Talk to Director Jennifer Stafford

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

Jennifer: A piece of advice that has always stuck with me is, “if there’s a project you feel like you know a secret about, that’s the project you should do.” For me, this happens with scripts based around a central character with a clear point of view or an emotional crossroads. I’m most drawn to concepts that open opportunities for layers of humanity and nuance that I can build a connection to. When I read a script and can start to envision these cinematic moments unfolding is when I really get excited about a project. I am most interested in how to pull at themes within a script that subtly mirror an audience back to themselves to create a point of feeling and connection.

How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?

Jennifer: I read the brief multiples times, and then put on a playlist that tonally represents the creative. Creating the mood of the spot as I’m writing and pulling references allows me to bring all the elements together inside my head. The next step is wrapping my head around the agency’s vision and the brand’s objectives. Those factors are the jumping off point to see what elements of the story most excite me and where I can continue to expand our world and character development in a way that is resonant and visually striking. After the initial call I have a better sense of what areas they are willing to push and what elements are their editorial pillars.

If the script is for a brand that you’re not familiar with/ don’t have a big affinity with or a market you’re new to, 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?

Jennifer: Authenticity is a core pillar for me and so the research on a brand is absolutely critical. I am always trying to push the boundaries on all the projects that I do, but always in a way that is credible to the audience. I try to constantly check in and ask myself, how can we take this brand’s core ethos and push it a touch further with this project? Sometimes the answer can be beautifully simple, but unless I have a thorough context of a brand I cannot authentically make that leap.

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

Jennifer: Historically, I would have said the relationship with your DP is the most important. It’s critical to have that synergy of style and taste paired with a deep editorial grasp. The shorthand built through that alignment of taste is a beautiful thing and better ideas can flow from that. But, at present, I have to say my answer is the relationship between the director and the actors. Despite the myriad of elements swirling around a film set, the story ultimately comes down to an actor’s ability to convey the message and emotional tone on screen. That relationship and performance ultimately makes or breaks the believability of your story.

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

Jennifer: I come alive when making films about emotionally deep and nuanced characters. People that can depict a universality about the human condition. I started directing in the documentary space featuring athletes for Red Bull Media House, so story was always the bedrock of my approach. Success in those early days was finding stories that had the ability to cut straight to the heart through compelling and unexpected characters. We live in such a divisive world, I love honing in on the elements that are tender, vivid and have a way of reflecting the viewer back to themselves. Visually, I try to find the balance between simplicity and complexity. To me, excessively complex camera techniques can easily divert attention from the core essence of storytelling. My approach focuses on crafting emotionally ripe scenes with elegantly by ruthlessly distilled visuals.

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

Jennifer: I think there might be a slight misconception that I only focus on sports content, when the reality is I view sport as a vehicle for humanity and beauty. I love the inherent drama built into competition and human achievement – heartbreak and triumph, glory and hope, sacrifice and perseverance. Coming up, sport allowed me to tell deep human stories around unique protagonists with a strong perspective and that’s where I started to really develop my style.

Combining my love for story and beginning my career at Red Bull Media House in the world of action sports was the foundation for my passion around making films that inspire, explore, and with any luck, ignite a spark inside an audience. In those early days, if it involved gasoline or a surfboard, I probably filmed it in some capacity- motorcycles, aeroplanes and athletes alike. My goal is for people to watch my work and have their heart beat a little faster. I want to continue to work on projects that combine those elements and give storytelling a soul, a feeling. I strive to combine action with a clear perspective and soulful nature that inspires and transports us to a state of ambition and aspiration.

Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?

Jennifer: I have not, but if you know anyone who can help navigate Los Angeles rent prices I’d love to meet them. Thankfully, I have an amazing team at Framestore Pictures that helps navigate creative budget efficiencies.

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

Jennifer: I was directing a commercial where the ad called for authentic freshly fallen snow (and lots of it), so we had to base the shoot around filming a fully practical winter storm. Chasing weather is one thing with a nimble documentary crew, and entirely another with a full scale commercial production. To bring it to life, we had been working with several location managers and meteorologists to predict winter weather patterns, which led us to target the Buffalo area in upstate New York. When unprecedented warm temperatures and a rainstorm evaporated our snow overnight, we had to pivot the entire production to Montana (which was hovering at a healthy -10 zero degrees Fahrenheit). We made the switch within a few hours, and ended up scouting, casting and filming within a week. Despite the challenges, the spot was an absolute blast.

 How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?

Jennifer: There is always a healthy push and pull between creativity and accountability. The balance is usually where the best work happens. Clear communication is the key to any form of success. In an ideal world, the agency has chosen to work with me because they appreciate my filmmaking style from my reel, and aligned with the creative boundaries you pushed for in the treatment. During that pitching process I always try to show options of where we can further build our world, but in pre-production it is critical to align on where those boundaries are finally drawn. At that stage, I’m still creating an environment for a dynamic collaboration. One of the things I have learned over the years is that you do have to be your own creative pillar. While you cannot be inflexible and collaboration does push for a better project, it’s okay to accept that you are not right for every project, and every brief does not need to speak to you. In the end, that’s why finding the right ones where that synergy exists is so special.

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?

Jennifer: Diversity of perspective is what makes filmmaking so fascinating. It has the rare ability to transport people into the mindset and experiences of others they would never get to otherwise. It’s the key to empathy and understanding. When I was first starting out, I had a director I greatly admired take me under his mentorship, and it gave my career wings and built my confidence. I am certainly always looking out for those relationships, and would gladly extend the offer to other aspiring filmmakers.

 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?

Jennifer: Yes, I now know far too many brands of alcohol wipes. Ping me if you need a rec.

Your work is now presented in so many different formats – to what extent do you keep each in mind while you’re working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)?

Jennifer: For me, diversity of formats in today’s ad space is all about combining beauty and precision. Transitioning into the commercial world from documentary has been incredibly exciting because of these unique formats and distribution platforms that we get to develop around. When I receive a brief that has deliverables ranging from 90 to 6 seconds it opens the opportunity to really sink my teeth into the different approaches to telling a story and getting at what the core of the concept is. I am always pushing myself back to distilling the essential humanity and style of any narrative or message. Getting to develop and craft a story with enough poignancy and striking visuals to tell a story in both short form and long form has been one of my favourite elements about directing in the ad space.

What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work (ea, virtual production, interactive storytelling, Al/data-driven visuals etc)?

Jennifer: I’d be hard pressed to find a better ecosystem for creative development and ideation around cutting edge technology than the support and dialogue I have with the producers and artists at Framestore. Signing with Framestore Pictures for commercial representation has been a game changer for my insight and access to technology to expand story and worldbuilding. Whether it’s enhancing the look of a practical live action shoot in post, or using our in-house team to build visual mock-ups as a proof of concept during the treatment phase, the resources we have here are unparalleled in how we are able to present ideas to agency and client.

While when used intentionally, technology can only help enhance a story. I am also reserved in how I implement these visual tools. The beauty of natural lighting, on-location shooting, often with non-actors is still my sweet spot. I fell in love with cinema on French New Wave films and will always be drawn to that filmmaking style. When you can find authentic pockets to combine the two elements, well, that’s a beautiful thing.

For original articles, please check LBB.


Source: LBB

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