'We Seek What We Couldn't Have Imagined.' Inside Ridley Scott's Hennessy Film

Our Q&A with the DDB Paris creative directors

By now you've likely seen "The Seven Worlds," marking Ridley Scott's return to advertising after 15 years. The four-minute piece, created for Hennessy X.O by DDB Paris, is a surreal visit through seven constructed universes, inspired by the cognac's seven notes. 

This is a poor description of what the film is. It's by no means an unfamiliar idea, but what sets it apart is the seeming depth of these fictional worlds, which rise and fall before your eyes and yet feel fleshy. It's as if stories upon stories take place in them that we can only begin to guess at. 

Golden, gravity-defying honey is panned in caves; a crackling desert world is crossed by nomads with colorful parasols, sharing their world with benevolent giants made of metal. Heat rises from the earth. In space, powdered spices shoot out of jets and make life—colorful and complex. One planet is made entirely of chocolate, transcendent. And in a forest, a Miyazaki-like spirit dances on its own, its form—perhaps its very existence—defined by plants and birds.

Hennessy X.O - The Seven Worlds - Directed by Ridley Scott

You've already heard from Ridley Scott's editor, but we also visited DDB Paris to talk to creative directors Pierre Mathonat and Alexis Benbehe about the process of creating the film, and working with Scott. Below are excepts from that conversation. 

Muse: What is the film's purpose?
Pierre Mathonat: X.O is Hennessy's central product, the first cognac you can drink on its own. Other cognacs are typically drunk with cocktails. And often people don't want to drink X.O because they think it's for connaisseurs—they have to recognize this or that note. We wanted to talk about that taste of X.O, because that's what characterizes it. But we wanted to do it in a way that was accessible, spectacular—to make entertainment around these flavors.

Whom is "The Seven Worlds" talking to?
Alexis Benbehe: People who are interested in spirits. It's a large target, which makes it fascinating but also complicated. When you get into your "adult" life, start working, and learn more about alcohol, you start exploring drinks that are very different from what you might have had before, like whiskey Cokes when you're a teenager. 

Alcohol has also changed a lot; it's more nuanced now. Whiskey has evolved; look at the Japanese whiskey phenomenon. Now there's craft beer, which is so democratized. And the way you drink alcohol says something about your social class. You're not going to perceive a person who orders a Japanese whiskey the same way you see someone who orders a Jack Daniel's or a gin and tonic. Today, alcohol—like our way of dressing, or our music—is a signal.

And location matters, too. In the U.S., Hennessy is cool—Jay Z has invested so much in its brand. In China, cognac is an alcohol of the elite, an alcohol of the ancestors. Plus it's from Europe, so it's well perceived. 

PM: It's often young people who drink cognac in China. But in Europe, cognac can often lend the impression of someone who's pretentious. Someone who orders it instead of a sugary cocktail—pure, on the rocks or not—is a person who is conveying a certain education about alcohol. 

AB: Which is actually one of the challenges. Cognac is very ritualized in Europe: If you drink a cognac, there's this idea that you have to appreciate it; no one will order a cognac just to savor, even though it's a wonderful spirit. With gin or tequila, there's a principle note—flowery, earthy—around which other notes may revolve. With cognac, there are many notes that follow one another; it's among the rare alcohols that do this. You'll have a first note that hits you and quickly disappears. Then another will rise, before giving birth to another note.

X.O distinguishes itself from other spirits, but also other cognacs, because it has seven notes that follow each other. This yields a flavor that's complex, rich and long on the palate. This is what we wanted to convey to people through a voyage, a visual metaphor. 

What do you feel when you watch the video?
AB: We've been plunged into this story with Alexander [Kalchev, DDB Paris executive creative director] for two years. I feel immense pride; we worked with some of the best illustrators, and one of the world's best directors. We're so glad to have a client that wanted it, followed it, that listened to the agency and wanted what we wanted. These images are what we imagined making when we got into advertising. We know we're creating something new … when we wake in the morning, it's to be able to do stuff like this.

What kind of stuff do you mean?
AB: When we talk to people in the agency about "The Seven Worlds," we try to rationalize the work. We try to understand it, to comprehend it. But a bite of chocolate cake—we don't try rationalizing that.There's something adult in the desire to intellectualize things. 

Remember in the movie Ratatouille, when the critic comes at the end to try the meal? He's a rational person with a matrix of judgment—texture, balance ... But when he tries this ratatouille, all rationality falls. He has a memory of childhood. What we found was, when we work with great artists, we all do things the same way—we become children, remaking the world. 

Ridley is a good example of this. He's been at the head of Hollywood for 60 years, one of the most complex industries, full of entitled people who want things their way with complete justification. But in this film, behind every chapter is a dream of childhood. And for each part, we found "children" to help us construct the dream—like the playhouses in the woods we once made with our friends.

The world is full of "experts," but we're all having more and more trouble talking about sensations of pleasure, sadness, joy—everything that composes our humanity disappears in the face of rationality and the drive for data. One of the things that most surprised Hennessy about this film is, even though they knew what we were doing from the beginning, they simply became children when watching the film itself. 

