There’s just no slowing down Martin Werner, who stands out in the industry as a true testament to ambition and self-reliance . Beginning his career as a prop man in a studio in his native Denmark, he worked himself up to directing and founded his own production company, Bacon, in 2001.
Today, Martin is one of Europe’s most distinguished and sought-after directors, creating stunning work for clients all over the world. He has directed award-winning spots for Audi, Coca-Cola, Ikea and Heineken. He’s a very holistic director whose work combines sound, visual flair, comedy and emotional depth in equal measure.
Martin spoke with us about directing actors, starting a production company and the advantages of growing up in a family of psychiatrists.
Zack Seckler: Martin let’s first talk how you got into directing.
Martin Werner: I got into it quite early, probably ten, eleven years old. My parents are both psychiatrists. They bought some video cameras and recorded sessions with their patients, which was obviously something that I was not supposed to watch, but I found it really interesting what was going on, the stories that came out of just the simple conversations they had. I started to find interest in this camera and I started to make films with my friends.
What was your entrée into the directing world?
I was a lucky prop man. I was doing props and I was helping production designers. So that was my entry.
And then you transitioned from props to being a 1st AD?
Yes, exactly. I found some people that I was fascinated by, and I started to direct more things. I did a short film trying to get into film school and that short film won some prizes. I became an assistant at a production company that it was full-on commercial, which, back then, it was new. It was a new industry. I would say it was ’92.
And how long have you been exclusively a director?
Probably since I was 25, which has been more than 20 years.
And was your first big break the Danish Christmas Lottery?
Yes. That film still goes on air yearly, although I did it more than 20 years ago. It was simply a supply and demand kind of thing. Back then there weren’t that many commercial directors, and more and more work was coming out, and suddenly I got a chance because the guy I worked for was not available. That was scary stuff.
Tell me how it was scary.
Primarily because there was a bunch of people that I had to somehow get to work for me, which was difficult. They were giving me a lot of hard times. The environment was a little bit like that back then. I think it’s a little bit more social and it’s kind of aware that the one that is doing props might very well be an incredible director tomorrow, but back then they came out of a serious film school , and didn’t really respect a young guy like me.
And that is success, but not the experience to give you confidence.
Exactly. I did that film and I did a couple of others, and suddenly I was on the map, but then came the failures and it is the failures that teach you. It’s not the successes because they are, ironically enough, they’re quickly forgotten.
I hear that often if a director has one project that doesn’t go well, then that director can sometimes never work again. Have you heard that or seen that in the industry as well?
Yeah, I have. I survived that. I mean my old partner had it like that. Some of our younger directors and colleagues found that the stress factor is severe. But my mother was one of the first stress psychologists, and she told me very early on that it’s not the thing I do that stresses me, it’s the thing that I don’t get done.
One primary element I notice in your work is the role that music and sound effects play. Can you talk a little bit about how you approach sound?
It’s one of the first places I look for correction, and I kind of try to find, even those that the film is not supposed to have music, I start listening to music, and I could also ask the question if this film was music, what kind of music would it be? The color of music, and the color of sound, basically, is very important to me, and speaks much more precisely to my head then sometimes images can do.
One thing I find so interesting is that you’re a very visual director, and to have the strength of visuals and that ear for sound seems to be a very rare combination. Do you think that’s part of the reason for your success?
I think so, definitely. 50% of what you experience in a film is what you hear, and yet it often represents less than 5% of the budget. You have to pay attention to that detail, which is not really a detail at all.
Why else do you think you’ve been so successful? And I know this can be an uncomfortable question to talk about yourself in such a way, but if you have any insights…
The thing is, now I’m in a company called Bacon, and I work with RESET in America. I rather want to be in a team with great players, hopefully some of them much better than me, that I can learn from, and who can criticize me and who can elevate me and vice versa. To be a good leader also means to understand who you work with, and treasure any of them. You’re not better than the weakest part of the team. If you help people, chances are that they will help you. So be a nice guy. For many years I struggled with that. I thought to be successful, you had to be an asshole. And I flirted with the idea of finding my inner asshole, until I realized that that was just not me.
So tell me about comedy and drama. A lot of your work walks the line between drama and comedy, and some of your work is very emotional, really moving work. There’s such authentic emotion in your work, drama and comedy, so talk to me about fitting those two very different things into one spot.
Yeah, I mean it’s probably because, when you cry and when you laugh, if you can do that within the same space of time, or at least touch those emotions, you move the mind and you make people experience something quite profound. In the Greek theater they would have a drama next to comedy on the stage, so that you would walk from something deeply tragic to something profoundly funny, and I guess it comes from the same place.
Talk to me about the cinematic quality of your work. What are some of the elements you use or think about that you think kind of work towards creating the more cinematic feel.
I focus on location, cast, and the work with my crew: the DoP and production and costume designer. But ultimately it’s not the DoP or the lights only. A clever man, the great DoP Alex Thomson, said “If you put shit in front of the camera, all you get is shit!” It’s all the things that you bring in front of the camera that will ultimately materialize. That comes down to a matter of taste, and taste is a very difficult thing to describe. What I can see from a lot of the directors that I admire is that they actually have great taste, and often great taste is rooted in something classic and timeless.
