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Director Simon Neal on Sneakerhead: “The First Duty of a Sitcom Is to Be Funny”



With the first season of the British sitcom available to stream on UKTV Player, the UNIT9 director discusses the process and contrasts it with his advertising work

Director Simon Neal on Sneakerhead: “The First Duty of a Sitcom Is to Be Funny”

British sitcom Sneakerhead will be relatable to anyone who’s worked in retail in Britain, and many more besides. Set in Peterborough, Russell (Hugo Chegwin, famous for People Just Do Nothing) is one of the many long-suffering employees of Sports Depot – a familiar looking budget sportswear retailer. He is a certified sneakerhead, working there for the love of the trainers, surrounded by what director Simon Neal calls his “surrogate family.”

The series was produced by Roughcut Television and is written by BAFTA Scotland new talent writer Gillian Roger Park (The Young Offenders, Avenue5). Starring alongside the People Just Do Nothing star is TV chef and grime artist Big Zuu, in his first television acting role, with Fran Mills (Harlots), Alexa Davies (Dead Pixels), Lucia Keskin (Chi with a C) and Mark Silcox (Man like Mobeen).

Having related heavily with the show, LBB’s Alex Reeves spoke to Simon, who is represented by UNIT9 for commercial projects, about the show.

LBB> This is your third TV sitcom but you’ve also had a career in directing commercials. What do you feel now are the similarities and differences that stand out?

Simon> One of the similarities is it's all the same techniques. It's pointing cameras at actors and getting them to do their thing. It's finding locations and all the rest of it. 

I guess the main difference is the time. A 30-second ad versus a half-hour TV show. Not only the time we've got to tell the story in but the time we've got to make it. They both have time pressures but in different ways. On a British sitcom, you're going to shoot five to seven pages of script a day, so you don't have the luxury of really crafting the visuals in as much fine detail as you would on a commercial. 

Having said that, the thing about the timing of a commercial is you've got one or two days to get your film and the pressure is you've got to get it in those two days, otherwise you can't go back. Whereas on a long-form piece, if things don't quite work out how you expected them or, or you ran out of time or certain things, you can always pick up the scene later in the week, or the next time we're back in that location. Or you can always rewrite scripts to change things around based on what you've already shot. On a TV show, I've got an editor, assembling scenes as we go. So he'll start on day two of the shoot editing day one's rushes, working behind us as we go along. So I can kind of see what we've got and if there's anything that we need to change, we can modify things as we go. Whereas obviously, on a commercial, we've got the script that's been signed off by the agency and client and everyone else, and you've got the time you've got to get it.

Then there's the timing of the actual storytelling as well. Comedy is all about timing. And the kind of comedy that I like is that very natural rhythm of real life with all the awkward pauses, people stuttering, misunderstanding each other, and stumbling over words and that kind of thing. On a TV show, you can give that breathing room that needs to play out. In an ad, you've got to find techniques to create that feeling in a very short timeframe. In an ad, you're always trying to simplify and simplify and tell the story really economically. Coming from ads to longer form, going that way about it just really gives you a grounding in that economy of storytelling and telling stories very visually, whereas I think maybe directors coming from the other side, let's say from theatre or from long form, are more concerned with telling the story through the performance. I like both and I'm trying to do both of those things in both worlds. 

LBB> Is there anything specifically in Sneakerhead where you've applied that? Are there any parts that you think are particularly economical?

Simon> The whole introduction to the show where we use the voice of the lead character Russell to introduce all the various characters via their choice of trainers. I think that sequence feels very kind of filmmaking, cinematic and visual. Ultimately it's a character-based sitcom. And the meat and potatoes of it is dialogue. It's kind of a slacker comedy. So it's basically these characters sitting around, not working, just kind of chatting with each other. So I did look for opportunities to get it on its feet and get the get the story moving and tell the story visually where I could. Which I think if you watch the show you might come away thinking it does have a bit of a look and style to it. 

I was working with a really good DP called Craig Dean Devine. He came from adland like many DPs - music videos and commercials and short films. He'd just done the latest series of Derry Girls, a feature length finale and Stath Lets Flats. He's very much of the same kind of way of thinking that if we can tell the story visually, rather than conventional shot, reverse shot coverage. Which has been a kind of go-to on TV sitcoms. 

