12 Jul 2017

Interview: Jeff Labbe on his work, his life and his upcoming gig in Asia

Whether you’re in the ad industry, or just the casual consumer flipping through what’s on the tube, chances are you’ve seen Jeff Labbe’s creative film work for a wide range of brands including Levis, Nike, KFC and Volkswagen.

What stands out most about Labbe’s work is a deft use of narrative and depth in both the story & characters, an artistic effort that helps brands engage with viewers on a deeper level than simply pitching a product. As Ad Age described it: “Many say the construction of his themes are anything but commercial.”

Born in Louisiana, Labbe started his career as an agency creative working with Wieden + Kennedy, TBWA/Chiat/Day San Francisco and Leo Burnett, where he won awards for his work on campaigns that include Nike’s ‘Beautiful’ and Fox Sports ‘Beware of things made in October’.

In May, he signed on with The Sweet Shop for representation in Asia, Australia and New Zealand –a move that will bring the highly-acclaimed director’s work to a whole new audience.

Jeff Labbe recently spoke with Branding in Asia from his home in New Orleans about his life, his work, and his upcoming expansion into Asia.

Being from Louisiana, how has that shaped your creative journey as you’ve worked around the world?

Growing up in the south I think, there’s a different outlook on life. This is home to many riveting stories with immersive and palpable backdrops and characters, for example “True Detective”, “Mud”, “12 Years a Slave”, “Beast of The Southern Wild”, “Dead Man Walking”, “Down By Law” and “Loving”.

Both Faulkner and Tennessee Williams come out of these regions. It’s as if you just grow with a bit of mud between your toes, you grow up amongst the sticks and using your imagination to escape the lack of resources. Personal stories as well those in the mind were a very vivid part of my life. I think a lot of that innocent wide-eyed upbringing comes into play when I venture out into the world.

With your recent signing with The Sweet Shop, you’re going to be representing Asia, Australia, New Zealand.

Yes, those are the territories I am in. Basically, I got out a globe, spun it and figured…’what the heck that’s an area I’m not in.’

Will you take a different approach to Asia-focused film work?

I’m not a guy that likes to stay put for long and I’m not fearful of much. I didn’t start this career the most conventional of routes; I went from janitor to delivering hay on ranches and rodeo’ing, to photography, spent time as a tortured fine artist and finally thought what the fuck I’ll open a graphic design firm.

Eventually, I stumbled into advertising and that lead to filmmaking.

When I look back on how I explored the varied crafts, all the wild times and disciplines served a purpose to where I am today – and hopefully approaching the various markets from Asia to the US will work much the same.

I tend to bury myself deeply into projects and I think it’s the same with countries, cultures, and people. When I jumped into the UK within the first year I was fortunate enough to do incredibly well being named one of the top directors in the world, working in the UK market and I didn’t know squat about the market. I hope the same thing happens with the market there.

Let alone, The Sweet Shop is a huge plus and force in those regions. They expressed in our courtship how globally they work in tandem gathering as much cultural resources they can muster for every project. Which will be a huge benefit in this endeavor.

Is there a different measure of preparation now that you’re working in a new region with a different culture?

Not really. My approach is already pretty full on. My Producers know well in advance that I like to be boots on ground walking locations with the scouts. I like soaking in the region before I even start considering looking for specific scenes.

I find people tend to have many of the same problems, even their stories may have similarities, but the human condition and the cultural divide define the differences. For example, I did a HSBC film called 'Chung', which was a young Asian boy’s life story. The script originally came in as an Asian boy living in Canada who wants to be a basketball player. Going through the process the agency and client requested the need of more of a cultural relevance to the Asian market.

I was invited to pitch them different ideas to help out. With the final results one thing holds true – at the end of the day the boy could have had any childhood dream and eventual profession; but the deeper understanding of culture, family history, and how in the Asian culture, the respect of elders and generations is much more valued than in the states is what I am most proud of and brought to the table. This is the deeper layer that resonates for me.

You talked about how you’ll get a script and then you’ll have a different vision for it and you’ll rewrite and you’ll go back and pitch. When a brand comes to you with a certain idea, do you have artistic license to make the changes you see fit?

