We fell in love with Tim Bullock the moment we set eyes on his first commercial.
The spot, for Cricket Australia, was macho, sexist, and made you chuckle. The scenario was of a guy singing happy birthday to his girlfriend. “But it’s not my birthday,” she cried. “Yeah, I know, let’s get it out of the way now so I can go to the cricket,” he says.
And more great scripts were to follow. Have you seen Women Whisperer ? (If not, it’s first up in Related Content). It’s just SO WRONG it’s wonderful. You can’t for a nanosecond take the spot seriously. However, it apparently was taken very seriously at a few European awards and was consequently pegged down which just goes to show how different cultural sensibilities and humors can be.
So just when we were longing for more Australian beer ads to lighten up our day we were delighted to learn that Tim Bullock was in London working on Adam & Eve’s Fosters campaign, of which the latest Lucy (see above) is just out.
We joined Bullock for, no not a pint, but tea and scones in Soho.
Were you really a suit in a previous life?
Yes, at Saatchi and Saatchi in Sydney. My creative outlet wasn’t to write ads – I was happy to sell ads and be a client guy – but I had aspirations to direct films and because I was such a keen bean everyone really supported me and I won a Tropfest short film competition. I signed to Prodigy soon after and got my first break with Cricket Australia out of George Patts Y&R in Melbourne.
That got me off to a good start, I was lucky that people started taking leaps of faith in me, but my really big break was with Woman Whisperer which has been a good calling card internationally.
And that got you noticed by Ben Priest (founding partner at Adam & Eve) for the Fosters campaign?
Ben had seen Woman Whisperer at a D&AD and had taken a mental note, I think he saw a sensibility in that spot that he wanted to bring to Fosters.
Also he wanted an Australian perspective to give the campaign a nudge but the funny thing was when we were talking about it on the phone I had to say ‘Mate we don’t have huts on Bondi Beach’.
‘Buy into the dream of the idea what an Australian beach is like’, he said.
‘Ok cool’, once I got that it was easy.
I just watched the Fosters budgie smuggler, one I hadn’t seen before…
You’re not exactly the target audience.
Who is then?
English beer drinkers? Is that tricky transferring Australian humor to a European market?
Well it’s English humour. These ads wouldn’t play as well in Australia. They are taking a perspective of Australia and giving it a bit of a boost and twist. Australians don’t see themselves like that. I’m sure Australians who live here might appreciate them but Australians wouldn’t quite get the joke. They think it’s fun but not all the layers appreciated by people here.
The creative team is working on a humorous beer commercial one minute and the next minute I find out they’ve written the Christmas ad for John Lewis which made everyone cry.
When you’re shooting do you know when you’ve cracked it?
It’s usually a good sign when there’s a spontaneous laugh on set, but you do a lot of homework in advance and try out all sorts of different things. We’re always walking around with furrowed brows trying to figure out whether we have missed that one extra magical thing that would be the icing on the cake.
We originally shot it in Portugal…
You’re on location, not in a studio?
At first I thought it made more sense to shoot this in a studio but Ben said there was something intangible about shooting it on a beach and that it would affect the way the actors act even on a subliminal level and he was right.
Ironically we found a beach called Troia in Portugal that looked like an Australian beach then we had to find one in Australia that matched the Portuguese beach to shoot the last couple of spots.
I love doing the Fosters stuff over here in the UK but I don’t want to be defined by them. I’m trying to do work that doesn’t pigeon hole me into one type of humour.
Like your Fedex zombie spot?
Fedex, which was done out of BBDO Guerrero in the Philippines, was a dream job – a car chase and zombie film. I got so much envy, ‘whaaat you’re getting paid to do a zombie ad?’ people asked. Everybody wants to do a zombie ad.
Toyota Border Patrol was something else again…
When I saw the script for Border Patrol it was a kernel of an idea, and I thought we should shoot every possible gag we could think of and just shoot it like a doc, cut it like a doc, where you have so much material and distill it down so that every moment counts.