I think there's definitely been a movement towards more cinematic filmmaking in the last few years in shows like Atlanta and things like that. They have become a lot more filmic. 

LBB> Watching it, that makes sense because it’s not just directed by numbers by any means.

Simon> We tried to give it a bit of a style. You do have to get coverage on a TV show. When you get to the edit, you've got the execs down, they say, 'have you had a single on such and such an actor, at this particular moment', you've got to be sure that you've got that on the shoot. I'd love to play them all out as very simple two shots, or masters. But just the way that TV works, you've got to get coverage. But within that if you can come in with a plan and set yourself a little rulebook of stylistic choices, then you can end up with something quite interesting looking. 

Roger Deakins, the Coen Brothers' DP, we took a lot of things from the way he shoots their films. For example, he avoids that long lens, observational look, or shooting over a character's shoulder, so you have a dirty foreground character while you're filming another actor's dialogue. We'd always get the camera inside of the conversation on a slightly wider lens. So it gives you clean singles. For one thing it's much easier to edit when you don't have someone else in the shot, but also getting in close with a slightly wider lens, you get get a nice mid shot of the character, but you also get their surroundings and the world that they exist in, which tells you a lot more about their character. And immediately, it puts you inside the conversation rather than observing it.

In sitcoms (it comes down to budgetary considerations) there's a lot of handheld, long lens, whip the camera around style filmmaking, which gives a certain pace and energy and dynamism. We just felt like this show because our characters aren't really running around and doing much, we felt like how to get you really related to the characters was this style of getting the camera right in there inside of the conversation and staying quite static with it. 

LBB> How did you get involved? Because it was written by Gillian Roger Park. How did that collaborative process work between you two?

Simon> I was approached by the production company via my agent, who sent me the script. I really loved the script. It was funny on the page, which is obviously a good start and the combination of people involved really are up there when it comes to British comedy. The combination of Gillian's writing, the chance to work with Roughcut Television and then Hugo Chegwin from People Just Do Nothing was already on board, Big Zuu was already on board. Lucia Keskin was on board, who was mostly known for YouTube and was a mostly untried talent on TV. So the combination of the script, production company and the cast jumped out.

It's like anything else where the people you work with are so important. You meet them, you give them your vision, you have to see if you're gonna get on. In many ways it's similar to pitching for commercials or music videos or anything else. Working with Gillian was great. Obviously, it's kind of her baby. But I was able to give notes on the script as well as the execs and the producer. The lead actors get hold of it, they give their notes. 

When you're in prep, as you're heading towards the shoot, you go through various revisions, taking various people's notes on board. And you end up with the shooting script. Each project is different. Sometimes you have the writer there, the same way that you have an agency there on the commercial, sometimes they can lead you through it. On this one actually, Gillian did come down a couple of times, but once we got to a shooting script she let us get on with it. She's based up in Scotland, and she was busy working on our next project and doing right for the later episodes. So she left us to it.

LBB> In terms of the cast, you've got a mixture of people who are tried and tested and well loved. And people are well loved in a different format, but haven't really done something like this before. So what were the main priorities in working with the cast and making sure that you hit those notes the right way?

Simon> The first thing is to make sure that they're comfortable. You don't want anyone feeling nervous or pressurised or worried about getting things wrong. The scripts were great, but we also did a lot of improvisation on the show. Hugo is from People Just Do Nothing - there was a lot of improv on that. Biz Zuu coming from a show like Big Eats where he's making things up on the fly, he was very comfortable doing that as well. And Lucia with her background in the YouTube stuff felt comfortable doing that. 

We had a week or so of rehearsals so the cast all got to know each other and we just played around with it. I guess my priority was that it felt natural and authentic. You want it to feel like these characters are saying these things for the first time off the top of their head rather than saying lines. It's not a standard American quickfire sitcom style where people fire their lines out, one after the other bang, bang, bang, and it's all verbal gags and scripted. I was aiming for naturalism. To achieve that, you've got to create an atmosphere where the cast feels comfortable and free to just kind of get it wrong. Because you can always do another take and try it differently.

