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Heath Cullens on Directing Off-Kilter Comedy



Reform School’s director - known for quirky, comical shows like ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ - speaks to LBB’s Ben Conway about bringing laughs to adland

Heath Cullens on Directing Off-Kilter Comedy

Director Heath Cullens, represented by LA’s comedy-forward production company Reform School, is best known for directing the TV shows; ‘It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia’, ‘Mythic Quest’, ‘A.P. Bio’, ‘Great Minds with Dan Harmon’, and ‘You're The Worst’. He has also had a successful career in front of the camera too, acting in Super Bowl spots and feature films, and is a prominent member of the LA comedy scene.

Using his years of acting experience to direct nuanced performances fuelled by sharp dialogue and precise comedic timing, he is a recipient of a Drama League Directing Fellowship and a member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab. His commercial work with Reform School includes promos for several comedy series on FX and a Lenovo-NFL collaboration featuring comic actor and writer J.B Smoove. Heath recently shot the social component for Nissan's 'Road 2 the Final Four' campaign with TBWA\Chiat\Day.

Speaking to LBB’s Ben Conway, Heath discusses what excites him about directing in the advertising industry, the instinct behind knowing when your improv is giving diminishing returns, and the time he had to strap an iPhone to a chain of mop handles to get a shot.

LBB> What excites you in the advertising industry right now, as a director? Any trends or changes that open new opportunities?  

Heath> Personally, I love being in situations where things are changing rapidly and the rules are being rewritten faster than the ink can dry. It seems like that’s the environment we are currently experiencing. Whether it’s new mediums like TikTok or Instagram stories or the metaverse, or new evolutions within the comedy world, advertisers are facing unique challenges to capture their audience’s attention. Consequently, everyone seems to be more open to experimentation. This is great when you enjoy and really embrace finding new ways to cut through the noise. That’s very exciting to me. 

LBB> What elements of a script/brief sets one apart from the other? What gets you excited or immediately interested in a project?

Heath> I’m drawn to unique, idiosyncratic takes on familiar subjects. If a script or brief has an off-kilter take on a familiar subject or product, that gets me leaning forward in my seat. If I can feel someone’s quirky take on something from the jump, I get very excited.

LBB> You’re known for your comedy work on TV - how does your experience with longer-form comedy influence how you craft comedic ads? What are some opportunities and challenges in the 30 to 60-second format?

Heath> Working in TV comedy has made me acutely aware of the playability of an idea. The easier it is for a performer to get behind an idea, the more fully they can commit, and the funnier it will be. This often means distilling and refining the idea to a single thought or gesture. ‘Sunny’ is so funny partly because the characters’ wants and needs are so clearly, and succinctly, defined. This allows the audience to relax and watch these lunatics do their thing. Creating that shorthand for the audience in a 30- or 60-second spot is even more important. The sooner we can get the viewer to the ‘I get what’s happening here’ moment, the sooner we can get them laughing. And that’s the straightest line to them remembering the product the ad exists to support.

LBB> As well as directing TV comedies and funny ads, you’ve worked in front of the camera too. How has that shaped your perception and process as a director?

Heath> On a very practical level, working as an actor has taught me what to do as a director to make the actor’s job easier. And when their job is easier, they generally perform better. This often involves me reading or blocking the spot with each performance in mind - I will act out each role when I’m planning shots or thinking about direction for the actors. I also think (but you’d have to ask actors I’ve worked with to be sure) that having acted makes my notes for the actor more useful. I understand how to phrase things so that they can easily be translated into a clear choice the actor can make.

LBB> When you’re working on a commercial project, do you like to get involved with the writing/creative process before production? Or do you enjoy adding your directorial style to an idea and script from other creatives?

Heath> Generally speaking, I love being involved as early in the process as I can. If I can understand the impetus for an idea or joke early on, I can adjust my directorial approach to accentuate that idea. Or if I have a slightly different pitch for a moment, we have the time to collaborate on a solution before there’s an entire crew standing around waiting for us to make up our damn minds! That said, I’ve also had a great time stepping into a project after the script is completely locked. That is how much of TV work is done, so I’m happy working under those circumstances as well. As long as folks are open-minded and have a common goal, I think either type of workflow can yield fantastic results.

LBB> What’s your most important relationship during a project - who are your most vital collaborators when you’re directing and why?

Heath> This is a tie between the director of photography and the actors. The three of us need to be working in unison to make a moment land in the best way possible. Obviously, if the spot demands something more complex visually, my DoP becomes more valuable. They are both so important because one is doing the ‘thing’ and the other is putting that ‘thing’ in context through how we’re photographing it. I’ve also found that both DoPs and actors are engaged ‘in-the-moment’ collaborators, willing to try something new at the drop of a hat if the spot calls for it.

LBB> What have been some of the more recent technological developments that have changed the way you work? And what have been the most fun or unexpected set-ups, rigs or make-shift plans you’ve ever had to use?

Heath> I recently used a DSLR attached to a skydiving helmet for a sequence of shots, and we actually combined the helmet footage with Steadicam footage seamlessly so that you can’t tell which footage is which. It made for a very funny, disorienting, first-person POV perspective.

And once, our drone broke on set so we attached a bunch of Swiffer mop handles together and strapped an iPhone to the end to make a cheap drone shot.

LBB> With comedy, how do you strike the balance between allowing talent to improvise and staying on-script - or on-schedule? The ‘Always Sunny’ cast, for example, are famous for throwing ideas out as they shoot. Is it hard to move on and overcome the feeling of ‘but the next take could be even funnier…’?

Heath> I wish I had a scientific answer for this, but it really is just a feel or an instinct. After years of doing this, I have a sense of when we’ve hit the point of diminishing returns with improv. There’s just a shift in the energy at some point. Sometimes you can sense the actors change from the characters being in a moment to the actors trying to come up with something funnier than the last take. When that starts to happen, it’s generally time to move on. 

LBB> What are some upcoming projects that you're excited about? 

Heath> I’m about to start preproduction on a mockumentary with Bob Odenkirk, and I have another film in development about a comedian with a congenital heart defect. On the television side, I’m developing a comedy about minor league baseball with an MLB player and a high school time-travel comedy.

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Reform School , Fri, 17 Mar 2023 17:05:00 GMT