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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes with… Katia Lewkowicz

The director behind our new favourite ad – Intermarche’s L’amour, L’amour – on the power of comedy, her love of the edit room and giving actors space to play

5 Minutes with… Katia Lewkowicz

Do you believe in love at first sight? Because we do. When the new Intermarche ad from French agency Romance dropped in our inboxes, we were head over heels. In our humble opinion, it’s pretty close to perfect: the cinematography, the edit, the craft, the storytelling, the music, the performance, the writing… and most of all the directing. So, of course, we got straight in touch with Katia Lewkowicz, the actor-turned-director who shot the spot.

In France, Katia started her career as an actress, but eventually the call of the director’s chair became too intense to resist. After shooting her first feature film in 2011, she was soon approached to shoot commercials. These days she’s represented by Carnibird and has found her groove with performance-driven comedy in the French market. And after Intermarche’s success, we wouldn’t be surprised if creatives in other countries come calling.

LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Katia to learn more…

LBB>  So you started off as an actor, but how did you get involved in directing commercials?

KL> I made a short film, set during a five year old’s birthday party, and after that someone asked me to do a longer movie, which I did [Pourquoi Tu Pleures?]

After I did that, Gabriel Gaultier, who at the time was at an agency called Leg, called me and asked me to do some ads for SFR [a French telecoms company]. Then I met Juliette Desmarcaux, who is my producer. So, we went to have a coffee ten minutes before the meeting and I said, 'what do I have to do?', and she said 'just listen'. It was great; I worked with SFR for three years, doing their ads. At first, I didn’t understand what they wanted from me – it’s hard for people to understand what they want in advertising. But little by little we taught each other and put some life and real people into the ads.  

And after that I met Alexandre Hervé, when he was working at DDB and we did a lot of work together. After two years he went to Romance and this was the first big ad. It was quite funny, because when we were doing the pitching for it before everyone was saying ‘they always work together’ so we said, OK we’ll do a blind competition. And so we did that, and I won it.

We’ve known each other for such a long time. At first we would argue a lot and now we each know what the other can bring to a project.

LBB> Do you think having had the experience being an actor has given you a different perspective as a director?

KL> I know what it’s like to wait around on set. I know that when you say that you don’t like the clothes; it’s because you are nervous. I can feel what they feel. 

And when I direct, I am always trying to do a lot of prep with them beforehand, so that when we are on set we can do one take and make it right. And I don’t cut. From ‘action’ to ‘cut!’ can take twenty minutes. That means they can forget the camera and we can play. It helps them have fun and you can see on film that they are really ‘alive’ and having a pleasurable experience. I’ve done it all as an actor, I know all the weird things that actors do.

LBB> So what was interesting about Intermarche was that you got such great performances in the spot but it was also very stylish visually.

KL> I like when things feel real. For example, during the prep when it came to deciding what scooter to use I told them ‘no, we’re not going to choose a scooter. As soon as we ‘choose’ a scooter, we are dead, because we will start to try and match it with this thing or that thing’. 

There were 30 people working on the set, in the supermarket you cannot show other brands so you have to think about everything. You have to think of every frame, and we wanted it to be romantic and colourful too.

LBB> And the spot has quite a ‘Nouvelle Vague’ vibe to it, but it doesn’t feel over the top or heavy handed. Did you look at any particular films or directors as references?

KL> There’s a movie by Claude Lelouche called L’Aventure, C’es l’Aventure where there are guys on the beach trying to seduce a woman by doing funny walks. I thought it was funny to think of our little boy doing the same. 

As for everything else… we are the sum parts of everything we have seen throughout our life. The Claude Lelouche was the only thing that I did on purpose but I just try to work with my instinct and do things as I see it. And what I see is the culmination of all the things I have seen that I like, my taste. I’ve seen the Truffaut films, Lelouche films, American films, films from everywhere. And now I’m going with my taste and when it’s finished, I see it and go ‘oh!’ It’s funny. I don’t look at a movie and try to do the exact same thing in the ad. 

