Talk to director Joe Wright and his longtime cinematographer Seamus McGarvey about their collaboration on Anna Karenina and you can feel their excitement crackling as they discuss transforming a soundstage-built theater into multiple scenes via sets, costumes and of course, lighting.
By contrast, their famous Brad Pitt ads for Chanel No. 5 are subtle and restrained, if equally unusual. The spots were the result of numerous conversations this past summer with Chanel about making history with the brand’s first male spokesman, but ensuring that they do it in a way drastically different from previous Chanel commercials.
Wright, who previously directed a Coco Mademoiselle ad for Chanel featuring Anna Karenina star Keira Knightley, confirms that more Chanel No. 5 ads starring Pitt are forthcoming but refuses to offer a sneak preview of the next installment or confirm the extent of his role in creating Pitt’s enigmatic dialogue due to his nondisclosure agreement with the Parisian fashion house.
What Wright does confirm is his artistic inspiration for Pitt’s Chanel ads, the French surrealist poet Paul Éluard.
"Chanel is a great company to work with because no advertising agency is involved," Wright tells us. "You deal directly with them. So we sat down and we talked about what they were wanting from the film. We came up with the idea of a man talking about a perfume as if she were a woman and I was inspired by the French surrealist poet Paul Éluard and his poem "Liberty," which was dropped by air across occupied France during World War II. "On each whiff of daybreak. On the sea, on the boats, on the demented mountaintop I write your name." It felt to me like the poem of a graffiti artist and so that was the beginning genesis of that campaign."
The black-and-white photography looks subtle when compared to the lush colors and the dynamic lighting surrounding Knightley in Anna Karenina. However, McGarvey cautions anyone tempted to think that the subtly shifting shadows crossing Pitt’s face came with little tech or preparation. In this case, naturalistic lighting is the result of serious craft and some bespoke equipment.
"I built a large lighting rig with 140 light bulbs on a computer system to spin clockwise around Brad’s head to allow darkness to happen as well as the front light," McGarvey says, before catching up with Wright at a screening of Anna Karenina in Los Angeles. "The idea was to allow darkness to fall around his face and to see expressions on his face. There are only some actors you can do that with."
Practice shoots with a model in Rome and Italy’s Amalfi coast lead to brief production time with Pitt but McGarvey confirms that Pitt made every moment count. "He nailed it," McGarvey says. "He’s such a great actor. He tried a number of versions for the reading of the lines and we opted to do it very simply. We just did a simple track in on his face and we kept it that way. We did not experiment any further."
More Chanel No. 5 ads starring Pitt are, to use the campaign’s own tagline, "Inevitable," as well as more parodies, like the recent Saturday Night Live spoof. Wright and McGarvey may be mum about specific content but they do pull back the curtain to reveal the creative philosophy behind the spots. The goal is to strip Pitt of all layers of Chanel-like glamor and couture fashion.
"I shot a few Chanel commercials in the past where glamor was of the greatest importance," McGarvey adds. "That was something that they encouraged me to eschew in this commercial. The wonderful cue that we had from Chanel was that they wanted expression from Brad. They wanted to read his wonderful face. Brad very bravely entered into that fray and understanding that we were looking at a portrait of a man instead of a conventional, glamorous perfume commercial."