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Your Shot: How Hanna Maria Heidrich Dreamed Up a Modern Fairy Tale for Debenhams’ Christmas Campaign

Believe Media director takes us behind the scenes on magical Budapest shoot that blends Hitchock and Demy with modern romance

Your Shot: How Hanna Maria Heidrich Dreamed Up a Modern Fairy Tale for Debenhams’ Christmas Campaign

Of all the British brands to put out a Christmas ad this year, it looks like department store Debenhams is the one that’s been doing its own thing. No cute but marketable fuzzy creatures or that’s-you-that-is frazzled realism. Instead their agency J. Walter Thompson London opted for a mix of magic, romance and sophistication in their contemporary retelling of Cinderella. In this version Cinders – or Ellie – isn’t one to pine away waiting for her Prince Charming – Josh. Instead the pair take to social media to hunt for each other after a chance encounter on a train where Ellie loses her spangly shoe.

Director Hanna Maria Heidrich, a master of cinematic world building, headed to Budapest to dream up a gorgeous universe that blends art deco architecture, classic cinema and modern technology. The Believe Media director burst onto the advertising scene in 2011 when she won three trophies at the CFP-E Young Directors’ Award and has since gone on to create richly imagined commercials for the likes of Stella Artois, Levi’s and Betway. As for being the perfect person for this story, Hanna grew up in a village near Germany’s Black Forest… a place that screams Grimms’ Fairy Tales.

LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Hanna to find out more.

LBB> What was it about the script that really caught your eye?

HMH> I immediately saw that there was a cinematic opportunity in the script to take the audience away from their daily lives (at least for 90 seconds) into a realm of poetical imagery. Between paying our bills and running to the supermarket, we often forget that we are living in a magical world. For me the story is a beautiful reminder.


LBB> The film straddles the line between classic and contemporary - how did you hit that balance?

HMH> The creative director Andy Smith approached me with the idea to create a ‘modern fairy tale’. And I loved this brief! I wanted the #youshall story to unfold in a very particular, heightened universe, that our viewers immediately feel immersed in. In it, we can recognise some of the qualities of classic cinema (like Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ or Jaques Demy’s ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’) and fairy tales (Cinderella obviously): a lovingly detailed visual backdrop and rich colour palettes. And perhaps most of all, a tender but firm conviction that love (for a person, or a shoe) is something worth fighting for. At the same time, I wanted to give the film a modern touch through the personalities of our prince and princess. Her being rather unconventional, a bit clumsy and unapologetic and him, in contrast, being very charming and the romantic at heart.

LBB> And what sort of places did you look for inspiration for the look and feel of it?

HMH> I was after a combination of simple graphic locations contrasted by timeless backdrops, ideally with art deco elements. I felt the art deco style could be a clever running theme throughout our film. Aside from the obvious elegance and great colour palettes that it adds, it’s also a style that strongly evokes the pre-war era — when trains were in their heyday. 

I wanted to give our locations an ongoing sense of journey — always reflecting the idea of Ellie and Josh gradually moving towards each other in the film. Whenever possible, I also wanted to throw in some subtle allusions to the classic Cinderella story, such as a spiral staircase which Ella can run down. Beyond that my wonderful production designer Marketa Korinkova and I looked at Hitchcock’s beautiful Technicolor look in ‘Vertigo’, as well as ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’, ‘Funny Face’ or ‘Singing in the Rain’ that also inspired ‘La La Land’.


LBB> What were you looking for in the casting session?

HMH> Finding the perfect couple was our number one priority. Obviously, I wanted to find actors who could convey a range of emotions in a brief moment and who also just happen to look stunning in Debenhams’ styling. I knew the connection between them must be electrifying but I also wanted to find actors whose personalities shone through to actually bring the scenes to life.

I wanted Ellie to be a bit brusque and clumsy, but completely unapologetic about it. I had this quirky contrast between the sophisticated and the slightly awkward in mind; it makes her charming and relatable. Ellie’s lack of a ‘filter’ never ceases to amaze Josh. Finding Stephanie Mae was the perfect match. She is incredibly funny in real life, but can convey emotions authentically and happens to also look absolutely stunning.

