Monday, 29 June 2009

8.0 / Not just a hatrack / Ben Parker

What: Film poster designer and writer
Where: London, United Kingdom
Website: Monterey Design

His story…
I grew up in Kendal in Cumbria from the age of 13 and couldn't wait to get away. I never had any notions of coming to London at all. I wanted to study art and film and head off to America. I did a foundation course at the nearby Lancaster and Morecambe College and then applied to Edinburgh for university. But I turned down Edinburgh after they said I wouldn't be able to study anything related to film – that the courses were kept very separate.

At that point, I had very little knowledge of filmmaking and thought I should hedge my bets and go for a course that didn't discourage dipping into other fields. So, I ended up at Leeds Metropolitan, which has a connection to The Northern Film School. I thought I’d do the graphic arts course and hopefully dip into making some film shorts.

Creative beginnings…
The thing that triggered my interest in film was films. I must have been like a million kids – watching Indiana Jones and then going outside to climb trees or stare at the stars, longing for an adventure.

The thing that triggered my creativity in general was probably the influence and/or genetics of my mother and grandmother. My mum was an artist in her youth and my gran would always encourage any activity that required me to sit down and be quiet. The pencils and paper would come out and I'd draw while she and my mother chatted.


I enjoyed drawing and many a ruined wallpaper later I was drawing on my shoes. My gran was convinced I’d end up being a designer of some sort. My mother thought I'd be an architect (as there was more money it!). In my teens, I really wanted to be a special effects artist and would horrify my mother with gruesome handmade cuts and wounds.

It was always said I was good at drawing and art and I would crave the praise or attention that this brought. I would never revel in it though – I was a very shy child but it felt good to be good at something.

In my drawing there were stories – it was never bowls of fruit or still life but science fiction, fantasy and adventures. Once I got to school I was no longer the best at drawing or painting or anything and I turned to the essence of what I was trying to get across – the story. This is probably the genesis of what I try and do to this day – bring out a story in a way that is interesting and exciting.
Dolla dolla bill…
When I finished university, I applied to do a masters degree (why? I have no idea). But when I was declined a grant, I moved back home to work at the local cinema (to date, the best job I've ever had). I hadn't been there long when a friend told me to get the hell out of the one horse town or I'd end up getting stuck there forever. So, I came down to London and crashed at a mate’s house while I tried to get a job in anything creative.


I made a list of all the jobs I thought would be cool and actually got in the door at Bravo, where I hoped I would climb the ladder to the point where things were being filmed. After being offered the job there, I was called back by a small company doing film posters (number two on my list) and asked to send in my CV. I wrote the most laid back, cocky covering letter – cool as a cucumber because I’d got the other job.

But then the other job evaporated and the little film poster company took me in. It turned out that they'd done exactly what I’d have expected them to do with the letter – they threw it in the bin. But luckily, the graphic designer sitting next to them pulled it out and asked if he could give me a shot since they weren’t going to. But then, because he wanted me, the bosses decided they might have missed something in the rude letter and poached me back.

I felt like I was almost in the industry I wanted to be in and it was something I was greatly passionate about. The poster for a film was something I would obsess over as a kid and hang on my wall. It inspired the anticipation I would have for seeing a film and, so, my first job was one that I was very happy to be in.

A big leap…
After three years at this first company I was offered the chance to start up the London office of a northern company looking to get into film design with my creative partner Paul Johnstone, who’d also come to work with the first company and is a long time friend of mine.

I had a great time at the first company and I learnt a lot of what I know today there – forming working relationships with clients, coming up with ideas, thinking outside the box and a lot of technical expertise. But unfortunately I also experienced getting fucked over a lot. My bosses would say, 'I see what you're doing. You've got an idea there, let me take it off you and see if I can fix it for you'. It's sad. They were great guys and I think I was even happy (-ish) being paid peanuts but what really grated was never getting any credit for what I did.

I think the next job suckered me in because Paul and I were both fed up with the lack of appreciation at our old job and the new 'bosses' came across as much more professional and appreciative of what we did. But, alas, it was all a mirage. In many ways, the following year and a half were a success – we'd built up a new name and new company from nothing and managed to take over a steady stream of work. But as time went on, I realised the guys in charge of the whole operation were completely immature and self-destructive. So, before all our bridges were completely burnt, we got out of there.

