With an established track record for telling stories from a female POV with insight, accuracy and compassion, The Corner Shop director Emma Branderhorst – previously featured on the pages of DN with Spotless and Ma Mère et Moi – has lent her authorial voice to Piece of Me, an already incredibly successful campaign short raising awareness about the dark side of sexting. The film takes a collaborative and modern approach to its subject matter that was embraced by commissioning Dutch telecommunications company KPN, Dentsu Creative and singer-songwriter MEAU who Branderhorst worked with in order to best focus the piece towards their target teenage audience. The film’s impact already boasts massive social media reach, with over 31.6m views of the campaign online and the engagement of hundreds of schools that are actively educating and spreading awareness of this pervasive issue. The ingenuity of Branderhorst’s campaign film which has undoubtedly led to its success, is that Piece of Me doesn’t scold its audience or try to admonish them for sexting (a fundamentally flawed approach which perpetuates victim blaming) but rather asks viewers to consider the life-shattering repercussions of their actions before doing something damaging which can’t be taken back. As the film continues to snowball we asked Branderhorst to return to DN to speak to us about how she took the concept and made it her own, exploring a new creative process of working in a music video mode and her focus on extensive casting and why she likes to work with non-professional actors.

This is a modern, insightful and clearly incredibly effective campaign film. How did it all begin?

It all began with KPN and Dentsu who sent this briefing to me in the first place with the question of creating awareness about shaming. The script was a little different than the end product, but they gave me the freedom to work on the script and sprinkle some ‘Emma-touch’ on it. There was one line in the briefing that really spoke to me: exposing can stop with you. That’s an interesting angle. Through talking to the people who are forwarding the pictures we create new perspectives and are able to start with the people who can ‘help’ and solve the problem. For me it was important to address that it’s not about trying to convince people to stop taking naked pictures, it’s about stopping those forwarding the images.

In the subsequent meeting with the creatives, I told them about the new angle I had found and once I ascertained if they liked this or not, they gave me the freedom to write the treatment how I wanted to make it a better film. To have all this freedom was great. In the end they chose my treatment and I was the director for this new job. A dream come true.

My mind never comes up with crazy camera tricks or movements before the story is there, they all form once I know what to tell.

The treatment I wrote was just a first draft of the script. For me, research is key, I want to get close to real stories. So myself and a researcher embarked upon our project. We spoke to victims of shaming and from all these stories I created the script. For me authenticity is very important. As the script was developing I made sure that I discussed all the different versions with the agency and from there on we did everything together.

The sliding doors concept is perfect, simple and effective. Did that come to you quickly in the development process?

Yes, glad you spotted that! It came very easily actually. As I mentioned, the initial script was different when I first received it. But I had the feeling we had to show what happens when you forward a picture as you always have the choice not to forward it. My mind never comes up with crazy camera tricks or movements before the story is there, they all form once I know what to tell. So when I had the idea of showing what happens when you forward a photo it all flowed from there.

How much research did you conduct and how did you find that process? I imagine the stories were awful.

We were looking for stories. We shared a message on social media that we were looking for people to tell their past experiences with shaming. The conversations we had were not easy, but for me (as a director and a writer) it was necessary for the authenticity of the story. These research conversations gave me so much inspiration for scenes and by drawing from real life events the story we are telling is embedded in reality and not just a piece of fiction.

The song by MEAU is integral to the film – did you have the lyrics as you were working on the script?

I’m so happy with the collaboration and I agree that the song and the film work so well together. But the song wasn’t written when I wrote the script. We received it a couple days before the shoot. MEAU knew what the film was about, she also interviewed a number of victims who experienced shaming and after those conversations she wrote the lyrics.

By drawing from real life events the story we are telling is embedded in reality and not just a piece of fiction.

How did you then weave in the song with the narrative beats to achieve the seamless flow of Piece of Me?

We had a beautiful and intense editing period and we had the luxury of having a fair few days to look for the right tone. I always shoot a lot of extra coverage so I have the freedom in the edit to play with the material. I also work with an amazing editor, Tessel Flora de Vries, who I always collaborate with for my fiction work. Together we looked for the moments in between where we created new scenes and new special and real moments. This is my first music video, although some people may liken it more to a short film, but I thoroughly enjoyed the whole creative process because editing over music was a fun and novel experience for me. You have a rhythm to hold on to. We tweaked the song at some points by giving it a small break, for example when she jumps in the water. These small things help to connect the film and the song. It had to be one.

As this was aimed at an often critical and tricky demographic, Gen Z casting must have been crucial to the project in ensuring this spoke to the projected audience.

The casting process is always the most important for me. For this film it was important that we cast actors who felt real and we only used non-actors. For the main characters it was their first time on a professional set. The casting agency I prefer to work with in Amsterdam is one where I previously worked as a casting director and these women always embrace the challenge of finding first-time actors with me. It’s always a daunting search, but when it pays off… We spread various casting calls through Instagram and TikTok, attracting a large number of girls. Subsequently, we conducted several audition rounds. I ensured that I was always present. In the first round, I let the casting director lead the audition, then in subsequent rounds, I turned it more into a workshop. I took at least an hour to engage with everyone, playing exercises and scenes outside the script. I was there to observe whether they could switch gears, if they’re resilient, and if they’re willing to embrace vulnerability.

We often see many films featuring the same young actors. Don’t get me wrong, these actors are very talented, but why do we keep telling stories with the same people?

The casting process for this film took a whopping two months. Working with non-actors requires constant trial and error, necessitating the use of multiple casting rounds. Following that, I embarked on an intensive rehearsal period with the actors. My aim was to get to know them, understand what occupies their thoughts in life, delve into their fears, and discover what brings them joy. All of this was done to establish a closer connection with them and make them feel secure. I achieved this by taking them to see films, engaging in discussions about cinema, and enjoying meals together. Additionally, we engaged in group activities like bowling to foster a sense of friendship between all the actors.

We often see many films featuring the same young actors. Don’t get me wrong, these actors are very talented, but why do we keep telling stories with the same people? For me, the credibility diminishes when I see the same faces every time. As a director, it’s crucial for me to tell authentic and genuine stories. The actors I cast may have had little experience, but they possess undeniable talent. Through the right approach, spending time on set, extensive rehearsals, and nurturing relationships with the actors, their talent naturally emerges!

The reception to the film is impressive. Congratulations on making such a successful piece! What does it mean to you to have led this project and how do you hope it is affecting the audience?

We’re so happy it has been received so well. It’s a difficult topic and you want to do it justice, especially because a big brand such as KPN is connected. Personally, I wanted to reach a young audience with this work and engage with teenagers who see this happening around them. The video has been shown at more than 100 schools and has gone viral online. Many children have seen the film and that’s what matters most to me. These kids can change their behaviour and we help make them aware of the subject in a very playful way. I find it very brave and admirable that KPN decided to address a topic like this on such a huge scale and I’m so grateful to have been a part of it. These kinds of impactful projects have a special place in my heart and are the types of films I want to make all the time.

We can’t get enough of your work here at Directors Notes, what’s next?

Love that! I’m working on my first feature film right now about a toxic friendship between two girls in their twenties and how sometimes losing friendships is an inevitable and inescapable part of life. Besides that, I’m working on commercials in the Netherlands but focusing on working in the UK with The Cornershop. In future I would like to focus on campaigns with social causes that raise social awareness in a cinematic way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *