Interview with Sir Alan Parker: From Ad Creative to Movie Director

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Adweek Europe’s Monday afternoon saw one of its most recognizable names, Sir Alan Parker, take to the stage to talk about his life and career in advertising and film in a fireside chat with Mike Burgess (Metfilm Creative).

Although Parker hasn’t worked in advertising for over 30 years, the reel of commercials shown to the audience at the NewGen stage was a perfect 11-minute sample of what the industry was like during its golden age. Although the NewGen audience, being characteristically young, didn’t have many raised hands when Parker asked whether anyone still recognized the brands shown, the selection showcased a particularly interesting era in British brands during which Parker worked. With adverts for Cockburns Special Reserve to Bird’s Eye and a certain “roast beef dinner for one” a real snapshot of Parker’s career in advertising emerged as one that was not beset by the same kinds of restrictions that exist in the industry today. Parker elaborated on this point, explaining that the height of his career was during a particular period in time where creatives “didn’t have to go through the countless committees they do now and [they] improvise”. Today, that kind of improvisation simply isn’t possible as everything that is going to be shot for a commercial must be pre-approved.

While advertising is certainly a fulfilling career in itself, Parker always saw it as a jumping off point to something different. A working-class kid from Islington, Parker started as a copywriter and director for television advertisements, notably for the agency Collet Dickinson Pearce (CDP) in the 1960s and 1970s. At this time, Parker described, the basement of the building at CDP was completely empty— “like a carpark without the ramp”—and so he asked the agency for money to experiment and shoot advertisements using this space. Using personnel from the agency as actors and crew, it was Parker at the helm directing everyone and saying “action” and it is in this space that whispers of his film director future began to first take shape. Of course, all of these commercials had to be remade professionally after their initial takes directed by Parker as he was not in the film union, but it wasn’t long before this changed—at the encouragement of CDP director Charles Pierce, no less.

One day whilst Pierce was showing prospective clients around the agency, he found the entire place desolate and when he finally asked where everyone was, he was told, “they’re all making a film with Alan in the basement”. Initially furious, Pierce soon realized that Parker was meant for a different career path and so, the director called him into his office and finally said, “Alan, you’re going to leave. We want you to leave and start a production company and we’re going to give you an interest free loan”. With those words, he began his own production agency for making actual television adverts but as time went on, Parker grew frustrated with the short timeslot and limited content available to commercials and shortly after transitioned to film where he would remain for the rest of his professional career as an award-winning director, producer and screenwriter.

Although today many film directors transition seamlessly between commercials and films, this openness was not typical of Parker’s time. Met with condemnation and disapproval from critics, it was some time until Parker began to gain respect in the film industry. In fact, before writing and directing Bugsy Malone in 1976, Parker submitted three different screenplays to agencies but had them turned away for being too parochial. This is the narrative that encouraged him to write Bugsy which Parker characterized as, essentially, “a film about America based only on what [he] knew about American movies,” without any real first-hand knowledge of the country beyond the media. For Parker, it was a pragmatic exercise—a way of breaking into the film industry that was otherwise so resistant to him and, according to a laughing Parker also “really pissed off Ridley Scott”.

Despite its overwhelming success, Bugsy was a means to an end and it wasn’t the characteristic of the kind of films Parker wanted to and would go on to make and it was his direction and creation of Midnight Express (1978) that Parker really began to come into his own. Going on to direct 14 feature films in total, also including Mississippi Burning (1988) and Evita (1996), Parker has been nominated for and won over 50 awards for his involvement in film, not the least of which include two Oscar nominations and a BAFTA award. As for his advice for creatives following in his footsteps wishing to work in commercial adverts, it is as follows; “95% of scripts are overwritten—the great ideas are usually always simple”.

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