Brad Lubin is a serious director who makes funny things.
For the last several years, the British have entrusted him – an American – to direct comedy spots for their brands. No higher honour had ever been bestowed in the UK, nor will one ever be again.
An expert storyteller and entertainer, he brings a level of film craft that’s not often seen in the comedy space. His client list includes Netflix, Disney, McDonalds, Ford, Burger King, Mentos, Twix, Little Caesars, GoDaddy, Pedigree, Quickbooks, and Staples, to name a few. Brad’s been featured on the cover of AdWeek and in Creativity magazine, and directed AdWeek’s ‘Ad of the Day’ and AdForum’s number two spot in the world. His award nods include the Cannes Young Director Award, D&AD’s Next Director Award, Shoot Online’s New Director Showcase, and and his work has been nominated for 4 British Arrow Awards, the Kinsale Shark Film Award, and has won the Creative Circle Award and a Gold Drum Roses Award.
Brad read in an article that it’s not good to be a work-a-holic, so he makes himself golf and ski. But he prefers comedy clubs and comedy writing when he’s not comedy directing, and he suspects that article was written by someone who doesn’t have fun for a living.
LBB> What kind of kid were you, what were your passions and hobbies, and when did you get your first inkling that a career in film was for you?
Brad> I was born in DC and grew up just outside of the city. My father was a photographer, so I grew up with cameras. I loved making people laugh, and I watched an unhealthy amount of comedy from an early age. I think I was nine when I first saw Eddie Murphy’s ‘Raw’. Every writing assignment in school was full of jokes. My friend Jamaal and I spent a few years as aspiring ninjas, watching every martial arts movie we could find. I borrowed my dad’s Video8 camcorder and we made a kung fu comedy, complete with poorly timed, badly dubbed dialogue. I edited in camera, and when we watched it back, it was like magic – my shots cut together and it actually felt like a movie. I continued to write comedy and make shorts, and in seventh grade I enrolled in drama to do ‘Romeo and Juliet’ so I could kiss an eighth grader I had a crush on. I didn’t get to play Romeo, but I won the Mickey Mouse award for the best actor in school. The ‘Aha!’ moment came when I took a film class in college. I realised all I ever wanted to do was be a director, so I dropped out and enrolled in film school.
LBB> How did you get into film/commercial directing, and what was the journey like?
Brad> The goal was always to be a filmmaker, so I interned with and assisted different filmmakers such as Mark Gordon, Gil Netter, David Zucker, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, and Mark Neveldine, while self-funding small directing projects and being repped as a comedy screenwriter. I verbally accepted a job assisting a TV producer, and despite needing the money, I was in agony because it would put me further away from my goal. However, when I got home from accepting the job, I found that I had an email about interviewing to be Craig Gillespie’s assistant. It was divine intervention. I interviewed with Craig, and spent the whole interview interviewing him about how he shot different spots. Working for him at MJZ was my first foray into the world of commercial directing, and I fell in love. One time, Craig’s car was in the shop so I had to drive him to work, and I’d slow down to hit the red lights so I’d have more time to ask him things. Sorry Craig… I actually don’t drive like a grandmother!
When I thought it was time to strike out on my own, he gave me advice on how to make a good reel and get signed. I took his advice and it worked. Then, I shot one job my first year while still working as a PA, driving directors to set who were younger than me. Talk about humbling! Desperate to get my career going, I entered my spots into every competition I could find, and I was nominated for the Young Directors Award at Cannes, the D&AD Next Director Award, and made the Shoot Online New Directors Showcase. D&AD got the attention of Hughie Phillips at MindsEye in London, so I signed with them and two weeks later I was on a plane to shoot my first job there. I owe the start of my commercial directing career to Craig and Hughie.
LBB> As a whole, what are you hoping to achieve with your work? What inspires you as a filmmaker?
Brad> I love to see how funny a scene can be, and how we can make it resonate with the widest audience. There’s no better feeling than hearing laughter from video village. Comedy is the hardest genre to do well.
You can film a bus hitting a stroller and everyone will gasp. On the other hand, senses of humour are unique, and when most people find the work funny, it’s a huge accomplishment. Different territories around the world have different types of comedy. Even in America, the scripts from San Francisco are different from the scripts from New York City. But, there are certain things all humans find funny and relatable, regardless of their personality, upbringing, or geographic location, so I try to tap into that.
LBB> How does this love of comedy impact your directorial approach?
Brad> I think I was born with an intuition of what’s funny about life. So was my brother, who’s a very funny comedy film and TV producer. Comedy’s one of the few businesses where ADHD and divergent thinking is a huge advantage, so I don’t think I found it as much as it found me. Our father encouraged us to do what we love (and the NBA said they were full), so here I am.
People who aren’t inherently funny think comedy’s just ‘doing something silly’, but there’s a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid first. Psychology is a huge part of making something ‘laugh-out-loud’ funny, so my comedy directing involves a lot of comedy writing. My motto is ‘it can always be funnier’. How can I create characters that make the setup and punchline stronger? How can the jokes be more unexpected? How can I do it all in 12 seconds?
