Jeremy Saunders is one of the best key art designers in the Australian film industry, and has designed posters for Suburban Mayhem, Candy, Little Fish, Romulus My Father, The Square and most recently contributed to the art for Dying Breed. Using his poster for The Square as a template, he tells Simon de Bruyn why it’s hard to always get it right.

How does the creative/commercial split work when you are designing movie posters?

If there is a quantum of creativity in doing key art – and most days I doubt it – it’s more about a cerebral creativity rather than a creative one. If people ask I often waffle on that my job is to distill the film into that ‘single, reductive, seductive image’, as Saul Bass once put it, and incisively communicate all the myriad facets of the film through a uniquely beautiful design. This is a lovely idea, but it bears absolutely no relation whatsoever to what really happens. Because no matter how highfalutin’ I like to make it sound, the poster is a marketing tool, and not to be confused with art under any circumstances.

So yeah, I always have to discuss ‘primary market groups’ and all that stuff. It’s usually for a “key Arthouse crowd: 40+, female skew, Radio National listeners…” but of course you can’t forget the secondary market, which for some reason is often teenage boys, and outside specialist pornography teenage boys and 40+ females don’t have an awful lot in common. So that’s the real work, partly to communicate ‘The World of The Film’, but more the component parts of the film that will appeal to the target demographics. And then [you have to] use words like ‘target demographics’ and ‘market groups’ which rather turns the stomach as you can appreciate.

How many posters do you design per film, or is this also according to the brief as well?

It depends. It’s usually necessary to run through a bunch of ideas because the distributors and the producers and the director generally each want to go in a different direction, so initially I try to create a design that each party is happy with, and then once everyone’s happy they’ve been listened to I can stride off wherever the mood takes me.

After a couple of early gigs where I did exhaustive and exhausting numbers of drafts, I now put a financial cap on them in the contract which is really to make sure everyone keeps their eyes on the ball rather than just sending me on fools’ errands design-wise. If the contract is for 10 drafts, say, I’ll do at least 20 more for the bin. You rarely get it [right] first draft, it’s like writing. You’ve got to work through stuff and really hammer ideas into the ground, not least because otherwise you get comfortable and just end up repeating yourself. There’s enough of that going on in this industry as it is.

Are Australian distributors interested in a range of posters; do they ask for sales, festival or teaser posters, and then different types of posters for theatrical release, such as ‘character’ posters?

There doesn’t tend to be the money for that. It’s rare that anyone will even print double-sided posters for Australian films (that’s where you print the same image in reverse on the back to make the colours are much more vibrant) due to – I suspect – the cost, so another poster run is equally problematic.

Plus, most campaigns tend to be done at the 11th hour, so there’s no time for teasers, and to be honest there usually isn’t the physical space in most cinemas for more than one poster per film, especially with the rapid turnover of films at the moment.

Festival and market posters tend to be a different flavour of misery as the turnaround is usually measured in hours rather than weeks, plus you have the international sales agents weighing in with their ideas about what German television would like to see on the poster, so those designs are usually best left at the festival. In some kind of pyre.

Do you look for input from the director and DOP as well, or stills photographers?

Sometimes the distributor will have me read the script prior to shooting and nominate certain scenes that I think I’d like the stills photographer to be on set for. Otherwise, if I can see the film [later] then hopefully I can tell what the DOP was up to. It tends to be just the director and producer that have my ear and that’s enough to be dealing with to be honest.

I notice that for films like Rogue and The Black Balloon that you were hired initially but your designs were not used for the final poster. Is this a common practise for distributors?

Not ‘common’ no, thank god [although] I did have a bit of an annus horriblis in 2007 to be honest. It’s like any freelance gig, sometimes things don’t work out – either you can’t express what’s required, or you haven’t got all the information you need, or you simply can’t figure out what the hell the film is trying to say. Fortunately it doesn’t occur frequently. All the distributors have in-house design teams, so if I get brought in it’s often to fix everything rather than break it. And these days I’m getting a bit better at sniffing out jobs that won’t be fun beforehand.

Turning more recently to The Square, can you walk me through the ideas for this poster; it is an interesting design as it is far more conceptually based that a character or cast poster that you tend to see for a thriller. Was that your idea, or again, a directive from your clients?

I’ve been fortunate to work on some projects where we tested poster designs in front of audiences and some of the comments and conclusions that came back from those were quite shocking and challenging. One thing that’s pertinent to The Square was that if people saw a person’s face on a poster and didn’t recognise them; this was actually likely to put them off investigating the film. So it was perversely important not to have David Roberts or Claire van der Boom on the poster. I would have kicked against putting Joel Edgerton on the poster even though he is a recognisable ‘bankable’ face, because you’re simply lying about the film. To their credit no-one ever asked me to. So you pack your lunch and head off to a more interesting conceptual place.

Was it done with the input of the director Nash Edgerton or the distributor Roadshow, or both?

I’ve worked with Roadshow before and they’re good people; Nash I’ve been working with pretty solidly for about six years, and [the film’s producer] Louise Smith gave me my first poster design gig (for a short film starring…David Roberts! He wasn’t on that poster either). So we were all able to communicate pretty clearly and honestly with each other about what the poster should do and whether I was getting there, I think.

It’s a dark, noir poster because it’s a dark noir film. It’s not fucking Bratz. I wanted to say, this is the story of a guy, an anonymous everyman, he could be you really, and he’s in a dark place. And [I wanted to] prefigure elements of the story, with the spade, the plume of smoke; if you look at the lighting, something’s not right about it, and of course there’s the shadow which people don’t notice immediately, but on a pre-cognitive level they know that something’s off. It all creates this air of uncertainty and unease about the guy on the poster.

What were some of the reasons this poster was chosen as the final one?

Because it was the best one I did. As soon as I did it, I think everyone felt that this was the way to go. I worked on a few more ideas but we always came back to this one, and tweaked it and tweaked it. Nash enjoys a good tweak. There were two other potential posters that were even more conceptual, but neither really had the filmic quality of this one.

I think I’m pretty hard on myself most of the time about my work, and particularly on this film because these guys are my friends, and they’d made I really good film, so I put a lot of pressure on myself. But in the end I’m more proud of the poster than I’ve been proud of a design in a long time. I think it actually expresses the themes and ideas in the film pretty succinctly. Are there things I’d do differently in hindsight? Probably. Actually I was at a party and heard somebody say that they’d seen the teaser poster for the film but not the final poster. Of course mine’s the only poster there is, so that misunderstanding was probably a fair criticism in itself.

What have been your favourite poster campaigns over the last two years or so?

The Dark Knight was a fantastic campaign – bloody awful film but a really varied campaign most of which worked brilliantly. I’ve just seen the teaser for Gregor Jordan’s film of The Informers which is gorgeous. Um, Hard Candy, and as far as Australian campaigns go, the poster for Noise was perfect, really great. I quite like the Unfinished Sky poster too.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m doing my 99th piece of key art right now. I’ve actually been turning a lot of key artwork away recently; I still love doing film posters if the ideas, or the film or the creative team is interesting, but I’ve stopped taking on every piece of key art offered to me. It’s time to be more selective and branch out a bit. Quite where my stubby malformed branches will reach is as yet unclear. Other than that, just finishing the drearily inevitable screenplay and before you ask, I have no idea what the poster for that will look like.

For more on key art design, including interviews with the poster designers for the films Bitter & Twisted and Men’s Group check out ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ in INSIDEFILM #114 October 2008.

Check out more poster art from Jeremy Saunders at his blog.

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