To answer your question fully, it truly depends on the relationship. I’ve worked with Saatchi Saatchi UK on many projects -big projects- and our relationship has developed over the years. They’ve always been good to me and I have huge respect for them on personal and professional levels. They tend to openly invite a process of development with a Director, especially those Directors with advertising backgrounds.

In many ways, this can help out both parties. It sucks as a Director pitching in a vacuum. And I imagine bringing in a Director who’s just pure and not tainted from client discussions allows a certain inspiration. Together we re-inspire each other. With HSBC it was me, Fredrik Bond and Vince Squibb. All formidable directors who have strong points of view. I can only imagine there was a lot of push and pull and development with all Directors.

Often in the UK market it’s quite different than the US market. In the UK, you can get on a pitch process that can go on for months. After you submit a treatment there’s discussions, redevelopment, etc. What I like to bring to the table is the vigor of the virgin….hahaha.

Meaning, it’s the first time I have seen the script. I’m, excited, seeing if it resonates with me and then the public like a story should. At which time I am wide-eyed, the ideas are rolling. Some ideas die – some stick around – but you just come up with more.

Ad Age had a great line about you. They said that “many say the construction of his themes are anything but commercial”. It got me thinking about people over the years, they talk about this line between what’s commercial and what’s art. What’s your take on that?

After looking at Cannes this year, it’s hard to tell what’s commercial and what’s art. In some ways I think the film judging defined it – perhaps without even knowing they were defining it? The GP Film winner, 'Superhuman', Dougal [Wilson] film was an amazing feat in commercial film making as I often heard it defined. It’s a beautiful piece of “art” that will stand the test of time and it’s cleverly tied up in a “commercial” conceit/promotion.

On the other end, the GP Film Craft winner is a beautiful piece of “art”, which many might say lacks that “commercial” conceit/promotional ending.

I like to think my work sits to the middle. But as you quote, can I?

When I interviewed with Dan Wieden he was going through my book and said you’re an artist not an ad guy. The films we like to do here is much the same, just think of the TV as your canvas, paint, slop it on, mess it up, and be brave. He then said, “Be willing to make glorious fuck-ups”, which was a quote around the office.

I’m certainly not anti-commercial, I just like stuff that’s really layered, well-developed and deeply immersed in the human character. I also appreciate not spelling out every A-Z component. Like a film, the viewer needs to be involved – so they involve themselves with your brand.

It’s hard to tell a story in 90 or 60 seconds. You can fail quickly. I hope my work doesn’t feel like I’m mimicking films to move away from the commercial. I just like to tell much more in-depth stories, if that makes any sense.

That’s interesting. When you’re working within those constraints of a shorter timeframe, what effect does that have on the creative process, that you have to tell that story in a much shorter period of time?

You don’t really have time to develop a character.I get a lot of scripts, like everybody does, where the desire is to cram too much into a sixty-second or thirty second film. It can be challenging. Then, the ones I love most are those with a simple, conceptual idea – then we can layer as much as possible.

The edit is also something I like to discuss early on, because pacing is everything when you boil it down to a film being understood and or failing within the time constraints.

I hope, you come away watching my VW 'Walter'film and feel like you have met this guy that lives up in the hills, this kooky character who teaches people how to drive by using a Volkswagen as a crutch.

And with Levis 'Secrets and Lies', hopefully you can put yourself or your fantasies on that staircase, we’ve all flirted and lied looking for a shag and wanted to get nastier than the next and we’ve all wanted to take it further – many times only in our minds. While you may not walk away knowing a name of a character in my films hopefully you identify with their indelible traits.

If, for example, we had a class 50 years from now, which focused on you, how could they define your cinematic style? What are some characteristics about your work that you think defines you as an artist?

Shit! That’s a good question. I like to think my work’s always conceptual. I gravitate towards the idea. It’s immersive and visceral and hopefully it’s different.

Do you have any signature trademarks that you work into your films, anything unique to your style, or something that you look for in yourself?

Not really. I think that’s probably my Achilles’ heel – I’ve been told it’s hard to put my work in a box. Of some recent stuff, both NO.7 'Tree' and KFC 'Rodeo' I shot in 2:35 format.

