CB Exclusive – Westpac has become synonymous with big, beautiful brand campaigns and its recent ‘Life is Eventful’ spot from DDB Sydney and Exit Films was no different. Lion director Garth Davis, who previously directed the epic Separation spot for Westpac, partnered again with the bank for this project – but with a twist.
Davis brought together four of the best up-and-coming directors – Stefan Hunt, Danny Cohen, Shelly Lauman and Billie Pleffer – to each direct specific scenes in the campaign. The result? An energetic mix of styles from simple to surreal beautifully depicting life’s big and small moments from starting a relationship to losing a phone.
In this Q&A, Campaign Brief sat down with Stefan, Danny, Shelly, Billie and Garth to hear just how they collaborated to create the work and how it will shape their careers going forward.
CB: What did you respond to about the script and ambition when you first looked at the project? [Garth]
GD: What struck me was how the script celebrated all facets of life, with this bold vibrancy, raw courage, and emotionality. I also felt it was a smart and exciting move for Westpac, extending on their love of life and the stories that come from it.
CB: How did the idea come about to bring together four different up-and-coming directors to bring it to life? [Garth]
GD: With Life, it is our ‘difference’ that makes it beautiful and amazing. So, it just felt right to bring on an ensemble of directors, so that we could honour that difference, and create a truly vibrant and unique voice. Too much advertising has become montage and manicure…I felt this would deliver something both raw and playful, which is what the brief called for.
CB: How did this change how you usually approach a script and shooting? Did it make it more complex? [Garth]
GD: Well yes. It was new territory, and we all traversed the process carefully. Directors can be sensitive. I asked each director to respond to any or all scenes that spoke to them, with a small pitch. We all zoomed and presented those ideas as a group, and generally speaking, it seemed pretty obvious where each director landed. I then collated all the ideas and drafted a script, to make sure it all held together, and with the team’s blessings and tweaks, returned this to the agency – essentially their script brought to life with the ensemble’s vision. I then maintained a mentor role across the whole process and was across all presentations.
CB: What was your first thought when Garth approached you to take part and explained the concept? [Stefan, Danny, Shelly, Billie]
BP: First thought was YES! It is rare for someone of our level to read scripts with such excellent creative with the budget to back it. Also, what an incredible opportunity to work with the lovely genius that is Garth as well as with a team of such exciting directors. Directors rarely (or never) get a chance to work together collaboratively and learn from and inspire each other.
SH: It was equal parts “Hell yeah this is exciting I can bring something special to this” and “Level up Stef and listen to what Garth has to say”.
SL: My first thought was yes, bloody yes yes yes.
DC: My first thoughts were — what a huge undertaking… which quickly turned into excitement. Garth had such an inspired vision for us all, I knew we were all in for a special journey.
CB: Which scenes did you direct and what inspired your choices for each? [Stefan, Danny, Shelly, Billie]
BP: I directed the two soccer scenes, the girl in the sky “I finally asked her out” and the older couple on the beach with the glowing chests.
For the older couple on the beach saying goodbye, I was inspired by a photographic image of a man with a light effect on his chest. The idea of humanity glowing with life and love I thought could be a poetic, beautiful, emotive and clear visual way to explore death and loss. Two beings with glowing chests embraced in a hug – the final goodbye – as they part the woman’s light goes out and the man’s grows brighter as he retains her light within. It felt like a great, different and powerful way to explore saying goodbye.
The soccer scenes I was inspired by a technical technique in one the agency’s reference spots – building upon the opening shot of the world from space and the eclipsing light on the twin scene, I used the soccer ball to build the momentum and pace to break from the soccer player’s internal pressure and (pardon the pun) – kick off the spot.
SH: I directed the sky burnout (with Shelly), restaurant, dog claymation, toilet phone drop / animation (with Danny) and dancing. My approach to these scenes was no different to my process with a short film or music video. I let the imagination go wild with the possibilities of animation, claymation and flying cars. Garth was incredible in supporting these ideas and always guiding me back to capturing real human emotion.
SL: I directed the twin’s scene, the helicopter scene, the scene with the man in rehabilitation with his new prosthetic legs and the woman in front of the mirror looking at her mastectomy tattoo. I also collaborated with Stefan and Billie on the flying dream car sequence.
The raw and real was very much the energy of the agency brief and inspired a lot of choices, especially in our choices of how to shoot any particular scene. The inspiration for the tattoo scene came from these images I’d scene years ago of women with tattoos over their mastectomy scars. I was so struck by how empowered these images were. An artwork across their chest. An act of claiming and reclaiming their bodies. An expression of their courage.
For the man in rehabilitation, I wanted that to feel as close to real life as possible. Intimate, immediate, alive. Like it was being filmed by his nearest and dearest and would be rewatched by them more than once.
For the twin’s scene, I wanted this to feel like an extension of the opening sun. A sense of being born into the story.
DC: The confetti/apartment couple, the toilet sequence (with Stefan), the prison and the floating couple scene. We set out to insert a level of magic throughout all the scenes, but it was important to cement it in realism to help audiences connect emotionally to all the stories.
