Absolut Exposure with Johan Renck

Swedish director Johan Renck has two requirements before taking on a new commission. He has to have a good gut feeling about it. And it has to be fun.

He’s come a long way with this attitude – both in terms of reputation and geographically. With an equally large dose of curiosity and restlessness, he explores a variety of creative expressions, always with the same unmistakable hallmark: embracing the less savoury sides of life. Over the years his fashionable, subversive and slightly decadent imagery has been featured in music videos for some of the world’s greatest artists, commercials for leading fashion houses, fashion stories in the most prestigious fashion mags and – most recently – in groundbreaking TV series like Breaking Bad and Walking Dead. With 280 travel days a year, there’s probably nobody better suited than Johan Renck for Absolut Vodka’s Traveller’s Exclusive 2013. We gave him a call.

You’ve directed episodes in every season of the AMC series Breaking Bad. Have you had any contribution in the new eight episodes?
Unfortunately not. I have been in Sweden during the past year directing a drama series for SVT (Swedish national television) that just have been released.

Bummer. How did the collaboration start?
Mark Johnson, who produced my feature film, Downloading Nancy, told me that this guy Vince Gilligan who did X-Files had come up with a new series and Mark thought I should meet him. But I wasn’t that interested. If I’m going to do TV, I want to do pilots. Anyway, I watched the first season, which was one of the weirdest I’ve ever seen. Weird in every way. You never knew what was going to happen. So I met with him and that’s how things got started. It’s an incredible series and a defining moment in TV drama.

It’s filmed in New Mexico, how long does each episode take to film?
Like ten days. We always need to scout new locations and maybe cast a new character. For example, I casted Krysten Ritter who plays Jesse’s girlfriend Jane.

Photo: Pierre Björk

Photo: Pierre Björk

There you go. Letting her die must have been tough.
Yep. Not to mention the way she died.

But that wasn’t one of your episodes was it?

It’s easy to suss out the episodes you direct.
How’s that?

It’s got something to do with your love for all things dirty and tough going. In one episode in the second season, Walt the main character is throwing up in a toilet, with the camera lingering for quite some time on that scene.
Ha-ha. That’s true. Hearing that makes me super happy. Like when friends text me and ask if I’m behind a certain episode of Breaking Bad or Walking Dead. I just don’t get how they see it’s mine. Personally, I think I’m quite diversified. But there must be something in my brand of darkness. I like when things are down and out – that’s when I start feeling something and things start to get interesting.

Why’s that?
As long as I can remember, I’ve always had a thing for music in minor key. I like things that are black and dark. My apartment in New York looks like a vampire cave. I like when things heat up, when things get real. I’m a melodramatic romantic. I like Oscar Wilde and the Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf. People ask me why I don’t get anything out of happy stories? Sorry, but Sex and the city just doesn’t do it for me.

I follow you on Instagram. Your visual expression is clearly marked by cold colours and dark moods.
I could talk about Instagram for hours. I’d been feeling detached from photography for a long time. Instagram released something in me and professional photography has become easier through taking quick snapshots and publishing them immediately. And then the whole thing is interesting anthologically speaking, scrolling through all the images you’ve posted, it says something about you.

And everything you publish is taken with your phone?
Of course! When you work as a photographer you learn how to create really cool stuff using a smartphone – simply by choosing where to focus and knowing what’s the best filter for the shot.

Speaking of photo technique, how did you relate to the limitations of getting the photo on the bottle when you were doing the Lydia Hearst shoot for Absolut Exposure?
I was surprised when they told me that it hadn’t been done before. Images can be printed on anything nowadays – so why not glass? But apparently it hasn’t been possible until now, and I quickly realized that it wouldn’t be a photo with thousands of DPIs. In other words, it’s not a photo that will be evaluated for its photo technical qualities. But it worked out fine. Otherwise, there weren’t that many restrictions other than that we weren’t to allude to politics, sex and a few other stipulated areas. But doing something subversive was never my intention anyway. Otherwise, that’s a reaction I get from quite a few of my commercial clients, “We like it but isn’t it a bit dark?”

Was Lydia Hearst a given?
We’ve known each other for ages and we were in a relationship a few years ago. She was perfect for the project. Her face is immensely interesting and she has a natural ability of taking on several different characters. Nothing was decided beforehand – everything evolved during the two-day shoot in Stockholm last summer. Call it an organic character development.

