British filmmakers D.A.R.Y.L. talk life-changing chats in cars, & trusting their joint vision.
14 August 2023
It’s fitting that acclaimed director duo James Hall & Edward Lovelace met when Ed’s battered red Corsa broke down on the way to an edit.
The pair had met briefly at film school in Northern England, where James took a mental note in one of those ‘round the table’ group chats that Ed had a similar love of obscure sci-fi films from the eighties and grunge music. But they both agree their first real connection happened where many do – chatting in the car.
Flatting together in London after film school, they leaned into their shared love of music, creating no-budget behind-the-scenes documentaries and content for their mates’ bands, before being discovered and put on the payroll by famed producer Alan McGee (of Oasis’ legendary label Creation Records). This set the foundation for the critically acclaimed music documentary Werewolves Across America, a gorgeously poetic portrait of Scottish musician Edwyn Collins in The Possibilities are Endless and as Executive Producers and Directors on Katy Perry’s filmic autobiography Part of Me, the second highest grossing concert film of all time by a female artist.
But first, back to the cars, where some of their most powerful advertorial work, for Mercedes Benz, Audi and Volvo, push the boundaries of what car commercials can do. They’re first to admit they are no auto-fanatics (see, red Corsa), but there’s something about cars on film that often allude to pivotal moments, a breakdown or a breakthrough, that perfectly encapsulates the D.A.R.Y.L ethos.
“Cars end up being these safe spaces for characters, where they break away from the chaos of their story of the world, or they are intimate with someone or they share something important with a parent or a partner,” says Ed, “and these are often amazing human stories too.”
Seeking out these intimate, vulnerable moments that make us human is what underpins D.A.R.Y.L.’s M.O., whether in spots for Visit Iceland, German lifestyle brand Otto or in long form, and they’re virtuosos in capturing the way natural surroundings reflect an inner emotional landscape – from the fading evening light reflected in the eyes of a young father in his living room, to an awed expression on the face of a young ambitious environmentalist encountering the Indian Ocean. There’s a depth of feeling that can only come from a subliminal understanding and connection to their subjects, or what Ed refers to as ‘living it’.
“Essentially everything is selling a product or an idea, isn't it, basically” he says, “but our whole thing is – how does it feel for the human who is participating with that thing? I'm probably making it sound more than it is, but this is something in general that James and I have, our only interest is basically just how humans interact with each other.”
‘Living it’ for these two requires another kind of duality: both getting in the way of their subjects and stories by physically and emotionally inhabiting them – sometimes for days or even weeks at a time – and getting out of the way of the process, which often means trusting in their subjects to lead them to the heart of it.
Sometimes this looks like spending ten days before a shoot for the Singapore Tourism Board in Tiong Bahru asking the locals where they go when they’re feeling sad or happy, and ending up fireside by a pristine hidden lake. Other times it’s staying in a bunkbed on a houseboat in Finland with a cast member’s father-in-law for a week. And while it’s not always possible with budget and time constraints, this embedded philosophy of inhabiting other’s inner worlds is always in the back of their minds. You get the sense they are most comfortable exploring the edges of a traditional director’s comfort zone, and they reckon it’s probably a leftover from their film school days staying up all night making art and crashing on a friend’s parents' couch.
Ed says “There’s a feeling in advertising where people are busy, you know, you land in a location, a director sort of comes in last minute, and they might be a big personality on set. It can be a bit ‘in and out’, a bit impersonal. Whereas obviously James and I have just tried to not buy into any of that basically. For us, this process really gives us a joy.”
There are common themes in the D.A.R.Y.L. multiverse: a close relationship to natural light, the tonic of nature, capturing a character's hidden expression, but it’s the interplay in close familial relationships that set the tone of their most celebrated work, including their landmark spot for Mercedes Benz, ‘Justify Nothing’, following a grandfathers day out with his young grandson while offering him life advice. Why is this such fertile ground for them? James thinks this comes back to their abiding interest in human emotions and relationships.
“Where else do you see that more laid bare than in families, or between siblings or between loved ones?” he says. “If you're telling someone's story, you have to draw in the people closest to them to really get a sense of who they are.”
Ed and James aren’t related, and they’re quick to point out that on the surface they are different people, sometimes with wildly opposing tastes, but when it comes to filmmaking they are cut from the same cloth, with an uncanny knack for having the same visceral reaction to their work, whether landing a specific shot or a pivotal scene or working through a problem on set.
“We both have our strengths and weaknesses, but under that, there’s this unifying vision” explains James. Ed agrees, “Sometimes on a shoot I’ll be thinking something, and James will say the same thing out loud, or we’ll be asked to pick four locations from a set of forty, and we’ll pick the same four. We often have the same solution to a problem, and immediately say yeah, that’s right, it must be this way – even when the whole room disagrees”.
“We have very similar taste in terms of how things should feel,” says James, “and maybe we have a similar emotional barometer. In commercials where there's often a brief set out for you, we always want to bring a little bit of something else to it, and together we quickly know what that other thing should be. It’s kind of weird that we’ve always had the exact same idea in our heads of what something will look like”.
In The Possibilities are Endless which follows Collins’ recovery from a catastrophic stroke, this unified vision was put to the test in a crucial scene. Both James and Ed were adamant on shooting him and his wife Grace walking on the beach where the former grew up, but the light was fading, and it was raining. The cinematographer argued the shot was pointless. Ed says, “Both James and I were like, it doesn’t matter, it’s part of the process and we’ve made a promise to these people, and it matters to them that we at least try and film it. It matters deeply to us as well.”
“It was a nightmare beach to get to and you could only park a certain distance away. Edwyn wasn’t steady on his feet; it was getting dark. He was having to walk over sand dunes and stuff, and it was just like, oh man … the DP is checking his light meter and saying it’s not going to come out,” he says.
They were in New York a few days later when the rushes came in, and the DP was astounded that somehow this stunning beach scene, one that would form an emotional gut punch for the film, was captured in almost complete darkness.
“It was so cool that James and I were the only two people there that had this belief while everyone else was like, we are literally just wasting time in the rain” he laughs, “we believed in that same thing and then it rewarded us with magic.”
It seems when these two are in the driver’s seat, the possibilities really are endless.