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The seemingly sudden announcement of global lockdown had quite an effect on most people, with the prospect of not heading into the workplace or seeing family and friends a bit of a blow.

For Mark Molloy, it meant putting on hold his dreams of shooting his first feature film. “I got one day into it and we were pulled out,” he recalls with a grin over our transatlantic Zoom call. “I'd been away from the family for two months already with the feature [the film shoots in Eastern Europe], so I was happy to do nothing for a month or two.”

However, if you’re a director whose 2019 was jam-packed with award-winning work for Google and Apple, the phone doesn’t stay quiet for long, as Molloy and his production companies [SMUGGLER in the US/UK, Exit Films in his birthplace of Australia] soon found out.

I grew up on a farm in Australia, so the idea of being a director was not even on the fucking horizon whatsoever.

“It started with questions: “Do you have any kids?”; “Can you film at home?”. All that sort of stuff. At that stage like I had seen quite a bit of the COVID work coming out, which was fine, but everything was looking very similar.”

Then came the call from Apple, asking if he’d like to revisit The Underdogs, the workplace quartet he launched to aplomb the previous year. Only this time, the workplace is their homes, and the shoot remote. A challenging proposition and a long way removed from the Aussie kid whose rural upbringing meant he didn’t know much in the ways of cinema.

Apple – The Underdogs

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“I grew up on a farm in Australia, so the idea of being a director was not even on the fucking horizon whatsoever. The closest thing I had to doing anything artistic was graphic design - that was the artiest course they offered at school. I went to university in a small town, so I hadn't seen any films. I had no knowledge. Dad was a farmer; it wasn't like he was bringing home great things to watch. I remember when Pulp Fiction came to town, I was like, “fucking hell!”. It just like blew my mind.“

That’s the problem about being in Australia; you're always on a plane.

It was through graphic design that Molloy found his way to London, working at legendary studio Why Not Associates as a designer. With a growing interest in photography and motion graphics, it wasn’t until he stepped onto a film set that he realised his true calling. “It was like a lightbulb went off and I was like, okay, I'm doing the wrong thing.”

The following years saw Molloy make a move into directing. “I was designing, sort of, but at the same time trying to get directing gigs: music videos; spec ads; doing anything I could to try and get my director reel up.”

Nike – Mutant Foot

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After moving back to Australia to give the new career a go (London, at the time, being so jam-packed with talent that it proved hard to make a mark) the first inkling the fledgeling director had that this might just work out was on a 2005 gig for a little-known brand named Nike. “That sounds a bit wanky,” he confesses, “but it was just my producer and me on a big post job. The huge thing was, we got to go to The Mill. We had no money, we flew economy over to London, slept on someone's floor, caught the Tube in every day, but we got to use The Mill. We spent the whole budget on that.” Picking up recognition and acclaim for Mutant Foot, the advertising world “opened up a little bit more”, and Molloy was on the map. 

I'm always drawn to longer stories.

Fast-forward to 2019 and Molloy isn’t just on the map; he’s dominating it. After moving to LA in 2014 - “I was travelling all the time. That’s the problem about being in Australia; you're always on a plane.” - and joining SMUGGLER, the director was finally able to get his teeth into some juicer projects and work in a longer form, something he’d been keen on for a while.

“I don't know the last time I got a straight 30-60 [second spot],” he notes. “Everything's like three or four minutes. That's what I want to do, I'm always drawn to longer stories. I don't even know what to call it; it's like a short film, but it's not a short film, it's an ad. A really long ad. Films like the Apple ones have millions of views now, so someone must be interested in watching them.”

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Google – Introducing Google Nest

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Tile – Lost Panda

Key to the appeal is Molloy’s intrinsic ability to invest heart into all of pieces, no matter how short, as evidenced in the Apple pieces, as well as charming work for Google and Tile. The key: finding the moment in the shoot.

“I want to feel the moment happen on set, you know what I mean?” he explains. “I want to let it evolve. I don’t go in with a storyboard that I'm necessarily going to follow - I like to get on set with solid ideas in my head, but I'll overwrite scenes. [The films] need to discover these moments, rather than treat it more like a commercial, ‘okay bam, bam we're in and out’. I feel like two minutes allows you time to set it up and invest.”

