We all agree that stories are important. What we can’t seem to agree on are which ones are worth telling. For filmmaker Emma Branderhorst, the stories people don’t want to hear are the ones she most wants to tell. While conventional thinking suggests branded films and commercials should be safe, Emma’s films touch on subjects many consider uncomfortable. Breaking down barriers that often limit brands, filmmakers, and storytellers of all kinds, her films connect with audiences by fearlessly telling authentic stories, rather than following the rules. 

In addition to numerous commercials and branded shorts, Emma Branderhorst is the director of award-winning short films ‘Spotless’, ‘My Mother and I’, and ‘Under the Skin’ which premiered at Berlinale Generation Film Festival. She won the Wildcard at the Dutch Film Festival and Crystal Bear at the Berlinale in 2022. 

Dedicated to shining a light on stories that often go overlooked in our society, especially about young women and girls, Branderhorst’s humanistic approach is guided by her philosophy as a filmmaker and storyteller, a philosophy that quickly comes to light as she shares her perspective on ‘good woke’ vs. ‘bad woke’, how to keep branded films authentic, and her aim as a young female director in a largely male-dominated industry. 

Brandingmag: You seem to have mastered the art of telling stories around controversial subjects. Why is telling stories about difficult topics so important? 

Emma Branderhorst: In TV commercials (but also in film) we often see overly stylistic situations, e.g. people who wake up with their hair all perfectly groomed. TVCs are filled with pretty people, but that’s not who we are in real life. We’re more stratified in reality. I’d like to show the part that feels like sandpaper. Just that slightly uncomfortable edge that feels yet so near, so common, so understandable. I tend to highlight the unspeakable topics in society. There are still so many that do not get talked about. I feel I need to open that conversation and give perspective. Uncomfy things that we all know, but because it’s not in the spotlight, it never gets close to you. I bring it so close that you are in the middle of it, so you can understand and feel.

Brands don’t choose me for overly styled films. I don’t make those kinds of films. I try to turn the brief around to make it relevant to me. I ask myself, ‘Why am I making it and what do I have to say with it?’ I want to give with my work, whether it’s commercial or not, a social perspective that people don’t know. When working commercially, I ask myself when briefed for a TV commercial: ‘If I were to make a movie out of this, what is important and what do we need to tell an audience?’

Bm: I imagine brands are generally uncomfortable with topics like these.

EB: You would think that large brands aren’t looking for that uncomfy edge, but larger brands want a new perspective too. How? That is different per brand. Many want to be inclusive these days and feature minorities as the main character.

I’ve seen many scripts that show how brands want to jump on the inclusivity train, trying to be ‘woke’, but don’t really portray these minorities in an authentic way.

They just show them, they don’t tell their story. When I get a script like that, we make something extraverted and special out of it with minorities who have really experienced the thing we want to get across in the film. I turn the ‘minority’ into your guy or girl next door.

Bm: How do you make uncomfortable topics close to people’s hearts?

EB: For the TVC for McDonald’s that I co-directed with Ismael ten Heuvel, the original ‘summer of love’ script had a deaf girl in it, but she was not the main character. The boy was the main, and he fell in love with the deaf girl. Ismael and I turned the script around and made the film all about the deaf girl who falls in love with a boy at a camping site. How does it feel for her to flirt, to go to a dance party together with loud music, to get the attention of him, to talk to him? The client, McDonalds, was courageous enough to go for that flipped script. From there, we immersed ourselves into the world of the deaf and started casting deaf actors. (More background information about that commercial here).

For the deaf girl in the McDonalds film, we said, ‘We still know too little about her. What are her struggles? What happens if she falls in love?’ We turned it into a coming of age with a disability instead of disability with coming of age. To make the viewer experience deafness, start with the story and then build on it. The story must be consistent and the rest will follow.

Bm: Is there a difference between good woke and bad woke?

EB: You’re not going to win hearts by just portraying minorities. You need to tell the story behind their presence. Their normal, daily lives, and the things they deal with. Showing those things is what makes the brand exclusive, not just jumping on the woke train.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather have brands jumping on that train than none at all, but for me it’s important that the story is true. Don’t just put the deaf girl in there to check a box. Let the whole story revolve around them, and let them be human.

‘Spotless’, my short film about period poverty, was partially sponsored by Libresse, a pretty big female hygiene brand. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about sponsoring at all. I was too busy writing the script, focusing on the story. It’s difficult to do sponsoring on the side. The difference is that McDonald’s is a paid project and ‘Spotless’ is not, it’s a passion project. ‘Spotless’, however, needed more money, so we were thinking: how can we link brands that would benefit from it?

No female hygiene brand was interested except for Libresse. They donated a small amount and asked if they could use the film at an internal meeting. All you see from Libresse is their logo in the credits. I thought it was courageous of them. I didn’t want a large amount of sponsorship because then it would seem like a commercial. So it had to be without commercial interest. You don’t want it to seem like a short film is sponsored.  It would take away the flow, the story, the effect.

Bm: Big brands commonly test TVCs to ensure audiences see the brand name, logo, etc. In your films, the branding and logo usually come in at the very end. How do they pass these tests?