And you have a certain taste, a look to your work. There’s a lot of dark tonality.
I think it’s about Scandinavian kind of openness or desire to express your feelings, and to admit that you’re not always happy, but that you can be sad, and that’s a Scandinavian quality. It’s allowing all four seasons to be present, and that is reflected into the work.
You do a lot of 60 second spots, you do 90s, you do two minute-plus spots. It seems in the industry that the time that we have to communicate with an audience is shrinking. How do you feel about where the industry is going, and the opportunities to show longer commercial work?
That’s a very interesting subject matter, because it’s moving towards shorter, shorter attention spans, and I get it. People are fed up with bad advertising, or advertising in general. If you want eyeballs your way, you better come up with something that catches them. And what I believe is that will be something that delights the eye or comforts the brain with things that are rooted into fundamental humanity. So I’m often trying to find out why are we seeing this. We all know that someone wants to sell something here. What are we seeing that’s relevant to the audience? Why should we expect people to watch this? And that can come from many places, but the once you’ve found that out, the commercial format is a fast one.
Do you prefer to work in longer format, like 60 second-plus spots?
I wouldn’t say I prefer it, but as we said I’m very focused on sound and music. And for music to evolve and actually catch you, it has to get around 45 seconds. You get the power of music from around 45 to 60 seconds. I mean, you can play a popular piece – a Bowie song, for example – and in five seconds people will know it’s Bowie and it will create an emotion. But if it’s not known music, it will take some time to register. And the same goes for storytelling, and sometimes you need that time for it to matter. That said, there’s great short work. The funniest I’ve seen is a Guinness Record Book commercial where a guy holds the Guinness Book of Record and says, “This is the fastest commercial ever done.” It takes three seconds.
So on the topic of longer form, so you’ve directed a couple of shorts, and are you interested in doing more work outside of commercials, features, television?
Yeah, I mean, we’re working on that as we speak, and I have been working on that. I was very close to getting my first feature funded recently, and then it collapsed, which it does. It’s a marathon instead of a sprint. For me it’s not a matter of doing it fast, because I would have done it a long time ago.
You worked with a writer, though? How did you find that writer?
She wrote a book and wanted me to promote it, and I did a commercial about her book, which ended up being a short film, and she was very impressed with that, and our relationship grew.
Talk to me about directing actors. Can you tell me a little bit about how you work? Do you have a general approach?
Be transparent, be kind, be passionate, be hardworking, be very aware of why we’re doing what we’re doing and be able to explain that. Once you can do that, and you can lay out the kind of landscape that we are in, it is much more comfortable and easy for an actor to perform in there.
And what about directing celebrities versus other actors? Do you work with celebrities in a different way?
I actually don’t. But it is more demanding in the sense that it feels like there’s more at stake. It’s expensive, and so you have to be a little bit more cool and actually your self-confidence has to be a little stronger. It just happened I was shooting with – I don’t want to mention his name – four and a half months ago and he was extremely tough. He was sick at the time. It was very difficult for him, and so he put a lot of pressure on the production until I realized that he was vulnerable. So I went to his trailer and I asked him whether there was anything I could do for him. Could I turn down the heat? Could I ask people to talk less loud? And the minute I did that, he was as soft as butter. All he needed was love and attention, and someone who was defending him and taking care of him.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming directors?
Don’t run around and expect the industry to help you. Help yourself, find out what matters to you, what are you passionate about. it’s almost like having a tattoo. Don’t just get the first tattoo. Get a tattoo you want to have on your arm the rest of your life. With stories it’s a little bit the same. And if you can do that, if you can stick to stuff that matters to you that you are genuinely interested in, I can almost guarantee that you will make it. The minute you lose that, it’s actually not the industry that will fire you, it will be yourself.
There’s two schools of thought when you’re an up-and-coming director. One is to take whatever work comes, to get your experience in. And the other school of thought is only take the work that is truly inspiring to you. Do you gravitate towards one of those?
Pick one of them. But don’t do the middle. And if you’re very selective, chances are that is a longer and harder ride.
So you don’t turn your nose up at people who kind of do any work they can just to kind of build their reel and get their experience in?
No, as long as you elevate things. People will know that, they will see it, they will understand it, and they will treasure that and will help you.
Let’s talk quickly about Bacon. So you formed Bacon, a production company, over a decade ago. What was the reason for starting that company, and how has it changed you as a director owning a production company?
Back when I started Bacon, there was not a production company who was interested in supporting directors to work outside Denmark. We wanted to create a company that was supporting directors to work anywhere they wanted. We are partners with production companies around the world, and we find directors who are like-minded and incredibly skilled in their territory and what they do: Martin De Thurah, Andreas Nilsson just to mention a few.
The producers at Bacon, and the post house, Bacon X, all push and expect the best from you. But it hasn’t fundamentally changed the way I direct, and funnily enough, I believe that any great director is very aware about making sure that everybody in the food chain gets serviced. If you just run away and shoot the shit out of stuff and go over budget time after time, people won’t work with you.
Interview by Zack Seckler
Edit by Tyler Peterson