In 2008, Paul and I started a company called Monterey Design. Although the venture wasn't entirely without outside help, it felt like a positive move and saw us taking the reigns and do everything we'd learnt over the previous five years.

Apart from all the natural learning curves in technical experience, patience and general knowledge of our field, the main thing I've learnt is to look after the clients. Bosses are cunts most of the time but the clients are the ones you need to get on with. To be honest, I’m terrible with my figures of authority but taking cues from people who share the same goal never seems to be a problem. At the end of the day, the client and I are trying to sell a film. They decide how that film should be sold and I try to facilitate that. In it's simplest form, that's what I do.
Kendal kids…
For those who’ve never heard of Kendal, I’d say you’re not missing much. Nine times out of ten, the first reaction I get after telling someone I’m from Kendal is ‘MINT CAKE!’. That’s where they make the sweet confection ‘Kendal Mint Cake’. In fact, Paul and I get that reaction so much we considered naming our company Mint Cake but the connotations of something so sickly sweet were just ‘un-cool’.

The little town of Kendal is on the edge of the Lake District so it has a general fell-walkers vibe to it and gets flooded with tourists during the summer months. It has almost nothing that appeals to a young teenager other than perhaps a small cinema. But for some reason it’s bred some greatly creative people. I have no idea why this is. Possible suggestions would include: there’s fuck all to do there – the absence of entertainment breeds a need to do something – or maybe it’s the fine Lake District air and weirdly mixed community of people living there. I don’t know.

It’s seen its patrons go on to become film producers, musicians (British Sea Power, my favourite), writers, artists and special effects wizards. The town itself is home to the company Pigs Might Fly, who designed the creatures for films such as Willow, Star Wars, Legend, Aliens and recently Harry Potter. Unfortunately, I only discovered this after I left the place. That alone would have given me, a self-confessed film geek, a possible reason to stay or at least not be ashamed of living in Kendal as a teenager.
Your job…
My job is in quite a specific field and you can only really do it in a few places in the world – London and LA – if you want to make any money from it. This kind of sucks. I would love to move to somewhere like San Francisco and do this job but it’s not the kind of design you can do from home. You have to have a very close and constant relationship with your clients. A lot of the time I need to go to screenings of films as the companies don’t like giving out discs, which could be copied or lost (I was actually locked in a room at Warner Brothers to read the script of Benjamin Button). The way everything works means that the area that I need to operate from is very specific – Soho in London. I know people who do the same job outside of the inner city, and it’s a black mark against your name if your clients have to trek out to meet you.

The upside of the job…
There are a handful of really good things about it that keep me going. I love film. I love going to watch movies. I love reading about ones coming up, ones gone by, people who make them, people who release them and people who care about them. The biggest surprise I had getting into this job was realising how very few people in the film industry actually like film. It’s money to many of them. When I meet someone through work who cares deeply about film and is passionate about making or releasing good films, then I am in awe of them. I've been fortunate to work with some companies that are spearheaded by people who fall into this category – people who stick their necks out to release great films. These are often the people who stick their necks out to commission daring and new artwork for those films and that's when my job feels like the best one in the world.

Downside of the job…
Having to be in Soho means that office space is always going to be expensive. But that’s small fry in comparison to some of the other downsides to the job – long hours, a very small market with an ever-growing number of other companies getting in on the act, the limitations from source materials (such as stills from the film) and the relatively little money you get for a lot of work.

The main downside to the job is the daily heartache of seeing good ideas and good design watered down to make a film more ‘safe’ or mainstream. In the current climate of cut backs and an industry that, in the UK at least, has never really become more than a cottage one, everybody is trying to ape the last success. That’s why, over the coming years, you’ll see half a dozen musicals adapted from stage plays that resemble Mama Mia and Indian heartfelt dramas galore that will name check Slumdog Millionaire on the back of the DVD. It’s also why most brash comedies will have a big red title treatment, why any thriller will be treated with a blue tint and why hardly any posters will have a green colour pallet (because apparently ‘green doesn’t sell’).

