Starting out casting your mum and dad in zombie movies is one way to begin a life in film. Abandoning sensible choices like a law degree is another. And winning a Swedish Grammy for your first music video for your brother’s band more or less sealed the deal for Swedish maestro Adam Berg. Joe Lancaster meets the director behind some of the most spectacular set pieces in advertising.

While some parents would pressure their kids to learn a musical instrument or play a sport, Adam Berg was encouraged to pursue a slightly different after-school hobby. Growing up in a small industrial town an hour from Stockholm, “you kind of played football or you didn’t, and I didn’t, so I had to figure out something else to do”, remembers the commercials director. What was his alternative? “My brother and I figured out how to invent movies in the backyard. We shot zombie films with our parents in them and edited on a VCR.”

Only one of those classics survived (It Came From the Ground and Slaughtered), but his parents’ open-mindedness meant Berg always felt that he could follow his own path. “They have always said that everything we want to do is good – not really encouraging sniffing glue and stuff like that of course,” he says with a dry, mischievous sense of humour, “but they’ve been pretty good with anything that me and my brother wanted to do.”

Years later, Berg enrolled to study law at university in Stockholm because, “like everyone coming from a small town, the number-one goal for me was to get out of there and, back then, being a filmmaker was pretty far away from what you could imagine actually being a career.”

However he found law boring and felt the same about psychology and criminology when he tried that instead. Not knowing what else to do, he took a film course and “remembered all the things I loved when I was younger”.

He switched to the Stockholm Film School knowing nothing about ‘real’ filmmaking, but his propensity for capturing images purely in his head was a sign he’d be a success. “I have always had a memory that is based in images. I don’t really remember people, their faces, but I can remember little events – how it looked right and where the sun was – like snapshots, it stays in my brain.”

During film school, Berg’s brother’s band, Kent, got a record deal and asked him to direct their first promo. It was a success and the second video he shot for them, for the track Gravitation in 1996, won a Swedish Grammy. Not a bad start for a young director. “It was great. Back then there was no internet and it was extremely hard to get a Swedish band onto MTV; that was dominated by the evil Brits!” he chuckles. “They kind of controlled [the airtime] with the Americans.”

Gravitating into the spotlight

Gravitation propelled both Kent and Berg into the spotlight and the director dropped out of film school to concentrate on shooting promos, which were coming in thick and fast. In 1998 he moved to London after signing with Solid Films and continued to make music videos, although he struggles to remember any he thought were good. “There weren’t that many great ones,” he laughs, recounting the story of the one he actually was proud of, for the band Death in Vegas, which starred ‘living’ crash test dummies. “We shot it in a crash zone facility, with these people getting smashed up in cars. It was the same day that Diana died.” Naturally it never saw the light of day, apart from on Berg’s reel.

While many directors relish the perceived freedom that promos offer compared to the restrictions enforced on making ads by clients and agencies, Berg actually found commercials to be a breath of fresh air. “I did music videos when the bottom started falling out of the record industry and it was almost like small commercials but without money. You were being told what to do so much by management and agents and record companies, and everyone was telling you, ‘They have to be saleable’.”

He recalls one story in particular about a video he wanted to make for English group Reef, in which the band members would be lost at sea in a boat. They would become more haggard and eventually draw straws to eat each other until only the singer remained. “The band loved the idea so we went to shoot it and the management were like, ‘No, they can’t have beards, look worn or fucked-up by the sun. They have to look shaggable’.”

That was when Berg realised that he might be better off making ads. “I thought, OK, I can do this and try to make some money at the same time instead. If people are going to tell me what to do, why not try to do commercials?”

Hopping back to Sweden, his first ad was for the association for the paint and painters industry in Sweden called Färgdepartementet. Again he laughs when he thinks back to it, but remembers the shock of having money to spend. “All of a sudden you can shoot on 35mm and you’re like, ‘Wow!’, you had almost a week to edit and you could do some post. You’re blown away, in some ways it was a little bit freer than doing music videos.” However, whether that freedom was real or not is debatable, as Berg was intent on doing things his way regardless. “I was maybe stupid enough to not really listen so much to people about what they really wanted. I kind of just went for what I thought was best, when I didn’t necessarily know that much back then.”

Climb aboard the carousel

By 2009, Berg knew exactly what he was doing and had built up an impressive commercials reel, but his big break in ads came not with a TV spot, but a web film. The fact that it was a small budget job helped, says the director. “Because it was an internet film, no-one really cared about it or understood what we were doing, everyone just let us get on with it.”

Carousel for Philips, through Tribal DDB Amsterdam and the first production by Stink Digital, was a two-minute-plus journey that took the viewer through a frozen moment in time as criminals engaged in a fierce shoot-out with police following a botched heist. The seemingly single shot ended in exactly the same place it began, creating a looping narrative.

The technique came from a commercial Berg had shot previously for Swedish jeans store JC Jeans – “like portraits of asses, more or less” – and although Carousel will be remembered by many as a landmark in film production, he shrugs that off modestly, reluctant to take credit for inventing the technique. “I’m sure people have done it [before I did]; it’s not like inventing the wheel or anything, it’s very simple,” he says.

The film was not only a success critically – it won every award under the sun, including the Film Grand Prix at Cannes – but it also became a viral smash, thanks in part to its interactive element (there were more films to discover within the film) and because it made viewers stop and wonder, ‘how the hell did they do that?’.

