In his early days David Shane (O Positive) worked with Trey Parker and Matt Stone on the first season of South Park. Since then, he’s become one of the most respected comedy directors in the country. He’s won countless awards for his commercials and short films including six Cannes Lions in just one year (!) and oh yeah an EMMY. Among many other accolades Shane was named 2016’s #1 most-awarded director in the world by The Gunn Report .
Shane is an actor’s director and that’s clearly evident in his work; which you absolutely must checkout below. His casting is perfect and his performances are spot on (checkout his direction of Jeff Goldblum for a stunningly entertaining example). On top of all this, Shane consistently tackles the tricky task of illustrating dark humor concepts in advertising with subtlety and flair.
Zack Seckler: What is David Shane’s coming of age story?
David Shane: I remember once my parents went on vacation for a few days and so I turned my house into a brothel for all of my high school friends. It was pretty risky business but it got me into Princeton.
DS: My dad was a “hippie” comedian in the 70’s. He died when I was a little kid so I don’t have too many memories of him. But I do have video of him doing stand-up on the Tonight Show, which he was on a bunch of times. And I guess I have some of his DNA because I’m always trying to do make comic moments that feel earned or honest. But I’m no comedian and definitely less funny than my sister, who’s a Veterinarian.
DS: It’s meant everything to me as both a writer and director. Before I started acting, I didn’t even know there was something called subtext. “Oh shit — people rarely say what they’re actually thinking? And that there’s this other level of communicating below the surface?! Word.” I began to realize that an actor can say a line 20 different ways if he/she/they have a specific intention. And of course, it gave me a short hand with actors which is really useful. Jeff Goldblum is a big Stanislavski guy — he likes to work with a bunch of “magic as ifs” or substitutions. You realize that so many of the things directors say are actually completely unplayable. Every ad, not to mention TV show, movie and snapchat would be 23 times better if the director studied acting. That might not be an exact percentage so don’t hold me to it.
ZS: You’re able to get wonderful and often nuanced performances, walk us through your approach to directing actors.
DS: That’s nice, thanks. I think it’s partly because I’m always trying to create a situation where actors can surprise me. Then, since I really only do ads that are scenes with little arcs, it’s just about breaking the thing down into beats: What do the characters want? What’s getting in their way? Where is the comedic friction? It’s exactly the same building blocks whether it’s the Iceman Cometh or a Sports Center commercial. Which sounds 100 percent bullshitty but it’s also 100 percent true.
I also believe in the Hippocratic oath for directors, not just doctors – “first do no harm.” So I try to say as little as possible at first, especially if I’m getting good stuff. Then, two of the most useful directions are “simplify” – actors often are doing too much – and “faster” because it’s incalculably helpful in the editing room to be able to pick up the pace anywhere in the scene – to be able to expand or collapse any part of it so you can so that other parts – usually the end – can breathe more.
I’m a big believer in nailing the script note for note and then playing. I’m not a fan (and I don’t think most creatives are either) of sitting in the editing room watching the same take ten times in a row. And improvising doesn’t just give you funny options, it lets the actors live the moment on screen for the first time again, ‘cause moments are rarely better after the first couple of takes – unless the scene has a lot of balls in the air and needs time to jell or something.
But really, a lot of the work of directing is working with the script — on the shape of it, so that it has pace, so it flows and, in the case of ads, to make sure it’s to time. Good writing knows to leave space for the actors to act in and you can’t let a moment breathe if the script is wall to wall copy. A very not fun moment of every job is when I act the script out for the creatives for the first time with a clock on it.
DS: One time we were shooting a Sports Center commercial in Bristol Connecticut, with the Anaheim Rally Monkey. In the spot, he’s sitting in an office, lamely flashing the rally sign in an effort to change the mind of a producer who is firing him. ESPN didn’t want to spend the money to fly in the actual rally monkey from California so we hired a local monkey handler who had the same kind of Capuchin monkey. And of course, the monkey wouldn’t — or couldn’t — hold up the rally sign no matter what the trainer did. So the agency art director suggested cutting the arms off the stuffed monkey we were using as a stand-in, then staple the rally sign to the arms and hold this under the real monkey’s head. Which was, of course, colossally stupid. And also the best idea we had. But when the real monkey saw the disembodied arms of the fake monkey he freaked out, slashed the trainer in the face and leapt around the room shrieking. I didn’t actually see most of this because I was hiding under a desk. Because I am a coward.
But truthfully, no shoot goes as planned, and that’s almost the point of it. When cameras or lights go down — athletes don’t turn up on time or don’t show at all, sell copy changes knee deep into shooting, the sky dumps rain on you, clients start getting twitchy — being able to roll with the punches is deeply helpful. I try to be prepared for every eventuality on the day, and then throw it all out ‘cause better, fresher more interesting things are developing.
