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
Director

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
Director

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.

While her projects differ vastly from one another, they all have McArdle’s unique brand of authenticity. The filmmaker says she’s always inspired by the “people I meet on the streets, my dreams, risk-takers, artists. Overall, just staying curious and empathetic keeps me inspired.”
Lindsay Rittenhouse

Megaforce
Directors

This French directing collective is responsible for some of the most noteworthy camerawork of 2018. Think March’s Delta spot from Wieden + Kennedy New York, wherein the group ingeniously transformed myriad tourist scenes into a metaphorical jet-plane runway. Or Nike’s “Nothing Beats a Londoner” February ad from the same agency network’s U.K. office. This blisteringly upbeat 3-minute paean to the city’s diverse athletes and cultures deployed a 360-degree camera, racing drones, GoPros and custom rigs with invisible wires to create a fresh and playful spin on sports marketing montages.

Comprised of Léo Berne, Charles Brisgand, Raphaël Rodriguez and Clément Gallet, Megaforce got its start in 2008, quickly gaining notice for its inventive music videos; eventually directing for the likes of Madonna, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Rihanna—namely, the latter’s provocative, Quentin Tarantino-esque revenge fantasy in 2015 for “Bitch Better Have My Money.”

“It’s really important for us to challenge what we already did in the past,” the group writes to Adweek. “It’s the best way to have a fresh and exciting approach on each new project.”

With five Cannes Lions under their collective belt, Megaforce cites influences ranging from “Japanese fantastic cinema” to “French surreal poetry” and “stupid videos found on YouTube.” While recent brand work includes a heartfelt “Live for the Story” bit for Canon, a classic remains 2012’s wonderfully insane “Pour Spectacular” for Baileys and BBH London, a Busby Berkeley-infused number created with choreographer Michael Rooney and featuring tiny dancers emerging from a glass of the beverage—a vision perhaps more fit for absinthe, or something stiffer yet.
Gabriel Beltrone

Reed Morano
Director

It’s unusual for a show to hire a director for the first three episodes of a series—especially if that director isn’t part of the crew. But that’s what happened to Reed Morano, tapped to helm the highly anticipated adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic, The Handmaid’s Tale.

The former cinematographer didn’t think she’d get the call—she’d been pushing for months—but once she did, she had just four days to put together a pitch. The time crunch wasn’t an issue. Morano had answers for every aspect of the show “without having to say, ‘Well, that’s something I’d have to discuss with the cinematographer.’”

She adds that “being specific and being able to break down a scene,” referencing Kubrick’s symmetrical composition for the show’s present-day scenes and using a more “emotional, organic camera moments, kind of vérité” look for the flashbacks, likely helped her land the job.

Morano not only set the tone for this dystopian show, but she also delivered a hit for Hulu—moody, current, intimate yet removed with a pitch-perfect performance from star Elisabeth Moss. It was exactly what one would want from the celluloid version of this haunting tale.

Last September, Morano’s work earned her an Emmy for outstanding directing for a drama series, making her the first woman to score the award in 22 years—and only the third woman in history to be so honored. Currently, Morano is shooting her third feature film, The Rhythm Section, starring Blake Lively, in Spain. In January, she showed her second, I Think We’re Alone Now, at Sundance.
Kristina Monllos

Hiro Murai
Filmmaker

“Everything I’ve done up until this point has come from a really organic process of finding collaborators I like and intuitively following what’s interesting to me,” says music video and TV director Hiro Murai, whose approach this year has led to some of his most accomplished work yet, alongside frequent creative partner Donald Glover.

Murai returned to Glover’s FX comedy Atlanta, directing seven episodes of Season 2, highlighted by the surreal, terrifying episode “Teddy Perkins,” in which Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) ends up at a mansion owned by an odd, pale, reclusive pop star (Glover, in whiteface).

“Donald wrote that episode and we’re interested in the same things: We like the absurd, we like the uncanny, tonally complicated pieces of media. It is a horror genre episode, but it’s also dryly funny and tonally ambiguous in a lot of ways,” says Murai, who focused on the “negative space” between the two characters. “Just let us bathe in all the clock-ticking and room tone that’s in that mansion.”

He pulled off another visual masterpiece last month with “This Is America,” the provocative music video from Glover’s musical alter ego, Childish Gambino.

“For me, that video was all about capturing the feeling and anxiety that I’ve certainly had and that the song evokes. It’s not a concrete thing; it’s a very abstract feeling,” says Murai, who has been blown away by the video’s 254-million-and-counting views on YouTube. “Whenever you’re making something, you’re hoping that it connects with somebody in some big way, but I’d have to be crazy to expect that.” ­
Jason Lynch

Spike Jonze
Director

Many auteurs shy away from working with brands—or, at least, doing it too publicly. Not Spike Jonze.

