Hailing from the townships of Zimbabwe during the turmoil of the Civil War, Sunu’s career path reads more like a movie than real life. His sporting abilities enabled him to travel and study, resulting in a degree in Organizational Psychology from the University of Cape Town. Despite a promising banking career, Sunu’s dream of filmmaking soon took over. Within three short years, he received several prestigious directing awards for commercials such as Nike and Coca Cola, while his short film, Riding with Sugar, was screened at Cannes. In 2006, Sunu landed his first feature directing assignment with Lionsgate, Pride, which tells the true story of Jim Ellis (played by Academy Award nominee Terrence Howard) – a black swimming coach who transformed the lives of troubled inner city youths in Philadelphia. Sunu returned to South Africa in 2013 after a seven-year stint in Los Angeles. He quickly picked up where he left off, directing commercials for high-profile brands such as South African Tourism, South African Breweries and Discovery. Today we catch up Sanu to find out more about his journey.
1) What prompted the shift from banking to directing?
As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be in movies. Being number 7 in a family of 9, I disappeared a lot in my imagination. They helped me escape some of the not so great stuff of my childhood. As kids we used to sneak into the community hall in the townships and watch westerns and Bruce Lee movies. It was these worlds far far away that I wanted to be a part of. I was involved in the producing of, acting in and directing plays at school. I also did a lot of commercials as an actor when I was at UCT. It was a more lucrative way of making pocket money than being a waiter. By the time I got into banking all I wanted to do was tell stories. I started writing a movie script even as I was a banker. One day I realised if I was spending so much time writing and watching movies, I should move into film. Which I did, and started at the bottom as a PA and worked my way up.
2) You’ve worked abroad before, how does that compare to working in SA?
I lived in the USA for 7 years and we still go back and forth. It’s our other home. Hollywood was always the dream when I came into film. It was everything I dreamt of. The pace is different. The pressure is enormous. Everything is so much bigger and faster. Working with an Oscar nominated actor also had it’s own challenges but it was an incredible experience. But, in spite of all of that, I felt prepared. South Africa is an amazing place to learn your craft. We honestly have some of the best crew and creative minds in the world. We are exposed to so many different aspects of filmmaking in such a short time. There’s a can-do attitude here that I LOVE. Less red tape and good old, make a plan.
3) With regards to commercials what local trends are you seeing and how do they differ from international trends?
Internationally the industry is making a lot more use of alternative marketing and advertising methods. It’s not just about the TV commercial. They are not afraid to do spots that are not just the traditional 30 or 60’ commercial, then exposing those films just on mobile devices or web platforms where there’s much more traffic. Locally, I also see a lot of pressure on agencies to still produce high quality work with the same budgets from years ago, but with quicker turn around times. I believe it affects the quality of the work and compromises the creative excellence and production value we had, say in the late 90s and early 2000s. We have to re-align the relationship between creative, budget, turnaround timelines and production expectations. At some point, something’s gotta give. Interestingly enough though, with all the online content being produced it has also been proven in this country that television still has the numbers when you need to reach maximum viewers.
4) What can we teach internationals about shooting commercials and what can we learn from them?
We can teach the internationals that nothing is impossible. It’s how we roll. We always make a plan. I also feel we don’t have big egos when we are doing our jobs. The crew here are just incredible and will help you get the most out of your production. What we can learn from them I believe is to think really big and not always play second fiddle. I often find people here can be quite sceptical when you speak of dreams. With the Americans in particular, there’s an inherent self belief that we as South Africans often attribute to arrogance, but I have seen another whole side and I have learnt a massive amount about self belief and going for broke. Doing things big, and doing them well, and never giving up until the job is done excellently. They also have an amazing ability to sell. That’s the one thing we lack in our film market…international accessibility.
5) What do you think is the most iconic South African advert and why?
Telkom. Molo Mhlobowami by Michael Middleton. I may be biased because he was my mentor, but it is still one of my favourite all time directors.
6) What in your mind is the most important thing for viewers to keep in mind when watching adverts?
Engage. See it through.