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The Directors: Ben/Dave



Community Films' Ben Hurst and Dave Thomas on their comedy work and an unfortunate incident involving a donkey

The Directors: Ben/Dave

Ben Hurst and Dave Thomas have been directing comedy commercials together since 2009. Some have suggested the duo's professional moniker 'Ben/Dave' contains veiled references to their first names 'Ben' and 'Dave', but it seems silly to read too much into that stuff.

They have worked on campaigns for Chrysler, Progressive, Pepsi, Toyota, Samsung, Subway, Intel, Shiner, Holiday Inn Express, Johnsonville, Cox Communication and many others. Their work has been honored at Cannes and featured in the New York Times. One time, the duo shared a white couch with Olivia Newton-John.

Name: Ben/Dave

Location: Los Angeles, USA

Repped by/in: Community Films (Los Angeles); Partners Film (Toronto); Bollywood (Paris)

Awards: Multiple Cannes awards and shortlists

LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?

Dave> I like scripts that aren’t overwritten, especially in terms of specific 'jokey' dialogue. It seems like the funniest things don’t necessarily read as funny on the page. Scripts need to have room to breathe so you and the actors (and prop makers and make-up artists and wardrobe stylists) can find those unexpected moments and elements that make a spot memorable.

Besides that, I actually like when there’s a clear connection between the creative material and the brand message. Not because I’m weirdly in love with marketing (although I did spend 13 years as an agency writer/CD), but you need some kind of logical connection to make the story work. Too many scripts neglect that. You have a joke and then a logo shows up and you’re not sure how they relate to each other and things fall flat. It’s just looking at the script the way an uninitiated viewer would and imagining what works and what doesn’t.

Ben> Originality and something with a simple concept. One of the first spots I ever made was for Mrs. Fields cookies. It was a Girl Scout sitting on a park bench crying and the tag line was “Mrs. Fields, America’s Favorite Cookies.” I made it for no money so it didn’t look great but the concept was so sharp it didn’t have to and I got more work because of it. I get excited when I see a script that’s perfect as is. It makes the pitch harder because there’s nothing more to add or expand upon. Those scripts are few and far between.

LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?

Dave> First we try to figure out if the mechanics of the story and comedy work. Sometimes there are structural problems that make things confusing or hinder the comedy. But if the bones are good, it’s all about trying to deliver a clear vision for how we see that spot. For most projects, we like to pitch and shoot lots of ALTs. The best magic seems to happen on the day, but it’s always best to go in loaded with options to try.

Ben and I operate as a fairly typical creative team. I usually write and he heads up visuals. But before any of that we’ll go back and forth for a while with ideas and figuring out the approach. Some directors complain about treatments, but since we are technically two different people we wouldn’t be able to direct a shoot together without going through that process. 

Personally, my biggest challenge is being too wordy. Big blocks of descriptive text are hard to read and digest. Sometimes there’s no other way to communicate something, but I definitely tend to write too much and I hate it and I’m trying to be a better word killer.

Ben> Dave usually does the writing and I’ll do the visuals, so if the script is great and right up our alley I’ll know exactly what references or images to go hunting for. Otherwise I start looking for a single image that best sums up the idea to be used on the cover page. This is usually futile because what I’m looking for doesn’t exist yet but sometimes we get close. A lot of times I’m just trying to find the perfect facial expression for a specific moment in the script. Sometimes I find it, most times I don’t.

LBB> If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with/ don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?

Dave> It’s probably possible to make a good spot for a client or business you know nothing about, since ideally all the essentials are in the script. But you should be curious about everything. You should know why they bought this script, and what scripts they didn’t buy, and why. You should know how this work fits in with past work, or how it departs from previous stuff. There may be some random detail in the branding or the company’s story that sparks some new idea. 

You never know. So we try to dig in to everything we can find online. Plus at some point you’ll be talking to the client so it’s just good PR to know shit about their business. 

Ben> Dave probably does more research than I do. He comes from an ad background and thinks more about the strategy and context. He can tear apart a script if the messaging isn’t clear or if he thinks the concept doesn’t support the message. I’m more preoccupied with the script being funny from the first read. Admittedly I usually don’t care if the messaging is missing the mark. Although there are times when we get a script and I still don’t get what the message is even when we’re shooting it. Money talks, I guess.

LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?

Dave> Well for us as a directing team, our dynamics with each other are fairly mission critical. The big danger with a team is not speaking with a unified POV on set, so we work hard to be aligned or things get fucky fast.

Besides that, producers are the most important. Lots of directors rely on their producers as (often unsung) creative partners and sounding boards. Ben and I have each other for that, but we still need the right producer to help us make things happen. And on set, the 1st AD is our lifeline. They have to be the right kind of personality. Someone who manages everything but is still fun to be with and doesn’t introduce their own tension into the mix.

Ben> Having a line producer who will say yes to everything we want is of utmost importance. With shrinking budgets it’s nice to have someone in our corner who can figure out how to get what we need to make a spot the best it can be.

LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?

Dave> Anything with a smart or unexpected idea. But for me, it’s really mostly comedy I’m looking for. I think humour is the hardest and most rewarding thing to pull off. Nobody wants to watch a commercial, but nobody minds watching a quick film that makes them giggle.

I’m definitely not drawn to 'lifestyle' sorts of projects. Earnestness and 'authentic' emotion are hard things for me to embrace in a commercial—it feels contradictory to the underlying fact that someone is trying to sell you something. And even though I love design and graphics, that’s not where my skills or experience lie so I don’t fantasise about making that sort of work.

Ben> Definitely comedy. We’ve tried our hand at sappy, lens flare-y lifestyle stuff but it’s never felt honest because, at the end of the day we’re still just trying to sell something, so it feels artificial. Some directors do that stuff really well because they’re able to make the story feel more important than the product. For me comedy is the best way to advertise almost anything. I’m mostly interested in making people laugh.

LBB> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?

Dave> Sometimes I sense that people - clients maybe - are surprised at how much fun we seem to have on set. We’re serious about what we’re doing, but we don’t believe in stomping around like overheated blowhards. We like to keep things light and good-natured. Maybe that can look like we’re not taking things seriously? I guess I don’t really know for sure. But angry little dudes with fat egos have been in charge of too many things for too long, so nuts to that stuff.

LBB> Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?

Dave> Cost consultants definitely seem like the new norm. In a way it doesn’t affect us too much, since we’re always working with budget and resource limitations. What can be annoying about consultants is that there’s this one person deciding what’s important to a job and how much it should cost, and their decisions can seem arbitrary and misguided. The apparent cost of things is not always the actual cost. If you cut too much here or there you might hamstring yourself on the day and be less efficient and go over, or just not have what you need to do a good job, thereby squandering all the money you did spend. 

That said, we have worked with consultants who seem to get all that, and they can sometimes actually help make the case to clients/agency for putting money into smart things like a second camera or whatever. 

LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?

Dave> Probably not that crazy but we once had a live donkey spraying gallons of diarrhea all over the living room of the house we were shooting in. Our solution was to be deeply sad and to wish it wasn’t happening. 

Ben> That donkey was a ball of nerves and all it wanted to do was get out of the house. We realised that it could hear the backup donkey braying outside, so eventually we just brought the backup donkey inside. This was after the donkey had already taken a poo all over the floor of an elderly couple’s living room.

Another time we were in Austin shooting 14 spots in five days — each one different from the other, in the hottest week ever recorded in Austin history. We had an amazing production designer who was able to pull off some incredible gags with not very much time. This is still one of my favourite jobs.

LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?

Dave> Since we’re a duo we tend to be super collaborate-y by nature—and I think that spills over to working with agency creatives. I’m generally a fan of collaboration. Even if you already have the 'best' idea, running it through the gauntlet of other opinions can refine it or make it sharper. 

I do think the best work feels personal and specific, like it could only have come from one particular person. That’s a hard thing to put your finger on, but that feeling of a specific POV is what we’re trying to protect. Collaboration not managed well can have the effect of grinding off those interesting angles and making things feel more like everything else out there. So we try to figure out what specifically are the magic elements of a scene or a particular take, or a prop or piece of wardrobe or whatever, and get people on board with what makes it important. And we never, ever fail! (jk)

Ben> It’s unusual when we’re not aligned with the agency and client throughout the course of a production. Ultimately we want to make the client happy but there are certainly times where a gentle nudging is in order.

LBB> What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?

