The Sweet Shop director Andrew Lang on how he made sure this department store’s Christmas ad told one of the season’s most moving stories
We’re no strangers to weepy ads, especially at this time of year. It seems like brands are always trying to tug at our heart strings in an attempt to loosen our purse strings. And when it’s done badly, it can be insulting. But when the story is insightful and made with care, ads can be genuinely moving. That’s the case for the latest Farmers commercial.
Created by FCB Auckland, the spot has a phenomenal character arc, especially considering it’s only a minute long. It tells the story of one grumpy old man’s development into a real-life Santa Claus, brightening his neighbours’ lives with small acts of kindness.
LBB’s Alex Reeves checked in with the film’s director, Andrew Lang of The Sweet Shop, to find out how his decisions made the film into such a powerful watch.
LBB> What first attracted you to this script?
Andrew Lang> I’m excited by scripts where you get to tell a story within 60 seconds. In this, the old man goes through a series of changes, which means that he ends the film as quite a different person from the one who started it. The best stories do that.
LBB> How did the idea develop before and during the shoot?
AL> The most important aspect of the idea, I felt, was to make the story as moving as possible, but also as simple as possible. When we were location scouting, we walked into a house where there was a Leonardo quote in a frame, “simplicity is ultimate sophistication”. I thought that wasn’t a bad credo to apply to the making of the film.
LBB> What were your main considerations in bringing the story to life?
AL> The focus was organising the story so that each step in the character development of the old man seemed logical and led on from the last. If you leap forward too quickly and he’s suddenly a completely different person, it doesn’t ring true to life and you lose the audience.
My other big challenge was how to tell the visual story as simply as possible. There’s quite a bit of potentially tricky visual storytelling in this film. There are several scenes where you could confuse or lose the audience if the scenes aren’t told clearly. Again, it was about simplicity. I recently read that the Cohen Brothers only filmed one shot that they didn’t use in No Country for Old Men, so I thought there wasn’t any excuse to do more in a 60-second commercial. I didn’t quite achieve it. I think there are about four setups that didn’t make the edit.
LBB> How about the casting? Your ‘Santa’ has a grumpy, but also oddly kind, face. Was he easy to find?
AL> We did casting calls in both Sydney and Auckland and saw some fantastic actors, some of whom had been in significant movies. But when Ian Mune walked in he really took things to the next level. After he had left the room my producer said to me, “I didn’t want to tell you before, but he’s quite well known here in New Zealand”. Later when I looked him up and became familiar with his amazing career as an actor, director and writer, I realised I was going to have to up my game! I did a lot of preparation in terms of how to direct him, although in truth he hardly needed it. Once we had discussed the emotional progression of the role he pretty much nailed everything immediately. It was a great experience to work with an actor that good!
LBB> What was the biggest challenge in the production? And how did you overcome it?
AL> To be honest this production was a pleasure from start to finish. The script was strong, the agency was one of the best I’ve ever worked with and the production was first class.
LBB> The drama relies on facial expressions and body language, rather than dialogue. How did you make sure this was right?
AL> I directed Ian (who plays the old man) and Zac (who plays the kid) quite differently to achieve this. With Ian, it was simply a case of discussing the story before the shoot and making sure he knew exactly where he was, scene by scene, in the evolution of his character. Then on set there wasn’t a lot to add, because he is just a brilliant actor. With Zac, who’d never really done anything before, it was about finding action for him to be involved in, like spraying a hose or eating an ice-cream, so that he was as involved and as unselfconscious as possible. Once his mind was on that, the performance became natural and he did a superb job!
LBB> Christmas ads are a very big thing here in the UK. What’s the phenomenon like in New Zealand?
AL> I’m not really sure having never been in NZ over Christmas. But I hear this one is going down well!
LBB> Lastly, what are you hoping Santa will bring you this year?
AL> The talent to write a good screenplay.