LOREN DENIS

Director Loren Denis‘s latest spot, shot for Burt’s Bees, is a sensory overload – a tribute to the vastness of nature. Images and sound envelop us and conjure up the power of waterfalls, rocks, mountains, and evergreens.

This approach is par for the course with Loren’s work. French born Loren, signed to Superprime, cut her teeth in New York’s fashion industry, both as a successful model and keen photographer. She traveled the world and worked with some of the best fashion photographers in the business (Tom Munro, Peter Beard, Satoshi Saikusa and Guy Aroch). Loren went on to discover a passion for film and not one to do things by halves, she studied all aspects of filmmaking including editing and scriptwriting. Her passion for film naturally evolved into becoming a director and is evident in her unique and immersive directing style.

We had the opportunity to chat with Loren at length about her career trajectory, her approach to casting, and the paramount importance of being passionately engaged with every project she works on.

Can you tell us a bit about how you won this job for Burt’s Bees? Was this campaign triple-bid?

It’s always hard to say…

The project was very interesting, because as a director I’m very concerned about the planet and which brands I work with. I’m trying, as much as possible, to work with brands that I believe in or has at least an ethical sense of things – I know we are selling products, but from my point of view it’s more about creating beautiful artistic projects and then if by chance I get to work on some jobs with beautiful brands, that’s even better.

So the project itself, what I really wanted to do was create a real connection between the nature, the environment, and the woman. Everything had to go together. I wanted to do a film that appealed to the senses – that was my main goal. I really wanted to have the shots with warmth and human touch and not buying into the obvious cliche idea of woman. And also to talk about all kinds of women! It was interesting to cast a beautiful and wonderful diversity of women.

I wanted to ask about casting specifically! What was your process of casting for this particular spot, and did it differ from the casting processes in your other work?

It was not different. At the  early stage of the project I really wanted to have… I wouldn’t say “real women” because we are all real women, but not specifically models. At the end of the day it’s hard: sometimes it’s because of money, or sometimes you don’t have the time to find the perfect girl who fits physically but who also has the kind of backstory that is interesting for the brand. So at the early stage of the film, I was searching for 12 “real” women. We looked for really wonderful women with great backstories. Out of the 12 women, we found some women who had interesting jobs, (we found a woodworker, for instance), who could fit physically with the brand.

My director’s cut was more about nature and connecting the nature with the girls, the environment they are surrounded by. I didn’t cast in a different way from other jobs. I come from the fashion industry, I was a model before, and for me, I learned a lot of stuff from that time. My concern is not always just to find some beautiful girls; it’s not that I’m not looking for beautiful girls but I’m looking for charisma, for something else. The funny girls, the girls who have fun or lose themselves in the moment, like very natural. A little bit clumsy – I like failure, if I can say that. I think it’s even more beautiful. At this point, I think we all agree now that perfection is kind of boring. This is the reason why I liked the project initially, because they were not looking for perfection. It was not the point: it was more about finding some beautiful, natural women of different kinds and different cultures.

So you were mentioning that you had worked in fashion before, as a model – the reason I was specifically interested in talking to you about casting is you’ve been on both sides of that equation. Does your experience as a model play into your work as a director?

I think it does, I think at some point it helps me because first of all, I like to be fully involved in the whole process of creating a film. That means that I’m really there at every creative stage, so when it comes to casting, if possible I like to be on set with the girls, in order to film and talk to them directly.

For this project I couldn’t be, because we cast in different countries – a little bit in Croatia, a little bit in Slovenia, along with some girls that I knew from France. So since it was kind of international, we found a way to make appointments over Skype, and then I could talk directly to the girls. I never liked to just see pictures. Pictures I know can be manipulated, and I know because I’ve been on that side of things – I really know that. So for me, I’m not really impressed with a beautiful picture, although of course if I see photos with a lot of smiling and naturalness, I think, “oh ok, well that girl could be really interesting, I want to see her and know more about her.” So for this job, we found a solution: I talked directly to every girl who won the job, and asked them to play and act, and got to ask about their backstories.

Regarding your question (in terms of how modeling helped me),  I think because I was on that side before, I know how uncomfortable it can be sometimes. I know that casting is not an easy thing – it looks like it, and people think “ it’s their job, they’re used to it,” but I know some girls who are shy, who are not about to show everything at that stage. It’s not always easy. Some are more comfortable than others, and because I’ve been there, I always find ways to make them comfortable. This applies for the casting but also during the shoot. I can feel when they’re cold, when they’re bored, all this kind of stuff. I always try to be very close to the actors that I’m shooting and also the team – even the technical team.

