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Into the Library with Sara Dunlop



Sara Dunlop takes us on a journey through themes of satire, dread, the important, and the not so important things in life, all coming together in her best work through the years, writes LBB’s Zoe Antonov

Into the Library with Sara Dunlop

'The Creative Library' is LBB’s exciting new launch. It’s been months - years, probably - in the making and we reckon our re-tooled archive will change the way you work, whether you’re a company looking to store and share your work, or a marketer or creative looking for new partners or inspiration for your latest project.
This isn’t a dusty old archive. It’s an easy-to-search, paywall-free library where all our members can store and share all of their reels and creative work.

To coincide, we’re also launching a new regular feature called ‘Into the Library’ where we catch up with the industry’s most influential directors to talk about their directorial highlights past and present. Think of it as a director’s reel showcase with a big dollop of personality. We interview directors about their favourite commercials and music videos from their reel to find out about how these works shaped them as a director.

After kicking off the series with Traktor last week, we’re excited to take a journey through the visual world of Sara Dunlop. 


I have wanted to be a director since a very young age. My naïve reasoning was that I thought if you can make films you can live different lives, in different worlds. This was probably because of my inability to concentrate on one thing. You doing this actually made me remember the first production company I had my eye on when I was as young as 11 – it was called the Neon Fish Film Company. How precocious.

My preoccupation with film eventually led me to study it at the Polytechnic of Central London, now the University of Westminster. I came out of that experience a bit lost, but I hadn’t lost my love and obsession with cinema. However, I was too scared to make films, so I started with music videos for friends instead. That’s how I got into it.

There’s quite an interesting story here, which has not been told before, about how I got into commercials. At the time I was also working at a small cinema chain in London, just showing people to their seats. That’s what I did to make money after university. I love films, so I thought that working at a cinema was the perfect job. A friend of mine worked in the head office of the cinema chain, and she told me this guy was looking for a director to make a commercial. ‘I know you want to be a director’, she said to me. ‘So why don’t you do it?’.

I, of course, agreed and she told me he wanted to make a commercial about cancelling ‘The Third World debt’ and they were putting the ad in their cinemas for free. After I agreed, she contacted him and told me to fax the script over and prepare for a meeting. The person I met was a man called Dave Trott, 25 years ago. So, he ended up giving me the job and said to me, ‘If I let you direct this, who's gonna produce it?’ I said ‘I’ll produce it too.’ That led to me being signed to a production company and you’d think that would be the happiest ever after.

But, I just had fallen into commercials, I was 22 years old, didn’t know anything about them, and hadn’t thought of the industry at all. At the time, there weren’t really any female directed commercials, so in the ad world they thought of me as somebody who’d know more about female products. This is where my journey started. There was no real strategy to my career at the beginning – it was ‘you’re a girl, you do girl stuff’.

How I’d like to think of it is that my career started three or four years later, because then is when I woke up from four years of doing shampoo, skin and leg wax ads. I did the whole lot. I woke up and I told myself, ‘I hate this.’’ I admit, today these areas are moving to become more creative and interesting and they have good work, but at the time it just wasn’t me.

Of course for those four years I learned a lot about the process of making commercials. I made my first showreel and I found my own, personal path. That brings me to my first piece of work. 

Big Issue - Big

This was at the start of me understanding who I was, who I wasn’t, and the kinds of films I’d like to make. It was a project funded by my new production company, which I had just joined at the time. I had just watched a commercial on TV for Barclays bank. It starred Anthony Hopkins and had really good copy, for which I think the creatives got the inspiration from the film ‘Meet Joe Black’, with this multi-millionaire rich guy being the main character. The guy in the commercial is a lot like him and his whole shtick throughout is that he thinks that he wants to be the big guy, wants to do everything big. He keeps saying, ‘Everything good is big’ and the end line of the commercial is ‘A big world needs a big bank’. 

At the time I remember watching it and thinking ‘This is fucking bullshit! Big isn’t good!?’. It came at a time of real financial struggle for a lot of people and I thought that it was actually gross.

So, I wrote this little mirror idea - a guy talking about all the big things in his life, but they’re all not that good. It was satire on the back of that commercial. Upon showing it to BBH, they said it would be perfect for The Big Issue. I then met with John Bird, [co-founder of The Big Issue], and we kind of gifted them the film as a piece of communication.

We didn’t have money for anything, so the casting directors sent me five actors, and I met them on my own in the office. Keep in mind, we were about to shoot the next day. There was this one guy that was amazing, and I chose him. As it got to the end of the casting day, I felt super nervous for some reason. I was so young and I really just wanted it to be good. I wanted to go through the lines once more, and talk a bit more before the next day. They got the guy from reception and I said… ‘That’s not the guy I picked? That isn’t him!’ Apparently I had matched the name and the person wrong, so we started ringing the actual guy, who just wasn’t answering. 

