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We caught up with British Director Keith McCarthy to shoot the breeze on The Grand National, trusting your gut, and the creative freedom of working with in-house agencies.

Image: The Grand National, Channel4

Tell us a bit about yourself

My name is Keith McCarthy. I’m a director that works out of London, although I recently left London and have moved to a little city called Bath, which is about an hour and 20 minutes west of London. I work all around the world, but that’s home. 

How’d you get into this line of work?

Getting into the advertising industry was a happy accident, really. My formal training was in writing for film and TV. Like a lot of people in my profession, I thought I was going to write the next great British film script (which I still think I’m going to do). Meanwhile I was just hustling around for work with a makeshift CV that I’d cobbled together, embellishing the experience that I’d had.

I walked into a company called Academy, which is a big production company in the UK. I didn’t have any idea about advertising, didn’t know anything about it. I managed to hustle a job as a runner, and the first job I ran on was a Jonathan Glazer shoot. On that shoot I fell in love with advertising.

I was working on a music video and we were on a 22 hour shoot. We were filming in this maze and I was going to get some coffees. So I was walking around this maze, literally a physical maze made out of hedges, sort of Kubrick’s Shining, with a bunch of coffees. I got to the middle of the maze where they were filming and the cameraman knocked all the coffees out of my hand. I was so tired and lost my shit, I said “What the fuck did you do that for? What’s wrong with you?”. The director was laughing and the producer was laughing. The next morning I got a phone call from the producer thinking that she’s going to say, “You’re never going to work in this industry again.” Instead she said, “Hey, I know a director who’s looking for an assistant and I think you’d be a really good fit for him.” So I ended up working for quite a feisty director and we got on like a house on fire. I worked for him as his assistant for a couple of years.

What are the core principles that you apply to all of your work?

Image: Into The Volcano, Werner Hertzog

I’m going to steal something, and I wish I were as clever as him, but I’m a big fan of Werner Herzog. He has this unifying idea called the Ecstatic Truth. Ecstatic truth is something that every artist, musician, filmmaker, poet, whatever, should try to strive to, and that’s to create something that once you’ve seen it, should never be forgotten, or should change the way you experience your own life, or see the world, or experience something. It should always have an authenticity or a connection or something to it that, once you’ve seen it, the world is slightly different. I know that sounds very grand, but I think it just means that there should be a truthfulness and an authenticity to what you are doing. Whether it’s a comedy script or a sports script or a kind of farcical, it should lean into something that connects with your audience so that they see it. And therefore, if you’re going to steal a gag, make it your own; if you’re going to show some insight, then try and do it in a way that feels interesting and not borrowed.

Which projects that you’ve worked on are you most proud of?

I mean, there’s been a few. I did a bunch of stuff for Channel 4, which was for the Grand National. I’m not even sure if it’s on my reel at the moment, but that was the first time I’d felt like I’d stepped up into some very exciting work, which was like 20 horses running through the city of Liverpool, smashing through sets. I remember coming onto set that day sick with food poisoning. We had four cameras on trucks. We’d set up about 60 hidden GoPro cameras to capture the horse stampede. And I remember thinking, “Either I’m on the way to somewhere special, or I have peaked and I may as well just enjoy it because it’s just downhill from here.” It was really exciting. I realized that I have a fondness for visceral, exciting, entertaining kind of work, with stunts and that sort of stuff. 

The John Smith’s Grand National, Channel4, Youtube

With MikeTeevee, I got a chance to work with John Cena on the Experian piece. Getting him to sing and dance was pretty up there with one of the more memorable jobs. That was a good one. I remember being in the recording booth with John, and he’s saying, “I’m not a singer.” I kept pushing him and pushing him, and he said, “Keith, you’re getting me dangerously close to singing.” and I was like, “Don’t think of it as singing. Think of it as kind of melodic talking.” That was good fun. I really enjoyed that.

“Happy Guy” featuring John Cena, produced by MikeTeevee for Experian

Do you know what I really liked about John? He was one of the nicest guys I’ve worked with, quite seriously. Even small things, like he wouldn’t bother to leave the set if he knew he was going to be back on in 20 minutes. Normally, someone of his kind of status, you’d get someone else to stand in and do eye lines, and all the little things. But John was there for it; he’d say, “Oh no, I’ll do the eye lines.” He’d still be professional off camera. We’d be chatting and I’d say to him, “You’re really great to work with.” and he’d say, “Keith, what you might not know is when I finished wrestling, I didn’t work for three years.” He said, “I thought that was it. I’d be doing Comic-Con for the next 50 years, signing old autographs of myself, and then I got a chance to work again in films.” He went on, “Every day, I just appreciate it because every day I work and I try and learn from everyone, doesn’t matter who it is.” So yeah, he was very cool. I liked him.