One of my favourite stories is of a client MD who after hearing rumours that the font Trajan Bold was used way too much (seriously, from Gladiator onwards, it is the ‘epic’ font) decided that his company was not going to use it on any of their posters anymore. On the particular poster we were working on at the time we must have gone through at least five hundred font options for the quotes (and Paul was about ready to shoot himself in the head) when the client finally picked one – Trajan Bold.
The other options…
Film is always where I wanted to be. For the last decade I’ve written screenplays for films and always hoped that at some point I'd end up writing a good one. I think if that happens over the next decade then I'd definitely get into writing as a profession.


There are more and more people trying to get into film poster design and unfortunately the design for film is going the same way as film itself – less risky ideas and more mainstream. And before that happens, a lot of good things will die first. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to carry on if I’m forced to sell off the last parts of my childhood joy for film posters. And posters themselves are, to a certain extent, a dying format. As film moves into more personal outlets (such as home downloading for example) so will the art for film.

At some point somebody’s going to notice that a DVD/ Blu-Ray case is 90% packaged air, which doesn’t make any sense. Whether or not that happens before those two formats themselves die is debatable. I can’t help finding the whole irony of things slightly hilarious. I’m part of the machine that sells film and, yet, I find myself angered so much by the merchandising and franchising of film. If I can’t ignore the fact that I am part of that whole corporate machine, I can’t avoid the disappointment I feel when those original films themselves are brought back in hollow commercial ventures. At some point I’m going to have to give up entirely on any sentimental, romantic notions of why I got into my job or I’m going to have to at least have a stab at trying to change it.
Famous friends…
If I go back to Kendal for a Christmas, I bump into all my old school friends who ask me who I’ve met through work. At first, I think they genuinely want to know the answer but as soon as I start reeling off the names of people I’ve met over the years, their eyes glaze over with this kind of repulsion for you.

One thing that in the past made even my closest friends cringe with embarrassment is my ability to walk up to famous people and say hello. It’s sooo un-cool, it’s untrue. But in striking up conversations, I’ve managed to meet some amazing characters. I met Thora Birch and Scarlet Johansson at a festival for the release of Ghost World. Back then nobody knew who Scarlet was and the crowd had swarmed over the director and Steve Buscemi, leaving the two actresses stood there politely, so I chatted to them. Long story short, I passed on drinks with them. And I had drinks with directors Asif Kapadia and Saul Metzstein at the same festival.


Asif (The Warrior) used to do design and gave a lot of time to Paul and I. He’s a very nice guy and it was an inspiration to see someone that nice doing great, brave films. Saul (Late Night Shopping) again, was just a nice guy and took the time to read stuff that Paul and I had worked on and introduced us to some great people at parties. Writer Tony Grisoni (Fear and Loathing, Red Riding) is someone I greatly admire and someone that has, on countless occasions (which could have ended badly and embarrassingly) been polite, kind and encouraging (apart from the time he said I should quit writing. Although his heart was in the right place). These are people I haven’t worked with who left big impressions on me but within the host of people we’ve worked with over the years there are directors and producers who have been real inspirations to me.

While working on Dead Man’s Shoes, I met Shane Meadows and his wife who were lovely people. Bill Nighy was a really nice person too. I had a dream come true when I got to stand at a bar with the legendary Peter O’ Toole. I got a kiss from the surprisingly lovely Sienna Miller, called a ‘fucker’ by the surprisingly cranky Keira Knightley and recognised for my brother Dave (an actor) by the amazingly nice Jamie Bell. I got to praise The Wire with Dominic West, brush shoulders with the very tall Jarvis Cocker and stood on Anastasia’s dress.


I embarrassed myself royally by calling Marc Warren his character’s name in State of Play, made a complete tit of myself in front of one my heroes, Sandman artist and designer Dave McKean and when asked by Nick Moran if I’d seen his play Telstar I drunkenly replied, ‘Why would I want to do that?’. The thing I am least proud of though, was having to bareface lie and say that I liked Aliens vs Predator to the director, assistant director and Resident Evil actor Colin Salmon. It made me feel so dirty, I hated myself for a week. But, it’s important to remember that, firstly, Alien Resurrection had already, technically, killed all that was good about Alien and, secondly, I was at a quiet dinner table with the three of them. I guess he (Paul WS Anderson) did make Event Horizon, which I love and directed Kurt Russell who I also love (but in Soldier, which nobody loves).
Pride and projects…
The thing that always gets instant recognition is Dead Mans Shoes, maybe because it’s big and red and the film was widely loved. I am really proud of the Pan’s Labyrinth poster and all the work that went into it. Actually some of my favourite projects have been for little known films such as Recognition and 3-Iron, which you can never drop into conversation because no one’s ever heard of them but that I'm quite happy with how they turned out.


