15 Ad, Film and TV Directors Who Are Raising the Standard for Storytelling

Meet some of today's top talent behind the camera

Reed Morano won an Emmy for directing an episode of The Handmaid's Tale.

The director Frank Capra once said: “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.” Indeed, Adweek’s picks for directors in this year’s Creative 100 are notable for the vividness they bring to their projects, whether those are movies, ads or TV shows. Each is raising the bar for their industries, while always capturing the imaginations of their audiences.

Scott Witter for Adweek

Ava DuVernay

Over the past decade, Ava DuVernay has become one of the most in-demand filmmakers in the world.

Impossibly busy, DuVernay, the cover star of Adweek’s Creative 100, is currently working on the third season of her show on OWN (Queen Sugar), is in preproduction for her upcoming Netflix series (Central Park Five) and is slated to direct a superhero movie for DC (New Gods). Plus, she’s got a few other TV shows cooking—a pilot, Red Line, at CBS, and a comedy based on Colin Kaepernick’s high school years.

There’s also an HBO movie, Battle of Versailles. She’s somehow also found time to work on another documentary (though she’s not ready to talk about it yet). All that after debuting her first foray into sci-fi fantasy, the big-hearted, visually stunning A Wrinkle in Time, this past March.

“I’m a black girl from Compton. I picked up a camera for the first time when I was 32 years old. I didn’t go to film school. I’d been a publicist for all of my 20s, I’d been working to amplify other people’s films,” says DuVernay. “In no world could I imagine doing what I’m doing now.”
Kristina Monllos

Autumn de Wilde
Director and Photographer

Acclaimed American photographer and filmmaker Autumn de Wilde is known for blurring the line between art and advertising. Her contemporary pop style, with a distinctly cinematic essence, can be found in such work as the movie poster she shot for I, Tonya, the Italian dreamscape she created for Martini and her campaigns for Prada.

In her whimsical short movies for the fashion label, The Postman’s Gifts and “The Postman Dreams 2” (a sequel to her 2015 campaign), de Wilde showcased the iconic Prada Galleria bag, in various encounters with Elijah Wood, Emma Roberts, Sasha Frolova, Amber Valletta and Natalia Dyer as they explore their “personal obsessions and desires.”

De Wilde describes her work creating portraits, music videos, commercials, books and films with influencers—including Busy Phillips, Beck and the late Elliott Smith—as an intimate collaboration between her and her subjects. But dreams are her primary influence. “There’s no logic, but you don’t question it,” she says, “whereas when you’re awake you’re questioning everything. So, when I mix reality and surrealism, my characters don’t question things, however bizarre the situation, and I think life is truly bizarre and colorful.”
Cara Anderson

Nabil Elderkin
Director and Photographer

Goodby Silverstein & Partners’ epic lip-sync battle between Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman for Doritos and Mountain Dew was truly lit, and not just because Dinklage was surrounded by fire in the much-buzzed-about Super Bowl LII spot.

Director Nabil Elderkin elevated what could have been a campy commercial—Dinklage lip syncs Busta Rhymes’ rap from Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now,” while Freeman takes on Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On”—into a truly enjoyable ad that had enough edge to be a hit with the hip kids. “The Weeknd texted me [after he saw it], and he was like, ‘Dammmmmmn,’” says Elderkin.

The veteran music video director and photographer—who also helmed Wieden + Kennedy’s new Maya Moore Jordan Brand “Wings” spot—had worked with fire before (see Frank Ocean’s “Swim Good” video), but the Doritos/Mountain Dew ad was a next-level endeavor.

“It was pretty scary. [Dinklage] literally had flames blowing up behind him, and those flames are real,” he says. “He’s walking through an exploding set that we built on a stage. There’s marks he has to hit. I think even he was like, ‘What the what?’ But he killed it like a champ.”

Next up for Elderkin is his first narrative feature, Gully, starring Amber Heard, Charlie Plummer and Jacob Latimore as “three kids getting wild” in Southeast Los Angeles. What should audiences expect? “I didn’t fuck it up but i did FuKItUP,” Elderkin wrote on Instagram. Translation: It’s gonna be hot.
Kristina Feliciano

Getty Images

Greta Gerwig
Actress, Director, Screenwriter

Much can be said—and has been said—about Greta Gerwig’s lauded directorial debut, Lady Bird. To craft a narrative about mothers and daughters that does not shy away from but instead actively interrogates the murky, difficult push-pull of that relationship is no small feat. To do so and receive the kind of accolades Gerwig achieved in the last year—including becoming the fifth woman ever to be nominated for Best Directing at the Academy Awards—is unheard of.

“Most women I know had infinitely beautiful, incredibly complicated relationships with their mothers in their teenage years,” Gerwig said in an interview with the movie’s distributor, A24. “I wanted to make a film that put that at the center, where at every moment you feel empathy for both characters. … To me, those are the most moving of love stories. The romance between a mother and daughter is one of the richest I know.”

Gerwig is an accomplished actress in her own right, with dazzling performances in such films as 20th Century Women, and her Golden Globe-nominated turn in Frances Ha (which she also co-wrote). Next up for this creative polymath: a starring role in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island.
Kristina Monllos

Jillian Martin

The Newport Beach Film Festival’s marquee trailers are known for being instantly memorable, and this year’s promo, a gritty sci-fi vignette by director Jillian Martin, was no exception. “Quota: Who Made the Cut” centers on two weary miners in a dark future world who are relentlessly prodded to harvest a depressingly hefty quantity of crystal each day. It’s punishing work performed while tethered to the side of a mountain, and before long a violent rivalry ensues that leaves the viewer—and one of the miners—dangling. The tagline: “See who made the cut.”

“The original inspiration kind of came from being in the Grand Canyon a week prior and observing the otherworldly natural elements of the canyons,” says Martin. “We worked backwards from the tagline and knew we wanted a battle to the death.” Martin cowrote the trailer from a nine-page script with Robert Dalsey; she then pruned it into a short with creative director Melissa Webber and senior producer Jeff Perino at Garage Team Mazda.

“Quota” was a departure for Martin, whose credits include inspiring spots like HP’s “Reinvent Mindsets: Dads and Daughters” and “What Moves You?” for Degree Women. But then again, she’s used to sharp turns. In college, Martin was all set to be an art teacher when a visit to a film set illuminated a new world of possibilities. Within a week, she uprooted herself and moved to Winter Park, Fla., to attend film school. “I still think it was the best thing I ever did,” she says. —Kristina Feliciano

Aoife McArdle
Director, Cinematographer, Screenwriter

Last year, McArdle’s first full-length feature film, Kissing Candice, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The dark but dreamy coming-of-age story, set in a small Irish town, has been compared to David Lynch’s cult classic, Mulholland Drive.

McArdle grew up in Omagh, Northern Ireland. She got her start directing music videos with powerful narratives around love, dissension and culture for underground artists, like England’s Jon Hopkins as well as Bryan Ferry and James Vincent McMorrow. Her video for U2’s Every Breaking Wave was nominated for a U.K. Music Video Award in 2015.

Known for her intense focus on youth, countercultures and the people who aren’t afraid to break from the status quo and stir the pot, McArdle’s filmography includes distinctive and award-winning commercials for brands such as Under Armour and Audi. She directed Toyota’s inspiring Super Bowl LII commercial, “Good Odds,” following the athletic journey of Paralympic alpine skier Lauren Woolstencroft, an eight-time gold medalist. Last year, she helmed Absolut’s beautiful and evocative ad, “Equal Love,” showcasing an array of diverse couples kissing in support of the LGBTQ community.

This story first appeared in the June 11, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.