Case in point is Molloy’s ongoing work with Apple; films that have brought both award-show success and massive audience popularity. Leading the pack, ironically, is (are?) The Underdogs, the aforementioned foursome whose first spot in 2019 was an unexpected smash.

You get great actors to play those parts and all of a sudden, you know, you get a little bit of that magic on set.

“I kind of drive everyone bananas [when making those films] because I give each character their own little worlds. They’re each in a bland office corner desk, but there’s so much for them to play with: ‘you’re divorced and you've got two kids’; ‘you hate this and you love eating this for lunch’; ‘you're OCD and you've got like all these weird sterilising things around your desk’; and all that stuff adds up. I think you can feel it; you are jumping into the world of these people. 

“That stuff is important because, on paper, that should have been shit spot, you know what I mean. It's like, ‘four officer workers make a project together with Apple products’. Does that sound like it’s going to be a great little film? So all that background stuff becomes essential for the characters. You’ll know all the back history: what makes them tick; what do they eat for lunch; what do they hate; what do they love. You get great actors to play those parts and all of a sudden, you know, you get a little bit of that magic on set.”

Apple – The Surprise

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Capturing magic on set was a vital element of Molloy’s next slice of Apple - iPad promoting holiday cry-fest The Surprise. Concerning a family visiting their recently widowed grandfather, the dynamics between actors had to be instantly relatable and truthful. Key to this was the casting of two real-life sisters as the kids. “It was kind of non-negotiable,” he explains. “On set, they were just amazing. You could just like leave them be and let the moments play out and, because they're real sisters, they would feed off each other in a way two actors on camera couldn't.”

What I’m looking for is that nugget at the core; something that’s going to resonate.

No matter how good the actors, without a story to play off, the films would fall flat. So what makes Molloy’s films in particular so emotive? “I’m always trying to find what's at the heart of it, if you know what I mean. The heart's a bit of a weird thing to say, but what I’m looking for is that nugget at the core; something that’s going to resonate.” For The Surprise, that meant matricide. “From the beginning, I said the grandmother should be dead,” he laughs. “once I had that, I had something we could build a great story around.”

Apple – The whole working-from-home thing

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Which brings us back to 2020, Covid lockdown and one hell of a nugget around which a film could revolve. “The guys at Apple wanted to know if I could do something with the Underdogs,” he remembers. “and I was like, yes totally. We were all inspired by the conditions and we knew what we didn't want to do: make another COVID ad.”

The result feels like a ‘bottle episode’ of your new favourite sitcom, with the characters that we fell in love with over three minutes in 2019 given almost seven minutes to tell us more about themselves. Whilst using slick Apple tech, natch.

“It's a tricky time,” Molloy explains, “because shooting is so much more about what you can't do than what you can do, but I never wanted the audience to feel that when they watched it. I didn't it want to be a spot where people thought ‘I guess they did the best they could with what they had’, you know. I just wanted it to be a great story, a really fun story for the times.”

With an established cast and characters in place, and a conceit to fuel the story, it was only the difficulty of a remote shoot that acted as a hurdle, and not just in a mechanical sense. “The technical complications are there, but the hardest thing is to direct an actor remotely. It's tough when you don't have the ability to pull them to the side of the set and just go ‘this what I'm thinking’. It’s very tricky doing it at a distance.”

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Above: On set for the Google Nest spot.


On the upside, when shooting does reconvene on his feature film, the cast and crew should at least share a European time-zone: “Nowhere's as bad as America right now.”. 

A personal tale to Molloy, who spent three months with writer Adam Sorin honing the story, the film doesn’t mean an end to his comercial career.

“I was actually just chatting to Brian Carmody [SMUGGLER co-founder and managing partner] about how things have grown over the past year or two. How the industry is changing and how it's the best time to be a director who wants to tell good stories.

“I love what I do in the advertising world and I love how it's evolved. I'm being asked to make these little films with great characters, and that's what I always dreamed of.”

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