Molloy is the director behind Tile’s Lost Panda and Westpac’s Help When it Matters, both films supercharged with emotion. He has also made four Apple ads in the last eighteen months, the latest, The Surprise, its three-minute Christmas commercial, combining a very real, very relatable sub-story about the family stresses at Christmas (spiked with a warming touch of humour) and a delightfully fresh version of the aspirational “what our products can do” sub-story that the brand launched first in 2013 with Misunderstood. Its 25+ million views on YouTube alone in two weeks suggest that the ad has stood out even in this year’s pre-Christmas ad crowd.
“Four very different ads for one brand, with the same overarching aim, is quite a feat,” noted Exit Films executive producer, Leah Churchill-Brown. Exit represents Molloy in Australia and New Zealand.
So is winning Apple’s trust and making it in the US.
Molloy spoke to The Stable about all of this and more:
The Stable: “His visual style coupled with his viscerally engaging sensibilities distinguishes his voice as a director.” [Creative Masters, Ideas On Design] That’s a flowery way of saying that emotion is your thing. Is it?
Mark Molloy: I always try to have an honesty in my work and make ads that are memorable and strike a chord with the general public. That guides everything. In my career, I seem to have gone between more visual and more emotional films, on occasion with some humour, but all my work seems to have those same underlying sensibilities to it. The thing I like most is working with actors, so I’m definitely drawn to the more emotional work, but I love doing it all. I don’t think I really prefer one or the other, but the emotional jobs are all about the performance and I guess that’s where I’m the happiest.
TS: Four ads for Apple. You must be doing something that works well there.
MM: By now I’ve developed a really good relationship with Apple which is great for having freedom and for getting work. It’s a great client to work with. Always with Apple the product is so important, and integrating the product is vital, showing how the world revolves around it. I’m always really cognisant of that.
They’ve all been very different processes. Each time Apple came to me with a simple goal, “We want you to make a short film for us that shows how the world revolves around our products.” Homework started with a poem and we crafted a story around it.
After Homework, Apple came to me with a very open brief for Underdogs – a short film featuring all the Apple products, which we hadn’t done before. We wanted to do something very different – a group of people doing an assignment at work wasn’t the most exciting scenario, but we dove into the characters and had fun with that.
As with Homework, I got to sit down with the guys at Apple and we wrote it together, which is very cool. By the Christmas campaign, I’d developed a relationship with Apple and they came to me again. They had a script in mind, which I evolved. It was more in the page than the other ones and it came from a more emotional place because of its Christmas timing.
With each of the films, the first thing was to nail down the tone. With the Christmas one we knew we wanted it to be emotional. With Homework, we just wanted to have fun with it, to dive into the kids’ minds. And with Underdogs we wanted to have a real charm to it and get into the characters. The fourth film, which will be out early next year is different again.
TS: Do you have a preferred way of working?
MM: If I look back at all the work I’ve done that I like, the best process is when I’m called in early and get to develop ideas together. I find that’s when the best work comes. I’ve been lucky enough to do this a lot. The last few jobs especially have had a really collaborative approach. I think when everyone puts their minds together that’s when the creative outcome flourishes.
TS: It’s not easy to conquer the US?
MM: I don’t feel that I’ve conquered it, but it definitely took a while to adapt to the market here and to be able to produce good work.
In the first two years, I was shooting a lot of work which was then taken along a process that, when it got to the end, I felt it had kind of lost the spirit of what it was meant to be. But over time, I’ve been able to adapt the system more to how I like to work, which is more the Australian and UK model in which the director is really involved. One thing I’ve learned, though, is to build a great team around me, where I have control as much as I can within the structure here. It’s about learning when to give my opinion and when not to, what’s important and what’s not important and how to navigate my way through the US system. It takes time. It’s a very, very different system and it’s much harder to do good work here but there’s a lot of great creative work here so you have to find a way. I feel as though, in the last few years, I’ve understood how to work through it so I’m happy at the end.
I try not to work in the US way – do the job and then have little or no input in what happens. I have a bit of a deal when I do a job. I do the first cut and show them that and sit with them. I’m very upfront at the start that I want to be involved the whole way through, including post and music. I find it hard to just walk away, especially when I know the job’s going to be good. The other difference is trying to understand the mentality on jobs here and knowing how to manipulate it to get to what you want. There’s a lot more bullshit here than in Australia, I think. But there’s always some sort of shit on every job. It’s just how much of it and where it is that makes the difference.
TS: What do you think are your three best campaigns?
MM: First, I think, is a Samsung surf job that I really loved. I’m a surfer and I got to travel all around the world filming surfers, like Kelly Slater in Fiji. That’s about the best that a job is going to get for me and I was really happy with the result. Plus, it really helped my reel, especially over here.
It’s hard to choose between the Apple films, but I think the Underdogs spot probably comes out on top of these. It’s what happens when you get a group of really great actors together and let them work with you to bring a story to life. That spot could have been many different things but when you get great acting and their chemistry together and get to play with the structure of the film, something great happens. I guess too, it was more comedic and playful, which was a really nice change for me.
There’s a very old TAC one that I still love. But I think I’ll count the Apple Christmas spot as my third. Again, it’s about working with great actors. Australian actor Alexandra Schepisi is the mum in the film. I’ve worked with her multiple times and she is amazing. Plus it was really fun to make a Christmas ad that didn’t pull on the expected Christmas emotions and clichés.
TS: What about working with Exit?
MM: I’ve been at Exit for-e-ver. I started there as a young director and it was responsible for helping me to be where I am today. I learned so much. The thing about Exit that I’ve never experienced anywhere else is that it’s a group of directors feeding off each other and inspiring each other, asking questions and sharing ideas. There is such a spirit of filmmaking there. I’m about to embark on my first feature film and having been able to work with and learn from directors like Garth [Davis] and Glendyn [Ivin] has been a huge advantage. I’ve worked in production companies throughout the world and I’ve never seen that anywhere else. It’s a really fertile ground for filmmaking. I’d like to work more in Australia. I’m still Australian even though I’ve been over here for a few years.
View Mark Molloy’s reel here.