Sweetshop recently signed director Zoe McIntosh globally. She makes commercials, short films, feature documentaries and most recently a Netflix series called The Dark Tourist. She was invited to speak at Free the Bid Australia’s Directing Workshop in Sydney. Here’s what she had to say.
I was a pretty odd kid.
At seven-years-old I discovered hitchhiking. I couldn’t believe that by simply putting out your thumb, cars would pull over, and pick you up. This concept was utterly magic to me. Luckily, I lived on a small island called Waiheke in New Zealand where danger wasn’t an all-time high. However, my little hitching adventures would still send my mother into a total spin. Over the years I became so obsessed with hitchhiking that I deliberately started missing my school bus, so I could ride home with randoms. Every time I jumped into these cars a whole new and exciting world opened up for me… These cars were filled with all sorts of people, who were totally different to me and my normal family! They told me funny, sad and fascinating stories, all in the confines of their cars. These cars became little confessional booths. Their tales told would totally trump any bedtime story!
I tell this story as it illustrates just how bad my problem was… and still is. Hitching kicked-off my obsession with storytelling and collecting characters. It would also become intrinsic to my creative process and how I generate ideas. To this day, if I’m ever having a creative lull, I pack a bag, grab some cameras and hit the road. Whether this is a spontaneous adventure or I’m intentionally making a documentary or researching something.
I love feeling like a fish out of water and allowing myself to be totally in the moment and observant of all walks of life. I adore exploring the spaces in between and on the fringes of society. As well as meeting and discovering unconventional characters. In both my commercials and films, I pride myself on always pushing to cast diverse and distinctive people. It’s something I feel quite strongly about. I deeply believe people are beautiful and interesting- warts and all. Bring on the mess, the imperfections, the kookiness, the fragility and the intensity. That’s where the interesting stuff lies and the actual stuff we can relate to. I also feel audiences are very sophisticated these days and they want to see real and relatable people on TV, not the whitewashed cookie cutter stereotypes we’re so familiar with in advertising.
The commercial I want to use as a case study is a brand ad which I directed for Spark, the New Zealand telecommunication provider, from Colenso BBDO. This TVC exemplifies my desire to cast fresh talent and shows a different way of the casting process. It might also give you a window into how I go about creating believable worlds and relationships in my work. Directing this commercial was an absolute delight on many levels. From start to finish, it felt like an intensely creative and collaborative process. Both myself and the creatives shared the same vision right from the get go. I was encouraged to run with developing it and really bring my own voice to it.
It is NOT always like this.
I will point out here, that I was pitching against one of New Zealand’s legendary feature film performance directors, Lee Tamari. He directed the infamous Once Were Warriors. I knew my treatment had to have an edge and confidently convince the creatives of my strong vision, my passion, and outline my individual process. I believe by handing in a very strong and detailed treatment, outlining my vision and approach, the creatives and client were given confidence in me. The treatment set up an immediate trust, support and healthy collaboration right from the get go, which would continue during production.
From recollection, there wasn’t really a script as such, more just a general idea that they wanted to make a story about a father reconnecting with his daughter, set in a small town. All my independent films explore the theme of connection and characters living on the fringes of society, which meant rewriting this script came quite easily to me. The creatives got onboard with my new rewrite, embracing the world I wanted to set it in and the types of characters I wanted to cast. Having decided to set it in a small forestry town, I knew these characters were not going to be discovered on the regular casting books. I needed worn, lived in and textured faces. Tough burly blokes and kids who weren’t conventionally cute, but had a wicked ‘small town’ attitude and look. Instead of only casting in Auckland, we decided to cast wider out, in particular the bottom of the North Island – Wellington. I encouraged both actors and non-actors to come audition for Big Tony.
I’m never casting a ‘type’ as such but I’m looking for specific key qualities. I needed Big Tony’s physicality big, burly and gruff. But I also wanted him to be soft, kind and vulnerable. At his core, there needed to be a sense of playfulness and silliness. The type of bloke who was prepared to put his masculinity on the line, (even in front of the lads), to show his love to his daughter. Some outrageous dance moves were required too!!
As it transpired, we found Big Tony in Wellington. He had done very little acting, but he had all those qualities I was after. He was a great listener, took direction well and impressed me immensely with his moves. He worked as a tradie by day, so he had an authenticity and weight to him which I loved.
Luckily, the creatives and clients adored him too. There was however, one spanner in the works… when you don’t cast from the agent books, sometimes people come with their quirks. Our Big Tony was missing an ear and well, that spot was all about listening to music! On the day of the shoot the cinematographer had to keep cropping out where his ear would have been and focus filming on the side where he actually had an ear.
As for the daughter, she too had never acted. In the audition, I loved her sassy attitude and brooding moods. This surly little thing would morph into infectious laughter and ridiculous dance moves at a drop of a hat. I needed that duality. I put a lot of time into rehearsing and workshopping the father and daughter relationship. This meant that when we got onto set, it was simply a matter of setting the scenarios up and just shooting it.
Often people are curious about how I get performances from non-actors. They wonder if there’s too much risk and unreliability with their performance. It’s not always the right choice too by the way. But when I do cast non-actors, I am casting people who are very close in nature to the character that I am after. There needs to be a level of investment from your non-actor and a strong willingness to go on the journey with you. Yes, they are out of their comfort zone, but prior to shooting I do everything to make them feel safe and connect them deeply to the character that they’re playing. In general, I spend a lot of time rehearsing with both my non-actors and actors. Not so much rehearsing scenes as such. But I do many improvisation exercises, where I build relationships and authentic character. Workshopping actors is a skill I have had to develop and learn over the years. I’m always reading, practicing and doing workshops.