When I was a model, I was very very interested in the technical team as well. That’s where I learned, you know, how to set up lighting, how to arrange this or that. I wasn’t the kind of model who just arrived at a job and then went back home when it was done. I was curious about the whole process of creating a beautiful atmosphere. And I think this is the key for me. I like to have a cool atmosphere, and that’s the reason why I have my specific way to shoot. I work a lot with my DOP, a French DOP, and for me, I never like to have too much technique. I’m always very into using a handheld camera, trying to be always very spontaneous, in order to welcome the happy accidents. I never say action, really. Sometimes I record a little bit before, a little bit when the actors are not expecting. I always find some beautiful things when people are waiting and lost in thought. It’s very interesting – I use that technique a lot.

Are there any hallmarks you bring to your work? What you’re describing definitely seems like a fascination for you – people in interstitial moments where they don’t think they’re being filmed.

I like doing that because it’s always interesting. I think the word, “action!” can sometimes freeze people, especially models. I started working when I was 17, and when I started it was really about pictures more than film. Now I think the new generation are more aware about film, because of smartphones and all the social media, it’s more a part of our minds now. But there was a time when I first started directing where I was filming girls who were not so used to film and were kind of stiff.

I started at the really early stages of my career filming what were kind of video castings. Of course, at the time I was doing everything myself, but everything I learned was about creating a beautiful atmosphere that made the models feel comfortable and easy and just be themselves. What I really liked at that point was learning how to direct them like that, because half of them were not comfortable on set – they were very pose-y or stiff, and I tried to break that a little bit, in order to highlight their personalities. And at the end of the day I created little videos of the girls and it was a huge success for them, they could get a lot of jobs based on those.

Usually I talk a lot while I shoot, if necessary. Like, “oh, you can do that, and close your eyes, etc.” Or with some girls, everything is very natural and subtle and beautiful, and I don’t need to talk much. But it’s kind of funny because I work very closely to my DOP on set, I’m never far from either my DOP or actors. I’m really close to them and sometimes I’m whispering, and sometimes I’m moving – when I ask them to dance, I can dance with them, behind the camera, just to give that energy. So definitely I think modeling has helped me at some point to find all of these little tricks, and empathy for the talent as well.

What we find is that a lot of times – not always, on a case-by-case basis – is that a lot of very talented younger women directors haven’t developed their reels to the same level and don’t get taken a chance on. Thus, they don’t have the opportunity to get reels that are as strong as some male directors. A big part of what we want to do is to change the mindset, so the client doesn’t feel like they’re “taking a chance,” as much as being exposed to really new, exciting work.

I was really willing to develop my reel, and I knew that I could do it. At the end of the day, clients are putting a lot of money on the table and they want to feel really, really secure. They have interests in social change and they have interests in young people, but on the other hand, sometimes it’s not exactly the right timing for them. So I definitely can understand.

But from my point of view it’s like “oh, I just want to go, I just want to do it, I know I can do [the job] and do something interesting.” But sometimes with the competition I have no idea who’s against me, and when I do know I’m like “oh, ok, I understand now.” Because there’s a lot of beautiful, talented directors – men and women, actually – right now. So this is the part of the game when you’re working on a lot of things and bidding on a lot of jobs, and in the beginning there’s a lot of “no.” It’s like a marathon; you just have to keep going. It can be hard sometimes, I have to say. But I’m very passionate, I put my whole energy into every project that I’m on. I don’t really know how to lie. I have to feel every project completely while I work on it in order to give it my full energy. I’m not at the stage, and I hope I never get to the stage, where I’m just doing a job for money and I don’t care about it. I really try to give as much as possible in order to give that organic feeling in the film and to make the client happy.

Of course, I have to step back on things sometimes because they want this and that, and shots that I’m not crazy about, but you know, that’s just part of the game. I’m very involved in the whole process and it’s a very passionate and chosen job for me, directing. Which was not really the case for modelling. I’m not saying that I did not choose modelling, but now I can really be myself. I cannot say that I was a happy model. I think I’ve always been looking for something else – I always knew that I had something else in me, and when I found it, it was like a revelation. I fell in love with directing and with the process of creating. Of course, getting into the concrete reality of advertising has sometimes been frustrating. But the creating aspect is always fascinating – the work of getting that emotion or getting that feeling, with the post production as well, because editing is also fascinating. I work a lot with sound (with my French editor who does incredible work on that every time, even at the editing stage), and I’m always amazed with the power of the sound – for me it’s as important as the image. I try to get a lot of sensitivity with what I’m doing. I try – not saying I succeed every time, but that is what I am going for.