Our shooting style kind of helped in that regard as well. Not trying to get too tricky with a camera, keep it simple, and not having to worry about choreography in terms of actors hitting marks and cameras moving, letting them come in and out of the scenes. Let them create their own timing. And it turned out that Lucia and Big Zuu were brilliant anyway - very naturally talented. 

LBB> It made so much sense with Hugo in that role as I imagine he’s a bit of a sneakerhead himself.

Simon> Yes. Quite a few of the shoes that feature in the show are from his personal collection. I wouldn't call myself a sneakerhead, but I do know that the way the resale market works, some of these shoes can go for hundreds and thousands of pounds. For some of the key shoes we couldn't actually afford to get them. So we just used Hugo's.

LBB> What will you remember most from the process?

Simon> It's set in Peterborough but we actually shot in Croydon in an old Burton menswear store. Again, for that authenticity, we didn't want to shoot in the studio. We wanted to actually see the high street through the window, characters could come in and out and feel very much in the real world. So we found this store where we recreated a sports shop on the ground floor. We did build a few sets on the first floor, and then on the second floor we held the production offices and the green rooms and hair and makeup.

But there was no heating whatsoever in this place. We shot in January, so everybody was dressed for a shoot in the Arctic, even though we were indoors on a set.

I just remember laughing a lot at the performances, and just a really good bunch of people. Great crew. Great cast. Everybody got on really well. It's just like a big family. I just enjoyed the good times we had shooting it.

I enjoyed the edit very much as well. Probably my favourite part of the process. I worked with a really good commercial editor, Nick Armstrong at tenthree. He did a brilliant job of it. And we had a bit of time. We had a few weeks to really craft the episodes and find all the music for the show. So that was a really enjoyable part of the process. 

In pre-production, it was the casting. We had a fantastic casting director Rachel Sheridan. Because it was Roughcut, Hugo and Big Zuu, there were loads of really great actors who wanted to be a part of it. So we had some great people.

LBB> What else was fun to work on?

Simon> I think my favourite thing was all the guest actors we had. We managed to get some really great people in. They came in and did one scene or a couple of scenes in one episode. Once you get to know the main characters, as soon as you bring in another actor that you hadn't seen before you see how they play together, it really made some really funny stuff. I guess that's the thing about workplace comedy - it's a shop. Every time a customer comes in you can bring in a new actor and a new story, and that's how you kind of keep it fresh.

LBB> There's a love for the culture of sneakerheads, but then also that's contrasted with the monotony and the difficulty of working on the high street.

Simon> The main theme of the show isn't about sneaker culture, that just happens to be an interesting thing about Russell's character. The real heart of it, like all workplace companies, is it's really like a surrogate family. This one feels contemporary because it's on an ailing high street with zero-hour contracts. And there's something funny in the fact that he's so obsessed with sneakers that he's got a job at this place, in that world. And yet, he wouldn't be seen dead in any of the shoes that we sell in that shop. Because it's a kind of pile-them-high-sell-them-cheap place.

The other thing is how we relate to our first jobs. For most of the characters it's their first job, it's a zero-hours contract, they're not planning on staying, they're just passing through. They're all in their early 20s. Russell's in his mid-late 30s. And he's still working there and thinks it's a great place to work. That contrast is a rich vein for humour.

His mum left when he was a teenager and I guess he's using his workplace to try to build a family around himself. So he's constantly trying to persuade everyone else it's a great place to work and to stick around. They've all got big plans. It's just that little moment in time when you're that age, you're in your first job when you find this gang and it might not last forever, but it's just a moment in time.

LBB> That makes it very relatable to a lot of people, but it’s got some depth to it as well as being funny. Was that a priority?

Simon> It's not just a knockabout comedy. There's a bit of a heart to it. Hugo is great at creating sympathetic characters and I want people to be rooting for him. Even if he's making bad life choices, in terms of his relationships and work. You want people to really kind of empathise. But at the same time, it is a sitcom and I was very much conscious that the first duty of a sitcom is to be funny. Going in there was my main goal. I just wanted to make sure that it was funny and when I was on set with the actors that was our main goal. If we could make something that people laugh at, we've done our job and hopefully they'll stick with it. And we'll get to make some more.

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Categories: TV and Radio, Media and Entertainment

UNIT9 London, Thu, 11 Aug 2022 15:43:00 GMT