For anyone starting out, I highly recommend learning this stuff now. The directing-actor techniques of Judith Weston, Mark Travis and Mike Leigh are great places to start, you can find these resources on Amazon book store or watch behind the scenes of Mike Leigh. Once you get a handle on these techniques, you will feel more confident talking to your actors, you’ll have fun on set and have the ability to tweak performance quickly and intuitively. Again, it’s always important to communicate these methods to the client and agency so they’re supportive and don’t start getting confused or impatient on the day.
Now, getting back to the commercial! There were several scenes where I needed featured extras. Often people just think “meh”… Extras”. But I go pretty hard out with extras.
To me they form the fabric of the world and are utterly crucial to making that world believable. Some might think it’s over the top, but I write a short bio / backstory on all my extras with a reference image. I pin all my locations / extras / main cast up on the wall and start to really visualise that world.
It’s important that the extras have a strong sense of who they are and how they relate to each other. I loathe it when you see a bunch of extras who look like total strangers pretending to hang out, all ridged like breadsticks. On the day these extras can also provide humorous cutaways which build tension or provide comic relief too. I loved this chip girl! To take you further into this process, I’d love to share some of my independent film work to show you examples of how bold casting choices and combining professional actors with non- actors can bring depth, authenticity and nuance to a piece.
Several years ago, I made a doco called King of Caravans about a derelict caravan park. It was home to all sorts of people, who were desperate for shelter and refuge. As I spent time there and observed these people, my mind kept wondering how on earth someone would get themselves back on track and find hope again. This lead me to writing a fictional story about a young boy who was determined to help heal his grief-stricken father.
As I went into production of the scripted short film, it was very important to me that the world it was set in reflected the raw reality of place and characters which I had observed. In the short film I had written in a transsexual character called Repa. This character was directly inspired by a real transsexual whom I met in the caravan park while making the documentary. The character Repa in my script was a very hard character to cast. Not only did an actor need to convincingly play a transsexual, but I desperately wanted them to have the intensity of a tough life etched into their skin. I vigorously auditioned high-calibre actors for this part- male and female. But all of them were just too clean cut and felt too one gender specific. My gut kept telling me to call Lena from the caravan park and see if she’d come up for an audition. Over the years, since making the doco, I had sent her the odd $50 or bottle of bourbon here and there, so I had remained friends.
My producer thought I was nuts even contemplating her and funders said it was too risky. (You should know Lena is a drug addict, sex worker and rampant party animal… so you can understand their reluctance). But I’m a big believer in following your instincts and acting on them. Regardless of the resistance from my team I called and convinced Lena to come up! Next minute, she arrived in her V8 Holden in full force. I told her about the story and the character of Repa, whom I wanted her to play. As she listened I could see her soften and sit into the idea deeply. Her audition was atrocious, but I was confident I could workshop her there.
When Lena agreed to play Repa ¬- I won’t deny it – she certainly came with challenges. But she had something pretty raw and interesting.
Finding the main boy also required an alternative approach. Again, I initially hit up the traditional casting books, but wasn’t satisfied with what came back. I then hit up schools extensively with no luck.
One day I showed up to my boxing class, ever mulling my film. That’s when I noticed this extraordinary child with giant ears, beautiful big eyes and a tiny frame. I was mesmerized. He adored his father (who was the gym’s coach) and followed him like a shadow. I needed a child that loved his dad as I could work and tap into that on set. I convinced this little boy Lolo to come in to an audition. Right from the get go I could see Lolo had remarkable empathy and emotional intelligence. On top of that he was easy to direct and would hand himself over entirely to the moment and scene. The fact that he was an avid boxer meant he was hard working, resilient and focused. Perfect qualities to work with on busy shoots with long days.
Lolo is an example of one of those characters who is a treasure. He’s so distinctive looking and came with an array of quirks and individuality, which I would later weave into the script. The script I originally wrote never had scenes of him boxing, but I loved the image of a young boy boxing alone. It illustrated his loneliness, his physical frustrations and his bond that he once had with his father. Gleaning this one attribute from Lolo’s real life made my script richer without a doubt.
Finally, when it came to the dad I wanted an actor with solid emotional range and would be supportive with our wee boy who had never acted. Joe Folou is a well-known actor in NZ and was the perfect choice to play the dad. He would go to the young boys boxing classes and put a lot of working into building a strong relationship with Lolo to the lead up.
When working with lots of non-actors, I am a big fan of anchoring their performances with a professional actor. The professional actor sets the energy and tone of the film set and inspires the others to push themselves.
As I wrote this talk and reminisced on my young hitch-hiking days, I began to wonder… what would happen if instead of telling young girls to “stay away from strangers”, we encouraged them to say hi, lean in, ask questions, not judge and have empathy towards strangers?
Don’t get me wrong… I’m not encouraging young girls to jump into cars with weirdos!!! But I do think we could all benefit from climbing out of our bubbles and connecting with people whose paths we would never normally cross.
As female filmmakers I believe these curious and caring qualities are natural gifts which we all possess. Let’s use these gifts and be bold and gutsy when exploring characters and telling stories. Let’s dig deep into the truth and not be scared to go into the dangerous and uncomfortable zones.
Zoe McIntosh is represented globally by Sweetshop. She spoke at Free The Bid’s Directing Workshop on July 21 2018.
Free the Bid is a not-for-profit initiative advocating for equal opportunities to bid on commercial and Film/TV jobs in the global film and tv industry on behalf of women directors. We offer a pledge that ad agencies, broadcasters, production companies and brands can take to commit to include at least one women on every pitch for a commercial or Film/ TV job.
They also offer a searchable database showcasing the work of 150+ women directors, both those signed to production companies, agents and independent directors. Free the Bid Australia will be running biannual directing workshops for female directors and facilitate a mentor matchmaking service.