Antti Toivonen has worked in Singapore's creative industry since 2009 for agencies like TBWA, Ogilvy and R/GA. Last May, he launched Finnish independent agency Superson in Lion City as an independent creative network of freelancers.
Along with being Superson's MD, Toivonen writes films. His 2017 short work F*cking Bunnies, competed at Sundance, while his latest completed short film Are You Hungry? will run at TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival) next month. His upcoming feature film, Tiong Bahru Social Club is set to debut next year.
Campaign Asia-Pacific asked Toivonen about the connection between his films and his industry work.
What led you to write Are You Hungry?
I love silly things and find comedy a very misunderstood genre. We make these films to show that difficult themes and raw humour can coexist. We first did that with our 2017 Sundance short, F*cking Bunnies and we wanted to continue that momentum. Finding a story is similar to marketing projects: we brainstorm a ton of ideas and narrow them down to a few before developing them further, and we always aim for something fresh. Our next feature film Tiong Bahru Social Club, shot in Singapore last year, will be a new kind of exploration too, with a different team and a greater focus on art direction.
Does your screenwriting work inspire your day job in any way, or is it a total distraction from it?
Filmmaking feeds a lot into my day job and vice versa. I don’t draw a line between advertising and independent creative projects; to me they are 100% complementary. These projects are my lab where I experiment with new things, push the boundaries and seek genuine reactions. In fact, I find it almost a necessity for successful client work. A strong foundation in narrative storytelling is unfortunately rare in our industry despite all the talk about it. Having good credentials in that space is an advantage when it comes to branded content projects.
And it doesn’t end with me. In general, I believe everyone should be flexing their muscles in their individual areas of expertise constantly, not just wait for briefs to come in before doing so. All of our specialists at Superson are entrepreneurial creators in their own fields, who are sharpening their professional skills through their passions all the time. That’s what sets the most interesting talent apart from the rest.
You run an independent agency that champions freelancers. Intentional or not, is this project a business card for you? (‘You too can work on indie films if you just join our freelance network’… )
Absolutely intentional. We do these projects to inspire the creative community to have a bold and entrepreneurial mindset, but we do not tell anyone to work on indie films if that’s not their thing. But yes, we’ve involved our specialists in our film projects as well. These movies are a business card in the sense that they showcase our storytelling capabilities, but obviously it’s just one part of what Superson can deliver. What matters is that our specialists are passionate about what they do, be it fintech, management consulting, cybersecurity, saving the earth, you name it. Our projects vary from sales training to creating clothing lines for our clients.
How do you manage your creative work time versus your creative play time?
I believe that nothing in this world comes easy, so to me there’s only creative work time. I spend most of my time with Superson’s client projects, and my days are very exciting as every project and team is different. Our approach with these creative non-profit projects is no different from client work. We work with project managers, producers, hired art directors, and so on. We work with grants from The Finnish Broadcasting Company, Finnish Film Foundation, the iMDA in Singapore, as well as private investors, so budgets are decent and everyone gets fair pay. Therefore we could say we take our comedy projects seriously.
The biggest difference between client work and independent films is that the latter moves at a glacial pace, so it doesn’t take up too much of my time. That’s why I have other projects too, such as advising a very exciting ecommerce startup.
The film deals with not forcing other people into preconceived roles. Take that theme and substitute ‘brands’ for ‘people’. Discuss.
'Are You Hungry?' is a psychological comedy about a distraught mother who is unable to connect with her teenage son, leading to some questionable choices after her panicked thoughts spiral out of control. The movie is an absurdist exaggeration, but a parallel can be drawn here about how we industry folk have certain perceptions about our audiences, while struggling to really know them.
We end up executing our own ideas of what we think is right or wrong for them, often driven by unnecessary fears and doubts, against who they are and what they really want. When you do watch the film, you’ll understand its message, which is that people are smarter than we realise.