How To Shoot a £1m Car Commercial On a Zero Budget

Crewed entirely by award-winning women and with everyone volunteering their time,  this is not your usual car commercial!

The Feminist Car Commercial, three interconnecting short films made to look like genuine car commercials, aims to highlight female film-making talent in the UK and to show advertisers how their marketing communications could be devised for women.

The film will get its premiere at the BFI Southbank in September 2013 before being available online. Below is an interview with the producer, Paul Atherton, taken at BFI on the 8th of August 2013.

Feminist Car Commercial Still

Dana: What sparked the idea for a feminist car commercial?

Paul: There has been a proliferation of adverts that have treated women appallingly in the past 12 month, Audi’s Proms KissBMW’s Greek Billboard AdRenault’s Dancing Girls.  But it was the Broken Heel advert by Audi that really incensed me.  Audi hadn’t used a woman in their commercials for twenty years and when they finally did they leave her lying on the street in the rain with her clothes torn and handbag broken as the car being advertised drives away and leaves her there.  This is something that wouldn’t have been acceptable a few decades ago. Mumsnet’s reaction was universal: don’t buy Audis!

Dana: Was this a commissioned project or your own initiative?

Paul:  This was completely my own initiative.  Writer/Director Amanda Baker had originally come up with an idea to pitch a commercial for women to car companies, but when we did the research we saw a much bigger problem so I thought it would make far more sense to make a campaigning film. As a campaigning film it would have been difficult to find funds, especially quickly, we went from idea to finished film in under three months, far quicker than most funders take to make a decision. And who would commission a film that challenges the very industry that fuels it?

Dana: How does one pull off a “sting” of these proportions: shooting three sophisticated car commercials on a zero-budget, something that advertising companies spend ludicrous sums of money on?

Paul: Film is always about collaboration and this was no different.  Give people a great idea, surround them with talent and give them a message they can get behind and believe in, then you’ll find anything is possible. There are some amazingly generous people in our industry: Barry Basset at VMI, who supplied us over £1/2 Million worth of camera equipment, has been supportive of me since I entered the industry; Barnaby Laws at Panalux had worked with our amazing DP Gabi Norland before and wanted to support her, as well as the campaign; Paul Merchant at make-up supplier Charles Fox has been our award winning make-up artist and Sara Menitra‘s supplier for years; and Daniel Pagan at post house Lipsync has been a fantastic support to me since our first introduction. The key, as always, is relationships. It’s the people you’ve helped and supported that come back and help and support you.

Dana: How many people got involved in this project?

Paul: We managed to persuade just under 100 people to volunteer their time and expertise. As well as a number of industry sponsors who supplied all our kit and services.The thing that made this so special is that we created an A-list of award winners and established experience to approach and we got nearly everyone on it.But as always, we were keen to support new talent too.  So my entire production crew was made up from recent graduates and in addition we offered 11 runners their first job experience.

Fem car Com duplicateDana: I understand you also had some very prominent public figures supporting the project and that with a few exceptions it was an all female cast & crew.

Paul: The project first came to life for me when Carly Simon agreed to let us have her Oscar-Winning iconic eighties feminist anthem from the film Working Girl entitled Let The River Run free of charge. This was the equivalent of giving us between £50,000 to £100,000. Then BAFTA-nominated Natalie Holt agreed to do the original score. Sara Menitra, NY IMATS Makeup Winner 2012, Sara Chatterton, Celebrity Hairdresser,  Editor Prano Bailey-Bond & Director of Photography Gabi Norland who were both previous Underwire winners came next. The rest of our crew had worked on features from Harry Potter to the Iron Lady. Steve Moore, former Chief Executive of The Big Society Network, had just launched Britain’s Personal Best and we were one of the first projects to pledge.

The idea of an all female cast & crew came from the notion that if we were going to make something for women it should have that perspective in every department.  There had always been an absence of women in a variety of departments and the filmindustry as a whole.  Organisations such as Birds Eye View, Women in Film & Television have made great inroads to redressing that.  But I saw this as a way for us to highlight the British female film-making talent available, whilst making a point about one of the reasons it’s so hard to break in, namely how the media perceive women.

The men we had on the production crew, Frank Hellebrand – Grip, Greg Macfarlane King – Gaffer, Daniel Deighton – 2nd AC and Matthew Cresswell – DIT, very generously came on board at the last minute to fill in for roles that we couldn’t find replacement women for.  A classic example was our grip, Grace Donaldson, who had to drop out for a paid job. And as she is, if I’m not wrong, the only female grip in the world, we had no other way of replacing her.  But this clearly made our point that there are far too few women in the industry.

Dana: How long did the project take from start to finish?

Paul: The idea was sparked in May of this year (2013), I had scripts by the end of June and we’ll have it all finished by the end of August for the screening in the BFI Southbank on 3rd September 2013.

Dana: What were the challenges?

Paul: The biggest challenge was persuading our production crew to work for free for four days.  If this had been a student project, or people looking for experience it would have been simple.  But we were asking established talent, who had no need to add to their showreels (the main reason most people work for free). But once they understood the values of the project and the talent attached etc. they all generously bought in. Our props-maker Jo Shears who created the most jaw-dropping special effect of fingernails blowing away in the wind proved it doesn’t matter what the challenge is, as long as you’ve picked the right talent it can be overcome.And we had the right talent in every department.

Dana: Have you experienced any of those moments when you wished you hadn’t bothered?