I wanted to ask about your goals that you have for your work as a director. Is advertising where you want to be for your career in general, or are you looking to branch out into feature film, or documentary, or television?

For me, the next step is definitely a documentary (that I would like to co-direct with my creative partner Anthony Vibert). Documentary has always been my main goal, and I think that is the reason I don’t like having heavy set up on my commercials. I like to give a little bit of that documentary aspect. Finding real people is always really important. There is a project which I might be able to do before the end of December which is again about women, but after that, a longer documentary will be my goal. Feature films, fiction, may come a little bit later. For some reason, right now I’m not yet attracted to fiction;  documentary will come first. And also, you know, documentary is not just about filming people, it’s a lot about building a narrative and a story and finding ways to make that interesting. Diving in to personality and life for a period of time… A documentary about a space, for instance, I did a little short about the French Opera, it was fascinating! It was just a four minute film but it was very interesting. I fell completely in love with the space and the people who were there, all these talented people, and then the difficulties of that life. You know, these dancers are high level athletes. So it was very fascinating and interesting. Definitely my interests are in documentary.

So you mention in that last answer that you’re working on another project about women, specifically. Obviously what we do is advocacy work for women and diversity/inclusion and so, since I know you mentioned Burt’s Bees earlier when you were talking about wanting to work with ethical brands, is that something that plays into the jobs you select?

Yes, I mean…I try to. Sometimes it’s kind of tricky because artistically, the project could be very interesting, but the brand doesn’t really speak to me. But my choices have to be first of all driven by something that’s new for me. It’s either an artistic challenge, or something that I know I could bring to the shoot. I try to work as much as possible with brands that definitely speak to me or that I feel close to, artistically. For instance, I love brands like Vans or Converse or Lee or Levi’s because all the films they do are very much about the feeling. I mean, of course we are talking about products, but at the end of the day when you watch the films it’s all about a moment, a feeling, a sensation, a lifestyle more than just a product. I’m looking for more of this kind of project instead of just selling products.

So that kind of project is what I’m looking for. Or there are some brands that I don’t know, so I do some research, because of course we all live in different countries, and I try to find out, which is quite interesting as a director because we touch on a lot different aspects with different clients and brands. It’s fascinating because it’s always a different thing – I remember that I was bidding last year on an architectural project, and so I really dove into architecture, which I love, and did some research about the architect, and what he was doing, and the next thing I was working on a luggage ad for Tumi … it’s always interesting. It has to be either an ethical brand or a brand that really appeals to me, that I really connect with.

So a final question – what do you think your advice would be to a young director who was just getting started?

Hmm…what can I say? I know now because it’s been ten years that I’ve been working as a director – this is a tough job. I’m not saying it just to say it, but it’s actually kind of a tough job. Because we’re talking about marketing, and the clients can be quite demanding, and the competition is hard.

But you know, I don’t count my hours, at all, because I just do what I love. I know that this sounds pretty basic, but at the end of the day, it is what it is. I wouldn’t work all these hours if I was not passionate. So I think it’s about what you have in your mind, what have in your gut, what you have in your heart, and if you feel that you’re ready, and you feel passionate enough, I’m sure you can succeed. It’s all about motivation.

Like I said, it took me a while to get where I am now, but I know that my path is really long. Which I like! As a director, I know that it’s a never ending story. Which is very nice because the quality of the experience is always different, you are challenging yourself all the time. Sometimes I’m going to fail, I’m not going to like the work that I’m making, but then I’ll learn something from it that I won’t reproduce again. So I take everything you do in this job really seriously. Like Mandela said, “I never lose: either I win or I learn.” And in fact, this is true. If the project is not perfect in the way you had wanted to do it, because you had to deal with a lot of issues, or things happened that you were not prepared for, you just move forward. What drives you forward is just being passionate, at the end of the day. I’m always tired at the end of the job, but then a week after I’m always like, “ what can I do, what else can I do,” and I get really excited about jumping on another job. I wouldn’t get that with something I didn’t like. I feel very lucky, to be honest, to be able to do what I’m doing, and now, just now, starting to be able to live with that.

CREDITS

Director: Loren Denis
Executive Producer: Rebecca Skinner
Producer: Betsy Blakemore  
DP: Sylvestre Dedise
Editor: Maxime Pozzi Garcia
Agency: McGarry Bowen
Agency Producer: Justin Lee
ECD: Kurt Fries
Allison Miller: Creative Director, Art
Kelly Jenkins: Creative Director, Copy
Allison Bulow: Sr. Art Director
Kristen Manias: Copywriter