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Dream Teams: When the CHIPS Are Down, These Directors Make Us Laugh


Mat Laroche and Jonathan Brooks, AKA CHIPS, met in the UK outpost of a failing American TV channel and emerged to build one of the most consistently funny commercial reels in British advertising, writes LBB’s Alex Reeves

Dream Teams: When the CHIPS Are Down, These Directors Make Us Laugh

CHIPS is the directing duo of Mat Laroche and Jonathan Brooks, who met in undeniably glamorous circumstances – a windowless office making short-form TV documentaries for Al Gore’s Current TV. They first bonded over a shared love of chicken chow mein and ‘80s TV shows and formalised their partnership into existence over Mai Tais at Trader Vic’s.

That was in the ‘00s, when there were, as Jon puts it, “zillions of odd TV channels on Virgin Media with names like Bravo or God TV.” He was working at the UK outpost of Current TV and Mat stepped into an editing job he’d vacated to work in promos. 

Mat remembers his first impression of the man who’d become his creative partner. “On my first day Jon showed me the dark arts of Wacom tablets in his soothing Welsh lilt,” he says. “I noticed he had a nice line in shirts and some interesting desk ornaments. He still dresses well today and his flat is full of intriguing nick-nacks.”

Mat lived on a canal barge in London at the time. Jon was fascinated by this, especially since the boat didn't have an engine. “I suspected that Mat was an undercover new age hippie, a suspicion now corroborated by the fact he has chosen to move to Glastonbury,” he says.

Soon the pair bonded over a similarly perverse sense of humour and started occasionally making sketches for a late-night TV show that Mat presented and which Jon thinks was only watched by themselves.

Mat played Roger Cock, a spoof investigative journalist who would perform ill-fated exposés on drug gangs, dodgy businessmen, and shady characters sometimes played by Jon or other pals. Other sketches were often parodies of TV shows like ‘MasterChef’ and ‘Most Haunted.’

The duo’s work became more original when they started collaborating with the Wogans, a sketch group Jon had met at the Edinburgh Fringe. Their show was based on a renegade Swiss Guard at the Vatican who protected the Pope with the attitude of a ‘70s action movie mercenary.

That became the basis for Mat and Jon’s first short film, ‘1431’. Shot over a weekend in Current TV’s green screen studio (and parking garage), Mat played Jesus. “Jon’s After Effects wizardry and editing prowess with the Honey Monster’s rich voice made this film the short that started it all,” says Mat. It won's 'What's funny about 1431?' competition. The prize money funded films that won subsequent awards, and eventually led to the formation of the pair’s company, Chips Films.

After 1431, the duo’s short film called ‘First Press’ was a finalist in the prestigious Virgin Media Short Film Awards. It was a gritty crime thriller spoof where the gang turns out to be not so nefarious. “The film switches gears for a kind of Tarantino/Wes Anderson-fused credit sequence with a spoof Kinks song about pressing flowers in East Grinstead,” notes Jon, in case that whets your appetite.

Since then, the pair have brought their spoofing to commercial clients as the duo CHIPS, now represented by Johnny Foreigner. 

They point to their big break as their work with recruitment website – a client that they enjoyed writing and directing campaigns for over four years. “We worked with ‘Uncle’ Paul Weiland who is a living legend and the amazing Rufus Jones who can improvise funny lines at the drop of a hat,” says Mat. 

Jon agrees that the work with Reed has been formative. “We worked on some huge budget campaigns and had the privilege of being both the lead creative team and the directors. We also had the benefit of being mentored by industry legend Paul Weiland.”

He stands by that work. “I think the very first ad we did for Reed has a lot of charm and pizazz. We produced it guerrilla-style on a budget of £500 as part of a competition. It has an anarchic energy and a handmade feel. You can somehow sense that it hasn't been touched by any advertising executives. It feels authentic. Another ad we did that has a similar authenticity is ‘GetShitDone’.”

Clearly, the pair share a sense of humour, but they also share tastes in shirts and beer, reveals Mat. Beyond that, the similarities get tenuous. “We also both have beards and Celtic roots (Wales and Brittany).” 

