Osmany “Oz” Rodriguez is an Emmy Award Winning comedy writer and director who’s worked on some of the most memorable Saturday Night Live commercial parodies and music videos in recent years. His digital comedy shorts have appeared on SuperDeluxe, Funny or Die, and HBO’s Funny or Die Presents. The Caviar represented talent has directed commercials, episodic TV and has completed his first feature film, Vampires vs. The Bronx. He lives and works in New York City.
Zack Seckler: So let’s start by talking about your first break into the industry.
Oz Rodriguez: I met Matt Villines at film school. We started sort of a directing team, making comedy shorts with our friend David Neher. It was the early 2000’s around the time where digital video was accessible so a lot of people were doing comedic shorts. We got attention from SuperDeluxe, and they paid us to make three videos. I think three of us split $3,000. In that time it was like I had made it. We kept making videos for SuperDeluxe. It was going great, and then they ran out of money because monetizing websites was a new thing. SuperDeluxe closed down and we didn’t have a job.
There was a gap there. We started teaching at our old film school, using their equipment on the weekends to make our videos. But then we had a meeting at Funny or Die. We made a short and I heard that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay liked it. So we started working there. It was a bigger budget and we’re working with a lot of different celebs, and that led to SNL.
So the first video you did for FOD, was it something you did on your own, or did they give you a budget and say ‘we want to try you out on this first thing?’
Yeah, it wasn’t much of a tryout because they were very cool with people who had an idea, they would give you some money for you to go make it. It was called “The Amazing Adventures of David & Jenny”. Andrew Steele from Funny or Die liked it a lot, and at that time they had a sketch show with HBO and they picked our sketch to be on it. That led to getting employed full-time there.
“Brostitute” is one of my favorites from your time at FOD. Did you write that too?
No, that was Seth Morris. He wrote it and he was in the video as the older bro. Mike Farah is a producer at Funny or Die and said, “I think we can get Tim Roth to do this.” We jumped to the idea because Tim Roth was in it. We liked the idea of making this super-serious documentary-style short about the dumbest idea possible. Tim Roth loved it.
So let’s talk about the transition to SNL. One day did you just get a call out of the blue from Lorne Michaels…?
It was almost like that. We got a call from our agent saying SNL wanted to interview us. We went and interviewed; not with Lorne, but almost everyone else. I thought it was a little weird because we didn’t talk about any normal meeting stuff. Most of the meeting was just talking about, like, what was better, Naked Gun or Spaceballs?
Just like a personality check almost?
Yeah but I definitely didn’t know that at the time. I felt like it didn’t go well because they didn’t ask us questions like, “What’s your approach to comedy? What lens do you like to use?” Then I realized they just wanted to see if we can hang. I moved to New York maybe four or five weeks after that. It happened really fast.
Yeah, and it was exciting because The Lonely Island (comedy trio of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone) had just left, and now that spot was open to basically anyone. It was exciting for the writers because everybody had a chance at writing a video, and then for us as directors it was exciting because we were doing something different, with a different writer, every week.
The SNL sketches that are produced before the live airings, the spoof commercials, music videos and so on, are called “pre-tapes.” And that’s what you direct for SNL. Can you walk us through the process of directing the pre-tapes?
So the table read’s on Wednesday afternoon. The writers stay up all night on Tuesday and write a bunch of sketches and they read 35 to 40 sketches. It takes like half the day. There is a table for the cast, Lorne, a live director, and a couple producers. And then they fill the room with all the writers and all the key people in every department. The show gets picked out of this table read.
There are times when a pre-tape just kills in the room. When that happens, I’m texting the producer, and we start figuring out a location, whether we need a makeup thing or a special effect. You start breaking it down as soon as you can because at SNL, you have the money but you’re always against the clock. A day after table read, you find out what tape you’re doing. Sometimes you’ve done all this prep and the tape you’re planning for gets picked, but sometimes shit happens and you have to start fresh.
What is the production process like? You guys have what, two days to shoot, typically?
One day to shoot, one day to prep, one day to edit.
Normally, Wednesday night at 8 PM, we find out what we’re doing. So that night we’re trying to find a soundstage that’s big enough and available. Usually you’d want to be calling these kinds of places weeks ahead, but we’re calling the day before. And same if it’s an outside location; you’re calling the day before to get the permit.
It’s the same process as any other shoot, but expedited so fast. We scout Thursday morning and make a decision by Thursday afternoon so that by Friday morning the place can be ready. Everything is so compressed that you are making decisions really fast, following your gut. It’s a lot of trial and error, but you work with a bunch of amazing people, and if you fuck up someone’s got you. Everyone is so good at their job and can work really fast.
Typically you get a script and you have time to really think through it, talk with the DP, the production designer and so on. How much of that stuff is just happening as you guys are shooting? How much of it is, to an extent, improvised?
I would say I think it’s a little bit of both. You want to have a plan. Like Wednesday night, have to start figuring out lights or what the set’s going to look like. Then on Thursday you talk to the DP and formulate a plan, but shit always happens. Someone’s late, or this thing is not working, or the location is closed. You have to be able to think on your feet.
