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Nick Spooner: “Brands - and People - Need to Have a Sense of Humour About Themselves”

Production Company
Manhattan Beach, USA
The director, having recently joined the Backyard roster, tells LBB’s Adam Bennett why he’s excited by virtual production, and how he found comedy in the unspeakable horror of H.P. Lovecraft…

Comedy, it’s often said, soothes the soul. For anyone who doubts that old adage, try meeting Nick Spooner. The director’s welcoming, laid back, and thoughtful approach to life and his work is so infectious and warming, there must be some secret behind it. Perhaps that’s simply what a career spent making people laugh will do. 

Over the course of his career so far, Nick has used comedy to craft communications for brands such as Netflix, Tide, and Circle K among many others. And that’s on top of time spent agency-side with Ogilvy, writing and producing for Comedy Central, and overseeing the iconic Harvard Lampoon magazine. Oh, and he once fronted a ‘NYC-based humorcore band’. Idle hands, as Nick tells us, are the Devil’s work. 

In more recent times, Nick has joined the growing team at Backyard productions. To find out why now was the right time to make that move, what makes humour such an enduring powerful tool for brands, and how H.P. Lovecraft’s most disturbing creation provided fuel for an award-winning comedy short, LBB’s Adam Bennett caught up with Nick. 

LBB> Nick - winding the clock back, what kind of kid were you? And at what point did you know that a career in creativity would be right for you?  

Nick> I was a very “analog” kid. I spent my time immersed in comic books, MAD Magazine, cartooning, sculpting, making up elaborate narratives for my toys to play out and then lighting them all on fire…you know, perfectly normal kid stuff. I was always happiest when I was making something - anything - and that most likely steered me towards a creative career. It definitely seemed like the most fun, and for better or worse, it’s the only place where all my random skill sets and misspent youth make perfect sense.  

LBB> Fast forward to today, and what’s exciting you most about teaming up with Backyard?  

Nick> It was just the right time and the right place. But it obviously comes down to the people, and I instantly clicked with everyone there. I had been freelance for a little while,so it  was Kris, Rich, and Kevin who made rejoining a roster an easy decision. They have a stellar reputation and a longstanding track record as a rock-solid company, especially when it comes to comedy. More than ever, when clients and agencies partner with a production company, they want to know there’s a reliable entity with trustworthy folks supporting their project. That’s Backyard.  

LBB> Over the course of your career you’ve worked agency-side, as well as for Comedy  Central, and in a production crew. Does such a well-rounded background change your  approach to your role as a director, in any way? 

Nick> Definitely. Since I’ve spent time at an agency writing commercials and time on the crew making them, I like to think I run an efficient, confident set. This enables me to have  ambitious but doable shoot days, allows me to communicate effectively with everyone from video village to the crew, and keeps the goal of making a funny commercial that works as the priority. It’s all about maximising performance time, and my experience with all these different aspects of the business allows me that. The ultimate objective is to make great stuff, but also to have fun doing it. And a well-run set is much more conducive to having a fun shoot. 


LBB> You’ve said previously that you “try to make friends with people who are more creative than me”. Doesn’t that get exhausting?! 

Nick> Did I say that? That’s not bad. I would say it’s exhilarating, not exhausting. It’s a total rush to have an idea and then see how creative people can help elevate it and make it better. 

I’ve always placed a high value on those who actually make things. I don’t think I have any close friends who aren’t creative in some way. 

LBB> We’re living through a time where many commentators are bemoaning a lack of funny ads, even suggesting that brands can be too preoccupied with their concept of ‘purpose’ to risk making a joke. What’s your take on that, and can a brand be funny and good for the world at the same time? 

Nick> Comedy is definitely more challenging today, but it’s possible and even essential for brands - and people - to have a sense of humour about themselves. I think audiences respond much more favorably to a funny spot than one that claims to have some socially relevant, hashtaggable “purpose”. Does your soda really make protesters, influencers and riot police come together in harmony? C’mon. I’d say that in many instances, a purpose-driven message is way more likely to fall flat or seem insincere than a comedy-driven one. 

At the same time, I do think a brand can be good for the world while also being funny - I’ve worked on some myself - but that starts with a strong client who trusts their agency to go there. I’ll never stop believing that stories build brands, especially funny ones. And we need a good laugh now more than ever, don’t you think?  

