"I'm Looking for the Unicorn of Commercials"
Quick-witted New Zealander Hamish Rothwell is truly an antidote to mediocrity. Not content with ‘normal’, his defiant and selective approach makes him anything but.
Hamish started out in the New Zealand Film Commission’s development department after leaving a music composition degree half way through. It was a burgeoning industry at the time and many seminal films were made while he was there - notably by directors like Sir Peter Jackson - allowing him to see the industry firsthand and meet many peers along the way. He was also earning a living at the time as a stage actor, ‘but not a great one’, before moving to the UK to attend film school in London.
“London was a training ground to go ‘oh fuck, this is tough’ and out of thirty I think only two of us graduated because everyone else used all their favours up and pissed people off, so when we had to make a film at the end with no money there were heaps of people that said no.” He defines film school as being the place where he learnt the importance of teamwork - recalling his teacher saying ‘you’re not some lonely genius’ - and that he was going to have to ‘be worthy’, he reminisces with a wistful tone, “it was the best thing that ever happened to me”.
When asked how he would define his style - a question many directors hate - there’s a pause. “Agh” he agonises, “that’s a tricky one isn’t it. I can’t define it. I think the only way is ‘a bit of everything’. Personally I’m using any tool I can to make it interesting and memorable and quirky... and trying to add some charm to it that’s intelligent enough to be interesting to watch.” There’s another pause. “Argh I should have said I’d like to remain ill-defined!” he laughs.
He’s a master at blending multiple themes and tones without unbalancing the scales with any one. In his work there’s heart, warmth, charm, story, comedy, drama, absurdity, reality and relatability, yet none take precedence. “That’s my most fun place because it’s kind of meaningful and daft and silly and funny at the same time without really being like any of them.” Hamish himself is much like his work in this respect. He’s incredibly funny and slightly absurd yet equally serious, purposeful and strategic. Through fits of laughter, he regales tale after tale about mishaps and fun while shooting, prefacing each with “maybe don’t print this one!”, stopping only occasionally to employ a slightly more serious tone to discuss things like ideals in the advertising process - something he feels quite strongly about.
Hamish is well known for being selective with the commercials he takes on, for no reason other than wanting to keep pushing the limitations and expectations of advertising while avoiding mediocrity. He berates the increasing amount of data analysis and ‘rational thinking’ involved in the process and believes brands should be braver, that that there should be more breathing space ‘to allow cool stuff to happen’, without having to over-explain it in meetings beforehand. “You have to develop systems to have a meeting about it and not tell them everything you’re doing. It’s good for brands because it differentiates them. It should be what all of us should be doing all of the time. I think England in the 90s was the best at it ever and everyone’s forgotten that that’s what advertising should be: Differentiating brands and doing stuff that’s unusual enough to catch everyone’s attention... be a bit more evocative.” He continues, “They’re all trying to be the same thing: A generic thing for all people. Brands never used to be like that. They should stand for something every now and again rather than being generic and trying to sell to as many people as possible.”
He uses his Aldi ‘More the Merrier’ commercial as an example of agency creatives giving him space and trusting him to utilise his creative freedom as a director: “Originally that was a guy playing cricket then eating lunch.” He pauses. “Creatives want someone with a track record to come in and to be able to go ‘this will be a cool way to do this’. You’re not trying to change what they want to do, you just gotta make it better.” It’s a way of working he considers to be almost non-negotiable and adds, “you have to be able to walk away from projects if they’re not gonna do that, which is always tricky, but if you don’t do that, it’s never gonna work and you’ll never be able to offer the creatives the chance to go on this fun ride. You have to take that responsibility on to help them get something really great. I think Ringan is the king of that, that’s why he’s so in demand. He knows if you do something average for them, it’s not gonna work.”
Hamish’s understanding and use of casting and character is definitely one of his strengths. Whether it’s humans or animals, he has an astute and slightly off-beat grasp of what’s relatable - a masochistic cat with a love of Toyota Corollas, ‘acting legend’ Christopher Walken dead-panning N*Sync lyrics to Justin Timberlake, a boy who removes the wings he was born with to fit in a Volkswagen, and of course a hapless stuntman.
Budget Direct’s four year ‘Captain Risky’ campaign, directed by Hamish, was incredibly successful, not least due to the character being brought to life by ‘the most unlikely stuntman ever’, Noah Applebaum. “I saw his tape and was like ‘this guy’s really good at improvising’. I knew instantly.” The actor attempted most stunts himself, except one or two, and from the campaign alone racked up tricker stunts than most stunt performers would in four or five years. “That stuff was pretty mental because we were just making shit up” adds Hamish. “Hats off to the client because the agency hadn’t written some of this stuff, but they just went with it.”
When talk turns to the year ahead, he laughs while he says “I’m looking for the unicorn of commercials. Something that has meaning deeper than what it’s doing but it’s prepared to be as odd as possible.” He continues, “Things happening in the real world being told in a way that’s strikingly odd - visual metaphors that no one’s reacting to. People like Steve Ayson do it really well. Ringan’s stuff always has that vibe to it. That’s what I wanna do next year is keep impacting everything. It reminds me of all that great stuff in the 90s, like all the Guinness stuff, where it’s serious but it’s not serious... absurdist but makes sense at the same time... relatable but mental at the same time and everyone can get it. That’s what I’ve always loved about that stuff.”
He finishes with a story about a self-fellating goat which he asks not to be printed before taking a contemplative pause to say: “I enjoy the absurdity of life. I think most people do. There’s humour in everything.”