Tom Wilson is a British film director and writer. He was born in Lancashire and studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at Oxford University. He lived in Bucharest for more than a decade - led by his fascination with the country - and speaks fluent Romanian. Having directed for the likes of Netflix, Samsung, Vodafone, Orange and Red Bull, and even shot documentary films for the BBC, Tom recently set his sights on a new venture - joining Toronto-based Impossible Studios, where he will bring his years of experience to the table as a commercial director.
Name: Tom Wilson
Repped by/in: Impossible Studios, Canada
Awards: Best Feature Film at Oslo Independent Film Festival, ‘Gopo’ National Film Award for Best Documentary Romania, Best Indie Feature and Best Actress at the Los Angeles Film Awards, nominated for Best Performance at Raindance Film Festival.
LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other, and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?
Tom> I get excited by anything that’s out of the ordinary. I love getting scripts from creatives who’ve thought about unusual locations and unusual situations, or stories with ‘heart’ - stories driven by emotion. But, there’s no formula to it. There’s no recipe for a killer script. That’s why creating great scripts (both in cinema and in advertising) is an art, not a science.
LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?
Tom> Once all the thinking is done, my superhero skill is the ability to write treatments really, really fast. When I was at university, we used to have to write two or three 4,000-word essays each week, and I also worked as a journalist, so I can get treatments finished about five minutes after the kick-off call has ended.
Doing image research is a totally different matter. It takes me about three days to find a decent-looking photo of a tomato, so I always work with an image researcher. We actually used AI-generated images in a treatment this year - that was a first (and only slightly terrifying!).
There’s always a frustrating moment during the treatment stage when you’ve got the perfect reference TVC in your head, but you’ve no idea how to find it. I’ve wasted days exploring the dark outer reaches of Vimeo looking for commercials that I think I’ve seen but might have possibly dreamed. There should be an online forum where directors can give obfuscatory descriptions of adverts and helpful users help track down the link.
LBB> 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?
Tom> In general, when you’re shooting for a brand, it’s really important to know that what matters to you as director often doesn’t matter much to the client. Jump cuts? Not an issue. Breaking the line? Nobody noticed. On the other hand, there’s a long list of things that clients really do worry about, and for very good reasons. One of the really key jobs of a director is to care about these things just as much as the client does. If you can do this - while also not breaking the line - then you’re on to a winner. (Breaking the line is, perhaps, not the best example. Seems like everyone is breaking the line nowadays. The line is dead! Long live slightly disorientating dialogue scenes!)
LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad, and why?
Tom> It’s really important to have a DOP that shares the same visual cues as you, and who you click with on a personal level, but the key relationship might just be with the producer. It’s important to get a feel for what’s possible and what isn’t, and a lot of that comes from trust. I think a lot of directing is about knowing the limitations of a shoot and working creatively within those constraints. I love it when producers feel like they’re fighting for you, and are as excited as you are to secure that really sought-after piece of kit or location. Great producers care just as much as you do about the finished work.
LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?
Tom> I love action and I love comedy, but I really enjoy shooting anything with a bit of story to it. It’s all very fashionable right now to bring ‘storytelling’ into advertising (even microsites seem to need a ‘narrative’ nowadays), but it’s true. It could even be just a six second bumper, but you’re still telling a story, and there’s a way to do it well. (Ask yourself, how would Lubitsch do it?).
LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?
Tom> Pro-tip: if you need to move a load of sheep around a set, the best way to do it is to use a shopping trolley and wheel them around, one by one.
LBB> 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?
Tom> I’d jump at the chance to mentor someone or have someone shadow me on set - it’s hopefully going to happen on my next shoot. I was really lucky that I got to watch other directors work. I started out as a self-shooter, so understanding how crews function was really important, and the more experience you have on a film set, the more relaxed you’ll be. I also feel that film can be a bit of a ‘hermetic bubble’ - people end up in film because they know other people in film, and have some kind of induction into it. Breaking in from the outside is insanely tough, and it’s even tougher if you’re from a less privileged or more marginalised background. It’s our job to help these people get inside. They’re often the people with the most important, most urgent stories to tell.
LBB> Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?
Tom> I shot an advert for Community Clothing, who make ethical clothing in the UK, and we shot it in Lancashire where I grew up. It’s a really special film for me because it felt like reconnecting with the place I’m from. It’s incredibly diverse, and just having the chance to see all the amazing things that young people are doing in the area was really inspiring. Everyone was working for free, so you never knew if anyone was actually going to turn up, and there was lots of last minute improvisation going on. There was also no team behind us at all (we were a crew of four), so I was the producer, first AD, location manager, casting agent, stylist, crafty, van driver… (Don’t ever book me as a van driver. I’m literally the worst. I got a fine for driving in the bus lane).