However, stylistically, I think they’re different, in that KFC is a character-based story about a father and son, while the other NO.7 is theatrical, it’s 8mm, a merry-go-round of thoughts playing in your mind. And they are very different than Levis and different than Volkswagen and the rawness of Barnardo’s.

If you had to pick a few of your favorites that you’re most proud of over the years, of the work you’ve done, what would they be?

Levis 'Secrets and Lies'. Actually, it was the last Levis commercial done by BBH UK. I worked on the Levis account years before that as a creative. I’ve always loved the brand and all the commercials by BBH UK. They just set a benchmark on that brand that so few people have come close too and I am glad to have played a role. It was an honor.

VW 'Walter' and KFC. KFC, because I rodeo’d and lived that lifestyle for years. Filming in Calgary is fucking glorious and I know that world like back-of-hand, it’s in my bones.

And VW, well, we shot down South so again, back-of-hand, and it was a blast exposing the UK agencies to my roots. We went up to the hills of Georgia and got to hang out where they filmed “Deliverance.”

We ventured into the hills and one day were kicked off one side of the mountain by a man toting a shotgun – just letting us know we can’t go no further…haha. All experienced that help define the character of Walter as we created him. Lastly, Barnardo's, and Chivas.

You were doing rodeo. What exactly?

A simple job at a fee store lead to messing with bulls for years. Did some sleeping underneath trucks and touring the circuits. It was fun to do it when you’re young. Meet plenty of girls, got in a few fights. The worst being some guy, we got in a fight, and he tried to take my head off with a tire iron. I woke up days later. I got some stories. hahaha

I’m looking forward to having a beer some day and hearing them.I can’t wait to get out there in the outback of Australia. When we did KFC we were shooting in Calgary, and a couple of guys, wranglers, were from Australia. Grew up and rode bulls there. They made their way back out to Canada and the circuit. There’s some good riders out in that area.

Do you have any plans to do full-length feature films?

Yes, for sure. While I’m still young, I think I’ll write something myself. Some of my favorite filmmakers have always been from the school of “write it yourself” Alejandro Inarritu down the line to Gus Van Sant, etc.

What are you up to lately?

Exactly what you asked – writing something.

You’re doing filming or you’re just writing now?

My writing is often inspired by things I see and feel, so I’ll do a lot of scouting and taking pictures as I go along a journey. I’ll usually hit the road with my old Leica M4 and photograph 35mm. My walls are covered with photos and narrative themes of things that inspire me. Right now, I’m in the middle of three parallel themes. For a while I was writing them independently but know I am exploring tying them together.

To all the agencies out there – If you call one day and I’m gone for a week down into Mississippi, taking photos, it’s usually because of that. But if it’s a good script, I’ll get back to you… haha.

If you were to give any advice to young filmmakers, maybe they could avoid some mistakes you made when you were younger, what advice would you give?

In part, I think we touched on it before. There’s this grey area in the film world right now between “art” and “commercial” – so you need to figure out who you are and who you want to be.

Not many walk into a filmmaking career thinking Hey, “I want to make commercials.” I didn’t, but then again, I came out of advertising so maybe I did – or it was a bit of a natural transition? But I also wanted to make commercials that were pure to my voice, they had to fit my voice or be fitted to my voice.

I never wanted to sell out and do everything…it was never about the money. So, one bit of advice would be – stay true to yourself, don’t say “yes” or “no” to everything. If you do that I think you’ll find your own art-form in the commercial-form.

The other thing to keep in mind is commercial brands are huge responsibility, agencies have lots at risk and potential gain. They work countless hours trying to get something sold – so when they come to you there’s no fuck about and this isn’t your personal independent film school.

So, if you are just out of film school and bought yourself the latest digital camera and now calling yourself a Director – be ready for the process and responsibility. Because if you aren’t and that sun is going down and you’re chasing 8 shots that need the daylight – the sun may only be rising tomorrow off your personal dime… hahaha.

You can see more of Jeff’s work on his Vimeo page or follow his photographic work on Instagram.

This interview was published by Branding in Asia on 11 July, 2017.