The Oscar-winning filmmaker, who got his start making hypnotic music videos (see: “Weapon of Choice” for Fatboy Slim), knows how to expertly craft a visually and emotionally compelling narrative in a short amount of time. He did it in 2016 for Kenzo with the Titanium Lion-winning perfume ad starring Margaret Qualley.

And he did it again this past March for Apple, with “Welcome Home” for the HomePod. Working with FKA twigs and Anderson .Paak, Jonze created an astonishing six-minute short that explores loneliness, depression, self-expression through dance and music, the comforts of home and introspection.

The spot was such a hit that the famously restrictive Apple released a mini-documentary on the creative process behind the stunning ad, demonstrating how Jonze’s vision pushed the cast and crew to create something truly amazing. “It could not work, it could look terrible,” Jonze says in the behind-the-scenes video about the seemingly impossible task of using sets—instead of CGI-heavy postproduction special effects—to create the look of the colorful, gorgeous, stretched-out apartment. It worked.
Kristina Monllos

Dougal Wilson
Director

Dougal Wilson’s storytelling is slightly supernatural with a bit of whimsy. There’s his spot showcasing a Halloween party for friendly ghosts starring Ikea furniture. Then there’s the ad where a high school girl realizes her ability to unlock an iPhone X allows her to also crack open everything else.

“I like ones where there’s a little twist in reality,” says Wilson. “Where the laws of reality are slightly exaggerated or change or where something is awry.”

Wilson—who’s also made music videos for bands including Coldplay’s “Life In Technicolor ii”—always seems to find a way of making every message as endearing as it is compelling. That includes his highly awarded 2016 spot “We’re the Superhumans” for U.K. Channel 4 to promote the Paralympics, which won the coveted Grand Prix in Film at last year’s Cannes Lions. Another of his Apple iPhone spots, “Barbers,” recently won top honors at the 2018 ADC Awards.

Part of his ability to predict and capture magic both on and off set comes from his eagerness to balance planning ahead with capturing in-the-moment instincts. (That includes tight storyboarding with videos instead of illustrations to understand the look and sequence of a shot.) “I like to get a feel before the official shoot to try and predict what the feeling of the piece is going to be,” he says. “I don’t like leaving it to the edit.”
Marty Swant

Daisy Zhou
Director, Cinematographer

Growing up in an immigrant family in Shanghai, Zhou never believed an artist’s life was a remote possibility for her future. Keeping her love of films a secret, Zhou watched movies when everyone was asleep, “making little Terrence Malick-style love-letter montages, animating Ping Pong balls on a pad of Post-its,” she says.

While studying economics in college, she had an existential crisis. A friend saw her videos and encouraged her to pursue filmmaking. And in quick order she worked as a gaffer, electrician and freelance cinematographer.

During the past two years, Zhou’s been at the helm of major campaigns, collaborating with top artists and brands such as Prada and PlayStation. Using slow-motion shots, she showcased the amazing vogue dancing of Leiomy Maldonado in Nike’s “Equality” campaign.

She directed a “Black History Is Happening Now” effort for Spotify featuring Janelle Monáe on Afrofuturism. Currently, she’s at work on two short films: a love story between a runaway bride and a female alien and a dance film exploring the “badass chick” archetype.

Zhou says the big question that she wrestles with in her work is distinguishing the border between authenticity and opportunism.

“How does one stay true to the world that you see as factual and real,” she says, “when the agenda is trying to convince you that equality, justice, queerness, femininity, otherness, vulnerability, actually looks like a logo, sounds like a slogan, tries to appeal to all people, all issues, all stats, but cannot conjure a single vulnerable voice.” —Senta Scarborough

Get to know the rest of Adweek’s Creative 100 for 2018:
13 Global Agency Leaders Whose Ideas Go Beyond Borders and Transcend Boundaries
27 Senior Agency Leaders Who Are Charting a New Course for the Creative Industry
29 Rising Agency Stars Who Are Keeping Advertising Relevant, Fresh and Fascinating
13 Celebrities Who Are Making Pop Culture More Innovative, Inclusive and Interesting
11 Branded Content Masterminds Who Are Elevating the Art of Marketing
11 Visual Artists Who Enlighten, Inspire and Bring the Impossible to Life
10 Writers and Editors Who Are Changing the National Conversation
• Cover Story: Filmmaker Ava DuVernay on the Creative Process, and the Intersection of Art and Activism

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

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