That element is important. Why try a cognac? Hennessy's team can elaborate about the alchemy to it ... but in the end, it's about pleasure. There are no rules for pleasure. It has to be instinctive. And there's something primordial in this imagery, in our imaginations, that resembles that primordial instinct of pleasure.

PM: In advertising, we reuse so many clichés to tell stories quickly. We assemble them in new ways, manipulate them, but in the end they're clichés. What makes me proudest about "The Seven Worlds" is that these aren't images I feel I've seen. They evoke things I've seen, universes that perhaps I've known. But I have never seen these particular images. These are more like worlds created in dreams. It's a little poem. 
 
And it's come out right after the Super Bowl, when ad land punts its best! 
AB: When we watch the Super Bowl, it's for that pleasure of looking at other agencies' work and going, "Those bastards—they did it!" With Skittles last year, that's how we felt—those bastards, they did it! We expect entertainment to be new, fresh today. But as Pierre pointed out, we can't mistake entertainment for being referential. This year we saw brands simply hiding behind stars; half of Hollywood was in the Super Bowl. I don't think I've ever seen so many stars. 

Of course, being derivative isn't exclusively an advertising thing. 
PM: Look at the Marvel films. Marvel isn't creating new universes. It's about the recuperation of universes, pyrotechnic pleasure, and the joy of seeing punchlines get passed around. I'm never surprised by a Marvel film. 

I'm happy to see that, in 2019, we're still capable of creating new images in advertising. I think that's what Ridley Scott was attracted to—he could create worlds the like of which he could have made in a film, except that here he had the flexibility to imagine many different things. 

Tell us about the production.
AB: It was quick! A week and a half in Prague, in a studio. 

PM: The forest wasn't in a studio, but yes, the majority of scenes were shot in studios. There was very little post-prod needed for the first chapter. In the second, the giant was shot in-studio. We had a huge ramp with two different focal points to shoot, which we recomposed into a single image. 

AB: It was six months of post-production at MPC with 40-something graphists and animators. Debbie, Ridley's producer, and Quentin, our producer, must have been tearing their hair out every day. We were a bunch of excited kids, and they managed the deadlines. 

PM: From the first call with Ridley to today, I'd say the whole thing took about a year. We spent a lot of time before production, rewriting scripts and storyboarding with Ridley so we would all be agreed before going into production. He has so many new ideas, and when he's excited, he draws everything. 

AB: The graphics team was full of miniature Ridleys, Pierres and Alexises—nobody wanted to stop working when their part was done. For the giant's foot, we were like, OK, it's done, have to lock this down and move on—but the artists kept working on it. The day after, they brought us new sequences, new ideas...

PM: We didn't even ask! 

AB: It was so organic; everyone just loved working on it. They conducted mini meetings to talking about their different crafts. Once, we received a montage where things had changed completely. 

Hennessy X.O - The Seven Worlds - Directed by Ridley Scott - Behind the Scenes

That must have been complicated from a budget and deadlines perspective.
PM: When Ridley talks about his creative process, he has new ideas constantly. He never stops. And often he wants to do them, even though it's too late. And you don't say stop to Ridley; you say keep going. We were lucky to have clients that said "It will end when it's good, when you or Ridley decide it's good." 

AB: Embarking on a project like this, without fear or panic or the desire to control—they never tried once—is truly brave. Hennessy followed us; rarely have we had so much liberty. It's a relationship based on trust. Without trust we can't make things like this. 

And MPC worked like crazy. With Ridley, he's the chef d'orchestre. We can debate things, but if he's convinced, when he has an idea, he's a bulldozer that doesn't stop. And we fell in love with this man—he's still a creative, one of the sharpest people we've met, even over 80 years of age! 

PM: And he's not tired of fighting. He'd fight over the design of the nose of the giant... 

AB: Each detail is important for him.

PM: What I hate in advertising is, you make a script in a half-day, you make a storyboard in a day, and nothing changes after that. Everything is shot just like the storyboard shows. It's horrible. 

We were constantly surprised by what MPC and Ridley brought us. The movie changed in our minds as they worked. I can't be objective about the film; what was incredible as the creative process, the chance to work hand in hand with someone like that for a year, and to really, each day, bring a new stone to the edifice.

Nothing is perfect. What would you have done differently?
AB: I hate the phrase "nothing is perfect." It's because nothing is perfect that something is good. You don't seek perfection in creation; you seek accidents, serendipity. We seek what we couldn't have imagined. 

PM: When we create something, what we truly want is to be surprised. When we watched this film evolve, that kept on happening. If I have one regret, it's that it isn't long enough. 

AB: We're perfectionists that never seek perfection. We need to not know. We love it when a director says "I love this, I don't like this, I'm doing it differently." That's when we know they're taking it to heart, making it their own.

The film will air in a :60 iteration during the 91st Oscars this Sunday on ABC, marking its launch in the Americas, as well as in Europe and Africa. It will launch in Asia in the second quarter of the year; supporting activations will roll out throughout 2019. 

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Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad is a founding contributor to Muse. She is also the co-founder of esports agency Hurrah.gg, and co-author of Generation Creation.