DS: No one would hire me so I wrote my first reel. I wrote some aggressively stupid script stuff for MTV based on an idea they had called “Matty Griper, Rock and Roll accountant.” It was one of the first production jobs out of Hungry Man. And luckily a few people liked it enough to keep (misguidedly) giving me jobs until I actually started to know what I was doing.
ZS: What advice would you give to young directors looking to get into commercials?
DS: 1.Try not to make bad things. There’s enough lazy, derivative crap out there as it is.
2. Try to make it “wrong.” Always take the fresher route if it’s available to you. People will lean in towards shit they haven’t seen before.
3.Stay true to your vision – it’s sometimes all you have left in a sea of indecision, second guessing and frightened clients.
4. But always be open to collaboration. No one has a monopoly on good ideas.
5. Always do a faster take. Go twice the speed of light if you want.
6. When all else fails, write your way out it.
DS: I love making them. I love letting moments live their natural life without having to artificially compress them to fit into 30 seconds or whatever. I love being able make things as fucked up or dumb or dark as I want them to be. I always remember something Ben Schwartz told me: “If a short sucks, no one cares, if it’s great, no one cares.” So just do what you want.
ZS: Tell me about your writing for TV and how it’s informed you as a director.
DS: I still self-identify as a writer, not a director. And I don’t want to sound too suspiciously Zen here, but I think you’re directing when you’re writing and you’re writing when you’re directing. You’re totally seeing the thing play out in your head when you’re pounding a keyboard and understanding structure and rhythm – the carpentry of the scene — is so helpful when you’re directing.
ZS: Where do you see motion advertising going in the next 5 years? Are 30 second spots going to be replaced by shorter 6-10 second pieces?
DS: People have been forecasting the death of the 30 second ad since I’ve been doing them. Which would be fine with me. I’d be just as happy making longer web pieces or doing weird little snapchats. And I’m constantly lobbying agencies and clients to do comedy VR. I love visually arresting VR and I love gaming but I think there’s room for slice of life, small moment comedy VR. Imagine being thrust into a dysfunctional family holiday dinner. Every time you look around the room, someone is being passive aggressive towards you.
Another interesting thing that seems to be happening is that there are fewer overtly funny ads around now than maybe ten years ago which I’m also cool with it. And I think it’s true of most areas of pop culture. Songs are less hooky but more sonically interesting. There’s a weird backlashy term — the “unfunny comedy” – that’s kind of meant to throw shade on some of my favorite TV shows like “Atlanta” and “Transparent” and “Fleabag” but I don’t get the animosity. As long as it’s super watchable and engrossing I don’t mind trading some laughs for smartly observed “slice of life” moments or pathos or whatever. And the same is true of ads.
DS: Haha. Well, most of the funniest stories either compromise the famous person – or myself – or both. But…
There’s a kind of false intimacy you develop with performers and athletes over a shoot that can make you think you’re best friends for a hot second. And you’re not. I was once shooting with Michael Strahan, who is super nice and effortlessly charming. We’re hanging out in between set ups, talking like we’ve been friends for years and I suddenly hear myself inviting him to a barbecue at my house that I wasn’t having. I didn’t even own a barbecue. Or a house. And as the words were coming out of my mouth, I was already thinking “I just have to go to home depot, buy a barbecue, illegally set it up in the courtyard of my apartment and invite a bunch of people over. I got this.” Luckily, the invite was met with a kind of suppressed horror. He looked exactly like he just found himself sitting next to an over-sharer on an six hour flight. He was like: “Yeah, that’s — I’m not — i have some — I’m gonna be out of town this weekend but thanks, man.” I’m not sure what emotion I felt more acutely — relief or humiliation.
Jeff Goldblum’s first take on Currys was roughly five minutes long, and if I remember correctly, mostly had to do with Socrates. And I remember looking over at our very polite, very English AD Chris, who looked back at me and mouthed *we’re fucked*. And I mouthed back, “I know.” But we weren’t. This was just Jeff’s process. Every so often, he would go off the rails and do something so profoundly insane it was completely unusable. And this was almost always followed by something sublime and brilliant. When he hit his stride we would just quietly keep pushing the cameras in because that man is the most inside out actor I’ve ever seen. He has such an interior life that burns through the lens. I remember watching him and going, “right, there’s another gear.” It’s a privilege to watch someone like him or Michael K Williams or Nicolai Coster-Waldau.
ZS: What are you working on next? Are you interested in features or episodic TV?
DS: I sold a series I wrote to Vimeo, which 3-arts was producing. But as you may have read, Barry Diller bought the company and decided not to go to a subscription model, fired everyone and killed the slate of shows they were developing, including mine. We’re looking for a new home for it. In the meantime, we’re in what I like to call pre -preproduction on a script I co-wrote with Scott Organ that Aaron Paul and Nick Robinson are attached to star in. And I’m knee deep in the 2nd act of a screenplay about an idiot who tries to start his own religion. It doesn’t go well.
Interview by Zack Seckler