Paul: Lots.  It’s undoubtedly been the hardest production I’ve ever worked on. And the catalogue of let-downs got to biblical proportions. For example, the idea was originally based around comparing ourselves to the recent Jaguar RSA “Desire” Film.  I was informed that we had access to two new F-Type Jaguars and a celebrity (which sadly never materialised), three months of negotiations with Jaguar fell at the last hurdle (three days before the shoot), on the basis they didn’t want to be seen leading a campaign for “Equal Pay” for women.  Our locations manager who was eight months pregnant when she came to us left to have her baby and we were suddenly left without locations two weeks before the shoot. We had three major crew dropouts on the day before the shoot and even the location that we thought had been secured turned out not to have been with just hours to spare. But with a great team, amazing vision and people pulling in every favour they had, we got it in the can. Our “thank you” list is likely to be the longest in cinematic history! And we agreed we’d only complete the third mock commercial in the trilogy if we get our named talent, which is what I’m on a quest to do now.

Dana: To care deeply about something – does that provide all the motivation and drive you need to succeed?

Paul: No. Caring deeply about something is the starting point.  And you’ll always remind yourself that this is what it’s all about.  It’s why you do what you do. All my previous productions are around things that are important to me. Domestic violence, racism, prison reform etc.  I would hate to make something that didn’t have an underlying cause. But the drive, that comes from other people for me. People you can turn to when things get hard, the people who can see the silver-lining in the cloud when all you can see is the cloud. The people who will rally to your defence and stand by you no matter what. I’m very fortunate to have a lot of friends in and outside the industry that fill those roles and without them none of this would be possible.

Dana: If you had a budget for this project, what would you spend it on?

Paul: If we had a budget for this, it would in essence have just been a commercial.  We wouldn’t be making an important point and we wouldn’t have got the commitment required to make it.

Dana: Where is feminism at these days? Do you think we are witnessing a backlash? The fact that people don’t seem to be as sensitive about the issue as in the past (only one woman complained about the Renault ad if I’m not wrong?) can be interpreted as a good thing, in the sense that women got what they wanted, there is no need for feminism anymore, OR as a very bad thing, that women simply gave up the fight or don’t care anymore. What are your insights on this subject?

Paul: I think the term feminism has many poor connotations.  Usually associated with women who seemingly hate men.  I see feminism as being pro-women and not anti-men. I don’t think there is a backlash against feminism. I just think audiences, marketeers and advertsiser have just got lazy and apathetic.  We live in a society that is all concerned about spending.  People always talk about doing jobs to pay the bills.  That thinking leads to fear and to inertia. So when BMW put a poster up in Greece, containing a sultry 14-year old looking girl attached to the tagline “You know you’re not the first” to advertise their second-hand car dealerships, you know that the hundreds of decision-makers involved in that process either didn’t care or didn’t have the courage to say “that’s nuts.. noooo!”

Dana: What are you hoping to achieve with these films?

Paul: The whole point of the project is two-fold.  First to highlight what amazing female film talent there is in the UK and that we need far more. And secondly to remind marketeers that women are customers, a large customer base in fact, and not objects.  This is our version of what car advertisements should look like: creative, funny, quirky and making important points. The films are of course just the catalyst for the debate and fortuitously we have Olivia Read at DDA PR to ensure our message gets out there far and wide. We all realise without the press there can be no change in public perception and we appreciate all the support we can get in that regard , so thank you.

Dana: You’re welcome!;)…Do you intend to develop the idea into a larger project?

Paul: We have a feature script written by Rhianna Pratchett entitled Vigilia, which looks at the rise of a female movement in the UK kickstarted by a rape. So the ideas behind this project tap directly into that.  That of course will require funding, approximately £2 million, and we have some financiers lined up who I’m sure will appreciate the production values contained in this short.

Dana: I understand you suffer from chronic fatigue,  how did you manage to keep working?

Paul: Chronic fatigue is a disabling condition that often leads sufferers to be bed- or wheelchair-ridden for years.  I was diagnosed in 1992 and I was wheelchair-bound for nearly a year in 2010.  But since then, I’ve managed to survive just through what are known as “crashes”. The worst has lasted a couple of months. You’re unable to move and sometimes even to talk. It used to be terrifying but I’m used to it now. It’s ironic because all the doctors tell you to avoid stress and lead a very dull life.  But I’d rather shine for a few months and then crash for months to produce something.  Not making something would mean I’m not alive and it would be impossible to keep struggling on without that aspect of my life.

Dana:  Is it true that you are homeless?

Paul: Yes. It’s a sad reflection of Britain’s current state, that our lives are no longer our own.  In 2009 an error on my credit file which had nothing to do with me resulted in me not being able to renew my tenancy. The resultant stress caused a CFS crash and I ended up in hospital for three months and discharged to a homeless hostel in Brixton.  I was claiming benefits but there were many screw-ups and I was evicted to the streets from there in my wheelchair.  As you can imagine, friends were incredibly supportive and offered accommodation and care but it’s not their job.  I’d paid my taxes and should have had the systems there to protect me.  I therefore decided to live in my car on the Southbank, which I did for two years until the police confiscated it by mistake at the beginning of this year 2013, another bureaucratic cock-up involving a wrongly apportioned conviction at the DVLA.  I now live in a hostel in Vauxhall but as of Monday they’re trying to kick me out – on the grounds, and you’ll love this, that I have nowhere to live!

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