Once the class clown, charities’ director-of-choice Martin Stirling now uses his cheeky creative chops to make people cry – and think – rather than laugh. Tim Cumming follows the mixed-up career of this maverick storyteller from the West End stage to the Syrian border

The viral mechanics that dictate whether your short film is seen by a handful of people or a global audience of millions is about as hard to read and predict as the movement of particles in quantum mechanics. Take it from one who knows – a master of hard-hitting, eye-opening viral charity ads for Reprieve and Save the Children, Martin Stirling. “It’s really unpredictable,” he says. “There’s no formula. You have to go by your instincts.”

He’s talking about his 2013 Mos Def spot for Reprieve, out of digital agency Unit9 and socio-political guerrilla agency and specialist in ‘contagious ideas’ Don’t Panic. As it turns out, pretty well everything about it was happenstance. If you could derive a formula from the experience it would be: take the most direct route to the heart of a story and stay there. Oh, and get a famous rapper to be your star.

“I was at the agency for something else,” recalls Stirling, “and their clients burst in and said ‘We’ve got Mos Def, he wants to do something about Guantanamo but he’s only here tomorrow, what shall we do?’ They’d recently sneaked out this document, Standard Operating Procedure, basically a manual for force-feeding at Guantanamo. It’s horrific. It’s meant to be a medical document for doctors, but it reads like a military handbook, the language they use. So I piped up with the idea of using that as a script. Ask Mos Def if he wants to be force-fed, follow each step, and you have your story there. You don’t have to make a comment, you don’t have to force it down anyone’s throat… no pun intended.”


Making it up as you go along

Stirling has recently signed to Partizan, and we meet in its Soho offices, where, with the beaming expression of a schoolboy prankster, he talks about the pitfalls and pick-me-ups of short-form storytelling and of his route into the industry. Born and raised in Northampton, Stirling had no template or direct route to follow into the world of film, advertising or media. “I always knew I wanted to be a filmmaker but had no contacts and no idea how I could do it,” he says. “The closest I got to production was elaborate pranks at school.” These weren’t simple water-bucket-over-the-door japes. “I had this idea that we could steal school science equipment, one piece at a time, over the course of a school year.” He laughs. “So it was a very drawn-out, sustained prank, and at the end of the year we took a photo and wrote a ransom note to one of the teachers.”

Luckily for Stirling, the staff appreciated the boy’s sole creative outlet. Another prank had the 13 year old recreating an old Twiglet advert by persuading schoolgirls to give him the odd unused tampon so that he could super-glue 200 of them above the teacher’s desk in class. “We were there sniggering for a long time before he realised.”

Luckily, he soon got a camera in his hand, which led him, in 2004, to film school – in Kansas, slap bang in the heart of Middle America. “I was obsessed with Pixar and wanted to do live action and animation, and they had a really good school for 3D animation.” After a year he transferred to university in Bournemouth, found that unchallenging, and completed his third year in Toronto. “Which was amazing,” he says. “We worked on loads of film sets and proper sound stages. Hollywood shoots there for the tax breaks, and because our campus was downtown, we had these action scenes going on outside our classroom. We started running and volunteering on set, and made our own short films.”

They were, he says, “mostly crap” but the lessons he learnt were invaluable building blocks for the work to come. “I was fascinated by telling stories in different ways and dissecting the anatomy of stories,” he says. “I was interested in how your choices and decisions in filmmaking can affect the way it’s read by an audience. I wasn’t academic, so I learnt by doing things, by making as many mistakes as possible, as soon as possible.” He laughs. “I wouldn’t want anyone to see them but I learnt a lot from doing them.”

While studying he had also been painting, regularly taking portrait commissions (he still paints). He’d also enrolled in the National Youth Theatre, when he was still back in Northampton, and he started working there, after returning from Toronto, as an actor, writer, and director, ADing on numerous West End shows. “That’s where I honed the craft of storytelling,” he says, “by being around directors and theatre people.”

The biggest lesson he learnt there, he says, was to think about the audience and what they’re going through. “In theatre, you get feedback as it’s happening, and that’s great. You see what works and what doesn’t. I put a lot of time into listening to the audience. That was a turning point for me.”

His move from theatre to advertising came when he entered a competition mounted by M&C Saatchi and HypTV to produce a 60-second cinema ad for the ICA in just 24 hours. Stirling’s spot, The Staring Man, filmed at night with a long lens across Piccadilly Circus, won the prize, and he was asked to pitch on a Doritos spot featuring youth TV presenter Mequita Oliver. Here, he learnt more invaluable lessons: “I remember at the meeting the agency asked me how I was actually gonna do it, and I started making stuff up because I was quite nervous, it was a big agency and my first big meeting, round a boardroom table with 12 people looking at me, asking me how I was going to do this. So I started bullshitting, and I remember the moment I knew I was going to get away with this, because I could see them smiling and nodding their heads. And I realised they were dumber than I was…”

There followed a plethora of TVCs, “some pretty bad ones, too” while freelancing in the industry, before joining Unit9’s roster to do live action executions for their interactive work. “I’d figure out how to shoot a story with 158 different endings so they’d look seamless,” says Stirling. “It was really interesting to break away from that very linear way of storytelling so that, as an audience, you’re in two worlds running parallel. You get to influence where the story goes, and you can get the audience – their name or picture or character – to be part of the story.”

