The Directors: Jess Lawton


8 December 2022
Kim Thomson

Jess Lawton is an award-winning writer and director represented by Truce Films. She’s directed spots for Olay, Google, and Kmart as well as her own shorts and web series – which have screened at festivals including Locarno and TriBeca – and a forthcoming feature. Jess speaks about drawing inspiration from youth counterculture and the queer community, directing with empathy, and the changing commercial landscape. 

As a writer and director, you work across narrative, documentary, and commercial – are there particular themes you are inspired by? 

 I’ve always been drawn to outsiders and the spirit of counterculture. Exploring youth culture is something that’s coming through strongly in my work lately [like in short doc, ZEF, which is currently being expanded into a feature] and I think that makes sense: youth are the architects of the new counterculture; they pave the way for the dismantling of the status quo and speak out demanding new narratives. 

I’m also very inspired by the New Journalism movement and those storytellers that blur the line between documentary and fiction – that’s a space I’ve fallen into in my own practice and feel really nourished by. 

Many of my creative projects in the last few years have been documentary – with the intention of working towards a blended hybrid of narrative and doc. My latest project features a real person, their real community, but places a fictional narrative thread on top of that – letting the two play with each other. 

When I started working in that hybrid space, I really connected with my work in a way I never had before. I really felt that my process became a spiritual journey – not just a career. But, don’t worry, I haven’t started a cult… yet. 

How does that approach show up in your commercial work? 

I'm just as passionate about my commercial work as my creative work, and I'm really drawn to trying to merge my documentary practice with my narrative practice in the commercial space.

Working with a stronghold of female, gender diverse and queer creatives to make sure there’s that representation – both in front of and behind the camera – is a non-negotiable for me. It’s important to create genuinely safe spaces – not just put someone on screen who represents a marginalised community and having the face up there so people thinking there's change – it's about seeing that change ripple throughout the industry behind the camera as well.

I am seeing a lot of positivity and a kind of new wave that's coming through the industry – a lot of really empathic, intuitive people – in the production companies, the crew that are on set, the directors, and the creative agencies.

I think a lot of people are interested in dismantling the status quo in really exciting ways – that’s changing the landscape of the stories that we see in the commercial space.

Empathy sounds really important to you – how does this come across when you direct talent?  

For me, directing is, in many ways, all about listening to what the amazing, talented, creative people around me need – and making space for that. I think it’s important to practice the skill of really listening to people and what their needs are, and asking how we can bring their unique perspective into a story or a campaign. 

Because every actor or participant is a unique person, directing talent is a very intuitive process. Whoever I’m working with, I have to ensure they have what they need to enter the story space from a place of truth. That goes for every story, whether it's fiction, documentary, or a campaign.

For some actors or participants, that means perhaps approaching it more analytically, and talking about theme and backstory in great detail. For others, it's more physical and it's placing them in the space and turning up the music and getting them to feel or create a certain energy in an environment that they can claim and feel safe in and embody with honesty, so that we can capture that.

You’ve directed spots for brands including Olay, Google, and Champion. What do you enjoy most about the ad-making process?

The collaborative nature of it is pretty damn special. It’s the opportunity to keep learning – to expand. I genuinely learn something wonderful and new in every job – whether it be about the craft, about story, about people and community, or about myself. That’s an incredibly cool and lucky thing, to be able to go to work with so many curious and talented people and be transformed in some way by the experience, every time. What a gift! 

Your spot for Olay features some lush, memorable visuals – do you enjoy that kind of world-building? 

The Olay commercial was a pretty exciting opportunity to create a totally new and bold visual language for the brand – it was a bit of a departure from what they’d previously done. I loved being able to design a totally distinctive world and concept with some really incredible collaborators – my DOP and production designer smashed it out of the park.

It's really rewarding when you can actually build an environment from the ground up, rather than leaning into post to construct it. In this case, we built an underground Olay headquarters. We wanted to keep it distinctively Olay and lean into the assets of the product, which featured a circular motif. We placed that motif throughout the set design – made sure we had no hard edges and made everything rounded and plump – and thought deeply about every aspect of the world. 

A lot of your work is very collaborative but, as a writer as well, do you also spend a lot of time writing alone?

 I do at the moment. I’ve just finished a draft of my first feature film, so the last few months have been very insular. My co-writer [and lead actor], Zef, is based in Queensland, and my producer, Lizzie, is based in New South Wales – so, whilst it’s very much a collaboration, there have been many weeks spent quietly staring out of my studio window. As an introvert, I’m pretty content there [laughs]. But the days when the team do all get on Zoom and dive into a workshop together are so exhilarating. 

Visual storytelling is an empathy machine: it’s how we understand each other; it’s how we understand ourselves. I feel it’s my job to join the dots on the interconnectedness of humanity, above anything else. For me, that’s about getting outside of my comfort zone, being unafraid to ask the awkward questions, leaning into challenging and fertile collaborations, and interrogating my perspective. Basically, cultivating a whole lot of patience and perseverance to keep showing up!


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