So how did things go?
We tried to give all the characters lives, a name and a history, a past and a future. Lydia threw herself into the challenge, for example, “it’s the 1970s and you live in Miami.” She emulated this, immersed herself into the role before the character was terminated and it was time for the next one. Honestly, I still find myself wondering about these characters sometimes and what they’re up to today?

Were you given free hands when you were approached for the job?
I started by developing and pitching three or four ideas to the guys at the agency Happy Tear. They developed them further and our discussions became more and more philosophical in nature. If something or someone is to end up on a bottle in the form of a photograph for all eternity, what should it be? I didn’t want to shoot an object, let’s say a stone, which just am not me. I have to be able to clearly relate to everything I do. So we decided that it had to be a person.

How involved were you in the bottle otherwise?
Completely. Martin Renck, my brother who’s a graphic designer helped out. The yellow colour bars are a nod to the early 1980s, as well as my own personal house deities in fashion photography back then – Jean-Baptiste Mondino and Guy Bourdin. It’s a flirt with post punk and fashion. No matter what I do, I always seem to come back to the world of fashion and its visual language. On the other hand, I had nothing to do with the flavour. Fruity tastes aren’t really my thing. If the decision had been mine it would have been something more like soot and rust.

Absolut Exposure is a “Traveller’s Exclusive”. How much do you travel yourself?
I can give you a pretty exact answer on that one: between 250 and 280 days a year.

That much.
Yep, George Clooney’s character in Up in The Air doesn’t come close. I’ve got a platinum card on every airline you can think of. When I flew home from Paris the other day, the cabin crew were like old friends. My parents moved around a lot when I was little and every since I started touring as an artist in the early 1990s, I’ve been a nomad. When I’m in Paris, I live the Paris life. When I’m in New York, I live the New York life. It’s the complete opposite to being based somewhere.

In the month we’ve been trying to get this interview together, you’ve been in Paris, Vancouver and New York. Do you have hard time saying no?
On the contrary, I say no on a daily basis. The last time I had more than one consecutive day off was last Christmas when I was in Mexico for a short vacation. I’ve been in Ireland, directing the Vikings, working on a film in Vancouver and recently spent a month in Paris. But things may be a bit different in 2013/2014. I’m going to become a dad this summer. However, my girlfriend knows that my life won’t be changing that much. I’ll always live like this. I love what I do.

How does working in New York compare to Stockholm?
Complaining and whining is very Swedish – maybe even very Stockholm-ish. I just want things to be fun and I need to surround myself with people who are curious and also want things to be fun. In Sweden, it’s counterproductive when so much time and energy is spent fending off anxiety. Swedes are extremely fast at adopting trends and quick at applying the latest fad. Something I’m completely uninterested in. I’m not saying I’m some sort of super visionary but that whole problematic doesn’t exist in New York. I have to be able to knock my home country a little. Otherwise, I’m the first to tout all the great things about Sweden and social democracy. But in the particular industry I work in – Sweden doesn’t have what it takes.

How would you describe your collaboration with Absolut?
A thoroughly positive experience. And I mean what I say. If I don’t like something I say so. I don’t do that many commercials anymore, maybe a handful every year. And I really only have two requirements for doing commercials – or in fact any project at hand. I have to have a good gut feeling about it. And it has to be fun. This time things worked out – everyone involved was sharp and positive.

This is your first collaboration with Absolut. What’s your view of the brand today?
Absolut was light years ahead of everyone else when it came to their communicative expression. What happened over the next thirty years is that a million other brands emerged. Vodka tastes like vodka. The products are almost identical but are differentiated by their packaging, which is what determines what product the consumer chooses. It’s an interesting post-modern phenomenon. Absolut will always maintain a high profile and reputation. But they got a bit lost along the way. There was absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t have continued on the art initiative path. But you know how things go. New managers want to try new things. I actually got an offer to work for another vodka brand that wanted to make inroads into the whole art thing. There’s no patent on that. But I said no.

Your website is divided into four different categories: music, film/TV, photography and advertising. Will anything be added or taken away over the years?
The music part is already gone. At the end of the day, doing something you’re not particularly good at is no fun. In terms of my music career, I had to face the fact that it wasn’t my thing. An unfulfilled dream of mine is that sometime in the future I’ll write something from scratch. Either prose or a screenplay. But that calls for time and focus. A time out is what I need.

Text: Johan Lindberg
Campaign Photos: Johan Renck,
Portrait Photos: Pierre Björk