Sometimes I’m just happy to be working with the people involved, despite the final products. I was very happy to get to work on the Peter O’ Toole film Dean Spanley, which is a great little film but not the finest of final posters. It’s worth mentioning that a lot of time goes into the work we do for home entertainment releases and I have been very proud of a lot of stuff done in that field. The enclosed booklet for the special edition La Haine DVD is something I’m proud of. Though I think that I’m most proud of a feature script I wrote with Paul. We’ve been doing design together for a long time now and, apart from initial brain-storming, the collaborative process of design has become very smooth and easy over the years with both of us adding in small suggestions to each others work here and there. But, writing a script together was a much more in-depth and fun collaboration. Whether or not it’s ever produced, I'm proud that we wrote it.

Right now…
I’m excited to be working on a feature by director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days). It always helps the creative process to be excited about a project. Obviously, this isn’t always the case and treating all projects with the same drive and enthusiasm can be a struggle.

I think if I got to work on films by people I greatly admired such as Terry Gilliam, Richard Matheson, the Coen Brothers, that would be amazing but at the end of the day I just hope I get to work on films that are good. Or a film with Kurt Russell – that would be awesome.
It’s always tricky working on a film that has little to no stills available. Opinionated directors are always fun to deal with. Certain projects are a nightmare because of their ‘vision’. Actors, too, can be obstacles. I remember one actor was unhappy with the shot we’d used of him on a poster. He sent us a new shot to use and the only difference I could spot was that his eyebrow was slightly raised in the new one. But, hey, that could make all the difference in getting that Oscar?

Strange obstacles include actual cinema chains getting in on the argument. If a large cinema company is going to put your film on its screens and it doesn’t like the poster you have, sometimes the company releasing the film will try to appease them. This is lunacy in my mind because, to the designer, it’s just another bunch of people who don’t know what they’re talking about expressing an opinion. Everyone has an opinion.

Although the biggest obstacles I’ve encountered in my work in film design are the bosses and middlemen that try and screw around with the work before it even gets to the client. Everyone has an opinion and so at some point, you have to decide whose opinion counts the most – Someone who’s been doing it for years? Or someone who feels slightly redundant if they don’t get to give their two penneth?

Greatly admire…
I look up to a lot of people in my life. I look up to anybody who manages to stay calm and collected through everything. Patience is not one of my virtues. I look up to business partner Paul for all the ways in which he puts up with my shit. I look up to designers who've taken bigger risks than I have and done a good job (that includes competitors The Church of London Design and production company One Small Step).

I look up to people like Tony Grisoni for what seems to me like the unobtainable golden chalice of writing for film. I look to the godfather of film poster design Saul Bass with a glowing admiration and find constant inspiration. Most of all, I look up to the people I love in my life, my friends and family. I look to my grandparents for support that has never diminished and persevere to be more like them. And I look up to a group of fantastic friends who never fail to be my biggest of inspirations, support systems and relief when I’m stressed. I strive to emulate certain traits in all of them and feel glad to be around them.
Good design can be found everywhere and it’s always a good thing not to pen yourself into the thinking that what informs good poster design is other good posters. Where most people in this industry try to ape the last great success, I try to remember that someone in the beginning came up with a great, original idea. My sources for aesthetics come from a myriad of places – magazines, art, consumer design, old designers, music videos, book covers, everything. The inspirations for ideas usually come from the film itself, whether from script or screening the ideas of the film have to come across in the poster and so that has to be my main source of inspiration. Again, it’s telling a story in an interesting and engaging way.


The shitty thing about working long hours and being rushed off my feet is that I have hardly any time to actually sit down and think about ideas. I find those calm moments to think on my walk into work in the mornings. If I get the bus or tube, I’m thinking about swine flu and what sweaty butt sat on the seat before me. Walking gives me time, gets the blood flowing and a miniscule amount of unpolluted air to help the thinking process. Once I get into work I’m ready to tackle the day.

