What was the first ad you remember laughing at?
Hard to forget THIS ONE as an impressionable young man and for the sheer uncompromising amount of times the client demanded their product name be said in the commercial. It’s also a perfect marriage between product placement and smut.
Did you always intend to carve out a niche in comedy, or is it something you just fell into?
It’s always something that has come naturally to me, but I can’t say that I was entirely prepared for it. It’s difficult in advertising, people want to pigeonhole you as a certain type of director which is great for their purposes, but tricky when you’re attempting to prove you’re capable of more. I like to think of myself as a filmmaker who simply loves a great idea, and a performance-driven director who loves working with actors and creating worlds from the ground up. If it’s comedy, drama, a musical or a super out-there surrealist number, chances are I’m probably going to be into it. I’m basically a slut for some good advertising.
Are you a funny person or, like many comedians, actually a bit miserable IRL?
When the laughter stops, it’s just me on a bathroom floor, crying about how my mother doesn’t love me and eating enough Twinkies to soak up the pain and the tears.
Your latest spot for Money Supermarket is a blockbuster affair, featuring a sanguine bull dealing with increasingly stressful situations, from a china shop to an earth-obliterating asteroid. Did every tiny detail have to be worked out in pre-production? And how did you incorporate the VFX with things like the giant squid tentacles?
It was one of those rare jobs where it felt like we had the right amount of time to prep it actually. That being said, it’s a wild animal doing entirely unnatural things. Like standing in the middle of a submarine, in a window-washing cradle or a tiny china shop. So, despite our best efforts to control things we were always going to need to cower to the shit that was thrown at us by the bull. Key to my approach was to try and execute everything in camera and failing the bull’s willingness to participate in our little party, then we would execute a backup plan. We started each day of the shoot, and in each different scenario, with a view to get the Bull in the scene by hook or by crook and then work backwards from there.
The kraken tentacles are a funny story, actually. Originally in my treatment I had suggested a simple little octopus that would land on the bull in the middle of this biblical storm and slowly make its way down the bull’s face…all the while, the bull wouldn’t react. From the minute I submitted the treatment I wanted to take that joke back because it felt too broad, so I set about trying to work a way to upgrade that joke to something better and more tonally appropriate whilst we were in pre and shooting. The problem was, it was the client’s favourite thing about my treatment, apparently.
I think I left making my move on that until two days before we were set to shoot the scene and proposed instead a giant kraken attacking the boat, as I sat with the client over lunch. It was one of those times that confirms if you can position your argument well enough, and make the client feel like it might’ve been their idea as you pour them more and more wine – then we can walk away with something better! It was a huge undertaking to get the logistics turned around in time both for the shoot and for the VFX department, but I think everyone is pretty stoked with the result. It’s a fuckload better than a shitty little octopus landing on the bull’s face, that’s for sure, so I’m glad we got that scale kraken.
From a production point of view, what were the biggest challenges?
It was, like many jobs, an incredibly ambitious undertaking with a limited budget so there were lots of things – but I think keeping the bull calm was obviously the most important aspect both to the shoot’s success and ultimately the communication of the idea. A little-known fact is that the bull is actually a Wagyu stud. A full time, big swinging, breeding bull. He normally does “his thing” five times a day and as a result was a pretty chilled dude. So from what I can understand, someone had to keep him in that relaxed “condition” throughout the duration of the shoot.
Much of the comedy in your work relies on everyday situations with an unexpected twist, like the Barclaycard’s twin Happy Place ads showing what people put up with for their partner’s sakes. How do you go about drawing out the laughs in a script, and how much input do you have on the writing?
When I get a hold of a script I’m trying to unpack the core idea, first and foremost. I imagine a world and the characters that exist within it and let that guide the way. I will often go about tweaking or revamping scripts if I feel like a bunch of unnecessary stuff is getting in the way of what underpins the core idea. It seems to work for the agencies and clients who can appreciate the fresh eyes that a director can bring to the table and are up for that level of collaboration. Film’s a collaborative medium, y’know? So what’s the point in doing it if you’re not going to be collaborative? Otherwise, just go write a book.
Compared to spots like Foxtel The Date, or Aami The Aamis, your ad for Dollar Shave Club is simple and stripped back (but brilliantly relatable, as any woman who’s contorted herself to depilate nooks and crannies will know). How did you approach casting for the spot and how easy is it to film someone in the shower while preserving their modesty?
I think it’s all about being empathic and putting yourself in other people’s shoes, which can be super hard when they’re in a shower and not wearing shoes but it’s definitely something I strive for. One of my biggest pet peeves is when directors say: ‘I GET THIS IDEA SO WELL BECAUSE IT SPEAKS TO ME SO PERSONALLY’. It doesn’t actually have to have been your ‘lived experience’, you can just use empathy to feel what it could feel like. Sometimes that’s when you stumble upon the moments of character that aren’t slaves to the truth, but rather funny, fresh, unique insights on the human condition.
In terms of Dollar Shave Club, though, I love playing around with the scale and big production stuff as much as the next person, but I also love the tiny little executions that are underpinned by an honest, truthful insight that can allow the execution to subvert and maximise an idea. Nothing goes better with simplicity than elegance and a cinematic approach in my mind. Particularly with comedy, I’ve always struggled with the idea that comedy should look “funny”. That’s why to complement the simple joke-like structure I wanted to elevate the scene of the woman shaving to become a spellbinding and in-your-face spectacle that imagined a sort of “symphony of the shave”. In doing so, not only do we make something more cinematic which is always my intention, but it also drives home the idea of just HOW MUCH she is using that razor, and how she’s using it LITERALLY EVERYWHERE which in turn makes the joke land harder when you realise that the guy’s using it around his mouth.