CB: What was it like collaborating with other directors? Any hurdles along the way? [Stefan, Danny, Shelly, Billie]
BP: Awesome. Inspiring and supportive. It was kind of uncharted territory, so we had to feel our way a bit. But Garth and Karen did a fantastic job of navigating this and protecting the essence of each individual talent and voice while weaving together the spot as a whole.
SH: Horrible. Psyche! It was actually amazing. Directing is such a solo journey with this pressure to have all the answers. The truth is you don’t always have them. Garth and Exit fostered a safe and supportive environment to lean on one another for ideas and advice. I felt every director adopted a team attitude to making the best piece we could collectively. There was zero ego. Just a common goal to make something magic.
SL: It was brilliant. As a director you never get to do this. I learnt so much about my own process by observing and collaborating with the others. We all come from different backgrounds, different starting points, different world views; opened up so many new ways of seeing.
There were new and specific logistical hurdles that came up – organising a group of directors rather than one. But we had a genius team lead by Karen Sproul producing, so we were completely supported.
DC: The experience was special. I admire all my fellow EXIT directors but never had the chance to work alongside them. It was such a joy to have an insight to their process, everyone works so differently and there was so much to learn at every stage of the production.
CB: It’s pretty bold work for a bank with some stunning, modern imagery. Did you expect this type of work from Westpac before you received the brief? [Stefan, Danny, Shelly, Billie]
BP: I wasn’t surprised to see Westpac support a concept that was creative and refreshing. I absolutely loved their “Divorce” brand spot they did with Garth that felt so far away from a traditional bank TVC. And the team as a whole seemed so excited and inspired by our discussion from the beginning. It was incredible that they were happy to support something different, which is a nod to the creative team, Tom, Sam and Matt for cutting together a hype reel to convey their concept and lay the foundations. The project was helmed by none other than Garth Davis who Westpac already had a trusted relationship and who’s impeccable taste and track record alone would put any worries to bed.
SH: Not at all. I’m a huge fan of Westpac’s previous work with Garth and Mark Molloy and this new direction felt very radical. I think it says a lot about the creative team at DDB and their desire to push boundaries. Their enthusiasm and passion truly elevated the end product.
SL: It is bold work and that was completely encouraging for so many different reasons. I find Westpac’s work is always anchored in the deeply human, grounded and emotional. Their work is traditionally quite epic, but yes this was new heights again. It’s always exciting to work with a client who is actively looking to create new benchmarks of what’s possible. For so many reasons this is exciting.
DC: Westpac’s work with DDB has always been pushing boundaries, especially for a bank but I loved this script’s youthful spirit. It was exciting to join DDB and Westpac on the next step of their creative journey.
CB: What was the best thing about the experience? [Stefan, Danny, Shelly, Billie]
BP: Working with Garth and seeing his process and how his incredible mind works and being given a brief that enabled us to go wild creatively with the budget, resources and support to bring it to life. It was a dream creative brief, team and situation.
SH: Best experience was being mentored by Garth. Having never been to film school I’ve never had any guidance like that before. Observing Garth’s passion for directing and the humility with which he does it is deeply inspiring. The confidence he instilled in all of us to shine with our unique voices was a game changer.
SL: Every single person involved in making it.
DC: I felt so supported by my fellow directors and by our wonderfully sharp producer, Karen. It was wonderful to have Garth’s wealth of knowledge to guide us through tricky scenes. Seeing Garth’s tips come to life on set was an experience l’ll treasure for a long time.
CB: And the most challenging? [Stefan, Danny, Shelly, Billie]
BP: Making sure the work stood up to the caliber that Garth opened the gates for us to create. Very big footsteps to follow and no one wanted to disappoint.
SH: The unknown of whether the edit would actually work. Four directors with very different styles crammed into 60 seconds. It could have gone either way.
DC: I found the floating couple scene the most challenging, it had a lot of moving parts. We were shooting at dusk, it was raining, we were shooting on a remote head and crane and the couple were being blown around in the wind. We had such an incredible DP (Zoë White) and crew, everyone kept their cool and powered through and the result was some really emotional, special images.
CB: How do you think this experience will impact your career going forward? [Stefan, Danny, Shelly, Billie]
BP: Ideally open more doors and lead to more awesome work.
SH: Career wise I hope for more commercials with creative as bold as this. Maybe Westpac gets us all back for a reunion job in 20 years! In terms of my craft as a director I can say I’ve been influenced immensely by the other directors on this project. I can’t wait to watch Shelly, Billie and Danny’s careers moving forward. Watch those names!
SL: I hope this process opens up what’s possible for the ways we make work on all levels. Opens up how we think about making the work, both personally and as an industry.
DC: It’s rare to be given the opportunity to work on a commercial of this size so early in your career. I’m overly grateful for Garth’s vision to bring us all on board, along with the agency’s and client’s enthusiasm and support for younger directors. I hope it’ll help agencies see the level of storytelling and craft we’re all capable of.
CB: The outcome is beautiful and already generating a positive response. What does this say about the calibre of up-and-coming talent in Australia? [Garth]
GD: I am grateful for all the people that gave me my first shot… without those gambles, young directors simply don’t get a chance to play. In my experience, it’s always been instinctive and courageous creatives who take a chance on new talent, where great work stems – like DDB taking a leap of faith with these directors, and it really did birth a truly unique piece that for a major brand is pretty radical, and in hindsight, completely the right thing to do.