Director Shannon Murphy on Making Her Evocative Menopause Film for TENA

Inside the craft, from color to costuming
TENA #LastLonelyMenopause

Earlier this month, U.K. agency AMV BBDO released its latest impressive film about women's health—"Last Lonely Menopause" for bladder products brand TENA.

The spot won U.K.-based Channel 4's Diversity in Advertising Award, dedicated this year to work that tackles ageism in advertising. The message of the TENA piece is refreshing, the storytelling evocative—and the craft magnificent.

It was directed by Shannon Murphy, the Australian director, making her advertising debut. Murphy comes from the worlds of theater, film (Babyteeth) and television (Killing Eve, Offspring, Rake). Repped for commercials by Lief, Murphy delves into the making of the spot in the conversation below.

How were you connected with TENA and this project originally?

Shannon Murphy: I was very fortunate to sign with Lief, who creates work I find incredibly inspiring. It's important to me that if I'm committing to an ad, it's the same as my filmmaking decisions. I have to be passionate about the product and the message or I won't be able to infuse it with ideas and energy.

I was sent the brief and was moved by what the aim of the work was, to change the culture around how we frame menopause. [Lief founder/EP] Margo Mars and I like collaborating with different voices and approaches to create work that really speaks to the large consumer group that includes us—women.

How did you approach the treatment for this spot? Can you tell us about your collaboration with Margo and Lief on this project?

Margo is a holistic and highly creative producer. We were the perfect pairing for this project because we are both out-of-the-box thinkers. Margo forensically understands the advertising world but also understands filmmakers, especially those transitioning into the medium of advertising. She is open-minded about approaching advertising in a filmic and highly craft-driven way, which is why Lief's work is very artistic and emotional. It has the heart and soul of the artists who made the work leaping off the screen.

With the treatment, Margo and I discuss what we love and what we want to expand on. This time we got Rita Kalnejais, who wrote Babyteeth, to do a pass, which added her sharp eye for detail such as the more unexpected moments with the pussy cat and the tomato squeezing.

I really loved the idea of keeping the color palette and grade in the tones of William Eggleston's photography, as there is a timelessness to the look of his work and I wanted this advert to attract women and men of all ages.

As a filmmaker and commercial director what draws you to these types of female-driven stories?

Unknown terrain is what I am attracted to most, stories that I haven't heard or seen before. With TENA, I knew that I was oblivious to the intricate details of this rite of passage but I had a desire to explore and express the reality in a way that would be appealing and authentic.

I was also attracted to the mother-daughter relationship as the primary connection. That dynamic is something I have in my own life and one day want to give my daughter the gift of learning about menopause, something very few women my own age know anything about, yet one day we too will go through it.

Yet there's so much advertising to be made that resonates with our consumer group of women … beyond the tampon ads! On the film and TV side, I've been given the big-stakes opportunities to shape all kinds of stories—ones with car chase sequences and huge boxing scenes. Yet in advertising, women are still rarely entrusted to drive the big adverts; the car, perfume, airline and sports adverts that are primarily given to men. Send us the brief, let us in the room, include us in the conversation, and we'll show you an entirely new perspective. 

There's a narrative quality to the spot. How did you develop the story beyond the original brief? How much was scripted, and how much was decided on and workshopped in prep and on set?

The original brief was really beautiful, and I could feel a connection to what they were striving for. It's essential for me that there is a story. Even when I have directed performance art or expressionistic fashion videos, I still need a narrative and purpose in the creative trajectory, no matter what form it takes. 

With TENA, it was important that the journey for the mother and daughter start off on rocky footing until the moment in the garden at night where the mother can't sleep and is pulling out weeds and feeling out of her body. This moment shocks the daughter into realizing there's something shifting her mother. They then go on a journey of building their relationship back to a better place of understanding and compassion, with some laughs along the way. 

I wanted the work to be hopeful so that people will have the courage to talk about menopause, and men and women can support each other and be kind to one another during a time of deep transition.

You also managed to infuse humor, and honesty, into what can be a sensitive and somewhat taboo subject for some women. Can you expand on your creative approach? How is this work an example of your process as a filmmaker?

Finding humor in the darkest of situations is always my go-to instinct and personality. It's how I view the world and how I think humans naturally cope with challenging experiences. I believe this yin and yang approach to life is what makes life so interesting and unpredictable.

I create a very loose environment on set, I do my utmost to eliminate stress, and I trust my collaborators wholeheartedly. I have asked them to collaborate because I know they are the best people for this job and I want them to feel the creative freedom I'm allowed on set. I also always ask my team to challenge themselves to try one thing they've never experimented with before but that they want to try.

This always brings about surprising interpretations. For example, the lime jumper over an already lime dress for the teenage daughter. Or seeing taboo images such as a woman plucking a beard hair, a young woman's pubic razor rash, urine stains on a couch, etc. But then of course with an injection of humor, such as the cut from a woman on the toilet with her pants down to a pussy cat … these subtle jokes are part of the fun of filmmaking. 

