The Directors: Henry Dean
FAMILIA director Henry Dean has a penchant for the in-between moments, the often overlooked details that make life rich and wonderful. Combining emotional vulnerability with outside-the-box concepts, his work exists in its own universe while being grounded in the organic stories he uncovers within the characters and places he studies.
Name: Henry Dean
Repped By: FAMILIA (UK/USA/Netherlands)
Awards: Runner Up - Year 2 Christmas Colouring Competition (1999)
LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?
Henry> For me, it’s something that feels like it has a singular voice, with a super clear idea of what it’s trying to be. So much creative feels like it’s been chewed up and changed by too many cooks throughout the writing process that the original nugget of greatness gets lost along the way. I love scripts that understand their audience without pandering to them - I get excited when a script leaves me feeling exactly how they want their audience to feel.
LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?
Henry> I sit with a notepad and write down absolutely every idea that comes to mind when I read the script. I find the gems often come buried within my initial reaction to something, but I’m aware they’ll need polishing. There will often be a few poignant phrases in there which will lead me into image research. Coming from a music video background, I know how important the right imagery is to get people on board with an idea. For me, less is more - one perfect image says a lot more than a page of half-decent ones.
LBB> If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with/ don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?
Henry> I think understanding the context of an ad is vital but should also come through in the script. If this is a brand that already has a strong identity and voice that’s widely known by the public, then it’s important to use that voice. This is where I think social media is actually really useful for people in our position. It’s so easy to understand the tone and POV of a brand by looking at their socials and seeing how they operate. It says a lot about who they’re trying to be and the audience they’re trying to reach. In this game, a brands strategy should inform your creativity - you need to know how what you’re making is going to be used in order to make it the best it can be.
LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?
Henry> Wow, it’s hard to pick. The producer would be my first reaction as they’re assembling everyone and everything you actually need to pull off the idea. To me, the production designer is important as I think it’s the attention to detail of what’s on screen that makes any film really engaging. The editor needs to understand the film in the same way you do, that way they can incorporate client feedback while maintaining the integrity of your ideas. Although I think it ultimately may be the on-screen talent… You can have everything else looking and sounding top notch, but if the person you’re filming isn’t nailing their performance, nothing else matters. An amazing performance trumps everything, a poor performance ruins everything.
LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?
Henry> I tend to have three avenues that I’m most drawn to in filmmaking: dry comedy, young people falling in and out of love, and absolutely mental stuff you’ve never seen before. Bonus points if a project can include all three. I’m really into stories that incorporate huge, universe-altering ideas in their context, but then stay very intimate and personal in their focus.
LBB> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?
Henry> That I’m all about bold, outside-the-box, maximalist visuals. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy that aspect of filmmaking and I love to stand out, but I’m a writer at heart. I think my best abilities lie in helming a story and managing its tone with bigger scope. Short sharp bursts of awesome are great, but I do my best work when I can really sink my teeth into something.
LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?
Henry> Landing in Ukraine to realise that our Australian DoP visa to enter the country had been rejected mid flight. He ended up being detained for a couple of hours at the airport on a Friday afternoon. Thankfully, our producer on the ground was a well connected hustler and in a race against people clocking out for the weekend, he managed to sort an extremely expedited visa. It involved hours of phone calls and an undisclosed cash payment, which we withdrew from an unauthorised iPhone repair shop. The border patrol were absolutely stunned when our DoP’s visa came through in a matter of hours instead of the usual 10 business days. As the guard led him through the airport and released him into the terminal he said 'Welcome to Ukraine' with a knowing smirk. What a welcome it was - bureaucracy at its finest ;).
LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?
Henry> To me, the best thing is being extremely clear up front in the initial conversations about what is important to you about the idea and where you intend to take it. That way everyone is on board from the get-go. Obviously things change and you have to be open to that. You have to remember that ultimately, this is a commercial, not your personal work of art. There is a client and they are paying for this work to be done. However, they’re paying you for your creative mind, so there should be a level of mutual respect. A way to keep that collaboration open is to be as transparent and inclusive as possible throughout every step of the process. Share your thought process, not just fully formed ideas that you’ve fallen in love with. Communication is key!
LBB> What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?
Henry> Yes, yes, a million times yes. As a younger director myself, I remember how desperate I was just to get an insight into how things really worked. I also think it’s important for people to receive mentorship from others at varying stages of their career. Learning from an old head is super valuable, but learning from someone 4 or 5 years ahead of you will probably do more for you in the short-term. A more diverse talent pool also needs to be created from the top down. Let’s get a more diverse range of people making real decisions and affecting wider change. Apprenticeships are a necessary part of that change but developed, experienced talent is already there to fill those roles at all levels.
LBB> How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time?
Henry> It’s actually taught me to chill and appreciate the down time. This has been the quietest year of my career so far and I spent the first 10 months or so of the pandemic worrying that I wasn’t really working or making money. Over the past few months that anxiety has eased and I’m much more comfortable not being swamped with work the whole time. On the practical side, it’s made me realise it’s not massive sets that I miss, it’s the special, smaller projects that I get to make with friends. I want to bring that energy and sense of wonder to everything I work on going forward.
LBB> Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working?
Henry> My career has only existed in this digital-driven social media era. I’m an internet kid and this variety of formats and mediums is practically baked into my brain. If I’m honest, I don’t really pay it too much attention as I’m confident in my general awareness and ability to manipulate projects in post to make them work for any format. The thing I do keep in mind is making sure to create striking images that will work well as thumbnails/posters/press shots. You need to have something that’s going to stand out among the sludge and convince people to give your work their time. I’m a real stickler for everything being perfect when it comes to how the work is presented.
LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work?
Henry> I’m all for it. As long as people remember that these technologies are just tools, and not a replacement for the human work and creativity needed to make something excellent. In my day-to-day life, I’m a technology enthusiast, but not as much when it comes to film-specific technology. I’ll always have an iPad with me on a shoot, and I’m blown away by the quality and ease-of-use of all the smaller, cheaper cameras on the market, but when it comes to anything too complex or trying to explain my ideas, I still find I’m at my best just writing something down. I’m more engaged with technology in film on a development/distribution level. If you’re not thinking about transmedia storytelling in 2021 then you’re not making the most of our era.
LBB> Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?
MJ COLE PRESENTS MADRUGADA
I think this is the type of project that suits me best: a documentary/narrative hybrid that finds beauty in the in-between moments of life that are often overlooked.
MYSTERY JETS - SCREWDRIVER
Perhaps my favourite music video I’ve made. I think it shows how I can combine outside-the-box visuals with a tender sense of emotional intimacy. It’s got a global appeal with an underlying British flavour.
CLEAN AS A KISS
This fashion film is a little different from what I’m mostly known for. I think it shows that I’m adept at making a lot happen with few resources, that I can make something elevated that still has a bit of bite.
PARKA LABS x HENRY DEAN
This visual punch in the gut is a collaboration with Berlin-based composer collective Parka Sound. I feel like I can adapt my style and voice to work with any material/subject matter. Here, I was able to make something stand-out using mostly archival footage.