Q&A: Peter Thwaites

NEW YORK Peter Thwaites, 44, won the Directors Guild of America’s prestigious Best Commercial Director prize for 2008. A first-time nominee, Thwaites, a former director of photography who directs through Gorgeous Enterprises and is represented in the U.S. by Anonymous Content, won the honor based on his work for Barclaycard “Waterslide” out of BBH, London, and Guinness “Light Show” out of Irish International BBDO, Dublin. He began directing in 1999.
How did it feel winning your first time nominated?
It really didn’t occur to me [that I would win.] It completely took me by surprise. It wasn’t false modesty, it just did not begin to occur to me. And of course, the idea of writing a speech is completely out of the question, because we’re not used to doing that in Europe. It means an awful lot. You are being judged by your peers, and the biggest part of that is not so much judging the ad as an idea, but the direction of it, and that is the important thing for me. That’s a good feeling and maybe it helps to combat the traditional British reserve.
How has the win affected your work?
It is certainly going to have an impact on scripts. Earlier on in my career [I was] lucky to get decent work. Now, suddenly up against the best, it’s a different challenge. I’ve just got a script in and read I’m up against Jonathan Glazer, Spike Jonze…It’s like, “Oh My God. How do I deal with this?” In one sense it might be putting me in a position for better scripts, but I’m dealing with competition that is second to none.
You were a director of photography. Why did you want to be a director?
I’ve been directing for eight years or so. I was lighting things and talking too much and people were sort of going, “Hmmm, maybe you should try directing instead of trying to direct my ad.” The idea slowly dawned on me that [directing] might be where my future lay. I wanted to get more involved with the idea, working with an idea and developing an idea, and taking the germ of an idea and running with it and seeing how it can be improved and played with.
Do you work on any jobs as a director/DP?
No, I don’t DP any more and the idea [of doing both] scares the hell out of me. Not the devising and sharing ideas, which is always the best part. But technically, dealing with equipment again…I did a few jobs like that but I found it was not for me.
How did you make the transition?
I had done a test film where I was playing around and trying a few techniques. I was showing [Gorgeous managing director] Paul Rothwell some effects in it when I was doing a [DP] job with Frank Budgen. He caught on and said, “You directed this, didn’t you?”…He said, “Well come to Gorgeous.” I was flabbergasted.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career?
The whole thing for me has been learning by collaboration, that’s the key to the process for me. The filmmaking is about partnerships — creativity, the way you converse, discuss, argue about material — that brings ideas to the forefront. [Gorgeous producer] Flora Fernandez-Marengo was an inspiration to me as a producer. She was tough with me, didn’t pander to me — I didn’t learn to behave like a spoiled commercials director — and kept me levelheaded.
What was the most challenging aspect of the transition?
Obviously, you are dealing with more politics, having to be more responsible. You need answers for everything. It’s hard juggling elements to make the whole. To strive towards quality emotional and moving material — it’s hard to do. It’s stressful because to continue to do good work, it’s never anything but hard work. It’s never easy. It’s hard, and sometimes I have to remind myself to chill out.
What do you look for in boards you are considering?
Idea is everything. [I’m interested] if I feel the idea works and has some flexibility to be perceived in different ways.
What did the boards for the Barclaycard ad look like?
The idea was pretty much there, the details of the element of the journey had to be sorted out and discussed. My big thing was trying to persuade everyone that the initial sequence was the vital one — where you need to set up a personality/character situation, a tonal element of comedy — and set up the journey.
You are talking to Adweek from location in New Zealand. What are you working on?
A Drench [beverage] job out of CHI & Partners. It is about a guy riding on a giant pheasant. It’s silly and fun.