LBB> And the edit was really effective too. Some really nice cuts combined with the overall flow of the story. Is that something that’s quite planned out in advance or does it happen in the edit suite?

KL> I’ve been working with my editor from the first commercial and we know each other very well. As I said, I do these really long takes and we look at everything together, looking out for the parts that we like, talking about how we might do it. And he stays in the room alone for two days, and he sends me something that’s almost there, and then we work together for a few more days to make it better, shorter. Everything was already there, probably because we draw everything on the storyboard and when we do the edit we look back at what we drew. 

When we shoot, I tell the actors to try different things, to be happy, to be sad, to be shouting and they don’t even understand what they are doing and then with my editor we can pick out the different emotions. You can prepare as much as you can but when your shooting the actor can pull something out in the moment that is true to the character. 

LBB> I guess that’s the interesting balance of being a director. You’ve got to have a vision and you prepare towards that while also being open to what other people might bring, to the spontaneous acts of creativity that enrich a project.

KL> Yes, sometimes what happens in the moment is better than what you dream. You have to dream big but people can give you something even bigger. The people, the actors will always lose if you keep telling them ‘not like that! Not like that!’, because they will try to give you what you want and they will want to please you. I talk to them while we are shooting – smile, now don’t smile, now do what you want – and after a while it takes shape, but we do it together. I’m trying to make the moment fun so that the film will be ‘alive’.

LBB> It sounds like editing is one of your favourite parts of the process!

KL> I like to shoot, but I really love the editing. It’s really the part I love. At the beginning, you are in a fantasy. You think ‘oh we can do this, we can do that’, it’s very nice. When you are doing the prep, you’re told ‘no we can’t do this, we can’t do that’. And on the shoot, you have to get everything finished on the day. And once you’ve done all that you can see what you’ve got; you can think ‘now we’ve got all this… what are we going to do?’ And in that moment, in the dark editing room, it becomes real. It’s really creative.

I really love working with Juliette, my producer, too.

LBB> That director-producer relationship is such a cornerstone.

KL> Yes! And we have such a strong relationship that she can tell me if something is good – and if something’s bad! It’s so important. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know if I would enjoy doing commercials so much.

LBB> A lot of commercial directors start out in advertising and aspire to work in feature film, whereas you have travelled the other direction. What’s that been like? How have you found that transition?

KL> My feature producer called me and said, ‘Are you still working for us?!’ I love advertising. It’s a great energy, there’s a lot of creative people that are so incredible. For example, the people who wrote this spot, Vincent Boursaud, Julien Bon, and Alexandre Hervé, who I told you about. There are people who are so unique. 

I think to be a director in advertising is more like being an actress because people will tell you what they want and you have to interpret that and bring it to life. And it goes so quickly. You are always creating things - I think it’s a woman thing, we have the children! And in advertising it’s great because in one month or two months everybody can see what you’ve done on TV, and you can really give them an emotional experience.  

LBB> Are there any films or directors that you particularly admire?

KL> I’m crazy about Woody Allen. In fact, I love people like the Coen Brothers who use comedy in interesting ways. People can use comedy to keep things polite – they can talk about things that are challenging but in a light way. When I go to see movies that are shocking I feel like I’ve been taken hostage. When it’s a comedy, it’s like the director is saying ‘it’s okay, you can laugh if you want, and if you want to learn you can listen to what I’m saying, but it’s up to you’.

LBB> When you started out directing, even as an actress, was comedy always something you’ve loved and wanted to do, or is it something you’ve moved towards over time?

KL> I often have dark thoughts and if I didn’t go that way, and express it via comedy, people would go ‘oh my god!’ But when I was an actress, I did a lot more serious stuff, a lot of tragedy.

LBB> So, have most of the commercials you’ve worked on been for the French market?

KL> So far, it’s been French advertising. But what’s really exciting is that now we believe that we can go to other countries too.

LBB> And what are you working on at the moment?

KL> I’m working on my third movie. It’s a love story about a man who is trying to discover his twenties on the first days of his 40s.