The REVERSE director opens up on his idea notebook, fighter instinct and his transition to car shoots
Daniel Börjesson is an accomplished commercial director who has shot campaigns for BMW, Volvo, Porsche, Mazda, and SAS, to name a few. With an eye for framing subtle and relatable moments of real people, a distinct emotion and edge illuminate across his work, from lifestyle to automotive campaigns. Daniel is also hailed for his opus of documentaries and music videos, collaborating with artists like Kylie Minogue, Axwell, and Giorgio Moroder.
Name: Daniel Börjesson
Location: Stockholm / Los Angeles
Repped by / in: REVERSE (US), Darling@RSA (UK), NO Agency (Worldwide)
Awards: Epica Awards / ADC
Q > What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?
Daniel Börjesson > Every script comes with different intentions. Some are based on a smart conceptual idea while others are more elusive and driven by emotions. But every script has one thing in common: story. I always look for the underlying story of each script. It doesn’t matter if it’s vague or in your face. There’s always a story. What is it and what does it mean? What type of emotions can you extract from it? What’s the hook and how is it related to the brand? How can I make it mine? What I really love about being a film director is exploring ways to capture the narrative emotionally so it provokes a reaction in the viewer. That involves everything from working with the actors to carve out the right tone for their performances, to capturing the moments with the camera, lighting and sounds in ways that push the emotional elements of the scene. If I can find those treasures in the script, then I’m all hyped up.
Q > How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?
Daniel > I keep this notebook where I collect ideas. Just scribbles, drawings and fragments. It can be anything from a camera movement I’m excited about to a situation I think would be interesting to stage. The notebook is a great place to start. Just flipping through the pages to see if there’s anything I can use that fits. But before getting to the notebook, I need to figure out what the intention is and what the emotional drive is. To talk things through with the creatives on a conference call is a golden start. From there, I start bulking up ideas and getting to know the script better. I never do this sitting behind my desk. I go out running, listen to music or meet up with a friend or whatever else that can influence me. I find the first ideas are the most honest ones. They tend to be more spontaneous and less constructed. If I feel they’ll work within the context, then I start shaping them so they can be incorporated into the narrative. If they don’t work, then they end up in the notebook. In some cases, I feel the need to take a new approach to a written scene, losing a scene or adding a scene to a script. All with the purpose of making the script as visual, emotional and meaningful as possible, depending on what the intention is.
Q > If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with/don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?
Daniel > It’s central to know what it is you want to say and who you want to say it to. If I’m hired to work for a market I’m not familiar with, then I need to learn the language (not literally) of whom I will communicate with, and if it’s a brand I’m not familiar with, then I need to get to know its identity before being able to adapt myself to it. Once that is figured out, every decision made will steer in that specific direction and be made for a purpose. Advertisement is all about strategy, so you need to know what your goal is or you’ll get lost.
Q > For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?
Daniel > The short answer is everyone. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if it weren’t for every person being awesome at what they do. The best results happen when I’m the least awesome person on the set. Haha! But the people I spend the most time with during a production are the producer, the director of photography, and the actors. I’m really thrilled when I’m working with producers who think outside the box to make the impossible possible. Producers who go, ”You know that insane idea you had yesterday? Here’s how we’ll do it.” Most of the producers I work with have that type of fighter instinct. With actors, there’s a different type of relationship, more intimate in a way. I’m always careful not to micromanage actors. I avoid telling them exactly what to do, and instead, help them to create visual images and emotions they can draw from. Another close alliance is always the director of photography. We tend to build a very special bond during a production because we see and experience the film through the same set of eyes and minds. We have, piece by piece, thoroughly worked out the film's aesthetics together. It’s like having the twin brother or sister you never had.
Q > What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?
Daniel > I’m a car and people director and loving it. I’m drawn to the aesthetics of car spots; they can be powerful and aggressive but also human-centred and poetically told. Most rewarding are the ones that revolve around a story and people. A car doesn’t sell itself, the driver does.
Q > What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?
Daniel > That I only shoot cars. Most directors like to explore new territories and as we evolve as individuals through life, hopefully, that can be reflected in our work. Before transitioning to cars, I did a lot of VFX-driven work, which I find to be an incredibly useful experience enabling me to incorporate VFX elements into the work I do today. Don’t get me wrong, I totally get the idea of categorising directors to make it easy for clients to pick the right one. Especially when clients don't always have the time to immerse themselves into a certain director's work due to tight deadlines. But I think a common misconception is about the scope of our capabilities; that we can only do one thing and one thing only. And if it’s not on the reel, then we’re not fit for it. Most of the time, there are layers to our work, which are often overseen.
Q > Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?
Daniel > Before crossing over to directing, I used to be a producer. So, in a way, I guess I’m my own cost consultant. You should see my hat collection. Haha! I haven’t worked with a cost consultant per se but finding cost-efficient creative solutions is part of the job. Every job comes with budget considerations, so you also need strong and creative budget-handling support from the production company. It’s a team effort. I started out shooting music videos, so trying to get the most bang for the buck has become a part of my DNA. Many jobs that we pitch are being run through a cost controller on the client’s side before being awarded, so not having done your homework to make sure your ideas can be done for the budget can be a real deal-breaker.
Q > What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?
Daniel > We were shooting in the mountains of Transylvania a few years ago. We arrived for the director’s scout a few days before the client and agency did and it was heavenly. The setting was absolutely mind-blowing! On the morning of the first shooting day, I stepped out from the hotel into a proper storm and couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Nothing! Just a thick layer of fog. We were on a tight budget and the agency and client didn’t have weather insurance. We gave it a try and took the shotmaker on the road - which actually wasn’t a real shotmaker but rather, a jib arm strapped to the flatbed of a truck. However, the lens couldn’t capture a thing and the arm operator was more focused on hanging onto the arm to keep himself from blowing off the damn thing than operating it. We held back for a few hours to see if the wind would calm down and the sky would clear up but the clouds just stuck with us.