We identified Stephanie Mae and one other actress early on but we couldn't find our ‘Josh’. We were just about to consider extending our casting to Paris when we did one last round in London in which we tested Stephanie and the other actress against a couple of actors. After this session it was clear that Stephanie Mae was ‘the one’ and that we had also found the male lead, Christopher Beckford. As much as his character is not the typical Prince Charming (I mean, the guy carries a woman’s shoe around inside his rucksack), he’s a classic romantic at heart and it’s his sense of humour and his firm belief in the power of love that makes him so likeable. Stephanie Mae and Christopher Beckford were an absolute joy to work with and looking at the behind-the-scenes pictures it feels like we were nonstop cracking jokes between takes.

LBB> Traditionally Debenhams ads have been really product focused, whereas this shows some really gorgeous clothes, etc. but in a way that weaves into the story and feels authentic to it. How did you and the agency get to that place?

HMH> I can’t take any credit for that as the whole Debenhams team have just been absolutely amazing to work with. They really wanted to focus on the storytelling and emotions and were really trustful of the process. Once I had created a document that showcased my vision in terms of the colour pallets and combination of locations and styling, we all had the same film in mind and went for it.

Seeing Stephanie Mae and Christopher Beckford looking so stunning in the outfits obviously helped.


LBB> Where did the shoot take place? 

HMH> We shot for five days in Budapest in the summer when it was 39°C, which is always a surreal experience when there are the snow machines around you. But Budapest was the perfect choice; the colour palettes and rich textures were exactly what I was looking for. After the main shoot and a first edit phase we shot one more day with Ewan McGregor at a studio in London.


LBB> What were the main challenges of the production?

HMH> The casting and the edit. We have two more scenes that didn't make it in the edit as the client wanted to slow down the pace to give more room to the actors.


LBB> The colour is just beautiful! You really feel the depth of it; it has a real vintage feel to it, it's eye catching but not garish. What did you shoot on, and how did you work with the DP and colourist to create that aesthetic?

HMH> I spent a lot of time in the preproduction focusing on the colour palettes of the film and looking for the light references. I created a document that visualised the colour flow in the film and the colour combinations of the locations and outfits. This document really set the tone for the film.

We shot on the Alexa and Christopher Collette, the DP, was a wonderful partner. He not only translated but expanded the light references that I had in mind and gave the actors a lot of room to move without losing his beautiful framings.

The grading is always very important to me and I am excited to have worked with James Bamford from The Mill again. I really wanted to give the film a timeless touch and find a look that lives between the Technicolor cinematic references and still has a contemporary feel. James Bamford and the whole team at The Mill, really helped in bringing this vision to life.


LBB> What was it like working with Ewan MacGregor?

HMH> Ewan McGregor was super charming and great to work with. He is just super professional. I showed him the first edit, he liked the story and was personally interested in achieving a good result on set.


LBB> For any director, a big British Christmas ad is such an amazing achievement - what was your reaction when you found that you had won the job? Are you a Christmas ad nerd or is the whole thing a bit new to you?

HMH> To be honest I just care about creating a good film. I know there is a big buzz around the British Christmas ads (I have heard some calling it the ‘UK Super Bowl’), but for me it doesn’t really make a difference in the process. I choose my projects based on the creativity of the script and I just fell in love with the warmth of the story and the fairy tale feel. 

LBB> You're no stranger to these richly imagined worlds - the Betway Temple and Stella Artois Delivery spring to mind. What is it about that immersive world-building that appeals to you?

HMH> One of the things I love most about filmmaking is creating a unique visual language for a project with all the wonderful tools that filmmaking has to offer - like light, the choice of colours and textures, particles like haze, snow or rain, and of course the way the camera moves or breaks through the light. It’s this contrast between reality and a heightened cinematic universe, together with attention to detail in all areas, that I believe can draw viewers in and that I just absolutely enjoy creating.

LBB> You burst into the ad industry consciousness in 2011 when you won at the YDAs. Since then you've gone on to do amazing stuff for the likes of Levi's, Stella, Trivago... and of course there's this Debenhams Christmas ad! Looking forward, is there anything that you haven't tried directorially that you'd love to get your teeth stuck into?

HMH> I always wanted to make a film with musical elements where people burst out singing (I loved Heineken’s ‘Moderate Drinkers Wanted’ or Discovery Channel’s ‘I Love the Whole World’ campaign) as well as a car commercial that combines nice storytelling with futuristic or classical cinematic car scenes. I am generally a massive fan of creating past or future worlds, that’s why I had a real blast working on Betway’s new campaign this summer which gave a nod to ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘James Bond’ worlds (childhood dreams come true).

Category: Retail and restaurants , Retail stores

Genre: Storytelling , Strategy/Insight