Nola Pictures director Nick Lewin gave us the scoop on his early beginnings as a PA and editor at RSA, recent work for Lowe’s, Nissan, and Splenda, his love for photography, and more.
Could you describe your experience starting off as an office runner for Ridley Scott Associates? What was the day-to-day like, and was this your first exposure to film?
I started working at Ridley Scott Associates, as it was then called, when it had been going for about six months. I had worked as a PA on features before that. That was hardly exposure to film. I merely put sugar in coffee and had no idea what was going on. But, then I was at RSA for four or five years and went from PA to Editor where I learnt an amazing amount about the basic grammar of film. What cuts and what doesn’t. The editing room is a great place to learn, not only technique but also how to exist on no sleep.
How did you make the transition from editing to directing?
Editing prepares you well for directing so I leapt at the chance. And soon after, formed a production company and was soon enough up and running. Quite early on I started working in the States although I lived in the U.K. It was a great time to start. Great agencies and great clients. We were expected to try out the unexpected, to shoot tests on everything. Push the negative as far as it would go. Try different wardrobe, make-up and hair. Play with comedy and dialogue and all the while be prepared to experiment, consider possibilities. For me it was a golden age and I loved every minute of it.
Your body of work for Volkswagen is very diverse — from ‘Turbonium” which demonstrates your penchant for photo-composition and design, to narrative-driven spots like ‘The Great Escape,’ featuring a freewheeling grandpa and his grandson to the time lapse technique in the docu-style “Amulet”. How did your work for VW evolve over the years, and which spot was the most fun to work on?
I was lucky to meet Alan Paffenbach and Lance Jensen and work on a project for them at Arnold before the Agency won the VW account. We got on and had a good chemistry so they got me involved in the VW Beetle campaign. They worked with quite a few directors over the years and I worked on several different spots. For me there is one major criterion. The idea. Always the idea. How best to tell the story? Arnold always pushed, made me really think through the whole project and find ways to interpret it that were not obvious. Also casting. Always casting for people who brought something better to the party. People who gave the spot some attitude.
I love comedy, mostly the more subtle comedy that’s in the writing and timing and not the body language. But I also like any idea that has performance at its core. I love working with actors and letting them bring their ideas to the table
There’s an element of humor in a lot of your work. (Your spots for Budweiser are great examples.) Do you prefer commercial work where there’s a bit of levity?
I’ve been asked about humor and levity. I love comedy, mostly the more subtle comedy that’s in the writing and timing and not the body language. But I also like any idea that has performance at its core. I love working with actors and letting them bring their ideas to the table. In many instances they carry the core idea. They have to deliver the storyline in a believable way and I am there to help them. I truly believe if you have the right cast so many problems disappear.
When the cast is right, then the fun can start. Playing with the possibilities. Trying out different ideas and nuances. Such a great way to work.
I really try to fight against the notion that we can sort the casting out on the day, make people younger or older or see if they can be funnier. None of that ever seems to work and hundreds of takes later video village is a sea of angst as we all try to see what little bits might make the grade.
No, get the casting right and then avoid all that!
You’ve worked with a wide range of celebrities, from the world’s most famous athlete to an incredibly diverse group of comedians, movie and tv stars. What’s the secret to making that work in a commercial?
Working with great actors, comedians and celebrities brings its own challenges. Really, it’s so important to do your homework. Think in advance of the possible questions that might come up and have your answers.
I think the single most important thing with pieces that are dialogue driven is to make sure that you are coming in on time. Sort that out before you shoot and all is golden. Sorting it out as you shoot is a nightmare and confuses everyone!
Every now and then it is worth walking out and looking back at the camera, a crew, a battery of lights and video village and you can see why people clam up. It’s a pretty terrifying sight. Just remember that and have some sympathy for the talent. In most instances they are all we’ve got! They are the idea!
Could you speak to your approach to your personal photography? What captures your eye and how does the discipline inform your commercial work?
I have a large interest in photography and spend a huge amount of time taking stills. Very old-school. All film and large formats. 120 and 5×4. Usually inanimate objects. Very shallow depth and very abstract. I can get completely lost doing that and time flies by. It really has no relationship to my directing job. Completely different and totally therapeutic.
What film/music/TV show are you into at the moment or what’s causing you to form an opinion, good or bad?
What movies do I like? My tastes change the whole time. I love European cinema. I love classic Hollywood. Also 70’s Hollywood. I love Asian cinema. We live in a world where it is all there for us and not hard to find. There is so much great film out there. So three films I love.
1. The Conformist
Classic movie, French masterpiece and modern indie piece, all just amazing and this list will change all the time.
Music is the same. I can veer from Chet Baker, past the Beatles and into the world of Salif Keita. I have several iPods, each with too much music. But they are all there and I listen to music the whole time. As I write this I am listening to a band called First Aid Kit from Sweden with a guy called The Tallest Man on Earth about to start.
Danish Television is seducing me at the moment. Borgen and the Killing are just superb. Very dark and beautifully executed. Then there’s always Larry David. I actually record stuff and watch it later. I find that easier.
Your recent work for Lowe’s, Nissan and Splenda demonstrates your facility with humor, performance and visual effects and continues to enable you to defy categorization as any one type of director. Care to comment?
Well, that is where I am at the moment. Anticipating good ideas and an enthusiastic team to do them with. Thankfully, I’ve had wonderful creative opportunities to explore, to bring in visual techniques from other mediums, so when I am presented with an idea I may think of any number of ways to approach it. Ink blots, time lapse, Rube Goldberg, moco, cg, dogs and monkeys, whatever…. All these things and all these brilliant specialists are at our fingertips so if we carefully select the talents we need to enhance the crew it’s all due diligence but great fun and very little drama and life stays interesting.