Armed with plenty of talent, temerity, a film degree and advanced blagging skills, Sara Dunlop set about directing award-winning ads at just 23. Her work varies widely; from the magical Billboards, to the chilling Where Is Your Line? – a rape crisis centre film that won her a Lion and four British Arrows.

It’s also rich in detail, intriguing and layered with contradictary forces; a quality that reaches its zenith in Dreamlands, the Cannes-selected short she also wrote. Carol Cooper finds out about the subtle twists and bittersweet notes that give her films such flavour.

Questions, questions, questions – these are what one takes away from an interview with Rattling Stick director Sara Dunlop. It’s not that she won’t have answered the questions you’ve asked, but in answering them, her inquiring mind poses even more questions. Not only, like the best of directors, can she take you on journeys into the film worlds she creates, but – via the medium of chat – she also has a knack for luring you into exploratory philosophical odysseys, ponderings on the paradoxicals that inspire her.

Having started directing ads back in 1997, when she was just 23 (and only three per cent of commercials directors were female), she’s been described as ‘ballsy’. She thinks it was rather that she was too young to be scared: “I don’t know how ballsy I was, I just wanted to be a director so I just tried. It was more a case of ignorance is bliss.” She gives me a gnomic Bob Dylan quote: ‘I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now’, which questions the notion that confidence grows with age.

“As you mature you feel you’re learning more but you’re also learning how much you don’t know, that there is so much more to learn.” She also questions the term ‘ballsy’: “I don’t want to be all feminista about it but I’ve been thinking about maleness in language recently – ‘having balls’, ‘man up’.” Together we take an amusing tangential stroll up cul-de-sacs of confusion surrounding the use of genitalia in language, are there too many dicks and balls in common parlance? Shouldn’t we have a few more lady parts bandied around, a few more cunts perhaps?

She discovered she wanted to direct as a child – she and her brother went to the cinema after school almost daily, so that her night shift-working mum could sleep. She came to relish being transported into the world of movies. After studying film at Westminster University, instead of slogging as a runner, she smartly decided the work was in pop promos and ads.

Teaming up with a cameraman, she blagged equipment and favours and began making her own spec films, eventually begging a script from Eugene Ruane, a copywriter at Saatchi – that led to a budget Fuji ad that got used. When she heard CD Dave Trott was looking for a cheap director for a film on Third World debt she cold-called him and offered herself. She got the job and impressed Trott, who put her in touch with production company Annex; they snapped her up.


The silent anomaly speaks up

So there she is, a slight, impish twenty-nothing year old, about to lead what was often, back then, a blokey set – how did she take charge? “Sometimes I’d not say things, thinking others must know better than me. Then I started to twig, the director has to say what they think. I might have crept into directing by slightly blagging it but I always knew what I thought…” I ask her if there’s truth in tales of her starting a shoot day by posing as a runner or PA before revealing herself as director.

“Yes, I did that a couple of times, just for fun.” It displays her rather cheeky side and probably contributed to her being remembered. She also thinks that being an anomaly – ie. female, young and half Chinese helped her to stand out.

So has she noticed an improvement since Free the Bid and other initiatives started trying to close the gender gap in the industry? “Some people truly don’t see gender, they’ve heard about you, they look at your reel and think a script might suit you,” – but she’s wary of tokenism – “others might say, ‘it would be good to have a female director on this,’ [and] maybe that’s where things needs to change.”

A while back she thought female directors were often offered ‘girlie’ scripts, tampon ads etc, but she’s not sure that’s so true now. In her case, her diverse talents have won her an amazing range of jobs. Heartbeat, her recruitment ad for the Royal Navy couldn’t be more muscular and non-girlie; dubbed Trainspotting-style by The Guardian, it came her way due to her previous collaboration with WCRS creative team Ollie Beale and Alex Holder [who went on, appropriately, to join Anomaly]. “They didn’t see me as a ‘female director’. They were one of the first new wave, mixed teams… a kind of motley crew, not exactly Navy types! I think it was a bit strange for the client. But I loved it, I loved all those toys.”



Along with approaching ‘toys’, such as gunboats and aircraft carriers with gusto, she’s embraced highly complex, technical challenges, such as HTC’s Freefall, for which she helmed the world’s first sky-dive fashion shoot on a mobile phone, with models falling at 126mph over the Arizona desert. She seems unfazed by logistical challenges, only remembering the fun times – “I threw Katie [Keith, Rattling Stick’s ‘first lady’] out of the plane. Twice!” she gleefully recalls.


Subtle laughs and saucy siblings

She, inaccurately, says she’s “not funny”, but she’s adept at directing comedy, and not just obviously funny spots – such as MoreThan’s Courtesy and Hotel, and Virgin Trains’ wickedly droll, incest-based web film Sis. She also coaxes comedy out of subtle pieces, such as the performances of young girls waiting for a guy to call in Vodafone’s The Wait. The story here is largely conveyed by the music, something that is a near obsession of hers.

In her 2007 spot Billboards, in which São Paulo’s outdoor ads ban echoed Sky Movies’ ad-free films, she says all the money went on the track Pure Imagination sung by Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. The whimsical song, set against the grey urban backdrop of empty billboards, perfectly conjures a childlike yearning, the soaring of the imagination that films inspire.

