Johnny Burns and Pier van Tijn say they first bonded over finding themselves as the “least weird” people on a film project full of total oddballs. Which is a useful lens through which to see their body of comedy directing work as Big Red Button. While there’s often something strange going on in the ads they make, it’s never played up into wacky, madcap kookiness. It’s often played straight, letting us make our own minds up about the absurdity we’re seeing on screen.
After a good run of jobs that made us chuckle at LBB Towers, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Big Red Button to try to understand their filmmaking philosophy.
LBB> How did you two meet and decide to form Big Red Button?
Big Red Button> We met on the set of a dreadful feature film a long time ago. Johnny was the sound recordist and Pier had applied to be a runner, but they made him first AD which gives you a measure of the calibre of the production. The thrill of suddenly finding ourselves to be two of the least weird people in the room was a bonding catalyst and we became friends from that point onwards. We also thought there was a fair chance we could make something more interesting than that film we were working on. The jury is still out on that one.
LBB> What are some of the challenges and benefits of working as a directorial duo?
Big Red Button> The huge benefit is that you never doubt your ideas because there's always somebody right next to you doing that for you. However, if you do happen to have a good one, they're also right there to champion it. Which is really nice. It's an especially effective way to work in comedy. When a shot isn't working or something isn't as funny as it should be, having a like-minded person to bounce ideas back and forth with can get to a solution really quickly. It's also useful in commercials when we're trying to win over a client, or actually any situation where we're not getting our way. Pier will pick up whenever Johnny has to pause for breath and vice versa, until we eventually wear whoever it is down with a persistent barrage of enthusiasm for our own ideas.
LBB> How do you approach comedy advertising when you get a script that you like? And what are some of the key elements of your style that make it a Big Red Button film?
Big Red Button> We love to mess with things, especially things we probably shouldn't mess with. It's why we're called Big Red Button. When we get a new script, the first thing we do is look under the hood to see how it works, then we get tinkering in an attempt to soup it up. Once we're sure we really understand what the film is trying to achieve, we'll brainstorm a bunch of additional ideas, background gags and visual flourishes that seem to fit the tone and strategy of the spot and then take another pass at a script that tries to work a little harder, incorporating some of our own daftness. Our rationale is that most people actively try to avoid watching adverts, so if somebody does have the misfortune to be subjected to one of our spots over and over, (we're looking at you All 4) the least we can do is try to jam it so full of charm, surprise, and background funny that they don't want to gouge their own eyes out.
LBB> Your recent work on HSBC with Richard Ayoade really brought out what he's best at. What was the key to nailing that one?
Big Red Button> The HSBC campaign was pretty well established and had already spawned quite a few smart and funny spots, so it was a little intimidating. Luckily, Wunderman Thompson were super collaborative and really open to the ideas we pitched to punch up the Ayoade-ness in their script, so we just kept pushing for it to get stranger and stranger. National Treasure Richard (as he likes to be called) was a pleasure to work with and turned out to be surprisingly good at being Richard Ayoade, happily taking a crack at each of our daft ideas. So much so that we got to make a weird little doll of him and shot an extended unscripted 'moment' in a Moroccan souk. We still can't believe they let us do that.
LBB> You have directed some of the most complained about adverts in the UK. How do you balance being provocative and funny without crossing the line?
Big Red Button> Honestly, we're not that interested in crossing the line or even going that near it these days. We like lots of kinds of humour and the shock of something unexpected or transgressive can be a powerful way to get a laugh, but it also assumes a shared set of values and experiences that can leave some people feeling pretty uncomfortable or picked on. These days, the world is trying to be a more inclusive place than when we first started out and we embrace the challenge of trying to find the funny without marginalising anyone.
LBB> How do you adapt to different markets and audiences, especially when working abroad or with international clients?
Big Red Button> We tend to trust that humour is pretty universal, and to keep an open mind about what we don't know or understand about a culture. Part of being a duo means being open to other opinions, and we like to think this makes us more ready to incorporate advice and insight from our cast and crew who might be able to introduce details that locate scenes with more specificity.
LBB> What are some of the current trends or developments in comedy and/or advertising that interest or inspire you?
Big Red Button> We like to see as much comedy as possible and we're huge fans of the UK scene. There are so many comedians around at the moment with totally original voices and approaches. It's unbelievable how much creativity and innovation goes into each show. We're big fans of Sam Campbell, Johnny White Really-Really, Kemah Bob, Rob Carter...
LBB> Who are some of the comedians or actors that you enjoy working with or would like to work with in the future?
Big Red Button> We're always making side projects, shorts and pitching ideas for TV or features. Right now, we're cutting possibly the most stupid short film we've ever conceived which is a collaboration with actor/comedians Toby Williams and Rachel Stubbings. We also have a ridiculous comedy series in the works with Rob Carter aka Christopher Bliss and another idea we're developing with Baby Cow. We're always up for collaborations and have an open invite for people to spam us with ideas they'd like to get made. Our personal emails are right there on our website
and aside from receiving an uncanny amount of information on penis growth pills, the strategy has paid off and led to some fruitful connections.