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The Directors: Roxanna Dunlop


The Stadium director on confronting misconceptions, gratifying collaborations, and 'nerding out' over storytelling

The Directors: Roxanna Dunlop

Roxanna is a director born and raised in Toronto whose refreshingly collaborative style is palpable on-set. Empathising with her talent and crew in a way only a fellow actor and line producer can, Roxanna creates a safe and exploratory on-set environment which fosters fertile ground for fresh work. 

Roxanna’s directorial debut into the commercial world has been one of versatility – sweeping anthemic spots on airline budgets, to modest vignettes with docu-style intimacy – yet all her work shares a consideration for the human experience, with faces always taking precedence.

She currently splits her time between Toronto and Los Angeles. 

Name: Roxanna Dunlop

Location: Los Angeles / Toronto

Repped by/in: Stadium (USA) AdHoc (Canada)


LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them? 

Roxanna> I get excited when I see boards where a brand or agency is hoping to do something completely new. I immediately know I want to partner with them on a project when they’re open to pushing boundaries, both visually and in terms of their overall brand message. It’s always energising to have a hand in telling a new story about an existing brand. I also love transitions, so I always get excited whenever I see them in a script! It’s so fun to think about new ways to move in one frame and out to the next. And when you only have 30 or 60 seconds to hook someone, transitions are such a helpful and playful tool to bring your audience on a ride with you, which is something I tried to accomplish in my Allegiant spot. 


LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?

Roxanna> One of my first jobs in L.A. was working for an online publication. I was modeling in a lot of their photoshoots but also creative directing the shoots, producing them, and oftentimes writing articles to go alongside the editorials. I think that experience taught me a lot about mixing visuals with the written word and how to tell a fluid and compelling story using both. 

For me, every treatment starts with stream-of-consciousness brainstorming. This either takes the form of copywriting or image pulling, and I don’t filter myself at all. I just go with that instinctive feeling: if it resonates, I make note of it. It’s later in the process when I start to comb through and filter out the parts that don’t fit the vision, or that aren’t necessary. In terms of getting in the right headspace, sometimes I’ll find a song that fits the tone I’m going for, and play it on repeat for days on end. I’ll also watch a ton of commercials, t.v. and films. If I get a brief that requires a certain style I usually watch a lot of other content in that vein, and then think of ways that I can add something unexpected to it. 


LBB> If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?

Roxanna> This is so important for me - I absolutely love the branding and marketing side of things. I’ll either research the brand and the past spots they’ve done, or chat with the agency to get a feel for what their brand strategy is beyond just the spot we’re creating – or a mix of both. Having that context better allows me to speak the language of the brand which I think is so necessary in creating films that are fresh and inventive, but that live within the ecosystem that’s already been created. I also love to get an understanding of who we are aiming to target with each spot, and let that influence the music I choose, the casting, and overall look & feel of the piece. 



LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad?

Roxanna> Usually my favourite and closest collaborator on any project is the cinematographer. I always said that would be my job if I wasn’t a director. I love working with that person to paint the frame, to dissect the emotional narrative, and think of clever ways to make things more compelling. And I truly respect and appreciate the technical side of things, because that is not my language! Working with a DP who listens, asks questions, and has a lot of passion is something that I find always elevates any idea to the next level. 

I also really enjoy working with agency creatives. The process of understanding their vision, then taking it and building off of it can be a really gratifying collaboration. Directing, at times, can be isolating, and I naturally have a very open / collaborative style. So, having a team of people all working towards a shared goal and being able to bounce ideas off of each other is what gets me excited.


LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?

Roxanna> I always want to tell a narrative story. Even in a short commercial spot, I am always trying to get to know the character and their arc. I’d love to tell more stories about creative people, people who have been through difficulties or who are struggling to overcome some sort of obstacle. I’m fascinated by the human experience, and it’s something I want to be able to explore through my work whenever I can. Whether it’s athletes and the emotional / spiritual dedication it takes to be one, or those extreme and interesting characters who are constantly pushing themselves. I also love to shatter certain societal expectations, and hope to do more work that centres the stories of marginalised folks. 

I also never want to pigeonhole myself into a certain genre or style. What gets me going is a script or board that’s really bold and inventive. Give me a brand or agency that wants to do a complete branding 360, or launch a new product with new messaging. I love to nerd out on the marketing side of things, trying to figure out how we can tell a larger, relatable story, that oftentimes also sells a product.

LBB> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter, and why is it wrong? 

Roxanna> That because I’m a woman I should be doing sentimental, heartfelt, or female-focused narratives. I really resent that idea and I want the world to acknowledge that more women, trans and non-binary directors should be put up for the extreme sports / car commercials as well. It’s definitely a bit of a boys club and I hope that changes soon. 


LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?

Roxanna> I’ve been pretty lucky in my experiences on set in that no problem has been too crazy to handle, and I also have a background as a producer so my problem-solving hat is always on. 

There was one moment during our Allegiant Air shoot where I wanted a shot that zooms out of an airplane window to show the entire plane in flight. To me, this shot felt really important to the overall film but it wasn’t necessarily within our budget to get moco, crane, or other fancy tools. So, my crew and I put our heads together and spent hours on the phone with certain DPs/VFX friends in the industry trying to figure out how to do it. We almost cut that shot completely but in the end got really lucky finding an epic VFX artist who built the whole thing in 3D. Bless his heart! My producing background definitely comes in handy in instances like this.



LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open with the agency and brand client, while also protecting the idea?

Roxanna> I started my career mostly doing direct-to-client spots, so the agency world is new to me and I am still learning how to navigate it. Every project is an exercise in convincing the team to trust me and the vision from the very beginning through to the end. This means understanding and communicating my own “why” behind every decision – which was a learning curve at first, but I’ve come to understand the enormous value of being able to express my ideas in a way that is sellable while also true to my vision. 


LBB> What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set? 

Roxanna> THIS NEEDS TO HAPPEN. But it should be the bare minimum. We shouldn’t be congratulating brands for working with diverse directors – it should be treated as the new normal.  

And yes, I am 100% open to mentoring and apprenticeships!


LBB> How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time? 

Roxanna> The pandemic has been really difficult on collaboration in general, I think. I miss being in the production office with everyone, brainstorming and just thriving in that chaotic and exciting environment. Now, even though most people are doing a lot more in person, there’s still a lot of us who decide to work from home because it’s just easier. But I really miss in person meetings, casting, etc, and whenever I can I try to do it. It’s not easy to push yourself to drive to that meeting, but it always ends up a lot more creatively fulfilling and productive than a Zoom call. 


LBB> Finally, what’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work?

Roxanna> I haven’t explored much interactive storytelling yet, but I love pushing myself to try new things, and am excited to see what the future holds in terms of technology and how it expands our storytelling possibilities.  

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STADIUM, Wed, 26 Oct 2022 07:24:00 GMT