Interview: David Hughes on cutting classic film trailers

West Side Story

Film critic, journalist and author, David Hughes, cut his teeth in the advertising business as a copywriter and producer with London-based agency The Creative Partnership, before moving to Picture Production Co as a writer/producer. After spearheading literally hundreds of campaigns, from Trainspotting to Pulp Fiction, he left to form his own movie marketing company, Synchronicity, in 2006, which he continues to run out of Soho.

Hughes has to date created four theatrical trailers for Park Circus – Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, Boudu Saved From Drowning, The African Queen and West Side Story.

With his latest trailer for the company, West Side Story, now in cinemas ahead of the film’s 16 September re-release, Jonathan Melville spoke to him about his passion for cinema and about what makes the perfect film trailer.

Jonathan Melville: When did you become interested in cinema?

David Hughes: Probably, like many people, when I saw Star Wars at the cinema in ‘78. I was 10 at the time, so science fiction was probably my first love – even though I didn’t realise at the time Star Wars wasn’t science fiction at all, but fantasy.

Which trailers inspire or enthuse you?

Ones that do something completely different, or something old in a new way: the backwards trailer for video game Dead Island is brilliant, but although I admire the trailer for David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, you can draw a direct line between that and Stanley Kubrick’s hand-cut trailer for A Clockwork Orange – and that’s 40 years old!

When did you first get involved in making trailers?

I started in 1990, and I’ve been privileged to work on ground-breaking trailers for films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jurassic Park, Amelie, Schindler’s List, The Blair Witch Project, Trainspotting, and countless others. Trailers tend to be a bit more formulaic these days, but only because most of the best ideas have been used up by the 500+ films released each year in cinemas (and many more on DVD!).

I got into the business, by the way, through the copywriting route: in those days, most trailers were caption or voiceover-driven, so the written word was the foundation of most of the trailers you saw. These days the audience is more sophisticated, and they bring more to the table, so you don’t have to hold their hands quite so much. It’s more about the concept of the trailer, the music, and the mood. And we no longer use the word “Starring”!

The ones I really enjoy, though – and I’m not just saying this – are the trailers we’ve made for some of the older films, like The African Queen, West Side Story, From Here to Eternity, Psycho and All About Eve. There’s something magical about bringing modern trailer techniques to older films, especially the real classics.

Is there an art to making a film trailer or rules you need to follow?

There is an art to it – but my business depends on keeping it to myself!

Do you feel an added responsibility when you’re dealing with a much-loved classic?

My first reaction was yes, but actually at my company, Synchronicity, we treat every film as if it’s a future classic. You can’t just say ‘Oh, it’s just a kids movie’ or whatever – every film has the potential to be somebody’s favourite film, and that’s a metaphorical sign above each of the edit suites while we’re working: EVERY FILM IS SOMEBODY’S FAVOURITE. Even if it’s just the director’s! There’s no such thing as a ‘minor’ film while you’re working on the marketing for it – they’re all important. But the “much-loved classics” you mention are, often, the ones that give you the greatest job satisfaction!

Your first trailer for Park Circus was Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. Did you have to work to a brief?

Not really…I think the trailer suggested itself from the film itself. It was so beautiful to look at, and had such a distinctive colour scheme, we knew exactly what the captions should look like, and as soon as our editor saw Ava Gardner singing at the piano, he knew he wanted to use that music piece for the trailer through-line.

It’s little touches like that which come more easily when you’ve been making trailers a long time: you have an eye for exactly the right shot, an ear for the right music, a feel for the correct tone… and what the Germans would call a “fingerspitzengefuhl” for the whole thing. And with a film as glorious as Pandora, the copy for the captions seems to write itself. It was a sublime experience, from start to finish.

Was there anything particularly challenging, or rewarding, about The African Queen?

Some films you look at and you instantly know which clips you want to use in the trailer, but a film like The African Queen is so good you don’t know what to leave out! Ideally you want a trailer 1 hour and 45 minutes long(!) So you have to be brutal with it.

What we looked for were particular dialogue lines which were “clean” (ie without music behind them) and also made a representation of who the characters were, because obviously it’s a love story between two very unusual characters – but you have to make sure the most visually striking shots are in there too, along with all of the various Academy Award nominations, and critic’s quotes.

Once we had those in place, I don’t think there was room for any voiceover or captions – and we were blessed with fantastic music which really brought the action alive!

West Side Story is out in on 16 September, how did you approach it?

It’s one of my favourite films (even though I don’t like musicals) and I like every song on the soundtrack, so the first question was which of the many great songs to use as the through line for the trailer?

We tried hard to use one of the more recognisable tracks, such as the instrumental version of ‘America’, but the movement in the film is so incredible, we needed something that moved super-fast, so we ended up choosing a lesser-known song which was ultimately more impactful.

It was great working on the rough cut, matching the type for the captions with the iconic lettering style of the film’s logo…but when we ‘up-rezzed’ the pictures with the pictures from the fully restored version, we couldn’t believe our eyes! West Side Story had literally never looked as good as it does now – not even on its first release back in 1961 – and it’s probably never sounded better either. Working on the trailer was one of the highlights of our year.

If you could re-cut any trailer, which would it be?

Honestly? I know it sounds arrogant, but… I’d re-cut the trailer for almost every comedy this year: almost all of them look like they don’t have enough jokes to carry them through 90 seconds – so what does that say about the films?

Thanks to David Hughes. Find out more about David’s work on the Synchronicity website.

Find out where any of the Park Circus titles mentioned above are being screened in the next four weeks by visiting www.backincinemas.comIf they’re not showing at a venue near you, why not ask your local cinema to consider booking it from Park Circus? 


Leave a comment

Filed under Back in Cinemas, Interview

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s