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Opinion and Insight

Behind the Wheel with Director Mark Toia

Seven Sunday director on his visual feast for Jeep India, the importance of sound design and what the year ahead might bring

Behind the Wheel with Director Mark Toia

Mark Toia (represented in Asia by Seven Sunday Films) is known throughout the industry for his stirring and unconventional work. His natural eye for a provocative image and a stylish campaign has long made him one of the most sought after directors in the business. 

The Jeep India TVC, created by The Richards Group and produced by 10 Films, finds him once again bringing his dedication to cinematic craft to the small screen, crafting an exquisite work that celebrates the chaotic beauty and spiritual exuberance of India. The spot is a sumptuous visual feast in every frame, a mystical journey that transcends a quotidian car commercial and elevates the piece to a dreamscape love letter to Indian culture. 

Constantly working and travelling, we’re grateful that Toia found time for a sit down and a chat.

Q> What was the standout creative idea that drew you to the latest Jeep campaign?

MT> The original narrative caught my eye, but of course every director’s brief is simply to craft the most beautiful car commercial ever made. No pressure! The client and agency allowed me to just bring the script to life. I had minimal restrictions, nobody telling me what to do. I was trusted to just do what I do best without external pressure, other than obviously not to exceed the budget! 

Q> What was it like collaborating with the team? How did you work with the creative agency to bring this conceptual idea to screen?

MT> Not a huge amount was said from the agency other than, “Make it look awesome!” They pretty much let me do my thing. It was their first time in India, whereas I’d shot there many times before, so they let me take control whilst also contributing really cool ideas as we were shooting. It was a natural and effective collaboration. Obviously, I do my best work when I’m given freedom and the agency understood that from the beginning. So they let me do my own thing most of time, but of course made sure I ticked off a few of the mandatory elements of the brief!

Q> Considering the range of locations and cultural nuances explored in the film, what were some of the challenges involved in the production process? For example, the intimate shots of the religious pageantry?

MT> There really were no great challenges in terms of things I hadn’t previously encountered. While the budget was tight, I still had enough to allow for creative flexibility. The production company didn’t hold back either; I believe we each shared the same ambitious vision for the film. The locals educated me on the religious nature of each area we shot in and each religious event we captured, so I made sure to respect the culture 100% and also worked very hard to ensure that they felt proud about what we were doing. 

Q> What was the partnership like with your DOP? Did you both have a relaxed or fairly rigorous schedule to adhere to?

MT> I’m the DOP and director. My son did a little of the B cam and we used three of his shots in the final piece. It would have been a very tedious shoot if I’d had to try to explain myself with every single shot to a DOP.  

Q> Once on location, how did the landscape and the culture shape the original concept you had in mind for filming?

MT> I wanted to stay as original and authentic as possible. I didn’t want to build sets or create extra work for the team, we had a budget to adhere to so I wasn’t gonna go crazy! I didn’t use any lights, I wanted for the most part to capture images in their natural state. We did setup a couple of lights for the main event, but only because we were in months away from shooting it for real. So we set them up after the local religious leaders had given us permission. 

Q> What are some of the realities you have to consider when working in South East Asia, and does it help having trusted production partners on the ground when navigating this unfamiliar territory? For example, Seven Sunday Films?

MT> I know I will end up with a large crews in Asia, that’s a given. Large crews do slow down the pace of the shoot. I like to stay in the moment and shoot very quickly, especially when I’m excited about a shot or a scene. Companies like Seven Sunday Films know the way I work and try their very best to keep things simple, fast, and less complicated for me. They know I can over-deliver when I don’t get hampered down with logistics and an over-sized shoot. Seven Sunday Films always manage the background quite nicely for me. 

Some producers think I’m not excited enough, that I don’t put on enough of a show. The reality is that I’m so in the moment of concentration that my focus becomes very insular. I like to keep my mind on images, story, and the communication of the film, and not flounder off worrying about the crew or putting on some sort of ‘Director showboating’ theatre. I’m all about delivering great content. I’ll leave the showboating to other directors as that’s not my game. I know clients appreciate a great final product more than they care about how I achieve it. 

Q> What are some of your chosen standout campaigns this year? Have they taken you to any other unusual or unsuspecting locations?

MT> I’ve done so many spots this last year that I’m a little bit lost. I can’t really remember what I even did last month, the last few years have been a whirlwind!

Q> How complex is it to maintain a coherent and unified visual aesthetic when working with a large crew and in a culturally unfamiliar environment? 

MT> It’s not hard at all. I actually like complex shoots because they force me to think more and give me a bit of a challenge. I’m not in to large crews, mainly because they slow down the day, especially when moving location. I’m quite focused, so I feel I can retain a unified visual aesthetic quite easily, so long as I’m left to focus on the work that I’m paid to do rather than having to bounce from camera to client to agency tent every five minutes. As I get older and wiser, I find I’m increasingly left alone to do my thing. This is beneficial for all concerned! At the same time, I do love having a creative director or a person that can say yes and no standing right beside me. I love having instant feedback and good wingmen that may come up with some clever ideas, or suggest something that I don’t see. I enjoy having the creative head working alongside me, it speeds up the day and makes for a far better working relationship overall.

Q> Overall how important is sound design and composition when it comes to translating a universal message to a widely divided audience with linguistic barriers? 

MT> Music and sound design is actually more important than the visuals. From my perspective, you can potentially have an amazing spot with just a black screen and great narration or music. You can be moved by music alone. The pictures need music and a soundscape to help elevate the visuals to the next level. 

Q> What’s next for Mark Toia? Any current projects taking up your time to keep an eye out for? 

MT> At the moment I’m in the middle of three projects. I’m normally booked two to three months in advance, and I have several jobs coming in per day. I’m finishing off a feature film. I am so busy and I love every minute of it! Where do I see myself in the next 12 months? I hope to quiet down just a tiny bit, gasp for air, and to run away with my wife to somewhere quiet and relaxing.
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Category: Automotive , Cars