If a Top 10 list of adland’s best female directors were released, Station Film's Lena Beug would surely make the cut. The in-demand director has carved a niche for herself telling true-to-life, art directed comedy stories with a heart. Lena was born in the west of Ireland to hippie parents where she grew up a ravenous reader with no TV. Today she lives in Red Hook, Brooklyn, with her cinematographer husband and two children. She draws her inspiration from real life, peppering in those authentic moments to bring a commercial script to life.
Take, for instance, Lena’s short fashion film for Harper’s Bazaar, “For the Love of Gabrielle.” It’s a whimsical story of young love but leaves us pondering who exactly is the “object” of actress Annabell Dexter Jones’ affection – a person or Chanel bag. It delivers all the staples of a haute couture fashion film, but with a comedic twist. Another recent spot, IKEA’s “Countdown”, features a woman in bed playfully inviting her husband to be part of what’s going to go down in their new IKEA bedroom. He’s all in, even when she pulls back the comforter to reveal their two kids hiding underneath, ready to rumble.
We took the chance to chat with Lena about how she got her start in the industry, her body of work, and the trials and tribulations of working in ad land.
How did you get started in the industry?
I moved to New York in the early ‘90s and took every job I could find - serving up roasted chickens behind the prepared foods counter at Dean & DeLuca, scanning photos for Time Magazine, quite a lot of babysitting, and assisting a rather famous wedding photographer until a lucky coincidence led me to an internship at MTV. That’s where I learned everything - and met a lot of the friends I still know today.
I was such an innocent when I landed in New York, a bit of a country bumpkin (growing up in rural Ireland), but I’d spent the summer here babysitting for my cousins when I was 16 and from that day was determined I’d live here one day. It was a rocky start, I was totally blown away that one could actually have a job at a place like MTV. Everyone was so ‘cool.’ In my mind, at that time, a job was something you had to wear a slacks and a blouse to. Seeing what was possible made me absolutely determined to get there… and I did, I ended up a senior art director, and then finally made that scary move to the world of freelance directing.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career, or on a shoot?
There’s nothing easy about trying to combine having children and having a career as a director. Ultimately they’re not that compatible, and my career definitely suffered during those years - having said that, I think I came out the other side stronger. Having children has taught me more about humans and how to deal with them than anything else I’ve ever done. It’s given me a completely different mindset and a view of the world that makes me not only tougher, gentler and better at multi-tasking, but it’s also made me so much more grateful when someone gets me a Starbucks.
As for shoot challenges, that’s kind of what I love about being on set, it’s a series of small disasters or miracles… an unexpected extra toe when an actress took off her shoe? A stunt without a stunt guy on a night shoot in Toronto in subzero temperatures? A Bee invasion? A child actor in floods of tears who is officially done when you still have three more scenes to shoot. Being eaten alive by fleas on set (or maybe just one flea who camped out in my shirt for the whole day)…an actress breaking out in cold sweats and throwing up between takes.
How do you generate ideas/concepts for spots? Or is the direction mostly led by the brief?
I go to the movies - and I watch some TV, but ultimately for me it’s about reading. My hippyish west of Ireland up bringing did not include television so I learned how to lose myself in books starting at a young age. When I read, I see the pictures better than I do when I’m watching which is weirdly helpful when you’re at the stage of bringing things to life in your mind.
I’ve lived in New York now for about 20 years - and one of the things that keeps me here is that as a New Yorker I’m constantly engaged with people - whether I like it or not. The NYC subway, much as everyone loves to give out about it, is the ultimate people watching spot, every size, shape, gender, ethnicity, age and social group is there - just looking around opens doors in your mind. It’s a first hand reality show and I still love it.
In terms of answering your question, it really depends on the project - sometimes the brief is the brief and other times it’s totally open to interpretation. There’s almost never any time - so the process of generating ideas, or holding on to things you notice needs to be ongoing. Nothing is safe though, conversations, personal experiences, the guy with the pet rat, memories and observations. They’re all fair game.
How would you describe your style? What are the key ingredients that make up a Lena Beug piece of work?
I’m not sure if this is a ‘style’ but what I’m really interested in is finding humor in the imperfect, in the every day. Recognizing the kind of flawed judgmental characters we all are but with compassion AND in a way that makes you laugh - and recognize your own imperfect selves.
Bringing this to life starts with casting - but then you have to add the other layers with just as much care. The world I create around the characters, color, art direction, wardrobe and location, those are the elements that round out the character and the story I want to tell. So Art direction is my other love - and I think, part of my style.
We really loved your MTV idents, how did that project come about?
I started at MTV in the late ‘90s as an intern - I absolutely loved it, I learned how to use the machine room - a lot of complicated stuff with digibetas and routing... I learned how to use the Hal, a sort of pre after effects basic animation computer (that was anything but basic) and a lot of other stuff besides. It was a really exciting time as the first prosumer Sony video cameras had just come out and suddenly it was possible to shoot something and edit it yourself… and that’s what we did.
It was also a time at MTV when you could present stuff and then they’d give you some money and let you make it. There were some really fun collaborations. The Intro guy idents came about because my friend was such an amazingly odd dancer, and the art direction heavily influenced by ‘The Ice Storm’— and Chunky Pam was an ongoing office joke between a couple of our friends. It was Eminem’s moment in the sun but we were much more interested as to why there still wasn’t a chunky white girl rapper - so we created one.
What is the work you are most proud of? And why?
I’m probably most proud of the ideas that I’ve gotten to create and shape - the projects I’ve brought to life in collaboration with friends - and usually the ones that have had the least money. 'Chunky Pam' for MTV… 'The Early Birds' which was a pure labor of love, and the 'Chanel' piece I did last year.
You have worked for some big clients, what was the piece of work that had the best reception?
I just shot a Vodafone commercial in Ireland from Grey UK. It was one of the more challenging jobs I’ve done in the last few years. It’s a story about a boy meeting his Mum’s new boyfriend - and over time getting to know and like him. It’s a much bigger and more emotional story than you find in a lot of commercials. It demanded a light touch - it could have easily turned into something cheesy or cliched - so all the pieces needed to fall into place. A great cast, the perfect locations, building out a real world which these characters inhabited - shooting for different times of year and slowly revealing what it looks like when a kid warms up to someone, there was a subtlety and a reality to this that I wanted to capture - and I was really happy with how it turned out.
As it happens so were Vodafone.
Do you have any advice to a young director? Or a female director setting out to make shorts and ads?
That’s always a tricky one. My advice would be to do your thing with humor and grace. It’s such a fun job. But there are always obstacles, problems, difficult people and challenging situations. You have to learn the hard way probably (I know I did) when to dig in your heels and when to give in gracefully - I’m still working on it, too.
I’m so excited to be a female director (not that I really have a choice) at this moment in time. So much has changed in the last 10 years. As recently as five years ago there was an idea doing the rounds in advertising and TV that women just aren’t as funny as men. It makes my blood boil just saying that - but I’ve been on a deep dive into female comedy in the last few weeks - stand up, TV, social media, books - the whole lot, Irish women, English women, Australian women and American women - and seriously. How anyone could have ever even thought that ‘women aren’t funny’ is totally crazy… then again look how far we’ve come!
I’ve loved the opportunity to make longer things, so I’m hoping that what’s next are more stories, more narrative, longer stuff. I’m collaborating with a writer in Ireland on a movie idea… so hopefully that’s next. Also more great commercials. I just did my first car job, now I’m ready for a Beer campaign!