Gary McKendry is a Northern Irish film and television commercial director. His short film Everything in This Country Must was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005. McKendry was born and raised in Ballyclare, Northern Ireland. He attended the Belfast College of Art for a year before enrolling at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. Graduating with a degree in art and film, McKendry worked as a storyboard artist in London, before moving to Australia where he worked as an advertising art director. He was offered a job with the American ad agency Chiat/Day and moved to New York City, where he later worked for Ogilvy & Mather and Margeotes Fertitta. Eventually McKendry branched out on his own, directing award-winning commercials for clients such as IKEA, Porsche, Heineken, NASDAQ, Budweiser and DeBeers. McKendry’s debut feature film was Killer Elite, an action thriller based on Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ fiction novel The Feather Men. It was filmed in Australia and starred Jason Statham, Clive Owen, and Robert De Niro.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
I was born in the hills of a tiny little town in the mountains of Northern Ireland where the mailmen read your mail. I come from a funny background. To tell you the truth, I grew up in Ireland during the war there, and my town was kind of cut off. I mean, even the cinemas were closed. I think the first movie I saw on a cinema screen was when I was like 18 or 19 years old. So, it was sort of a small world with sort of a small vision.
How did you get your start in the business?
I loved movies, and I loved all of that stuff, so I ended up going to art school, but I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do. I just knew I didn’t want to do anything that was going on around me. Somebody told me that the St. Martin School of Art didn’t take Irish people, so that was the first place I applied to, and I got in. It was great, but I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. Then I discovered storyboarding, which was fantastic. So, I started storyboarding other people’s commercials and storyboarding my own stuff that I hoped one day to make. I also storyboarded a couple of shorts. So, I ended up working in advertising, and then with that I ended up working all around the world. But I knew that I wanted to direct some day, because, as time went by, I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on sets, and the whole time I was asking everyone all these questions and being a pain in the arse. You know, I was treating it as an apprenticeship. So, I was watching everything that was going on around me, and I built a reel out of other people’s work, and I told myself that that’s the reel I wanted for myself.
What do you consider your first professional shoot?
I basically worked like a bastard and lived like a monk, and I saved the money to shoot these five spots that I had written to build my reel. I had moved from a big agency to a small agency, and the deal was if I pitched the business and won the business, then I could have a go at directing. I was working in advertising, so nobody ever kept their word. But somebody kept their word. I won some business, but it was during the tech boom, so I think they had run out of directors, and I was around, so they let me actually shoot it. So, it was funny. In a two-week period, I shot three of my own spec spots that I had to pay for, and then two weeks later, I was actually shooting two half-million dollar spots for a real client with this huge contract. It was all pretty shocking.
Who gave you your first shot at directing?
I was at this little agency called Margeotes Fertitta. They’re the ones who opened the door for me and kept their promise by letting me direct the spots after pitching and winning the business. We won a regional piece for AT&T but it was a big piece of business for SunCom. We wrote like five commercials and I told them I wanted to do them and they let me. It was pretty incredible, and it was with a cool client. I think that all of the spots were quite small, but there were a lot of them. So, I shot those, and then I shot some spec spots for twenty-five grand. So, it was quite a strange experience.
What was your inspiration in the early days?
You know, the thing for me that I love about getting out of Ireland was that I didn’t know what was around the corner. That’s also what I loved about becoming a director. I never knew what was going to happen next. I never knew what time it was going to be, what the climate was going to be, what the budget was going to be. I love that. That’s what got me. In many ways, and I know this might sound awful, I think of myself as the Swiss Army Knife of directing. I know that drives reps crazy, because I can do comedy, I can do cars, and I can do action. But that’s what I love. I love the freedom of what we do. I hate being pigeonholed. I hate being told that this is what you are, and the directors whom I’ve grown up loving, such as Ridley Scott, are directors who can cross genres. He’s one of my favorite directors. He filmed the best science-fiction movie, Blade Runner. He filmed the best horror movie, Alien. He filmed the best girl movie, Thelma and Louise. You know, he has used lots of different styles and lots of different genres. It’s using the freedom of what’s out there. That’s what inspires me.
Do you have any treasured memories of when you first started?
When I first started out, there was time to catch your breath. Like, you would be on the side of a hill waiting for the sun to come up, and you would be with your DP, and you would share a little beat where you’d be like ‘Jesus Christ, do you believe what we do?’ But nowadays, you don’t have time to share that look. It’s just so much faster now. Another treasured memory is when I did a little short that got nominated. I brought my American crew over to Ireland, and I shot it in the little village where I grew up. That’s one of my single favorite experiences – shooting in the town I grew up in and looking across the field while my dad was watching. That was lovely, because most of the time we’re working in another world away, you know?
