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The Directors: Emily McDonald



The Hey Wonderful director on working with powerful brands like Nike, Netflix and Vogue, the importance of authenticity, and the rising representation and diversity in advertising

The Directors: Emily McDonald

Emily McDonald is a London-based director who’s been prolific in the branded documentary space, creating outstanding content that amplifies the voices of the unheard and underrepresented. She is known for directing work that focuses on uncovering honest and unique stories that challenge cultural ideas, encourage diversity and broaden perspectives about humanity. She is represented for commercial work in the US by full-service production company, Hey Wonderful.

Her work includes powerful brand documentaries for Nike, Netflix, Facebook and Vogue, the latter of which earned her Gold at the Creative Circle this year. Her latest collaboration this past summer was with Jimmy Choo and Sink the Pink - titled ‘Family Ties’, it features members of the LGBTQ+ collective celebrating the power of chosen family and how glamour is for everyone.  

Emily's emphasis on authenticity in storytelling and using the media as a platform for social change has recently led her to the BBC, who has hired her to direct a film for the prestigious Arts Strand Arena. She is currently finishing production on ‘Worth Saving’, a film about Savage Sisters, a non-profit organisation which grapples with the impact of the narcotic and opioid crisis in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighbourhood.


Name: Emily McDonald 
Location: London, UK  
Repped by/in: Hey Wonderful (US) 
Awards: Gold Young Director Award at Cannes, Best Micro Doc at Discover Film Festival


LBB> What are some upcoming projects that you're excited about? Tell us a bit about ‘Worth Saving’ and any others!


Emily> ‘Worth Saving’ is a feature-length documentary about substance abuse disorder we’ve been filming in Kensington, Philadelphia since March. It’s told from the perspective of a female-founded non-profit which is seeing amazing results from both its harm reduction and housing programmes, both of which have been developed by women and men who are in recovery themselves. It's so unique because it includes things like trauma therapy, yoga and nutrition - a really holistic way of approaching addiction. I’m trying to get people comfortable with viewing substance abuse disorder as a disease.

I’m also filming two other long-form documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4, which will be released next year. 


(A scene from 'Worth Saving') 

LBB> What excites you in the advertising industry right now, as a director? Any trends or changes that open new opportunities?


Emily> I like that we’re continuing to see more diversity in advertising and that it wasn’t just a passing trend. I also like seeing more campaigns developed around real people and stories - I think brands are catching on that authenticity is key.



LBB> You’re well known for branded documentaries - what is it about this medium that you like? How do you start a project and choose which ones to take on?


Emily> It’s always exciting to tell real stories with the backing of a brand that is equally passionate. I only like to take on projects where the subject feels authentic to the brand - if that partnership doesn’t make sense, then the whole thing falls apart.  



LBB> What is a topic that you want to make a documentary about? And what is your dream brand to work with on one? 


Emily> What made me fall in love with filmmaking is the opportunity we have to change someone’s perspective, so for that reason, I’m drawn to anything under the umbrella of social change. I’d love to work with Patagonia because I really admire how Yvon Chouinard uses the company as a platform to address a larger cause.


LBB> With more traditional ads - how do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?


Emily> With every treatment, I’m trying to push brands to be more authentic with their storytelling. I like to think I strike a balance between realism and working in a more traditionally structured format. 



LBB>  You’ve worked with the likes of Nike, Netflix, Vogue and Facebook - how do you navigate the dynamic between creative freedom and the desires of such huge clients? What are some of your favourite moments from working with these brands?


Emily> Some of the larger brands start out really excited by the idea of a branded doc or casting real people, but then gradually tighten the reins because the higher-ups get spooked. I’m always encouraging brands to trust the process. If I’ve done my job with casting and everything else in the lead-up, then you won’t need to feed in lines on the day.

One of my favourite projects was Nike’s ‘Fight Club’ because it was my first global campaign and we had an amazing team who I’m coincidentally working with on a totally different project five years later! I also really enjoyed working with Vogue on ‘Looking Back with Pride’ because they gave me free rein to develop that whole creative and it’s done really well on the festival circuit. 

 (A still from Emily's 'Fight Club' docuseries for Nike)

LBB> Talk to us about your Vogue x Jimmy Choo Sink the Pink project! How did this come about and what was the shoot like? In this project and others, how do you consider the representation and presentation of the LGBTQIA+ community and other minority groups when directing? 


Emily> This came off the back of the Pride film I just mentioned. The following year, Vogue partnered with Jimmy Choo and they wanted another film that went deeper than your typical rainbows and glitter. The shoot itself was one of the best days I’ve had on set, we had an entirely Queer cast and crew, and everyone could feel that. It was safe, it was camp, it was energetic, chaotic - everything I’d hoped for. 

I’m probably most protective of casting during pre-production. As someone who’s experienced discrimination, it comes naturally to consider diversity and how to use casting as a tool. 


LBB> What’s your relationship like with new technology and how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work? 


Emily> I remote-directed the global Nike ‘Be True’ campaign which was shot in Hawaii, Japan and America - that was a crash course in new technology! I haven’t done anything AI-related but I’m excited by the potential of immersive storytelling.



LBB> Which pieces of your work do you feel show what you do best – and why?



Vogue - Looking Back with Pride

I felt really good about the decision to feature older generations of the LGBTQ+ community and we were all humbled by the response it got. I also got to make it with friends so it will always mean a lot to me. 



Dazed - This Now

Being able to capture a moment in time that everyone was experiencing kept me sane during lockdown when I was struggling with my own mental health and needed an outlet. There was so much comfort in making that film and when I watch it, it still takes me right back to that state of mind. 



Nike - The Whippets 

Prior to this film Nike had never funded an independent production, so this was a trial run for them and it paid off. As a branded piece it worked because it presented a real community so authentically and people became really connected to the team. They ended up making a limited run of merchandise and screening the film at NikeTown London.



Browns Men’s - Somewhere We Dance Forever 



This is another example of a brand partnership where we were given a lot of creative freedom. We took key pieces from their Men’s collection and showcased them in a moving spoken word film with trans model and poet, Kai-Isiah Jamal.

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Hey Wonderful, Fri, 04 Nov 2022 09:24:00 GMT