David Reviews

 "You're not an artist, Peggy. You solve problems." Don Draper.

TAKING SAM PILLING'S PULSE.
21 August 2019

In the first few minutes of the conversation DAVID had with young director Sam Pilling a little while ago, some interesting facts emerged. He comes from an academic family and he has a quiet studiousness about him nestling alongside an impressive confidence.

He was named after the writer Samuel Beckett by his drama teacher mother and his professorial father who teaches English at Reading University, because the latter is obsessed with the Irish Nobel laureate.

In an effort to distance himself from his father's preoccupations, Pilling decided that the last thing he should study at university was English. And now that he spends a surprising amount of his time writing scripts and treatments, he occasionally regrets the decision. At the time, he was focused on "art, art, art, art"! By which, of course, he means drawing.

If his parents were put out by his choice of muse, they kept it to themselves, and offered their wholehearted support. Not that they had anything to fear, Pilling was clearly good at it… he won a place at St Martin's where he studied graphic design because he was "really into illustration that point".

His interest in film was provoked by St Martin's insistence that first year students explore other pathways. Each week, they would try a different discipline, and when he rotated into the film department, Pilling knew what he wanted to do.

"I fell in love with filming... with the idea of being able to tell stories through moving images."


Pilling completed his degree and graduated during the height of the 2009 financial crisis. An industrious friend pointed out that, despite the heightened expectations of their fellow alumni, none of them were going to find it easy in the real world. His friend was already working as a runner, and suggested that Pilling join him. Initially working for free, they were soon being paid small amounts for being on a film set. It was an eye-opening experience: "that was the first time where I was, like, oh, this is what it's actually like."


I fell in love with filming... with the idea of being able to tell stories through moving images.

 ”

While working as a runner, Pilling and his friends were making their own films on the side, and when he and two university friends spotted a competition to make a promo for a David Lynch track, with the winning entry becoming the official video… they knew they had to submit a film.

They didn't win… that would be too much of the fairytale, but their film was nonetheless picked up by a blog and gained Pilling considerable traction online. This was followed by what he describes as "another, sort of, low-budget thing" which was good enough to persuade Pulse to sign him.


A young filmmaker isn't going to be offered an opportunity by a company like Pulse unless there is clear evidence of talent. And, that usually needs to be more than an impressive film or two... they need to have something about them as well. Did Pilling immediately believe he belonged on such a strong roster?

"Yes!" an emphatic response, "I think, particularly in the role of director within our industry, you have to believe in yourself. Sometimes, that belief is justified, and sometimes it isn't. But if you don't believe in yourself, nobody else is going to believe in you."


I think the budget was five grand. We shot it over a weekend in a dodgy hotel somewhere in West London where we, basically, spent the weekend.

 ”

As much as his parents believed in him, he remembers his father's response when he told him that he'd been offered a place on Pulse's roster, and had quit his job to take it. He might as well have told him that he'd swapped the families cow for some magic beans… and, in a way, he had.


Pilling grew up in the era of digital cameras, and he talks with affection about his graduation from one technology to the next, as each moved within the grasp of his budgetary constraints.

He struggles to identify a single breakthrough moment before settling on a music video he made for Sbtrkt: "I think the budget was five grand. We shot it over a weekend in a dodgy hotel somewhere in West London where we, basically, spent the weekend."

Later, he learned that the daughter of Usher's manager had caught sight of it and had then drawn her mother's attention to it. Because of this divine intervention, it landed in front of one of the biggest music stars in the world. He liked what he saw and wanted to work with its young director, and he contacted Pulse to speak to Pilling's music video rep. It sounds as though Pulse themselves were quite surprised by the development as Pilling only had one £5k promo under his belt, but they resisted any instinct to try to move it to a more established director, and a few weeks later, Pilling flew to Atlanta to shoot a music video for Usher.


You have to believe in yourself. Sometimes, that belief is justified, and sometimes it isn't. But if you don't believe in yourself, nobody else is going to believe in you.

 ”

Even though the Usher promo didn't turn out as Pilling hoped, it still served an incredibly useful purpose… it opened a lot of doors for him.

And behind one of those doors was The Weeknd, just before he became the megastar he is today: "it sort of happened by accident, he was making a video and the director had to drop out of the last minute. And I got a phone call from someone at pulse asking, 'do you want to go to Vegas on Thursday and shoot a video?' And I didn't even know who he was, but then I listened to the track and, I thought, 'oh yes, his music's all right!'. And, you know, I wasn't doing anything that week." So off to Vegas he went.


Once again, one thing led to another and, on the back of that project, Pilling was given the opportunity to direct a promo for J Cole. Pilling was given an increasing levcl of artistic freedom, and he remembers this project very fondly for that reason: "Cole was, you know, just the loveliest guy. His whole team just let us get on with it… they didn't meddle with the creative at all."

Cole himself demonstrated his own faith in Pilling by taking a backseat role, and he barely appears in the promo, something that Pilling describes as: "so rare for a rapper to have that approach."


Cole was, you know, just the loveliest guy. His whole team just let us get on with it… they didn't meddle with the creative at all.

 ”

The artistic freedom that Pilling cherished began to dribble away as success meant that he was making promos for even bigger stars. It's a difficult balancing act.

He stresses the importance of building connections: "When you meet people, if you get on with them, or if there's the experience is good, then it can lead to other things."

It's something he imported into his relationship with advertising agencies once he started being offered commercials. He recalls some work he did for BBH which came at a point when he wasn't being offered the best projects but, he nonetheless created a lasting relationship with the creatives, and this has served him well. It says a lot for him that this doesn't sound in the least bit cynical when he describes it.


We discuss the rights and wrongs of directors' reputations being adversely affected by a piece of work that doesn't turn out great. It is something which affects him even though he knows that – as a young director – he has been obliged to take on projects which are unlikely to be added to his reel.

From here, we move on to a brief discussion about directors cuts and DAVID teases Pilling about the length of his! While admitting that none of his DCs are shorter than the broadcast version,he claims that some are, at least, the same length.

It's very interesting to watch him wrestle with these issues… his natural modesty competing with what he has learned from his time in the industry. Pilling would clearly be more willing to roll with the punches if he wasn't worried that that would prove naïve.

The most annoying thing about the idea that a poor piece of work can haunt a director is that it's true. As absurd as it sounds, there are people in the industry who are absolutely determined to judge directors by their mistakes rather than their triumphs. It makes no sense, and serves only to remind DAVID that the advertising industry is still hopelessly shallow.


For a director who has only been around for ten years, Pilling has developed a remarkable reputation and he has the self-confidence of someone with much more experience. It serves him well, and he isn't daunted by any possibility.

One of his most recent projects was a promo for a new track by Chaka Khan. He knew ahead of filming that he is unlikely to get the freedom he craves, but you don't turn down a project like this. Any concerns about Ms Khan's diva level were set aside by strenuous practicalities, and Pilling had to use all his experience to ensure that they were able to film everything they wanted in a very short space of time.


When you meet people, if you get on with them, or if there's the experience is good, then it can lead to other things.

 ”

Sam Pilling is not a showy character, he is a thoughtful practitioner of the director role and no matter how much he may feel that that he still has something to prove to himself, you would never guess it from the way he conducts himself.

His work speaks for itself, he is clearly a great talent. Having spent some time with him, DAVID is able to say without fear of contradiction that he is also a very engaging and pleasant young man. We look forward to witnessing his future success.

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David Reviews - Lovely Lenzie Ltd, Woodbourne House, Seven Sisters, Lenzie, G66 3AW. Telephone: +44 141 776 7766. Editor: Jason Stone.