The script was nothing like what we produced – on paper, it was pretty tame in the type of world it was portraying, but I thought if we elevated all the good stuff it would allow us to get carried away and swept up in the experience, whilst always protecting the joke that we were there to tell.
It’s a challenge as a man trying to cast a woman who is naked throughout a whole ad, and still do right by the job throughout the casting process in a way that deep dives into exploring all the possible approaches whilst respecting the actors. Ultimately though, what we realised, was seeing it not as anything evocative or vulgar but seeing it as a dance. Then it just became all about the choreography and finding someone who understood comedic physical movement. Because that’s what was really important here. There’s comedic timing with dialogue, but there’s also theatrical performance with how you move a body. They’re totally different beasts. And they ask for totally different understandings from actors. Again, for me, it’s all about just finding that common thread we can all relate to. If we’re honest about that, then we’re honest about the work. It’s just human nature, and I think when you tick that universal box you really get everyone on side.
From singing yams to pistachio-fuelled bromances and cross-species families, what have been your career highlights so far?
I think all creatives can appreciate the work that takes them to the next level in their careers and change people’s perceptions of what they think you’re capable of. The New World Dreaming Of Yams spot kicked a bunch of goals for not only me but for the creatives as well. The GEICO campaign had a bunch of success around the world and that seemed to have a huge immediate impact on where my career went. It legitimised me in the eyes of many – making work for such a recognisable brand with such a heritage of strong work, perhaps no more so than the traditionally fickle American market which up until that point had flirted with me, but not really gone past first base.
I did a really fun ongoing campaign for Foxtel in Australia that I think really helped progress my particular brand of thing. I also really love the Pot Noodle spot that I did with Lucky Generals that completely caught everyone by surprise with the cultural impact it had, so much so that people dressed up as the ring-boy from the ad for Halloween that year which was super weird. But probably the biggest career highlight? Working with Christopher Walken. Fuggetaboutit. Career lowlight is easier though. Mariah effing Carey. She puts the diva in “Medivac me the fuck outta here!”
Outside of your comedy spots, you’ve also done some more serious work, including a PSA for the NZTA. Is it sometimes a relief to not have to ‘think funny’?
Always. But I don’t see a huge distinction between the disciplines of comedy or more serious dramatic work. They’re two sides of the same coin in my eyes, with many of the same challenges. It’s just refreshing to continue mixing things up to challenge expectations as well as never getting lazy. I hate nothing more than repeating myself – that’s fucking boring. When I got to make NZTA Rat’s Tale I was determined to use the opportunity to show people a different kind of thing from me. It’s not that it was a challenge to think that way or anything, it’s more to prove to the wider community that I was capable of work like that. It certainly opened up a bunch of opportunities that up until then had eluded me – and has meant that I see a much broader range of scripts and ideas, which suits me just fine.
Which part of the filmmaking process do you most enjoy?
I love casting. I’ve always loved casting. It’s where the entire process comes together for me and can shape the direction of what you’re making more than any other part of the process. I’ve always loved exploring a bunch of crazy half-baked ideas in a casting session, using the opportunity as a bit of a way to get the bugs out and road test my gut instincts on how something might play out. The best bit for me though, is that an actor can come in and show you an entirely different take on the thing that shifts everything from the ground up. That’s what gets me out of bed – and when you see something like that that I get properly psyched.
The MoneySuperMarket spot was shot prior to the pandemic – it must seem strange to look back on what was a ‘regular’ live-action job, given the restrictions in place now. How are you feeling about the future of production as we gradually emerge from lockdown?
Good question, and perhaps even a better question because I’m writing responses to these questions on day 4 of a mandatory 14-day quarantine locked inside a hotel room in Sydney. I can’t leave my room, the window doesn’t open, there’s no housekeeping, no room service – just 3 utterly soul-destroying meals a day that are delivered to your room in a brown paper bag. I’m here on a job from my home in LA which is currently burning and rioting – so I can’t quite work out which is the better deal.
The shoot I’m about to do here (when I get the fuck out of this room) is in direct response to the pandemic. It’s a heartfelt story about a dad ensuring that he won’t forget the good that was contained within the bad of the Covid-19 experience and forced lockdown. The script has been written in a way that is produceable within the current shooting conditions, and I think that’s the main challenge for all of us. How do we as directors and producers adapt our processes and still come away content with the quality of our work? Truth be told, those considerations need to be considered at the script stage, but with every week it seems that various markets are opening up and solutions are flowing forth.
Production people by definition are problem solving people, and I’m lucky enough to be represented in various markets by companies and people I consider to be the best in the business. There’s great work to be made from anything and as we all know, creative limitations can often lead to the most exciting work!
What are you working on at the moment?
Well, I’m prepping that job in Oz, pitching a really cool thing out of the UK which would lead me straight from Sydney to another 2-week quarantine in London (!!!) and like everyone I suppose, writing that opus of a screenplay. Can you imagine the amount of shit feature scripts to come out at the end of this?
First, though, I really need to get outta this room.
Interview by Selena Schleh
Website: Nick Ball
CCO: Billy Faithfull
CD: Chris Ringsell
Creative team: Charlie Gee, Tian Murphy
Designers: Eric Chia, Abbi Chard
Producer: Leila Bartlam
Assistant producer: Victoria Doran
Director: Nick Ball
Producer: Ewen Brown
VFX/post: Untold Studios
Editor: Leo King @
Sound design: Jungle Sound Studios
Sound designer: Ben Leeves
Voiceover: Matt Berry