At 10pm at night the right guy ended up ringing us back. It turns out he had been at the pub all day because he was so pissed off for not getting the job, and had left his phone at home. We got the record straight, and he turned up the next day. He’s so hungover, because he’d obviously been drinking in the pub for hours, so he looked a bit broken, which was kind of right on point. It’s funny how things can change in seconds like that in this world. This ended up being the project that defined my work going forward.

Sky - Sky Billboards

I’d like to think that we can comment on society in a positive way. This has to do with my continuous unease about being in commercials, which ends up creating this darker and at the same time satirical tone in my work. Because, at the end of the day, this piece of work is about a world without ads, and that to me sounds pretty perfect. I’m getting into a bit of a dangerous area saying this because I have to preface that I have had the most amazing career and still do, and I absolutely love what I do. However, I stay honest to clients and agencies, so they know I’m a bit like that, but that will not be to the detriment of a project. Once I say I will do a project, I do it with my whole heart – I just interrogate it at the beginning.

This particular ad is a proud moment in my showreel because it did really well for me. It got me noticed. But it was never a commercial in the normal sense. I was actually shooting a completely different campaign in São Paulo at that time. I’d slipped back into the old beauty ways, but I was doing a big project for Dove, who I loved as a brand back then and still do. They were the ones that created the idea of showing ‘real’ women and championing them. 

But I was going out of my mind because I was stuck in the studio. I was looking out of the window at this fucking amazing place that I couldn’t get to see. So I rang some friends of mine at WCRS [now Engine Group] (to this day the creative director on that Dove job might be a little annoyed with me for not telling him this in the moment) who were in London and I told them, ‘I’m in São Paulo, this city is amazing, what can we make while I’m here?’ 

They told me that there was a new mayor in São Paulo, and instead of dealing with other issues, his first point of work was to get rid of all the advertising billboards in the city. If you think about it, there was a huge amount. So, we worked from that idea, and WCRS gave it to Sky. It was a no-brainer.

A fun fact is that this whole film is shot by my cameraman standing in the back of a truck just holding the camera. We stabilised it afterwards because the roads had a lot of potholes, but we didn’t have any fancy equipment at all. Dougal Wilson actually asked me after if we had put the billboards in post, which I found funny, because it is so far from the way my brain works!

The Havens Centre - Where’s Your Line?

This was for an agency called Youth Club. They came to me wanting to do something for The Havens which were rape crisis centres. What was so brilliant about this opportunity was not only that I got to speak on this subject, but also that I was given the brief and I could do pretty much anything with it. It all started with them giving us stats that they had, where they had asked young men between the ages of 16 to 24, ‘Would you still have sex with a girl if she’s crying?’, ‘If she was drunk?’ and other similar lines. It was interesting, because it started off from a male perspective. It seems very obvious what the answers should be, but the positive answers were very high. 

The technology behind it was that you get to see this narrative video (on YouTube usually) and although it was very clunky, the point was that you have to click at the moment where you’d stop trying to have sex with her, and a statistic would show up telling you what percentage of people would also stop there. Now we watch it as a continuous film, but it was a very early interactive film.

When we had the edit for this film we showed it to the head of the rape centre and to a guy very high up in the rape division in the Metropolitan Police. They ended up debating if when this film is shown in a court of law, the accused’s decision would help to identify him as guilty. But no. It was extremely complicated prosecuting these cases and I found that absolutely shocking. I also tried to send it to people I know who work at schools and lobby for it to become a film that needs to be seen at school, which to me was the most important part of the project.

Although this was way before the time of #MeToo, the more people saw the film, the more people came through with their own stories. I felt like we were uncovering this iceberg of testimony. It was so amazing to be able to make work that encourages people to talk about it, but I also know the battle doesn’t end there.

Dreamland - Dreamlands

The themes of the seaside town, teenage years, sexuality, and gender are all themes I still explore today and have throughout my career. That coming-of-age moment is pivotal in everybody’s life, and we all find ourselves at crossroads during it. We all relate to that, and we all remember those visceral feelings of the teenage years. I was particularly interested in the idea of female agency over our own sexuality and the way we claim that - something I was scared to do when I was young. But at the same time there’s the element of confusion between enjoyment of sex and intimacy – and what we are actually looking for, and why are we looking for it. Women look for things in a different way than men at that age (and at other ages too), which is a constantly problematic area. 

Dreamland is in Margate – I love seaside towns. I’m not particularly interested in the most picturesque ones. I prefer the idea of ‘ugly beautiful’. I like everything to be beautiful and ugly at the same time. I grew up in South London, so Margate was the closest escape, especially the fun fair, which I went to with some people when we were fifteen or sixteen at the time. There’s a kind of brutality to that area. JG Ballard has a great quote: ‘All the most interesting things in the world take place where the sea meets the land. And you’re between those two states of mind. On that border zone. You’re neither one nor the other. You’re both. And people take their clothes off, which is always a plus.’ That kind of sums up what I try to do, and what humour I love. A bawdy humour, underlined by a dream.

