For our next Director 101 Interview we learn more about BAFTA winning Michael J Ferns. He tells us what makes him tick - from his love of storytelling, to his refusal to shoot handheld. Find out more about the man behind the lens...

Director 101 - Experience

What do you enjoy most about shooting for advertising content?

I am, unquestionably, a details person. I thrive on perfectly crafting every element of a film from conception right through to the end of post. I think short form commercial content allows for this in a way that longer form content doesn’t. I try to continually remind myself what inspired me to follow this career path, and I reckon it’s because I have a great love for finding the perfect harmony of stunning aesthetics, tone and a succinct and engaging storyline - the challenge of making a viewer feel something in a very short time frame is a bloody difficult task but it’s a rewarding one.


Which project has been your most informative to date?

I think recently shooting a commercial for the Caledonian Sleeper train taught me a lot. In three days, we shot on a static train and worked with VFX and lighting to create a convincing moving one, we shot aerials in a helicopter (with only one chance to capture the shots we needed), and we did a night shoot in one of the UK’s busiest stations… on a Friday night no less!


Do you enjoy collaborating with other directors?

It’s not something I’ve ever had the impetus to do. I have a strong sense of my own creative vision and I view my job as being the necessary comprehensive guiding force for all creative departments within a production. I absolutely love collaborating with all the creative heads of department but I really do like to have the clarity of vision that I think personal creative introspection gives you.


How do you push a script to exceed client expectations?

Well my explicit goal is never to exceed client expectation per se. My goal is always to make the best film possible, and I’ll never approach a project without that goal first and foremost. I think trusting initial intuitions is pretty important when reading a script. Over intellectualising can be detrimental so I tend to read a script, interpret it creatively upon first read and work from there.



Which clients have been a dream to work with?

I really loved working with agency VCCP and Macmillan to create their TV commercial this year. Both the agency and the clients were a joy to work with!


Have you had to work in any challenging locations? How did you handle it?

Last year I shot a whisky commercial in Dubai, Shanghai, Paris and Berlin - the locations were challenging because we used primarily local crews despite key HoDs. Working with translators definitely slows things down a touch but luckily we had brilliant intuitive crews who knew exactly what myself and the DoP were after.



What can film do for drama that other other media forms can’t?

Film is the medium by which we can most realistically and engagingly tell compelling stories in a short period of time. These are snapshots into a world you don't know and a life you don't live, brought to life as a comprehensive visual and aural experience.

Do you think drama can successfully align with other film genres? Do you have any examples?

Well of course it can! Drama is the bedrock of all other genres which have extrapolated from that. Almost every other genre is an abstraction of dramatic storytelling.



Who is the most important and or influential person for you in the world of film right now?

It’s a cliche but Spielberg is so famous because he’s damn good. He knows how to grip a viewer. It’s very ‘cinematic’ cinema, it’s solid storytelling and his films have real heart.


What concept, idea or technique do you think is most underused? Which is overhyped?

I think truly considered camera movement, motivated principally by the action on screen is not employed enough.

Handheld cinematography is overused. I rarely, if ever, use handheld photography for exactly the reason I countered in the first part of my answer to this question. With handheld, I often feel that another character, an extra perspective, has contaminated the scene. A character that moves freely, uninformed, in any narrative sense, by the actual characters on screen. (If you think about fields of perspective, you have how the characters interact with their setting, then you have how the camera interacts with the characters that interact with their setting). The camera should be a silent spectator unless it is specifically being used to mimic point of view.



What recent technological innovation has had the biggest impact on your work?

It’s not necessarily a recent innovation but the continuing improvement of high end digital 35mm cameras like the Arri range has made imitating a cinematic film quality, given the right variables, lighting, lenses, grade etc, viable.


Do you think filmmakers have a responsibility to make challenging, socially conscious work?

Yes, I think there is definitely a place for that. I don’t believe that filmmaking should be primarily concerned with social or political goals, however. Filmmaking, as a publicly accessible medium, is a good place to initiate conversations about important and consequential topics, but I don’t think it’s necessarily where these topics can be fully explored, that’s for long-form conversation and debate.




When inspiration is waning, when creativity is sapped, how do you stay inspired?

I read. I largely read non-fiction philosophy and science as well as fiction. This has undoubtedly helped me form a framework which helps me to think about approaches to work in interesting ways.


How do you know when your story is finished and it’s time to walk away?

I think it’s very hard to maintain objectivity. I like to make sure that when I am supervising post on a film I’m making, that I watch and comment in sensible intervals.


Is the evolution of your style a conscious or subconscious process?

The evolution of my style has been a conscious recognition of an unconscious process that I was acting out. I always follow my taste, which varies depending on the project at hand, but definitely has a subconscious consistency which I have only latterly noticed!



How do you balance meeting commercial objectives without sacrificing your art?

It’s all about understanding and embodying the goal of the process. If the film does not meet the commercial objectives, then it is not been successfully artful, almost by definition. The best films communicate messages effectively and this takes push and pull from both the creative and commercial sides. It’s not always immediately obvious who is correct but collaboration works these kinks out.


What’s going on in your world when you’re not looking through a lens?

I’m rarely not working (not that I'm complaining) but otherwise I live in London with my boyfriend of 6 years, he’s a singer and actor away touring with Avenue Q at the moment so I’m being both a filmmaker and a dutiful house-husband!


What’s your advice for emerging filmmakers wanting to make their stamp in the industry?

Make stuff and lots of it. It really is the only way to learn. Just make make make and you’ll work

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What are you most looking forward to with your adventure with The Gate?

Making great work with creative and motivated people! Also, I’d love to work more in the North!

Think MJF could bring your script to life? Contact us for more information. 


Insight  Director 101