My workspace itself has to stay as uncluttered as possible. I work in a busy, loud studio and I need to keep all clutter off my desk or else my brain starts getting messy. I try and have a calm soothing picture on my computer desktop and keep a couple of design books and magazines floating around for distraction or inspiration. I’m a fan of American gig posters – I find the lack of restraint from the bands they advertise comes across in the out-there design they exhibit.

Also, a must-have in terms of work is a full lunch break. Never underestimate the importance of a bit of fresh air and walking around. It works wonders for a stale creative mind and though it seems reckless and very 90s, sometimes a beer in that lunch break (especially towards the end of the week) is often the lubricant for great inspiration (many a ‘chosen idea’ for my posters has been thought up at 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon).

Personal vs professional
They are very separate things. There is very little design I do outside the workplace and very little writing I do within (apart from the occasional tagline for a film). It’s very hard to sometimes spend 11 hours in front of a computer at work to come home and spend another three or four in front of another screen. But I figure ‘how is that different from coming home and watching TV all night?’, which I’m sure lots of people do.

Writing is the remedy to my commercial work. Writing lets me pour my imagination out unfiltered. I love to write. I love dreaming and pondering and speculating and telling stories.

Unfortunately a knock-on effect of my day job is that I hate selling my personal work. Selling my commercial work is a necessary evil of the job I do. But after I finish writing something I’ve done in my spare time, I almost never expel the same energy selling it.
Made him go 'wow'…
That was the Transformers 2 poster. I literally stopped in my tracks and said to myself ‘Wow, how shit is that poster’. I think the last film that made me sit up and go ‘wow’ for the right reasons was a film called Moon, which I saw at Cannes. The artwork was done by my old company. There’s always a small amount of jealousy I have for anything good they get to work on. It is a great film and a great poster and both of them made me nod and go ‘wow’.

Places he’d love to work/visit…
I’d love to visit most places in the world. I travelled a lot when I was younger and I constantly doubt whether I shouldn’t have chosen a profession that would have allowed me to see the world and all its wonders. I jokingly reserve this option for when I fail at everything or have some sort of break down.

I’d love to work in California but it would have to be higher than Los Angeles, possibly San Francisco or Oregon (Goonies country). Whether this will happen or not isn’t of absolute importance to me right now. Since I’ve started working and etching out a career I seemed to have grown something that would have disgusted the teenager I was once – patriotism. I find that increasingly I’m hoping for a better England and a better UK film industry. I think you end up bitching about any place you lived and London is one of those cities that enchants me and repulses me in equal measures. I think I’d be happy if I could be part of making my homeland a better place. Plus, I’d probably disown any child I had that grew up and didn’t know what mushy peas were.

The academic arena vs experience…
I almost definitely learnt more from doing the work than from education. Education for me was more about the exploration, finding out what your interests were, what you were about and then on top of that, it was about having fun. The socialising you do in university is a great way of learning how to deal with people and work with people but nothing comes close to the experience of actually working in a business environment – the pressure, the commitment, the hours.

When I started my first job in London I would say I had a basic knowledge of things like Photoshop, Quark and little to none in things like Illustrator. It’s been six years and I’m still finding new and surprising ways of doing things in these programs and new software like InDesign. I have to ‘do’ to learn. The most valuable lesson I’ve learnt over the years, has been from my fuck ups – nothing impressed the importance of proofing art more than 3000 copies of a DVD that went to print with my name on the front cover and not the actors'.

For the specific field of film design, more than any education instruction, it’s important to have an ability to learn quickly, design fast and handy and, although not essential, to like films. If you can learn quickly and remember the lessons of your mistakes, you’re gonna go far.

