worked all over the industry I think I understand the bigger picture. I understand everyone’s role in it. That’s not to say that I won’t protect the creative integrity – I think I can protect it even more. I know how to fight for it. It’s not about fighting for something that won’t affect the idea one way or another, it’s just asking.
Genre: People , Strategy/Insight