Jackie Lee raises a glass to British pub culture

Jackie Lee’s spot for Mahou won Gold in the Commercial category at this year’s YDA. He talks to Izzy Ashton about the alchemy of pub culture, authentic casting, and the complexities of shooting in a working kitchen. 

Have you always wanted to direct? 

I think I’ve always wanted to create but I’ve only taken the jump into directing now. For me directing is a way of making sense of everything. The satisfaction comes with the freedom to create a world as you see it. But really it’s most satisfying to get away with a frequent exercise of narcissism.

Where do you draw your inspiration from? 

I like films that capture a sense of feeling and express a raw intensity, I get excited when I see freedom in films. Director John Cassavetes does this well. You can really feel when something isn’t diluted or compromised at all. Inspiration comes from different universal pathways. 

I think it’s best when it comes from within you, from your own experiences, interests, and taste rather than a particular director or artist. It’s natural to look to others when you first start making films because you have no idea what you’re doing. 

I don’t really know what I’m doing but not knowing what you’re doing is actually a pretty perfect place to start. It forces you to create based on instincts. There are of course directors and artists I gravitate towards, but you can’t plagiarise the greats; you can only agree on the principles.

Where did the idea for The Plimsoll come from?

When I first moved to London, I’d go to a pub called the Compton Arms. I came to know Ed and Jamie (Four Legs) who used to run the kitchen alongside some amazing people like Esther who is still there. Having grown up in a place without pub culture, the pub was exciting to me. 

Structurally, they are like any other building or home but when you mix the right ingredients within those four walls, it creates this intoxicating energy, this sort of perverse alchemy. It offers a prodigious comfort that makes you want to stay there all day but that could also just be the pints. Maybe it’s not alchemy, it’s just alcoholism.

Anyways, Ed and Jamie eventually went out on their own and made The Plimsoll which is the pub you see in the film. It’s exactly the kind of boozer I’d come to know and love and I wanted to capture the feeling of being there. Mahou loved the idea and we were given the opportunity to make it. 

The celebration of the pub was a starting point but breaking the pub down to its anatomy, so that the people, the chefs, the drinks, the food and the sounds were all little atoms that created something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s like any state of matter: the particles have to be arranged precisely otherwise it doesn’t work. Full disclosure, I have no idea if that’s how particles work but it sounds good.

We all have simple moments in our lives that inexplicably stay with us. It can be some small thing that happens every day but for whatever reason that particular moment is indelible. Food can bring back memories in a way that is incredibly vivid. I dissected my own to see what made them so important; the way the air felt, the time of day, the lighting, the sound, the smells, the people present, and through this scientific approach to memory, the idea became something.

The legendary Walter Campbell was a massive help and he really elevated the film. He helped hone this idea of anatomy by suggesting the ECUs we see, and he brought so many other great ideas to the table that sparked more ideas. He was crucial in the making of this film and I’m really grateful for the experience of working with him.

Why shoot in black and white? 

A big visual inspiration were the images from the book White Heat shot by photographer Bob Carlos Clarke. There was a confidence and rawness to the images and I felt black and white captured more intensity. You need grit to work in a kitchen. It’s relentless back-breaking work that requires an immense tolerance for pain.

Shooting black and white was a deliberate choice that put all the elements on a level playing field. The tone across the film had to be just right otherwise it could have been terribly cheesy.

How did the shoot go?

The shoot was very intense. We only had a few hours to get the portraits before the restaurant opened. It didn’t help that our camera arrived broken. Fortunately our ACs Orlando and Riccardo managed to find a workable solution and we only lost a couple of hours. It meant we had to be very quick with our decisions and go with our gut. I felt like throwing up the whole time but we got what we needed. 

My DP Jake Gabbay and I came back on another day just us and shot in the kitchen mid rush. We used a Bolex so that we could be more nimble and stay out of the way of the kitchen staff who were deep in the weeds but the Bolex viewfinder is crap so we were essentially blind. We had to watch the natural choreography of the kitchen and pick our moments to capture it in a way that still felt considered and carefully composed. Jake’s incredibly talented and brought a lot to the film as well.

Were the cast real-life chefs and waitering staff, or actors? 

With the exception of a couple of characters, everyone is a non-actor or real kitchen staff. I wanted the characters to feel real and for the film to carry an authenticity. With the help of my amazing casting director Sam Franco, we were able to find some great faces and characters. The man you see near the very end of the film is a guy I walked by the night before the shoot, so there was some luck in finding him.

What do you enjoy about making commercials? 

I love a good idea in whatever form that comes in. I love the strategic component behind commercials and the challenge of creating something artistic within the structure of a commercial endeavour. When something you make can have a tangible impact, whether that’s more donations to a charity, more awareness about a social issue, or more humbly in this case, more Mahou’s sold and more people knowing about the Plimsoll, I find that exciting.

What have you learned from making this film? Is there anything you’d have done differently? 

I think you learn a great deal in every project you make, there’s too many to list. I don’t know if I’d have done anything differently because all the decisions led to the film that was made and sometimes there is beauty in the flaws and imperfections. Maybe get a backup camera next time I shoot film.

What does it mean to you to win a YDA?

I have a bad habit of not stopping to appreciate things like this in the moment, but to win a YDA is an honour and I’m very grateful that the film resonated with the jury. It’s an important award that really helps young directors launch their careers. I remember when I first started working in film, it was something I always admired and it felt very far out of reach from all the way across the world. So to be here now with one of my own is special.

What’re you working on at the moment? What’s coming next? 

As for what’s next, I’m looking forward to being able to continue to make more films and want to thank the YDA and the whole cast and crew who made this film happen. Especially Ed Mcllroy, Jamie Allan, the whole team from The Plimsoll and Alex Twigge from Mahou who made it all possible and gave us so much freedom. On to the next!

Interview by Izzy Ashton shots


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