“Everyone thought it was made with 10,000 feet of film and huge amounts of post. I think the fact that it worked so well was that it was such a relatively simple process,” says Berg, going on to explain his thought process behind the movement in Carousel. “One of the things I always strive for is, whatever situation you’re in, how would you shoot this if it would happen in front of you? You don’t want to go like Lord of the Rings, flying around like a raven or through keyholes, because that could never happen with a camera and I think that creates a barrier between the viewer and what they’re watching because they know it couldn’t happen, even though it can look cool, it’s so fake.

“I always treat the camera like a person is holding it or it’s moving on a crane arm or whatever, so that was the thinking for Carousel. If it was a frozen moment, how would you move around everything?”

Perhaps unfortunately, a making-of film was released simultaneously. Was it tempting to keep the production tricks a secret? “Yes, I kind of wanted to keep it a secret, but it was rolled away from us as soon as it was done,” laments Berg, though not because he was bothered about copycats. “It’s just an idea and then other people can take that idea and have fun with it as well. There’s no copyright or anything, it’s not like I want to do frozen moment stuff for the rest of my life.”

The film reached far and wide and was referenced by celebrities such as Kanye West on social media, pastiched by 50 Cent in his video for OK, You’re Right and the frozen-moment technique has been copied countless times since. Is that at least flattering? “It’s flattering and annoying at the same time; it’s strange. It’s been done so much now that you kind of don’t really care anymore.”

Reeling in the work

Carousel was a game changer for Berg’s career and, since then, agencies have been falling over each other to sign him for big-budget jobs. As a result he’s assembled a reel as diverse as they come, employing all manner of styles, from stop-motion to live action to CGI. Was that intentional? “There’s no big strategy. It’s more that I love to do stuff that I don’t know exactly how to do. You can imagine how many ‘frozen moment’ scripts I’ve received. I could probably do 10 or 15 of those films a year for a long time,” he explains. “It’s so hard to do something interesting when you’re not very interested in what you’re doing, so I have to at least try to do stuff that I don’t necessarily know how to pull off, because I need that feeling of, ‘Shit, I have to really think how to solve this’ and then I get the inspiration and the energy and the… I don’t know what it is, but the spark gets you thinking so you come up with shit. I love trying new things.”

One film where he tried something new was in 2011’s Homes Within Homes for TalkTalk through CHI London. Berg had never worked in stop-motion before and found it an exhilarating experience. “It was so much fun to go into that little world and start creating characters and work out who they were and what their relationships were with each other,” he enthuses. It probably says something about Berg’s popularity and reputation that he was given a stop-motion script despite being a virgin to the genre, but he pulled it off expertly and crafted a touching story.

More recently he’s shot a beautiful music video for alt-folk band Lune that takes in jaw-dropping Swedish landscapes, as well as a huge Samsung spot, King of TV City, which fuses live-action and CGI. But even though the spot was post-heavy, Berg still insisted on capturing as much in-camera as possible. “Reality is reality; you can never really beat it because you never really know how it behaves. You know how it shouldn’t behave when you see something, you can tell that it’s wrong, but it’s very hard to tell exactly what is right.”

Does he get nervous on big, expensive shoots? “I can get nervous for certain parts of it,” he says, and although he gets into the groove and deals with problems as soon as he hits the set, the journey there can be daunting. “In the car on the way over you usually wish that the studio has burned down, or something has happened – there’s a tornado coming in and you have to go back to your hotel and sleep.”

But when he’s feeling uneasy about a shoot there’s a certain piece of advice he can call on that a fellow director gave him. “He told me that the role of the director is to protect the film from everyone who wants to destroy it. That is the utmost responsibility, just keep it safe.”

It takes a safe pair of hands to make a successful Hollywood studio movie and Berg will need all of his skills for his first foray into features. Last year he was announced as being attached to direct a remake of David Cronenberg’s 1983 cult classic Videodrome. He acknowledges it’s a big challenge but says, “I met with the producers and we talked about what the film should be and I gave them my take on it, which they really liked and we developed it from there. In many ways the original Videodrome has aged quite a lot but there are themes in it that can be reapplied to the modern world and shaped into something else.” He can’t talk about it much but will say, “I think it’s not going to be a straight remake; it’s going to re-envision the themes in the original.” 

The future and the feature

He’s working on a couple of other feature projects that are in various stages of development, but finds it an odd process. “I come from the commercial world and I am so used to things happening or not happening within a month,” he explains, unused to the drawn-out timescales in getting a feature made. But why has it taken so long for commercials directors such as himself, Ledwidge and Murro to cross over into features? “Ringan and Noam are obviously very talented guys and they have huge careers making commercials that pay them a hell of a lot more than a feature will. Making a feature is like taking two years’ unpaid leave from your proper job and risking a fair bit of that, so I think it’s partly that – we’re so busy doing our day job.” But even when he has his first movie under his belt, Berg will not leave commercials behind.

“I would like to do both. I love doing commercials; I think when it’s good it’s amazing. I love collaborating with people and creating something out of nothing and I like the kind of short nature of it that you have three days or five days of shooting and then it’s supposed to be something. I love that aspect of not necessarily over-thinking everything. I hope I can keep doing it for a long time.”

Living in LA with his wife and two young daughters, it can be “quite painful” to have to travel so much for work. You can bet, though, that he’s as encouraging to them as his own parents were. Perhaps one day they’ll make their own zombie films in the back garden? “I hope so!” he exclaims.

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