David Reviews

 It's the work, stupid.

THE RISE AND RISE OF SEB EDWARDS.
8 January 2019

When DAVID spoke to Seb Edwards in the autumn, he wasn't yet able to speak about the John Lewis ad featuring Elton John that was about to give his already high profile an additional boost. Fortunately, his NDA-ed silence on all piano-related questions didn't really interfere with a compelling conversation, as he outlined his approach to advertising with striking clarity.

As for his input on John Lewis, at our mini-CraftWorks in December, Richard Brim of adam&eveDDB made it clear just how crucial the decision to invite Edwards to direct the Christmas ad had proven when he revealed that it was Edwards who had insisted that the film would work best with no stock footage... a move that was absolutely central to the completed film's power.

Seb Edwards is a careful, considered speaker... so much so that his parts of the transcript of our conversation have the polished look of a written piece. He knows what he wants to say, in the same way that he knows what he wants to do and it's slightly at odds with his shy and quiet demeanour. You suspect that he'd be easy to underestimate... and that it would be a grave error to do so.

Seb Edwards start in the film business was auspicious. At the age of eight, he was spotted by filmmaker John Boorman in a Surrey school playground. Boorman - then casting for his wartime drama 'Hope & Glory' - was struggling to find young actors free of the drama school vibe and he decided his best bet was to find a reluctant youngster who had no ambition to star in a film. Edwards, who was both shy and modest, was a perfect choice.

Boorman's unconventional approach to casting certainly didn't make an actor of young Edwards who says he "didn't especially like acting" but the experience still had a major impact on his future because he did "love the film set and all of the incredible people working on it and all the amazing things that they did."


It wasn't something which registered with him straight away though. It was only during a relatively aimless period of his life when he was wondering what to do next that "I remembered that the film-world was something that I had enjoyed, and that was something to explore."

So he phoned John Boorman, and told him he'd quite like to try his hand at production design. Handily, Boorman was about to start shooting 'The General' in Ireland and he invited Edwards to join the film's art department.


I would be quite careful about taking a project on if I felt that there wasn't a certain amount of freedom.

 ”

It was a rich experience but during the midst of it, Edwards realised that he wanted greater responsibility and it was Boorman's own role that he coveted: "The creation of a thing inside the set was much more interesting than the building of the background itself, and it literally - like a light bulb moment - hit me and I thought, 'Of course, I should be doing that!'"


Having worked as both an actor and a production designer, Edwards was two steps ahead of many aspiring directors but he nonetheless served an apprenticeship as a runner and a weekend maker of short films before an opportunity came his way at Home Corp films.

How important did he consider his acting experience? "I think it's very important to understand the situation you're putting actors in... it's a very vulnerable position - and it helps if you've felt it yourself."

He expands on this idea in a fashion which suggests a high level of empathy with actors: "They want a partner. Just like a director does. They want a partner to explore the story, explore this character in a way that makes them feel safe, because there's someone there watching their back."

Through this, he feels he can persuade them to experiment a little but is there scope for that in the results-oriented world of TV advertising?

"I would be quite careful about taking a project on if I felt that there wasn't a certain amount of freedom, because these days sometimes it's not necessarily about the script, it's about the freedom you get to make the film, which will determine how good it's going to be. So I think you get a sense from the advertising agency itself, where they've got a good track record of making creative work, of the creatives, of the creative director, so I think it's quite important to do your research. Find out what they've done, who they are, and that gives you a pretty good indication of where their heads are at."


This is a theme he returns to a few times. It's clear that he feels very strongly that the chemistry between client, agency and director must right from the get-go. Ignored problems will always rear their heads again eventually. Whatever the niggle may be, he contends that it's important to say: "We need to solve this now because that problem can grow into something very destructive later down the line."

And if you can't, you're better off shaking hands and leaving it there. He acknowledges that this is a luxury that only in-demand directors can afford but clearly feels it's an important part of sustaining his high standards.


There's discoveries along the way that do slightly change the nature of the piece, so you've got to be a bit careful about being too strict, because then you're preventing that process.

 ”

When asked which piece of work he considers to be his breakthrough, he mentions one of the first films he made after joining Academy - a PSA which aimed to deal with the reckless behaviour of troops returning from war zones:

"Statistically, a lot of soldiers own motorbikes, and they'd come back to the UK and would ride them like maniacs at high speeds with the idea that they were invincible. And more troops were killed in the roads than they were in active service, so it was a serious problem for the British Army."

The film gained him a lot of attention, and won accolades in Cannes but it was its power for achieving something important that appealed to its director and - like a lot of people in the business - he clearly finds it quite cathartic to work on a project that has no commercial imperative: "It was hugely rewarding to think that I can have an impact in such a positive way."


When discussing his hugely successful 'Timeless' film for Lacoste, he returns to the theme of directorial discretion. The discussions ahead of making it surrounded one key question: would he be allowed to make the film the way he envisioned it? And he obviously feels that the hugely satisfactory outcome was a result of being given the correct answer.

That's not to say his vision is then fixed in aspic. His point is that he needs to have room to move according to the project's needs:

"There are discoveries along the way that do slightly change the nature of the piece, so you've got to be a bit careful about being too strict, because then you're preventing that process."


You're never going to rival people's own intense experiences in their own lives. You just have to be the catalyst that ignites their own feelings about the world and about themselves, and that's what I think is what's truly emotional.

 ”

He lights up when talking about his recent promo for Jon Hopkins. Theirs is a friendship as well as a professional relationship and he's modestly in awe of the musician's gifts: "He's one of the most talented people I know, and his future success was very obvious from early on."

Edwards describes the process of making the promo: "I offered him two different worlds and he chose one." Edwards then explained to Hopkins that he wanted to build the story around a relationship.

"I remember Sidney Pollock saying, in an interview once that all his films were about relationships. He was asked, 'What is it about relationships that intrigues you?' And he said, 'A relationship can mean anything. It's ultimately about a tension or a conflict, or about two different sides.'"


It's a perspective which means a lot to Seb Edwards. He's also a great believer in the power of ambiguity: "You're never going to rival people's own intense experiences in their own lives. You just have to be the catalyst that ignites their own feelings about the world and about themselves, and that's what I think is truly emotional."

He's given a lot of thought to longer forms and it's no surprise to learn that he's on the brink of directing a feature. He talks excitedly about it, and the location where it will be shot. But agencies keen to work with him shouldn't be disheartened, he's not abandoning advertising yet:

"I've had a great time doing commercials, and I'd always want to keep doing them, but definitely now is the time to tell a bigger story, and open that up for the future."

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Stories

David Reviews - Lovely Lenzie Ltd, Woodbourne House, Seven Sisters, Lenzie, G66 3AW. Telephone: +44 141 776 7766. Editor: Jason Stone.