What’s been the most challenging project you’ve worked on, and why?

Well, there’s different types of challenging, aren’t there? I mean the horse stuff was very challenging just because it was really quite difficult stunts. Difficult stunts, lots of choreography in an environment that wasn’t geared up for that. So they were big logistical issues around that. We had to build a several mile-long fence to stop people’s dogs running in. Not because we were worried about the dogs hurting the horses, but we were worried about the horses trampling on people’s dogs.

I mean, every job has its challenge, but they range from things like that, to personal things. I remember doing a Kit Kat ad years ago. One of the actors we had, all she had to do was pull the Kit Kat from her top pocket. But she had a freeze or… I don’t know what happened to her. She forgot how to act, but she also forgot how to be like a human being. She just had to get the bar of chocolate from her pocket. It became this weird piece of kryptonite that she had to pull out.

I told her, “Just don’t think about it” and it just got worse. It got increasingly worse. And sometimes, it’s those things which are the more challenging, the things that everyone starts freaking out about. Especially, if you’re the client, the only thing you care about is fuck everything else, I just want to see the Kit Kat getting pulled out of the pocket. And so it can be the small things.

There’s hundreds of stories; We shot in an airport in Ukraine, where our lead guy got taken off the flight because he’d brought a gun into the airport and then he disappeared. Anyway, he came out 10 minutes later, high-fiving the security. Turns out he was quite a notorious gangster who was in our film.

We asked, “What happened?” and he said “Ah, I had my gun on me.” We asked, “Why’d you bring a gun to the airport?” And he said, “It’s my favorite gun.” 

I mean it’s always different challenges. I think the main challenge at the moment in a changing market is just that budgets are shrinking but expectations are growing. So I think just trying to do more with less is a challenge at the moment. But hey, that’s a first-world problem.

How has your experience been working with in-house agencies?

4Creative for Channel4

Well, I quite like them to be honest. I worked at an in-house agency for seven years. I used to work at a company called 4Creative, which was the in-house agency for Channel 4, which is quite a cool broadcast channel in the UK. Part of its remit was to take risks in television. So it was quite well-known for doing quite brave and daring stuff, hence running loads of horses through cities and things. I got a sense of what it was working in-house for a company. I loved it there, made loads of stuff. I was directing a lot of their work. So when I’ve worked with in-house agencies, I feel like I have some mutual kind of respect for it.

“Because (the client is) in-house, you end up focusing more on how to make the idea good and not about upsetting the client.”

I think one of the bigger things is that they’re not worried about losing the client. Because they’re in-house, so suddenly what that does, which is a really good thing I think, is that you end up focusing more on how to make the idea good and not about upsetting the client. Which I know even if you’re in-house, I mean I know that’s the goal, but it’s just removing an obstacle which can quite often, especially nowadays, agencies are increasingly scared of losing their client. So there’s a lot of second guessing that goes on, which often creates a sense of panic before you’ve even shot a single scene. Then you spend quite a long time just calming the panic down, so you can start working.

I find that the great thing about in-house teams is that they generally have more of the trust and there’s more of an understanding of the culture within the company, which I think lends itself to doing better work quite often. I think it lends itself to doing some really nice work. Not to say that there aren’t some great agencies, because obviously there are.

What advice do you have for any up-and-coming creators?

I would say trust your gut. If it feels right to you, then it’s probably right. There’ll be a lot of people who stand around who have ideas, and if those align with your ideas, then great. But if something doesn’t feel right, you don’t have to. Even if someone’s got a lot of experience on you. I think it’s just learning to trust your inner voice, your inner gut, because there’ll be lots of people that will try and convince you otherwise.

Tell us more about your feature film

Okay. Well, it’s actually, it’s based on a book called Martyn Pig. Martyn, the eponymous hero is a 17-year-old kid who lives at home with his alcoholic dad, who’s pretty horrible to him. In the week before Christmas, he accidentally, slightly on purpose, has a big fight with his dad and kills him stone-cold dead on the living room floor. He doesn’t quite know what to do, discovers that his dad has got some money squirrelled away, and so in the heat of the moment, he’s like, “Well, if I can get the money and get rid of my dad’s body, then I can run off with the girl that I really fancy next door, and we could live happily ever after.”

Image: Martyn Pig by Kevin Brooks

Obviously, it does not go that way. It doesn’t go to plan. But yeah, it’s a really smart, kind of black comedy, originally written for a young adult audience, but I think has enough kind of brains and humor and darkness that it transcends its genre a bit beyond just the young audience. We’re kind of half cast for it, got some good names attached, and so we’re hopefully looking to shoot end of the year.