Border Patrol didn’t have the biggest budget in the world but everyone’s passion for the idea was so strong that you would have thought there were magical forces at work because everything fell into place. We found a beautiful location that looked like Arizona, and we found a pilot who was happy to lend us his helicopter and fly with us for two hours, no more. All the actors were brilliant at spontaneity and keeping in character, two or three of them were stuntmen but they were so good at acting, it was just one of those things that came together.
How long was the shoot, it looks epic. Was it?
We only had one camera over three days. We had the script, an official storyboard and I had about a 10-page document of photo references and ideas and I said to the DP and first AD I really need your help above and beyond what we would normally expect in terms of shooting it like a documentary, don’t call cut, if you see something happening run over and shoot it.
My producer was going mad… do you know Julianne Shelton? She’s an amazing producer down in Australia, fiery red head, almost reminds me of my mum in a way, sucking back cigarettes going, ‘You’ve got five minutes, FIVE MINUTES. Tim you’ve got to wrap it up.’
‘Ok cool’, I’d say. Five minutes and we would go manic, so there wasn’t time to do a second take on a lot of the stuff.
Because everything was so off the cuff and spontaneous no one had a chance to ask about acting so it all felt real.
I said to my editor Adam Wills, who cuts most of my stuff, ‘we have to get this down to a five-minute short film’ and he got it down to two and we took another half minute out of it. I was just blown away how he managed to create a narrative through line out of all the disparate material.
Had he really gone through 10 hours of rushes?
Yeah he really did.
Yes. But we still shoot Fosters on film.
What’s your favourite camera?
I haven’t met a DP yet who isn’t blown away by the Alexa.
What is your favourite time for shooting?
Depends what you need. I love it when you’re aiming for amazing light and there’s that panic that maybe we’ll miss it … and then you get it and it pays off.
Any of the creative directors could have chosen any one of a number of comedy directors, why do you think they chose you?
Creative directors and clients choose a director when they recognize a passion rather than a skill alone. Those creative directors who have given me a leg up like Toby Talbot (then ECD, DDB) and Ben didn’t see the proof on the reel of exactly what they wanted done, but they could see something in the work they liked and they recognized that you’re completely blinkered and want to make the best piece of work you possibly can.
The good thing, the flip side of that is that you get to work with people who give you enough rope, who trust you.
All those jobs we talked about – Woman Whisperer, Toyota Border Patrol – were all leaps of faith. The pressure is on you to deliver.
Have you ever felt that you haven’t delivered?
No. You’ve got to be really smart about the scripts you choose though. People run into trouble when they convince themselves for pretty sound reasons, but probably ultimately the wrong reasons, that they should do a script. Reasons like it would be a great opportunity to start a relationship with a particular agency or an opportunity to do some special effects work or whatever. Ultimately you chose scripts where the idea is really strong and you have that burning desire to make it because it’s a great story.
On a lot of the work I do, the client, the agency and production are on the same page. We’ve talked everything over, and the latitude is given to you. Everyone collaborates. If you understand what everyone is after and everyone can trust you you’re given license. Shutting everyone out and bulldozing a way to a solution is the hard way of doing it.
And it doesn’t work?
Well, you certainly can burn bridges. Everyone has done it. Early on when I wasn’t as experienced I thought I had to pull ropes to get something through and ultimately you do get it through but that’s probably the last time you’re going to work with that particular client.
I think when you get the script, you should put forward what you believe to be the right thing to do and if they suggest they want it done another way and that there’s going to be no flexibility then maybe you’re not right for that project. I always have a feeling in the pit of my stomach when I feel that something isn’t quite right and I try to avoid that.
Every director I respect from Ridley Scott at one end of the spectrum to people like Garth Davis say be very careful with the work you take on.
That’s really where you have to have the courage of your convictions. But if you get a script and spend every waking moment thinking about it and loving it to death then you know you’re definitely the right guy for that one. Then energy feeds off it. Serendipity.
And are productions usually serendipitous?
With the benefit of hindsight you realise that the production could have gone so pear shaped on so many levels if we hadn’t made the right decisions at certain points. You don’t necessarily know at the time how crucial those decisions are, like should we go with this DP or another. If you were to know about all of those decisions in advance you’d be so paralyzed with fear that you’d never make any bloody thing.