Yes, lots. I think the two worst times were weather-related. One, we had a short that we started shooting at night, and the first half of the night was fine, and then a blizzard dumped on us so bad we couldn’t see the actors. We felt like we had to go home with something, so we shot through it. It sucked. It got cut at dress, as it should have.
This other time, we were doing this sketch, a parody of The Handmaid’s Tale, and we wanted rain to match the visuals of the show. We knew it was going to storm that day so we tried to plan it at this place that had cover. We thought it would look cool because it’s raining outside, but we’d be under the cover. That didn’t happen. We were getting drenched. The equipment was in the water. The costumes were getting wet. It was about to become a safety issue. So we ended up finishing the shoot elsewhere, and somehow everything matched and it got on TV. That was like one of the toughest days I’ve ever been on set, and Lorne bought everyone a bunch of nice whiskey.
So is your role as a director different when you’re directing for SNL versus if you’re doing a commercial or episodic television? Is the process of working with the writers different?
Well, at SNL, the writer is ultimately responsible for the pre-tape. That’s their baby. So it’s a very collaborative process with the writer. I think the writers at the show definitely trust the directors. The collaboration process is very different with each writer, but you’re always collaborating. You’re always collaborating in this business, of course, but at SNL you have to make choices a lot faster, so trust is important.
It’s interesting. I struggle with putting it into words. When you’re in SNL everything moves so fast that you don’t even think about it. Let’s say you do a really successful video that everybody is into. That’s amazing, but then on Monday you have to go back to work and you forget. The highs are very high, and the lows are very low, but you just have to go, go, go.
How has it changed or influenced you as a director? How has it impacted your craft?
Well it’s made me work a lot faster and trust my gut. It’s trained my mind to think, to prep so much faster, and to be prepared for all the worst things that could happen on set.
It’s kind of like another film school.
Yeah, you definitely grow as a director and you learn what things are essential, and you learn how to communicate so much faster. I feel so much more confident talking to actors and crew. You have no time at SNL, you can’t let your ego get in the way. You can’t be like,“I’m in the middle of Brooklyn with Emma Thompson doing this bit where she looks like she doesn’t have any pants on.” You’ve got to stay professional
Talking about Emma Thompson, sometimes you’re working with actors who aren’t necessarily comedic. Do you have a different way of approaching your direction with non-comedians for getting the right performance out of them?
Well I think one thing I learned from SNL is like everyone sort of has their own methods. Obviously when Will Ferrell is on the show, or Melissa McCarthy, you know they’re going to fucking kill it. But when it’s a non-actor, usually the role gets written in a way for them to succeed and be funny in the sketch. So with like Charles Barkley, for example, we did this Star Wars parody and it was written to his voice because SNL always wants to put the host in the best place to succeed. If the sketch is funny, but the host is maybe not going to be able to do the accent, what’s the point?
Are there any times where the celebrity for the week really surprised you with a performance?
I think actually my favorite pre-tape at SNL ever was “Sad Mouse” in 2012. It starred Bruno Mars. I didn’t know who Bruno Mars was so I was like “Oh I guess, who’s this guy?” And then I heard a song and I’m like, “That’s kind of good.” And then at the table read he killed it. Then Thursday he rehearsed and I was like, “This guy’s amazing.” We shot with him Friday and it was awesome.
I think for me, it’s sort of a two-tier approach. The number one thing is it needs to be funny, and you want to make sure you can do everything you can to achieve the funny. Beyond that, you also want it to be interesting. If it supports the joke or helps the story, I want it to be as visually interesting as it can possibly be. I want to help it succeed in all the ways it can.
What about advice for young comedic directors? What advice do you have for them of trying to kind of be successful in the industry?
One thing that you see at SNL is how much work comedians put into writing. They’re always writing, writing and re-writing. If your thing gets picked on Wednesday, you’re doing a re-write on Thursday, you’re probably doing a re-write on Friday, and sometimes you’re doing a re-write on Saturday.
I say that so I can say this next thing: I think you just need at-bats. You need experience. If you’re starting out, when you have a group of friends and you have an idea, just start shooting. You need experience, and that’ll help you grow. I think film school is great, but it’s only going to be good if you put the practice in and find your voice.
I have a feature that comes out next year. It’s called Vampires vs. the Bronx. It’s an action-adventure with kids as the heroes and they’re kicking butts and trying to prevent the gentrification of the Bronx as represented by vampires.
Hopefully I can make more movies. I want people of color to be able to be heroes in genre movies and any kind of movie. I just did a bio for Sunny Side which is on brand as well. It’s a comedy show about immigrants.
Is there anything else that you want to talk about?
Well, I never really addressed this in an interview, but Matt Villines, who I used to direct with, passed away. I’m sort of new talking to this about people, but Matt is part of my story. We were a directing team, directing at SuperDeluxe. We directed at Funny or Die. We went into SNL together. Then he got cancer and passed away, and I am on my own now.
I can’t even imagine what that experience is like. What’s it been like not having him?
It’s been very hard. We went to film school together. We started making shorts together online, and we were roommates too. We were literally together the whole time. I had to figure it out how to work on my own, and I was able to figure it out with help from my SNL family. I don’t think I would have been able to come out on the other end like I did without the people at SNL. Everybody had met Matt and liked him, so it was definitely helpful to have the support and love of SNL.
Interview by Zack Seckler
Edit by Tyler Peterson