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Sara Shelton: “We’re All so Sad, There’s Never Been a Better Time for Comedy”

Production Company
Los Angeles, USA
The Ruckus Films director tells LBB why overthinking is the key to writing comedy, and how a combination of small talk and Google got her career off the ground

Comedy, they say, is all about timing. Given the trials and tribulations we’ve all collectively endured over the past year or more, it would seem the occasion is just about perfect for great comedy to give us the lift that so many of us are looking for.

For Ruckus Films’ Sara Shelton, there’s an important balancing act to be found between comedy and darkness. Having started out in the industry as a writer with agencies such as Droga5 and Johannes Leonardo, Sara found her home behind the camera and has built up a portfolio of commercial work which is guaranteed to raise a smile. 

With the director having recently signed to the LA-based production company Ruckus Films, LBB took the opportunity to catch up with Sara to discuss her career so far, her approach to her craft, and why it’s sometimes harder for happy people to truly ‘get’ comedy… 

Q> Hi, Sara! First things first - growing up, when did you first realize you wanted to be a filmmaker?

Sara Shelton> I remember as a kid I’d stay through credits at movies and read every name, just enamored by the thought of these lucky people all hanging out together and making something. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realised those names were just regular people, and that’s when I was like - ‘wait a minute… could I?!’

Q> I understand you started out as a writer agency-side. How did the transition to directing come about?

Sara> Yes! I got into advertising because it felt like a safe way to be a writer without starving to death. I always felt so dialled in and energised on set, to the point that it was almost confusing. I just loved the feeling of it. 

And then one random day I was chatting with the director between setups, and he said some stuff in passing that I swear made time stop for a moment. I was like ‘holy shit, I need to be doing what he’s doing’. I got back to my hotel that night and googled “What does a director do?” and that started my path. Thank god for small talk (and Google), because it changed my life.

Q> What did that director you mentioned say to inspire you? 

Sara> I was interested in how this VFX thing we were shooting was being done, so I left video village to watch how the crew was pulling it off. The director walked over to me, and I mentioned I wanted a closer look because I had never shot anything like it before. In response, he just so nonchalantly said "yeah I've actually never shot anything like this before either" and I was like, "yeah... WAIT, WHAT?" I thought directors had to know how to do EVERYTHING. 

Above: Sara's work with Sugar Mutts playfully upends expectations.

Q> And has comedy always felt like your natural home?

Sara> Absolutely. I love how effortless it feels but how challenging it is to create. I overanalyse everything in life - which is an exhausting way to live, but extremely useful when your job is to come up with dumb jokes. 

Q> Why does over-analysing stuff help with comedy?

Sara> Because it’s on those tiny, minute details that you find the best opportunities to be funny. A lot of comedy rests on surprise, and the best way to ensure you’re being surprising is to drill down to the detail no-one else has found yet. So the nuances are better, and you can draw on the element of the unexpected. 

Q> Everyone in the office here (not the actual office, but you get what I mean) loved the Hormel spot. How have you found the reception to the ad?

Sara> People seem to love those spots, as do I. I love how we didn’t put black bars or pixelate their mouths when they cursed, but instead shot it so their mouths were framed out naturally during the bleeps. I know they seem like silly little spots but to me they were mini mathematical equations.

Above: The killer final line from Sara’s Hormel spot was improvised.

Q> And do you enjoy giving the audience a surprise? That Hormel ad certainly wasn't what I expected going in, particularly the line about her mum being wrong about her (I presume) husband…

Sara> It’s my favorite part of the job. That hormel line about her mom wasn’t in the script or on our alt list going in, but something that came up in the moment. We can stare at scripts on paper as long as we want but you never know for sure a joke is going to land or what might be funnier until you’re actually in the scene and the clock is running.

It’s also important to note that the actor - Pam Murphy - was a huge part of the reason this worked so well. Pam is well-known in the comedy scene as an insanely talented improviser and writer. Having been part of that world for a while now, I was aware of her reputation and I wanted to give her the space to do her thing. It’s a pleasure to work with people who bring so much of themselves to the work. 

Q> Is honesty something which is very important to you in your work?

Sara> Yeah, I can’t stand people who don’t have self-awareness. I mean, we all have some sort of facade but generally speaking it’s not my style. I want things to be real. I think if you’re not being honest in your approach to how you tackle things then you’re instantly making it harder for people to relate to it. 

I like when a joke has a deeper meaning - not just being funny for funny’s sake. It’s great working with actors for that reason, because they need to relate to the script. I gravitate towards actors who can bring grounded performances for that reason - it enhances the reality the script is trying to establish. Your actors need to get it. It also helps give you a sense of when you’ve got things just right, and when you might have pushed the joke a little bit too far. 

Above: For International Women's Day, Sara shot a typically tongue-in-cheek spot... 

Q> The past year has been a challenging one for many. On a psychological level, do you think comedy is helping lift a lot of spirits right now? Or is it best not to look into it that deeply?!

Sara> Comedy can be a break from depression. Even if it’s like a 5 second break.

Finding what’s funny about the hard stuff — there’s comfort in realizing ‘ah, I’m not the only one who feels this way!’. But beyond commiserating together with a laugh, after this past year, I’m hoping comedy will also just help us escape.

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