The Great Guns director digs down to the bedrock of his inspiration.
Looking at Olly Blackburn’s body of work, it’s clear the Great Guns director takes his influences from a broad spectrum of experience. From his big-screen exploits in the horror and thriller genres and recent rural teen drama Glue to his work in commercials, he’s a hard one to pigeonhole.
And when we asked him to name five of his biggest inspirations, his responses reflected these eclectic tastes. “I think every field is inspirational in its own way when you have real masters doing it,” he says. “And each one has a different lesson to tell. All these things, when I first saw or heard them, my mind turned into a supernova, but most importantly every time I re-watch or re-listen to them my mind still turns into a supernova. They all have that freshness and those inspirational qualities.”
PlayStation, Double Life
“To me a great piece of art that’s beautifully done, there’s no difference whether it’s a painting, a photograph or a film. And advertising can be great art. I was at film school in America – at NYU. I had this very inspirational writing teacher called Yvette Biro, who was very European and artsy. The first thing she showed me when I first got there about the art of making a great short film was a reel of classic British ads from the 80s and 90s.
Delivering an idea in 30 or 60 seconds is an art. And especially in this country we’ve proved to be amazing at it. When I was growing up all these ads would come out where your jaw would drop. There are so many of them. All these things like Guinness Surfer, the Vaughan and Anthea ads, Tarsem’s ads. Every time one of those came on it was this moment – this event. It was just beautiful filmmaking.
There’re other great ads; almost too many to go through. It could have been another ad on another day. But that ad for PlayStation by Frank Budgen – there’s something about that I will never forget. When I saw it for the first time I was speechless. It’s the simplicity and the humanity of it. All great ads I think are very simple concepts. But as we all know getting to simplicity is one of the hardest things to do. When you join the dots between these very real, very strange people with what they’re talking about, which is this escape into a complete virtual world, it’s the whole package – an amazing piece of storytelling.
The storytelling in that ad is so profound, particularly through the casting and the location. Everyone remembers that strange kid saying ‘I’ve conquered worlds’ and he’s in this kind of wasteland. And just that three seconds of image suggests so much story. You could almost create a whole world around that image.
It’s not like I’m always thinking of that, but there are lessons to be drawn from it about casting and visual storytelling that are sunk deep into my bedrock.”
Beastie Boys, Sabotage
“The trouble with Sabotage is it’s almost impossible to describe. It just is. Its genius just exists and it’s almost impossible to break down.
It’s sort of crack cocaine. Whenever [Sabotage] gets played on TV you just have to sit and watch it. It’s the energy. It’s the humour. It captures that really gonzo, high-octane, crazy vibe.
The whole thing is funny because it’s such a pitch perfect piss-take of a 70s cop show – the fake moustaches and the guy dressed as the bellhop and the movements they do. They know their genres so well and they’re just sending it up immaculately. And it’s kickass.
That energy does [influence the way I work]. You want to capture that energy. And there’s something about that video that’s so spontaneous and instinctive about it. It feels like not much thinking happened. They just did it. And they’ve got it 100 per cent right. I think in filmmaking that’s what you’re aiming for. Sometimes that can be very hard. Sometimes you can have people interfering with you.
What you’re really aiming for is to be able to get to those situations where you’re a group of people who’ve all got chemistry and every situation is instinctive and spontaneous, with your actors, with your DOP, with everyone all working as an organism. And that’s what that video says to me. Be like a shark. Keep moving forward. Don’t stop to think and let the creativity happen.”
“The Clash is just, for me, the greatest band that ever existed. And the reason why is that, first of all, they both played incredible music and they looked fucking great. So it was the double-whammy. Secondly they lasted five years and they were like this meteorite. They didn’t outstay their welcome. They didn’t turn in to U2 or the Stones. They just delivered incredible shit then they exited the stage. They knew the great lesson, which is timing: when to take the stage and when to get off.
The other thing is that although they were punk rock they had this amazing eclecticism. And in the five years that they were making music as the original Clash, they did reggae, they did electro-funk, they did sort of soul music, RnB. They just had this incredible breadth and appetite and yet made it all sound like their own, which I think is extraordinary.
My commercials are completely different to the films that I make. The films that I make are very dark thrillers and horror films and I hope to make more films in different genres. But I feel that I have a lot of different interests and a lot of appetite and creatively I want to explore a lot of things. And that’s one of the great things about The Clash.
I wish I could have that rock and roll spirit. They represent the true spirit of rock and roll.
And they also wrote one of the great songs about advertising, which is Koka Kola off the London Calling album.”
“We live in a visual medium and a photographic medium. A lot of commercials directors do photography. A lot have come out of photographic backgrounds. I love photography. I’m not a professional photographer.
Another day it could have been a different person but Don McCullin has always been one of my loves ever since I was a kid. I got given a book of great press photos.
There’s something about the way he captures the moment and the way he captures a face that gets to some kind of truth. He has a very famous [photograph] of a shell-shocked soldier in Vietnam. There’s something about that picture that just gets beyond anything you could express vocally.
The other thing I love about him is he shoots these very gritty things and there’s this kind of huge epic resonance to his eye to the way he frames, the way he shoots – I call it the ‘everyday epic’.
I’m British at heart. Almost all the commercials I’ve ever made have been in Britain and have all been about showing Britain in a very poetic, cinematic way. And a lot of that is inspired by Don McCullin and people like him and the way that his eye is trained.
He shoots beautiful black and white and I haven’t shot black and white for a long time, but whenever I try and shoot black and white that’s always the reference I give. This is how black and white should look.”
Night of the Hunter
“My favourite film changes each day, but there’s a certain core amount of films that are the supernova going off in your brain. First of all it’s one of those films that when you watch it, it’s so influential that you’re like ‘oh, shit, that came from this film!’ It’s full of stuff. You’ll be amazed at how much comes from that film.
When it opened it was a disaster. No one wanted to see it. It was too weird. Charles Laughton, who directed it, was an actor. He never made a film again after that. But it’s only just grown in influence ever since.
That [river boat] sequence is just unforgettable. It’s one of the most poetic moments in cinema. It captures the essence of fairy tale, of darkness and of dreams. It’s about these children fleeing a psychotic preacher and someone sings a song over the top as they float down this river [while] you see these frogs and rabbits in the foreground.
The reason I chose it is because it’s another one of those things where creativity is unforgettable in life and ever since I’ve seen it I’ve never forgotten it. It has a resonance that goes beyond time. It summons up a series of feelings in you about childhood and storytelling and darkness and light that just seem to break beyond the screen.
There’d be very little way you could directly connect it with the commercials I’ve done but there’s something about the visual storytelling and the poetry in it which I think does factor into [my work]. If you’re delivering an idea in 30 or 60 seconds each frame has to have a logic and humanity and poetry to it. You need to figure out where that lies. And it’s in casting people with rich faces that tell stories and being able to get the performances out of them, even if it’s just looking into the camera. It’s understanding where the innate soul of those five seconds is. All these things are about that. There’s an instinctive, innate soul about them.”
Have a look for these influences on Olly's reel.