James Brown

It’s fitting that director Brown, 36, is leading McDonald’s ambitious global campaign—he was born in Malaysia, lives in London and spent several years in Japan. Five spots from Omnicom’s Heye & Partners in Germany—the first of which launches in Europe tomorrow—combine footage shot by at least nine directors in as many countries with a Justin Timberlake track to showcase the new “I’m lovin’ it” theme. Brown, who works out of Smuggler in Beverly Hills, Calif., and Stink in London, has evolved from a photojournalist to a film editor to a music-video director to a commercial director. He took a break from editing the McDonald’s work to explain why his current project is a bit like his gig selling hot dogs in Australia.

Q. What was your vision for the campaign?

A. That we should throw film school out the window as much as possible to begin with. To try and make everything as natural as possible. And to shoot things on different formats. Because it’s supposed to feel like it comes from all over the world and different walks of life. I was trying to reflect that in the artistic side but also the technical side.

How did it go, working with a whole crew of directors?

There was surprisingly little bristling of egos, but maybe when they see the edit, it will all change. Seeing as I’m the only one doing the editing—maybe that’s where the talons will come out.

What will the ads be like?

The basic change in McDonald’s corporate identity is to be a bit more human. Not contrived, sickly sweet—a more realistic view of the world. That’s what they realized they needed to be to carry on in the next millennium. To be a bit more in touch with people. People are getting sick of corporate giants.

What was it about the campaign that made you want to sign on?

Being a vegetarian, I thought McDonald’s was the first company I’d like to work for [laughs]. I did have a few moral issues with it. But an opportunity, artistically, to change people’s perceptions of such a massive company like McDonald’s is a challenge, especially when a lot of the negative things are so deeply ingrained as well. Morally, the jury’s still out, because last time I did anything like this was when I was selling hot dogs in Australia and I got beaten up, and it felt like a bit of a karma trip.

Who beat you up?

Large Tongans. People from Tonga. Big islanders. Big guys. So I’ve been trying to create good karma along the way on this shoot, just in case. I’ve been trying to put, basically, quite positive images. And quite positive emotion behind it. Whether it’s for McDonald’s or whoever, that’s still a positive thing. That’s how I vaguely justify it to myself, being a veggie. I guess you leave your morals at the door when you go into advertising. But something at the back of my head keeps thinking, “Do a good job and more animals die,” you know.

Then what appealed to you, the concept?

Yes, the opportunity to work with a lot of directors is quite appealing. It’s quite a lonely feeling being a director sometimes. You come back at the end of the day and have a shower and contemplate it. But when you come back and there’s three other people in the same situation, it’s quite different. But really what attracted me was the challenge to do something a bit different for McDonald’s. I feel this concept deserves its place in the universe. That’s all I need to propel me into something—the belief that something’s worthwhile.

How will “I’m lovin’ it” translate globally?

The fact that no matter what walk of life you come from or how much money you’ve got or food you’ve got in your belly, there’s “the sun still rises in the morning” feeling. That’s what we’re trying to get out of it—an affirmation of something as simple as joy of life. I think that translates through all cultures.

Does Justin Timberlake appear in the ads?

That’s a point of debate—artistic differences on that matter at the moment. I don’t really think it works myself, but what do I know? We’ve only just got the footage today.

What’s been the most difficult part of coordinating the directors?

I’m just not used to all the e-mails! Now I know what it’s like to be a producer. And the fact that everyone is in different time zones. But it hasn’t been that hard.

Why did you move from directing music videos to commercials?

I prefer commercials at the moment. I’ve been quite lucky—I’ve come across some pretty good scripts, and I’ve been able to do stuff I don’t think you’d be able to do in music videos. Like the PlayStation commercial [“Civilization”] that was basically a load of stunts filmed dodgily on a home video. I find the briefs for music videos these days—it’s just not what it used to be. The artistic content has gone downhill a bit. I don’t find the music as exciting. A bit of a lull, I feel.

What ads do you think are really good?

I don’t really watch TV, to be honest.

What’s your dream project?

A movie. I just want to direct at the moment. I’m hoping, if I can keep making interesting commercials, someone will think me worthy of an interesting film.