To save us from disaster, I headed back to the hotel and started to rework the shooting board, mainly by removing shots to condense what we were planning to shoot in two days into one. Needless to say, it was an absolutely painful process! Keep in mind that at this point, we didn’t have a clue about what that second day would look like since the weather acted up like a pimply hormonal teenager and changed by the hour. I think we managed to get two working hours out of that first day. When we woke up the second day, we were in the heavens again and shot the hell out of that day. We went on to win an Epica Award for the project, so maybe the circumstances weren't that bad after all.
Q > How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?
Daniel > To me, collaboration is key. It’s a given in the process and having opinions that diverge is the good part of the trade. The client, agency, and director contribute different perspectives, and all are equally important in reaching a satisfying result. Hopefully, as the director, I got the job in the first place because they liked my style or vision and have some trust in me - but I better have good arguments for what I want to do. And yes, sometimes, I do fall in love with ideas that I’m not able to sell because we draw different conclusions. It beats you down but only because you care about the project. But hey, brush it off and move on. Don’t dwell on it.
Q > What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?
Daniel > Diversity is essential if we want to keep our industry relevant. Advertising is communication and we are speaking with people from all walks of life, and to do so effectively, we need voices from all walks of life. As a director, your voice is shaped by your experiences, and that’s how you view the world. I do feel we’re moving in the right direction, which is great. But we can do more and do it faster and I’m sure we will. I’m an optimist. I’m always open to mentoring if I feel I have something to contribute. For me, it’s also an obligation. If it weren’t for people mentoring me when I started out, I would never be here myself.
Q > How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time?
Daniel > I’m looking forward to not needing to wake up at 3am to catch the 6am flight to attend a three-hour pre-production meeting (PPM) only to fly back home in the evening. I’ve been pushing for digital PPMs for years already but finally, they may be here to stay. It’s definitely something we should stick to in the future.
Q > Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)?
Daniel > It’s a new landscape out there and I’m not surprised clients want to make use of all the options. Of course they do. So, nine times out of 10, we’re asked to deliver the project in all available formats. Often without adding days to the schedule. Many times, we can manage framing a shot to fit both 16:9, 1:1 or 9:16, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. Then we need to re-shoot and re-frame specifically for that certain format. That sometimes involves re-staging the action and finding a new camera position resulting in adding stuff to an already-crammed day. This is something I need to consider when boarding the project to make sure we can be as efficient as possible by creating frames for multi-format purposes.
Q > What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work (e.g. virtual production, interactive storytelling, AI / data-driven visuals etc)?
Daniel > I’m an avid reader of American Cinematographer, so I’m trying to keep myself updated as much as possible on the technical side of filmmaking. It’s a love/hate relationship because it’s not the technical aspect of filmmaking that makes me tick, it’s the storytelling. But on the other hand, new technology adds new possibilities and enables me to approach storytelling in ways that wasn’t before possible, which is very exciting to me. Having that said, I have my background in VFX, so I’m not all unfamiliar with it. On my radar now is the interactive cylindrical LED wall that was created for The Mandalorian. A technology that enables real-time compositing and allows you to move from one location to another in a split second. It opens up amazing opportunities. So, whenever I come across a new technical solution that will help drive a story or the visual and emotional concept of a scene or a performance, I’m all for it.
Q > Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?
Daniel > Continental - Who Cares.
Early on in the process, DP Sebastian Winterø and I started exploring ideas for the movement and the lighting for the film and how it could infuse the storytelling. We figured we had the same taste and frame of references when it came to still photography, cinematography, and arts. I find it rare these days that we are given the time needed to immerse yourself in the deeper meaning of cinematography for commercials, which is not only about the technical and practical side of it but also the artistic level. It happens, of course, but you have to fight for that time; it's not always given to you. Drilling deep is definitely one of the things I love about filmmaking. To me, this was one of those projects where I could combine the car genre with people and storytelling.
I can probably say I had one of my best casting experiences on this project. We shot it in Cape Town and before arriving, I had already made a narrow selection of actors and actresses I wanted to meet with. In the callbacks, I started to mix and match to find the right couple with the right chemistry. The session soon turned into an actors workshop-type of thing. I love working intimately with actors and developing screen personalities. This job was all about that.
Emil and Caroline - No Swag
This music video shows where I come from. I barely had any money for this job, literally none, so I needed to come up with a cost-efficient idea that was still captivating and fit the undertones of the track. I’m a sucker for slow-burning films, so I designed this one single shot that follows a skateboarder in an abstract apocalyptic world. It’s simple but I think it worked out. Spoiler alert: the skateboarder featured in the video is none other than the legendary Peggy Oki, original member of the notorious Z-boys.
BMW - Z4
I mentioned I shoot car spots a lot, so I figured I better share one. Here’s one that doesn’t hinge so much on storytelling but rather on visuals and pure emotions. However, while fleshing this one out, I created a story for myself, just so that I had something to lean on while making decisions along the way. It helped me tremendously in the process. This was a prototype car we shot in Los Angeles a few years ago. It was the only example existing in the world and apparently, prototypes cost a fortune to manufacture. So, as you can imagine, a lot of eyes were burning down my neck. This particular one was being featured at a big international car show the following week, so we could not make a single scratch on it. No pressure!