Career progress through pissing people off

The most ambitious production was UP2U for Mentos Gum, featuring eight genre-specific stories filmed across eight huge sound stages with a crew of hundreds and a cast of 40 or so in each film. The rookie director trying to fool the board prior to his first shoot had come a long way. “You have to take command, as a director,” he says, “but my goal is to know as much as possible about all the different processes and departments of filmmaking, and then to be the stupidest person on set, because you want to be surrounded by people who are better than you. It’s all about decisions, the right ones, figuring out which decisions are the best, and that means working out what ideas are the best and listening to people.”

Come the summer of 2013, he moved into charity work, with the Mos Def spot for Reprieve first off the block. It’s a tough film to watch and, in its simplicity of purpose, magnificently effective.

“I had one picture in my head,” recalls Stirling, “which was a tweet saying ‘Mos Def being force-fed’ – and who’s not going to pick up on that? What the fuck! You’re going to look.” Those who did look included the Pentagon and President Obama, who had reneged on campaign promises to shut down Guantanamo. “The whole point of it was to get in Obama’s face, to get up in his grill, you know, and cause a bit of trouble for the White House. And it did. The video came out and 10 hours later the Pentagon had to release a statement because there had been so much pressure off the back of the video. That was when I realised that online storytelling can be really powerful and you can immediately see the effects of what you’re doing.”

Stirling says he moved into hard-hitting charity campaigns at a time when his own freelance career was drifting. “I was still seeing the same shit briefs,” he complains, “so I made the decision to make bad decisions. And the moment I did that, things started turning around. I thought, maybe it’s better to piss people off and see how that goes.” He laughs. “And it went really well.”

Most notably, he set about seriously pissing off Lego and Shell – hardly miniscule brands – with Everything Is NOT Awesome, comprising a glass case containing a diorama of an Arctic landscape built using Lego’s Arctic Explorer kit, complete with drills, oil workers, oil platforms… but no resultant slicks of chronic pollution. Hmmm. Stirling’s diorama remedies that by getting filled to the brim with crude.

“The main thing was Shell and Lego had partnered up again so Shell could piggyback off Lego’s brand to target children, which I think is terrible. There’s this phrase, cradle-to-grave brand loyalty, which is probably one of the most disgusting phrases… I thought I’d get blacklisted but at the same time I believed in what we were making, and I don’t think people should target children.” He laughs. “It’s great to piss people off sometimes, especially people like that who hold so many of the cards.” He pauses. “I’ve always wanted to make something out of Lego, too.”

How many ads does it take to change the world?

Either side of the Shell/Lego project, he delivered two powerful spots for Save the Children, Most Shocking Second A Day and Childhood In Reverse, both of which had a massive viral impact, and won numerous awards, including a gold Cyber Lion for Most Shocking Second…, which is set in a Britain that’s gradually torn apart by civil strife, mirroring the situation in Syria. The narrative unfolds via incidental visual and audio tells (newspaper headlines, TV news footage…) unfolding behind the little girl, who’s shot close-up and in portrait mode. We follow the gradual disruption of her life from happy carefree existence to the shocking violence of civil war. “I cared about it, what we were making, and that was really important,” says Stirling. “And that’s the difference between shocking for shock’s sake and shocking for a purpose. You have to care about the things you’re making and you have to make the audience care. That’s the part that’s difficult.”

The second Save the Children film, Childhood In Reverse, was made while Stirling was working on the 500-plus set changes required for his remarkable Philips Hue spot, How Many Years Does It Take To Change A Lightbulb? This time, filming took place on the Syrian border. The premise was simple: reverse the action. “I thought that could be awesome,” says Stirling. “It was something I hadn’t done before.” So he wrote a script, reversed it, storyboarded it, and the charity loved it. They needed it done in two weeks. Given the go-ahead on a Thursday, the team flew to Turkey on Saturday, drove to a town on the border with a special effects team from Istanbul, did street casting that day, shot the next day, flew back to Heathrow, cut it in two days and sent it to post house CherryCherry to complete the VFX for the main explosion.

“It’s still playing with time, but it’s different enough from the first film,” Stirling says, adding: “When I started out, I thought I’d be a comedy director. It turns out I’m much better at making people cry. The final note of the second Syria film has a sense of hope, though. It’s more uplifting.”

Later this year, he begins shooting his first feature in Detroit. “It’s one of my favourite places on the planet right now,” he says. “I’m heavy in prep and development on that.” But the short-form storytelling of advertising remains a potent medium for him. “I really believe in the short format,” he insists. “And I’m still doing commercials work. You can make really interesting things.” And he’ll keep pushing boundaries, too. “Advertising people talk about taking risks and being brave but you rarely see them doing it,” he says. “Being disruptive and shocking is quite easy, but doing it in a way that makes people care is much harder, and I’m much more interested in doing that.”

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