Can you tell us more about collaborating with AMV BBDO and TENA while keeping your vision and the original idea intact?

You can't compromise if you are a true director. You can listen, you can be made to make changes you are not satisfied with. But at the end of the day, you cannot back down and say you like something if you don't. I state my case clearly, and I know when to let go of the discussion. But I am strong minded when it comes to what I think is most tasteful and in line with the story I'm trying to tell. It's important, that's what I'm paid for—my opinions and ideas—so I will always respectfully voice them.

Margo is a magician at helping negotiate this mediation between all the important parties. She is supremely creative and knows how to excite brands while giving you the confidence that you have a level of care and support. Lief is a gem; they do things differently, which is why their work stands out from the crowd. Margo lets you arrive with all the strengths you come with, and then she adds all the elements to make the campaign global and successful.

What was the most exciting part of this shoot? Most challenging?

The shoot was with a team of filmmakers that I have worked with before, so I got to take the process I've learned from theater and filmmaking and apply it to advertising. The cinematographer Carlos Catalan I met on Killing Eve and we just finished shooting three episodes of The Power for Amazon together. The budget for The Power was unlike anything we had experienced, so we were able to create a lot of epic settings and scenes and use state-of-the-art equipment. 

With TENA, we were returning to a more intimate world, but still pushing each other to capture an authentic kinetic energy through the camerawork and lighting. Michelle Jank is an amazing stylist and costume designer that I have wanted to work with for years. Her impeccable taste and eye for detail allowed the characters' costumes to have a journey of coming together as our mother and daughter bond over their shared experiences. 

Imogen Knight is a choreographer, movement director and intimacy coordinator that I've been closely working with for the past year. Our work emphasizes all that can be communicated without words. Those tiny moments of breath, intimacy, touch, desire, presence, gesture, it's all in the way we communicate with our bodies. As this project was about female bodies changing, we felt it was an opportunity to have the actors work with Imogen and me over two days to rehearse all the physical action. Our mother and daughter moved freely in space and created a connection through Imogen's guidance as I watched on, taking notes of ideas and moments I think are worth keeping and inserting into the film. 

What do you hope people take away from the campaign? 

I want everyone to ask the women in their lives who have already or who are currently experiencing menopause what it was like for them. Everyone's experience is completely different and so varied. We so often hear about the negatives, but I also heard many women talk about feeling more themselves than ever before. Also, we always hear about a loss of libido, but I spoke to women who had the totally opposite experience and their sex drive increased. 

If we create only a negative diatribe around menopause, how is anyone going to approach it without trepidation? It is a transition that should be celebrated like puberty. Let's stop finding another reason to make women feel uncomfortable about their bodies and emotions. Rather, let's change our language and attitudes and remember how amazing women are.

In your opinion, what made TENA/Age Representation the right candidate for the Channel 4 Diversity in Advertising Award?

My work has always had a strong focus on diversity, as it represents the world I grew up in. I was born in Africa, and brought up in Hong Kong and Singapore, so my life has always been full of people of all nationalities and backgrounds. I have always seen it as something to be celebrated, and it only makes my creative work richer. 

This project is immediately diverse in that it is about a "taboo" women's issue that affects half the world's population. And inadvertently the other half, because they all have women in their lives. So, it made sense to make it feel global, inclusive, and accessible to women everywhere.

CREDITS

Client: Essity
Brand: TENA Women
Campaign title: #LastLonelyMenopause
Client name: Meta Redstedt, Jason Kaplanis and Stefanie Steegs
Creative Agency: AMV BBDO
CCO: Nicholas Hulley and Nadja Lossgott
Creative Director: Jim Hilson
Creative Team: Lauren Peters and Augustine Cerf
Designer: Vanessa Fowler Kendall
Agency Planning Team: Margaux Revol and Bea Farmelo
Agency Account Team: Laura Hazell and Rebecca Thomas
Creative Production Partner: Trish Russell
Senior Art Producer: Rhiannon Nicol
Senior Interactive Social Producer: Alex Warren
Business Affairs: Michelle Holmes
Production Company: Lief
Director: Shannon Murphy
Production Co. Producer: Margo Mars and Ella Sanderson
Editing Company: Final Cut
Editor: Amanda James and Lucy Berry
Post-Production Company: Daydreamer
Flame: Pete Rypstra and Milo Paterson
VFX Producer: Cat Hammond
Colour: Company 3
Colourist: Yoomin Lee
Sound studio: Wave Studios
Sound Engineer: Parv Thind and Ben Gulvin
Music: "September Fields" Composer/Performer Frazey Ford 
Media Agency: Zenith
PR agency: Ketchum PR

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards, editor of Muse by Clio, and host of the podcast Tagline. He is the former creative editor of Adweek.

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