EB: I see TVCs as short films. I see the importance of brand cues, not the importance of logos in all scenes. I try to give brand cues though color use in wardrobe and props as narrative elements that I place strategically in the film.

I usually put the logo at the last moment and that is always a point of discussion. There are many times we’ve filmed extra scenes with either a bag with the logo, or a shop front. But nine times out of ten that scene is taken out in the final edit. It’s always, always a point of discussion, but when I show that we are making a short film, when the client feels the film, they usually go for the option that fits the film: the logo as part of the story in a natural way, so that it fits the girl’s world. Especially for a brand like McDonald’s, it’s a bold choice. 

But what do you know: for the first time in years, their commercial was nominated for Golden Loekie, the public award for the best, most beautiful, or most special advertisement in Holland. Knowing that fast food still has a somewhat bad aura, it’s all the more special that the audience favored it.

Bm: A topic like period poverty is a global issue, leading to infections and women seen as impure by their community and banished during their cycles. How do you turn this big issue into something digestible?

EB: By showing people what period poverty is, we’re showing a big issue like poverty in a small way. We’re zooming in. I’m not the person to make an ‘all’s well that ends well’ type of film or commercial. I don’t want to give too much hope. But I don’t want to dramatize it either. My style is fresh and I am cheerful. I perhaps make moody films but not dark and grey. In lens and camera work, I portray what I see. I want to film and stage it without being dull. Clients don’t want dark. They want fresh. Their brand must come across well.

That’s how I see life too. I dare, and I’m not afraid. Dare to show it. My short films elicit reactions, and sometimes those reactions are negative.

Now that I’m represented in the UK, I already look forward to their film culture of raw realism. And I know that creatives ask me for the right thing: realism and authenticity.

My films portray realistic slices of life that delve into larger themes, with a focus on adolescent girls’ coming-of-age stories. These stories shed light on issues such as girl phobia or ‘girl vein’, which is the urge and struggle to belong to a group at the expense of other girls, and menstrual poverty from a feminist perspective. It became a distinct style that is evident throughout my work. By intimately exploring the world of young protagonists, I try to reveal a universe where adults and parents are often unseen or in the background, with the camera frequently taking on a penetrating perspective.

Bm: You bring a strong female perspective to your work. Do you feel part of the current wave of inclusivity?

EB: I see the world through my own perspective, which is feminine. I explore different perspectives on how to portray female roles and how people can be intimate with each other. The female perspective is so important in that portrayal.  

Despite the changes in Hollywood, there are still too many films from a male perspective. We have to tell the undiscovered stories that are there. In the USA, when I was in Hollywood to promote our film for the Oscars, I saw mostly still men: male agents, male producers, male directors. My way of working doesn’t fit there. I don’t think I would be appreciated in LA. Sometimes, when I’m insecure I think: do brands want to score bonus points because I am a female director? It’s the imposter syndrome, that’s perhaps typical female: can I do it? Am I up for it?

Bm: How do you cast your actors?

EB: For films, I use a different creative process than many other directors of fiction films. The themes I deal with are often quite far removed from my own world as a young woman from a privileged background/family. To do my subjects justice, I use a research process that is normally more common in documentaries. For example, I conduct extensive interviews and work on locations for extended periods of time. While writing ‘Spotless’, for example, I spent several weeks working with a food bank. This allows me to get very close to the topic and to make the themes tangible in my film.

To get even closer to a form of realism, I prefer to work with non-professional actors. In the coming-of-age stories, these are often young actresses, and they are involved in the making process early on. I bake pizza with them, stay with them and get to know them very well that way. That allows me to discover how the themes in their lives relate to the film, to which I then adapt the screenplay.

Bm: Like a form of method acting, but for directors?

EB: I am not afraid to seek out my own vulnerability. For my film ‘Onderhuids’ (‘Under the Skin’) I investigated the phenomenon of ‘maiden/girl vein’, for which I had to dig deep into my own past. I was part of a group of friends where the harassment went quite far. In the research for the film, I interviewed everyone from that group of friends. The impact of that time is still present for them. The one who was often the victim of the bullying was actually still very much bothered by it. I myself have also been around for a long time with uncertainties because of that ‘girl vein’.

It was incredible for me what this personal story could bring about. Then suddenly you are at the Berlinale between all the fantastic directors. 

Bm: How do you find the topics for your films?

EB: I tend to make films about things people would rather avoid, like menstrual poverty: the fact that one in ten women in the Netherlands sometimes cannot afford sanitary pads or tampons. At first, I wanted to make a film about menstruation because this topic is still very taboo. Then I found out that so many women in the Netherlands suffer from menstrual poverty. It was unimaginable to me, and I thought it was ridiculous that young women couldn’t afford sanitary pads. In my film you can see how the protagonist is getting groceries at the foodbank and hoping there would also be sanitary napkins or tampons, which they didn’t have.

Ultimately, I want to put a face to bigger issues, to make films I find interesting and bring to light underexposed social issues. If there’s no need behind it, I don’t need to make a film about it.