We get a lot of people coming to us, wanting to work in the same thing we do. The first thing we want to do is reveal that it’s not a glamorous job. It’s a mostly thankless and fast-paced job where you have to turn on a dime and do ten projects simultaneously for not much money. It helps if you have an understanding of things like Photoshop and InDesign but it’s infinitely more important that you look at and tackle the format. If you wanted to get into poster design and came to us with a portfolio made up of on spec work (with no actual constraints of clients and shitty producers), I’d expect to see ideas and things that tried to break out of the strict restraints of the film poster format. It’s likely that any film designer would see that as a breath of fresh air.
Work = play…
You know, if you’re a professional cook, do you come home at the end of the day and refuse to make your own dinner? I don’t know. All I know is that in my 29 years I've never grown sick and tired of films. I try and keep away from them sometimes only because it’s unhealthy for someone to spend a sunny day inside. But honestly, I can often subdue the guilt of that too. However, although I never grow tired of film, it would be inaccurate to say it was all I’m about.

My greatest source of inspiration for my writing, is music. Music makes gears turn and I love listening to music in my spare time. Friends share a great deal of my free time. Nothing let’s me unwind and chill out more than spending time with people I love. In the ‘me time’ it’s always nice to wander, finding new things in the city, new sights and stories. Something that relaxes me a lot is cooking. Happiness is a sunny Sunday morning where the smells of baked bread and a fresh pot of coffee mix in the air over a good newspaper.

Back in time…
I don’t know that I would want to go back in time. If anyone’s seen Back to the Future they’ll know what a nightmare it is not to fuck up your future self and I’d hate to start fading away. But if we’re ignoring Back to the Future timeline trouble, I would definitely tell myself to remember to put Peter O’Toole’s name on the underground posters of Dean Spanley. Or maybe I would just not have gone out the night before and gotten wasted. But then again, these things are there to learn from.

I think the exercise of ‘what if?’ is mostly a pointless one. The things that I really regret inform the things I do in the future. And if they don’t then I shouldn’t waste any time worrying about them. Things that have changed the way I live my life are seeing people go. I wish I’d not wasted so much time doing and worrying about work at university and spent a little more time with the great people I shared that part of my life with.

My other great regrets of mine pertain to matters of the heart and the what if’s of love and loss. Regarding work, I feel like I probably should have set up the company with Paul a couple of years earlier. We should have believed in ourselves sooner. I should have started writing a little sooner. I should have copyrighted a few scripts that made their way onto the big screen via other people. I wish I could have gone back and told a 17 year old me to come up with a script for a new Indiana Jones movie because I might have had a shot at coming up with something better than Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls. I should have said ‘yes’ to taking stocks in Google. And I would have physically stopped myself from seeing Attack of the Clones. That’s two hours of my life I’m just never going to get back.
Wise words…
Never think that going for a drink with a mate is wasted time. Drinking on your own is slightly self-abusive, but I firmly believe that sharing time with people you enjoy being around is one of the most overlooked things in society nowadays. Nothing lasts forever and one day you’ll be dedicating your time to other people (eg. your family) and you’ll wish you took the opportunity to hang out with those friends when you had the chance.

Best thing anyone's ever said…
I think the worst advice anyone ever gave me was that, to get into anything worthwhile, you have to ‘be what they want you to be’ until you reach the very top and only then can you make the changes you want to. Nobody gets to the top by being someone they’re not! And the notion that once getting there you can simply change back into yourself is offensive. The best advice I’ve had is a complete contrast to this advice – do what makes you happy. I mean, if killing people and making satchels out of them makes you happy, then maybe not good to adhere to that. But striving to do something you want to do is a far better cause than fighting to earn money or respect in something you hate.

I think ‘never give up’ was some good advice from my gran that I try and adhere to too.

For the longest time I thought that the next thing would be a lot easier than the last – A levels were going to be easier than GCSE’s. Then I thought college would be a walk in the park compared to that. I thought university would just be all about studying the one thing I wanted to do so I thought it would be easier. Then work – no tests, no research, no lectures and getting paid for it! I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s bound to be easier’. But nothing's been easier.

If you can be okay with that fact, if you can accept that nothing is going to be a walk in the park, not even the walks in the park, then you’ll be okay. They say life is full of hard bits but in-between the hard bits are lots of lovely bits. Find people or just one person that you can trust, that you can tackle all the hard bits in life with, then concentrate all your attention on the lovely bits in-between. Oh, and learn how to bake bread, it’s easy and well worth it.


lula cat said...

I love this interview!
I didn't even know that there was a "special unit" for designing movie posters...which I should know.
I really like the composition of "Is anybody there".
I don;t think people realise how hard it is to marry type and image.

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