LBB> You work with Feels Like Home in Canada - what made them the right choice for you, and as a whole, how does the work in Canada compare to other parts of the world?
Brad> Feels Like Home has a great reputation, but what sold me on the company is Marni Luftspring. She’s brilliant, has an incredible work ethic, and really understands comedy, the craft of directing, and how to articulate it.
I love working in Canada for a few reasons: I’m not going to get mugged when I go out for coffee, the comedy can be a bit bigger, everyone is polite and courteous, and they let me participate in the edit.
LBB> Looking back at your career so far, what are some of your most significant pieces of work, and what do they mean to you?
Brad> Sure, comedy is about making people laugh, but it’s more important than that. You’ve heard laughter is the best medicine and it’s true - the process of laughing lowers cortisol and releases endorphins, which physically makes you feel better. Last year, a non-industry childhood friend - with a job he hates, who’s living in a house he can’t afford, and has a 12-year old daughter in therapy for body-image issues - caught his wife in bed with another man, and then lost his father to cancer. He told me he goes on my website when he’s feeling down to get a laugh. The CEO of Strike (formerly HouseSimple) sent me a Facebook post from the father of an autistic boy who can’t speak and shows no emotion. He wrote that the only time his son smiles and laughs is when he watches the HouseSimple spot I directed. These mean more to me than anything.
LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across over the course of a production, and how did you solve it?
Brad> Movies are usually crazier than spots. I was once doing location scouting for a film in Mexico, during which time I was nearly stabbed in a bar, before finding out the investors were a drug cartel. There was also a time when I was filming in Compton, and was told that one of the actors thought he saw the guy who killed his brother, so he called the Compton Crips to come kill him on my set. Fortunately, it was the wrong guy, so the Crips just ate all the craft service.
With advertising, it’s more tame - like nearly dying from a mystery virus in Minsk on a sausage campaign, shooting two 20-hour days back-to-back with food poisoning in Bulgaria, accidentally walking into a mafia sit-down in Moscow, shooting 230 takes of a 10-week old kitten stepping into a litter box before it would sit down in front of the camera… Every spot has challenges, and there’s always a solution. You just have to step back, take a breath, widen your field of view, look at the problem objectively, and you’ll find it. Or, find a doctor who hopefully speaks English to load you up with enough medicine to get you through the shoot.
LBB> Brad, you previously discussed some of your awards. Please tell us more about these! What do you attribute this success to, and which ones mean the most to you?
Brad> I don’t think we ever really know when the final product will get critical acclaim. I’m just always trying to make every script a truly great film, and to make people laugh out loud every time they see the spot. There are two common factors in all of my nominated spots. The first is the agency creatives’ willingness to collaborate with me. The best work comes from checking egos at the door and letting the funniest idea win, regardless of who comes up with it. The only thing that matters is the end result. Funny is funny. Good is good.
The second factor was the agency’s ability to influence their client to take a chance. What clients don’t understand is that comedy, by its very nature, is inherently naughty, be it a play on words, or as Aristotle and Plato wrote when they hypothesised the superiority theory of humour (rebranded by the Germans as 'schadenfreude'), experiencing pleasure in the misfortunes or discomfort of others. I’m not suggesting it has to be mean, but there has to be some source of conflict between the characters or societal norms. In the HouseSimple spot I directed, I made one character be annoyed with his neighbour – something every viewer is familiar with. I did this because I knew that dynamic would give the characters depth and make the first half of the spot relatable, which would draw viewers in and make the strange character switching that follows unexpected and entertaining. Without that human element, the spot would have just been weird for weird’s sake, leaving viewers with nothing to connect to and rendering it unmemorable.
LBB> You’re both a commercial and film director. What’s it like going between the two, and how does this switch affect your creative approach?
Brad> It’s an entirely different skill set, but I think being a commercial director makes me a better narrative director. When you do a lot of spots, shot-timing can become a habit. Making 12 or 15 seconds of live action have the right comedic timing to be funny and work as a story requires precision in what you believe will be the usable portion of any given take. Good directors know how long each shot will be on screen. With narrative, it’s all about the pacing of the scene as it relates to the story and character arcs, and its place in the overall film. Sometimes, the right shot is several minutes long, whereas in advertising we need to give editors the maximum flexibility to edit a great 30-second, as well as a 20-second, 10-second, and 6-second spots that don’t feel like cut-downs, all from the same footage.
The other difference with advertising is art by committee. My job is to perform a specialised service for agencies to help their clients make money, and I don’t move on to the next shot until at least four other people are happy. Five times in my career, I’ve had ECDs come into the edit suite, watch my director’s cut and say something to the effect of, ‘You bastard, I’ve got no notes’, and I’m damn proud of that. In narrative, the camera is my brush and the set is my canvas, and my script supervisor isn’t getting carpal tunnel from clicking a stopwatch.
LBB> If you had to give one piece of advice for a young filmmaker coming into the industry right now, what would it be, and why?
Brad> Go to medical school! But, if you absolutely must be a filmmaker, never give up, and never stop developing your own talent and perspective. (And wash the fruit from craft service before you eat it).