Then the differences come out. Jon prefers dogs, Mat likes cats. “I think we inhabit opposing ends of the energy spectrum,” says Jon. “Mat can be quite high energy and I am generally more relaxed and we probably balance each other out in that regard. Mat is the Dudley Moore to my Peter Cook. Mat studied acting and still performs occasionally, while I studied video art and ‘media’ before moving into TV directing. This gives us a pretty broad range of skills to bring to our directing adverts.”

They’re usually able to put those differences aside and find a synergy, even if both admit to a control freak nature (“surely a prerequisite of a director,” suggests Mat).

To deal with that, one will always take the creative lead on a given project. “There are already enough stakeholders in a commercial shoot without the direction being in two minds,” says Mat. 

But even with that dynamic, they hold each other to account and make use of their different perspectives. “When someone questions your ideas, it makes you think a lot harder about why you believe in them,” says Jon. “Comedy can be extra tough because there's no one right way to be funny and sometimes you just have to trust your gut... But working together definitely helps us come up with lots more ideas and options than we could on our own.”
Being a duo also means they can cover for each other’s mistakes. CHIPS once went to a ‘cat fancy fair’ to shoot a documentary by themselves and forgot the microphone. Jon shot some cutaways and Mat drove back for it. “The film turned out great!” says Mat.

The duo love telling stories of the odd circumstances that drive their creativity. Here’s a recent example from Jon: “We were tasked with punching up a fairly dry script for a Dieselgate compensation advert. We were struggling to come up with new ideas. Then, Mat mentioned that he had just watched the folk-psycho horror film ‘Men’. I immediately thought that we could use the film's concept as inspiration for our advert.

“In ‘Men’, the protagonist encounters a series of men who all look the same. We decided to do something similar with our advert. We made all of the characters that the protagonist bumps into be played by the same actor. Incredibly the client agreed to our wacky new idea.”

Inspiration can come from any source, it seems, but when it comes to advertising Mat and Jon have favourites. “I love a joyous advert,” says Mat. “It restores my faith in the medium and when I see something I love I will often share it on LinkedIn, write to the creatives and ask for a job.”

Jon often looks to David Lynch, who he’s been a disciple of for as long as he can remember. “Years ago, I literally bumped into him while crossing the street in London! He humoured me with a quick chat and recommended that I learn transcendental meditation. I signed up for a course and still meditate every day, I think it’s a great way to stay creatively minded. In ad land, Mat and I often share amazing new comedy ads we've stumbled upon online, typically directed by Jeff Low. I find the universe pretty inspiring, the fact we’re hurtling round it at millions of miles per hour on a big spinning ball of molten rock is absolutely fucking mind boggling.”

It’s been said that the best creative people are curious to learn about everything and that seems to apply to CHIPS. Jon is always explaining to Mat why IPA tastes the way it does (“it contains more hops to stop the beer going off as it travelled to India,” Mat recounts). The Breton director is always trying to emulate his partner’s ‘Welsh sangfroid’ when accepting feedback on an edit. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to learn all his nifty editing tricks as my brain is too small but I’m very pleased I met him as he’s made me a better filmmaker,” he says.

The admiration goes both ways. “Mat has a great way of working with actors which I think has rubbed off on me over the years,” says Jon. “He’s always looking for new ways to challenge and inspire the actors, coming up with new ideas for exercises and improvisations.”

Now Mat lives in Somerset and has children, it’s harder for CHIPS to meet up socially, but when they do they love a catch up over an IPA. Jon once took Mat on his yearly pilgrimage to Glastonbury Festival which he found very muddy and a bit cold. They went on a ‘Werewolves of London’ tour for Jon’s birthday one year, drank pina coladas at Trader Vic’s and ate a beef chow mein at Lee Ho Fook’s. “No little old ladies were mutilated, of course,” Jon assures us. “Unfortunately, both of those establishments have since closed, possibly in a citywide crackdown of well-dressed, bloodthirsty shape-shifters.” 

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Johnny Foreigner, Thu, 01 Jun 2023 16:20:31 GMT