Sometimes she will fight for the right music, but she’s also gracious enough to accept when she might have got it wrong: “Music can absolutely make or break your film. When I pitched on Sport England [This Girl Can], I totally hung my hat on a whole paragraph in my treatment that stated I knew exactly what the music should be. You know the song from The Italian Job, called The Self Preservation Society? They’re in prison banging trays, chanting, ‘Dah dah, da da da, da da da da, England!’ Sport England. I imagined it done by loads of women. Then Kim [Gehrig] got it and they used Missy Elliott’s Get Ur Freak On and I thought, fuck! That’s brilliant. That’s so much better. I’d way overthought it. Just put a fucking good track on it and you’re done!”


Infinitesimal adjustments to reality

Mostly though, her ‘overthinking’ pays off, leading to work that is rich in fine detail. For the award-winning TFL road safety PSA of 2015, The Tortoise and The Hare, she spent ages trying to source exactly the right hare and tortoise masks for the teen gangs to wear as they set off on a doomed night out. Eventually, bespoke masks were made to resemble shop-bought ones, but with an extra sinister twist. Thus, something recognisable is changed slightly to give a subliminal, unsettling effect. “I like things that are just slightly beyond real. Just a little. You could sort of go to the left, or right, up or down. Just slightly.” It’s these small adjustments that give her work the edge.

Her genius at subtly weaving the sinister into a narrative is exemplified by Where Is Your Line?, the 2011 interactive film she directed and co-wrote for The Havens rape/sexual assault crisis centre. In this story of a young girl out partying, the darkness creeps up on you as the intoxicating delights of boy-meets-intoxicated-girl slowly turn to a sordid tale of rape.

Conversely, Dunlop also captures the delicate delights of consensual sex in her recent trio of branded films for GQ and Burberry, Mr Burberry – The Night Before, in which three women, including Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner, deliver monologues about the previous night’s liaisons. Dunlop co-wrote them with actor/writer Sarah Solamani and again, it’s the details in her direction that give the films such texture. Close shots of one woman girlishly pulling at the hem of her skirt, another playing with a strand of hair, or touching her bare ankle, heighten the sensuality, while indicating a vulnerability that offsets their sassiness. These are modern women, high-fliers, yet there is wistful, old-fashioned romance about the trilogy.

I suggest to her there’s a lot of romance in her work. Even in the dark, vampire-themed branded short High she co-wrote and directed for designer Jonathan Kelsey. Along with the eerie suspense she builds, there is a touch of sweetness. She agrees the film could be dubbed ‘romantic grotesque’. “Maybe I am a romantic! I think the chemistry of falling in love is interesting. Love and sex will always be endlessly fascinating, and now we’re opening up and talking about them in more ways than we used to. But I’m not so interested in portraying straight romance. I like sweetness, but a twist.”

Located somewhere in the shadows between sweet romance and twisted carnality is her celebrated short Dreamlands. It is set in that hub of the contradictory that is Margate – a bleakly beautiful Kentish seaside town that manages to be simultaneously dead-end and up-and-coming. “I like the idea of ugly/beautiful,” she says, “In French it sounds good – ‘jolie laide’.” I’d not heard the term and ask her to pronounce it again, “I don’t really sound good in French to be honest, I’m from South London,” she deadpans.

With a soundtrack that’s at times sweetly ethereal, at times sinister, the coming-of-age film follows 17-year-old Pixie as she navigates a sexual landscape featuring an imaginary teen craze Dunlop jokingly labels “dogging for glamorous people”. Slightly hellish scenes of delinquents smashing up burning cars and throngs of fornicating teens – almost reminiscent of Bruegel’s disturbing vision of Lust in The Seven Deadly Sins – are counterpoised by gliding, sensuous camera work, and the tender, wordless glances between Pixie and new kid on the block, Blondie.



The film poses questions about the exploitation of the young, particularly young women, in a hyper-sexualised, image-obsessed society. “We’re getting confused about equality. [A girl] might ask, ‘why can’t I be like the boys,’ but what does that mean? She might think ‘I can go out and fuck who I want,’ but the question is, does she want to? And if she does, will she be labelled a slag? Guys are called studs, while girls are still called sluts. That’s not right.” While I rage about the corrosive ladette culture, Dunlop, balanced as ever, invites me to view the flipside.

She has a less doom-laden view. “I think the young will figure it out, there are more conversations now, movements emerging that disappeared in the 90s, more politicising of issues. I’m not saying, ‘It’s terrible out there for young people’. I’m just saying find a way to make choices, to be honest about wanting intimacy over just sex. Or if you just want to fuck someone, that’s good, do it. But be in charge of that feeling.”


A tender look at the hinterlands of Tinderland

Dreamlands is ultimately a hopeful story – and a hopeful project, as she’s adapting it into a feature. She finds writing throws up harder challenges than directing, making her feel more vulnerable. “I think artists need some vulnerability, it makes you question yourself and you feel things acutely. It can be painful, to express yourself and risk having someone tell you it’s shit. I mean, when you’re writing and directing it’s a double whammy.” But she’ll handle the risks and is up for the challenge of examining how Tinder-generation teens might navigate love and dating. “That’s going to be the film’s next level, exploring that more, more, more and more,” she enthuses.

You can feel the excitement as Dunlop dons her explorer’s hat and marches off into the hinterlands of the coming-of-age dichotomy, child/adult, sex/love, ugly/beautiful – the paradoxical world is her oyster.

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