From university onwards, I was interested in feminism, feminist films and the effects of the male gaze. I’ve had to look at my own influences from my younger years and face problems within them that relate to that, to be able to make films like this one that speak on the topic in a way I’d like to speak.

Facebook - Live What You Love

I think the idea of being pigeon-holed stayed with me from the days I did all those beauty commercials, so I want to make sure I don’t stay strictly always in the same lane today. I wanted to make something that isn’t serious and isn’t necessarily saying something. That’s what is lovely about this project. The creatives that wrote the scripts for the films are two young brilliant Indian creatives, who I think had a real point to make. It speaks to the narratives in which the ‘West’ puts Indian people in. They were trying to say that just like in every other country, there is a whole raft of just normal people who are also interested in their own things. In some ways, it is about not getting pigeonholed. These characters felt real for that exact reason - they felt like people’s relatives, friends, neighbours.

Another thing is, I have to admit, that I love travelling for my job over travelling for holiday. You get to go deeper, quicker. We go to a place and we have people who instantly start introducing us and immersing us in the culture, answering questions we didn’t even know we had. Going to a particular market, speaking to a local person, going to their house - all these experiences bring me back to the question of why I wanted to be a director in the first place. Because I want to live lots of different lives, in different worlds. I constantly need to discover.

Nike - Victory Swim

Quite a few years before making this I had seen something for the Middle Eastern market for Nike, but it was more about athletic training, and about women in Saudi Arabia not being allowed to train together, or train outside. From the point of seeing this onwards, I knew I wanted to make something in that area.

Somebody told me that boys and girls start on equal footing in swimming when they’re young in many countries in the Middle East, but as they get into puberty girls stop going into the water. That reignited that thought process. When the project came in, I instantly knew I was game from the perspective of seeing another culture up close, and the advocacy that goes into the film, while learning what it’s like to live modestly in that region. 

Subsequently, the job became very complicated because we shot for a day and had to be shut down due to the pandemic starting. So, three quarters of the film you see are shot remotely. For that reason I have so much respect for the people at Wieden+Kennedy, as well as the people at Nike, for actually wanting to make this happen and continue making it happen despite the difficulty. 

Another challenge of the shoot was having to cast a lot of women that would be down to do this despite less women tending to swim past a certain age. We weren’t okay with casting women that aren’t actually modest and putting them in hijabs. This is such a crucial part of work – looking, getting leads, finding people, understanding their stories.

Eli Lilly - A Medicine Company

This project is exactly what I love to do, but with a twist, because it’s a big pharma company. It was very challenging for me. I spent quite a while saying no because I didn’t think I could do it. I was also frantically googling them to try and find some dirt to justify my refusal. Not to mention that it is an American commercial, which is reflective of the healthcare system problems there. 

I had to separate my dislike and disagreement with a system, from the truth that we need scientists and we need pharmaceutical companies to come up with necessary research and lead progress. It was also on an epic scale, because we really get a look at the people in America that do not have access to healthcare and actually want to talk about the fact that medicine should be for everyone.

Due to the very nature of the work, it already has a political message embedded in it by default. And I did believe, from the moment I met the people making it, that they had the right intention. But I was still looking for where I will get tripped up. And I couldn’t find it, so I went through with it – and I am so glad I did.

This is such a good example of me walking the tightrope. In this case of working with big pharma, versus working with charities, and still trying to save my own perspective. As directors, we have to know why we are doing something, we have to feel good about it, and not suddenly have to turn around one day and apologise about it. We need to be interrogating our own choices constantly.

As a conclusion, I think there is a grain of truth to when people say advertising should sometimes stick to entertainment and not try to save the world. However, I can’t help but believe that at its best it can create cultural shifts, if nothing else.

It has the ability to still reach an incredible amount of people and still has power. Itt is actually quite an interesting medium to use to spread the word, because it is snappy, short and works in very stealthy ways. 

I also think things have progressed, albeit slowly, and we are more aware about authenticity and whose stories we should tell, as well as diversifying those stories. We now have to become more aware of brands that just want to jump on the good guy bandwagon, which has been a trend in advertising unfortunately. We need to interrogate brands on why they think they care about the world, because if you don’t do it in a meaningful way, it’s bullshit. Brands need to interrogate themselves on who they are and where they stand in these areas. We shouldn’t reflect real human issues as fashionable moments or trends – being trans is not a fashion choice, neither is being gay, neither is climate change, neither is any social issue we’ve ‘suddenly’ woken up to. These things have always been there. When we try to talk about them and try to be inclusive, we have to ask ourselves why we are doing it and what the motivation behind it truly is, instead of making it a tick boxing exercise.

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The Corner Shop, Mon, 28 Nov 2022 15:37:17 GMT