LBB> You used to be the president of the iconic Harvard Lampoon, and you still feature a gallery of comics on your site today. Do you think comics are an especially effective or pure way to communicate comedy? 

Nick> Absolutely. I always loved the single-panels from The New Yorker, MAD, and especially The National Lampoon. There’s a lot packed into a single-panel cartoon, but it’s still just a funny drawing with a funny caption. They’re a sort of distilled form of humour, like a comedy haiku. And that’s how I think about commercials - they’re little film haikus, where we similarly condense a lot of story and details in the storyboard frames that make up a spot.

Cartooning is basically a hobby, but it's a good exercise to keep my own storyboarding skills sharp. I’m lucky that there’s a magazine (The American Bystander, which was founded by former Lampoon and Spy alum) that’s kind enough to publish my stuff. 

LBB> The Call of Charlie has to be one of the best HP Lovecraft-inspired comedies I can  recall seeing. I have to ask, where did the original idea come from?! What was the  inspiration? 

Nick> Thanks very much for the compliment. I had a rep who told me I needed to have a short film in my repertoire, or else I wasn’t ‘a real director’. No lie. I’d never made anything longer than, say, two minutes before that. And strictly commercials, at that. So I sat down with two good friends at my favorite dive bar in Providence - where Lovecraft himself was from - and we kicked around a bunch of ideas until I threw out, “How about Cthulhu goes on a blind date?” which totally cracked us up. We riffed on the idea, wrote a script together and a year later hit the festival circuit with The Call of Charlie. It did unexpectedly well, but it was, I think, too dark and weird to actually have been useful getting commercial work. We had a blast making it, though. 

Above: The Call of Charlie, Nick’s short film about a terrifying cosmic entity going on a date, swept up awards at several festivals including, fittingly, the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. 

LBB> Looking back over your career so far, which campaigns stand out as being especially significant or memorable?

Nick> The ones that stand out most are the ‘perfect storm’ projects where everything clicks and the work seems effortless; great concept, great creatives, great client, great casting and a great crew all coming together to make a great campaign. Of course, it also has to perform well for the brand (because that is the actual point).  

The first campaign I did for CarGurus was one of those instances, for sure. It successfully launched their IPO, put them on top of the category, and led to some really fun repeat business. 

Above: Nick’s work with automotive shopping site CarGurus helped launch their brand. 

I did one of Tide’s most successful spots ever - it ran for years - and it was a real exercise in working closely with the agency to elevate every aspect of the job. 

And definitely my Lending Tree work - a campaign that starred a Muppet - where the main ask was to make the campaign as funny as possible. I’ve worked a bunch with Henson-designed Muppets and Muppeteers and those jobs are always hilarious. Lisa Henson was also a former Lampoon president, so I like that added connection.  

Above: Bringing Lending Tree’s campaign to life allowed Nick to continue a career-long connection with The Muppets. 

LBB> As a filmmaker, how would you describe your relationship with technology? And is there anything tech-wise which is exciting you right now?

Nick> I like to think I have one foot in both the analog and digital worlds. As a former animator and person who came up shooting on film, I’m always nostalgic for things that feel handmade, authentic, and imperfect. We talk a lot about making things look “filmic”, and there’s a certain amount of sentimentality behind that. Digital motion picture cameras can offer a lot of conveniences and advantages, but I still like to throw vintage glass on them to bring an analog feel to the image. And I do prefer practical effects to purely digital ones. 

But new tech definitely frees us up to tell stories in exciting ways. The Unreal engine and LED array options for creating interactive backgrounds are amazing. Now, instead of having to travel to an exotic location (or not doing it because of the cost) you can make a production feel way bigger in an extremely economical way, making convincing environments on a soundstage, like in The Mandalorian. And I do love how LED technology has made lighting a much more efficient process. I mean, I’m not a Luddite - if technology can make something I’m working on even better, I’m all for it.  

LBB> And finally, if you could go back in time and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be and why

Nick> Right after college, my dad’s cousin, who was George Lucas’ head of research, set up a job interview at Skywalker Ranch. I was crashing with friends who lived in San Francisco, and for reasons I probably shouldn’t get into, I missed the meeting. So, I would probably say, “Don’t blow off that meeting.” And; marry the same person you ended up marrying, because you’ll make awesome, hilarious kids together. That’s two pieces of advice. Sorry, I’m used to giving more than I’m asked for.

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