Do you think it’s easier to break in as a director now, or was it easier when you started out?
I think I got incredibly lucky in terms of my timing, because I think when I jumped into the pool it was during the tech boom, and I think there was a lot more money around. But there were also a lot more companies around, in terms of start-ups and such, and I think that a lot of them had money thrown at them from Wall Street. So, there was a lot more money around, there was open enthusiasm, and there wasn’t the same fear that I think we have now. Back then, it was all about ‘Get me the spot I dream of.’ Now it’s more like ‘Please don’t get me fucking fired.’ I think with the technology now though, it’s a lot easier to get started. All of the tools are there now, and they’re much more affordable.
What do you think is more important: talent, connections, or luck?
Sometimes you look at someone and you think ‘Oh, they made it themselves.’ But then you look back and there’s this dotted line that leads back to important connections. So, connections are important, but in the end, there are still people out there doing exciting things with sheer persistence.
If you had to contribute one of those things to your personal career what would it be?
I think I’m a ballsy, Protestant bastard who doesn’t get put down easily. I get back up, and I get back up again. One of my favorite movies is Cool Hand Luke, and in that film he kept getting back up, and I think it’s really important to be able to do that. It’s not all going to work out, but you’ve got to push really hard to get back up. There are plenty of people who want to be where you’re at, pointing that camera, so you better fight like a bastard for it. That’s the one thing I learned in advertising. It was tough. It was fierce. If you’re coming out of London working in fashion you’ll probably come out with maybe two lines a year, and as an artist you might come out with twenty paintings a year. When you’re in advertising, you’re banging out ten ads a day, and everyone can either get you fired or make you famous. They called it the shark tank when I was there, but it was really good training for being a director. I just think you have to be really, really persistent.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming directors?
I would tell them not to write too much. I would tell them to go and shoot. I did a lecture, and I sat with a bunch of people who wanted to be directors, and not one of them had been on a film set. You’re sitting there in a cushy classroom, sipping a six-dollar coffee and talking about film. That’s different from being in the field at 4:00 a.m. Most film crews look like they’re road workers, you know? They were fleece, they wear thermals underneath work pants, and it’s cold, and it’s tough, but that’s the joy of it. It’s important to understand the physical side of it. It’s long hours in tough conditions. If you think that it’s all about taking meetings and sitting at the Oscars, you’re in for a shock. It’s shocking how few people understand that. A lot of people you meet in film school think that you just write it, and then you go and make your movie.
What do you think is a director’s most important tool?
I think the most important tool a director can have is being able to talk to people. I mean that’s the single most important thing a director has to be able to do. You’re talking in a lot of different languages as a director. You’re talking to a DP, you’re talking to a client, you’re talking to a marketing person, you’re talking to an editor, but you’re also talking to the local thug who’s trying to get money off of you for parking your truck in his neighborhood. They’re all different languages, and you better be able to speak them all if you’re going to achieve your vision. Being a director is like being creative Velcro – you’re nothing without the other person. You can’t do it all. You’re a conductor.
What is something unique that you bring to the table?
I’d say my single biggest strength is my storyboards.
Are you working on a film right now?
Yeah, I’m working on a film called The Beggar King, which is based on the book The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness. It’s about a storyteller who gets throat cancer and loses his voice.
If you had to pick one director who influenced you, who would it be?
The lucky thing that happened to me, which got me where I am, has nothing to do with filmmaking. It’s the weirdest stroke of luck. A drunk driver had run me off the road on my 19th birthday, and I broke my neck. He left me on the side of the road. A year and a half later, after I was at the school of art, I think I got about £2,000 in compensation, and with that money I went to Australia and ended up working in advertising. And it was the start of everything. Nobody asked if I was legal, nobody asked to see my papers. They just asked for my storyboards and gave me a job as a director. So it all comes down to that drunk driver.
Was there ever an aha moment that made you want to be a director?
It was when I first saw Blade Runner in an art theater in London. With that opening, with that eye looking at you, and that Japanese voice speaking, that was it. It was just phenomenal. After seeing that, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
If you had to pick one, what would be your favorite movie?
Blade Runner, the director’s cut.
Is there anything that you’ve seen in the past few months that really blew you away?
I loved Under the Skin. It was like a remake of The Man Who Fell to Earth. That ending is just un-fucking-believable. It was so exciting to see a film where they had the X factor, simple as that. Jonathan Glazer is one of my favorite advertising directors.
Ballyclare, Northern Ireland
Director / Assembly Films