Dave> It’s so important. Overwhelming whiteness is a huge issue throughout every corner of advertising and film production. As two white dudes, we’ve obviously benefitted from that state of affairs. So we’re super keen to make on-set mentoring for people who don’t look like us a fixture. We push hard to get women and people of color in lead roles like DoP, production designer, and first AD, etc. It can be tough to sometimes pass over talented people who don’t tick those boxes. But this stuff hasn’t changed for generations, and it won’t change without us making some deliberate choices with the opportunities we have to offer.

Ben> We are always open to diversity. We’re actively looking for diverse DPs, production designers, etc. And yes, we would absolutely offer mentoring and apprenticeships.

LBB> How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time? 

Dave> It’s not ideal to scout locations and cast remotely. But for lots of projects, some level of remoteness isn’t necessarily a kiss of death. And reducing the additional travel time for some of those things has helped us work more, or just more efficiently, or just be home more. But I think we’ll be eager to always do everything in person when we can again.

I hope agency/client people can come back to set soon. You’d think it would be easier to not have them around, but it can actually be harder to get everyone on board when they’re all at home staring at (or not staring at) a dodgy video feed on their laptops.

It seems like masks are going to be a fixture for a while. I miss hugs, but I hope handshakes go away forever.

Ben> Remote casting has gotten to a place that makes me wonder if there’s a need for in-person casting. It depends on the project because most of the time we like to be in the same room as the actors if there’s something specific we’re looking for or if we’re casting what could be a long term spokesman role or something, but for spots that don’t require a lot of an actor or if we’re just looking for a great face, it saves having to travel those extra days for a casting session, which means more time with the fam.

LBB> Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)? 

Dave> There’s no reason you can’t make an interesting film in, say, a vertical format. But you really can’t do that well if you’re taking something you shot for widescreen and then just try to cram it into a vertical or square shape. If agencies want things that work for vertical, they should be creating bespoke concepts for that purpose. But they probably won’t because it’s more costly and stuff.

Besides that, I think a good piece of film can often work on any size screen. I’ve had amazing experiences watching feature films on my laptop, or even my phone. Some things can suffer on a tiny screen, but most of our spots seems to play fine even on dinky screens. Maybe because we make mostly simple, silly stuff, but that’s ok with me.  

Ben> It’s getting better but it used to be that we’d arrive on set and the agency producer would tell us we have to protect for a vertical or square format — it’s usually an afterthought. So we really like when ideas are specifically conceptualized for vertical or square presentation, those things can be really fun to make.

LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work (e.g. virtual production, interactive storytelling, AI/data-driven visuals etc)?

Dave> I’m not personally a gear-head or much focused on technology. I’m glad that there are people pushing those things forward—especially for video game development—but I’m not personally inspired by it. I like performances and funny moments. I don’t think the basic building blocks of stories—especially comedy stories—are going to change much.

Ben> We haven’t done virtual production yet and we likely won’t. I personally like to be on set standing as close to the camera as possible, interacting with the talent and crew. It’s what I like most about this job. As far as interactive storytelling and AI, we’ll consider those opportunities if they ever come knocking. They haven’t yet. For the time being we’re happing telling simple little 30 second stories. 

LBB> Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?

1. Cheetos

An example of a script that was just sort of cute on the page, but then got hilarious thanks to finding just the right actor for the dad part. Even the last line shouldn’t be that funny, but the way he delivers it just kills.

2. Shiner Wild Hare

Early on in our partnership we used to do a lot more ourselves. Ben would shoot and edit. I’d write jokes and even score music sometimes. This campaign was done for no money and we had to bring all our skills to bear. We got lucky again with a perfect actor, not to mention the perfect disembodied prop hand to do all the on-camera beer management. (The hand is Ben’s.)

3. Progressive Supermarket

We’ve been making these since 2013. The agency and client have been really loyal to us, and keep coming back with great new takes on the same theme. On these jobs we shoot tons and tons of ALTs. Some of the scripts include fun visual tricks to let a mom hoist this grown man around like a tiny baby, but most of the laughs come from his performance. 

4. Bud

Although only one of us actually drinks beer, this project was dear to our hearts as we both grew up in Utah. It’s traditionally a teetotaler state, so it was fun to combine a character that felt true to that local culture with a story about booze. We were stoked that locals really responded to it, even those who don’t imbibe.

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Community Films, Tue, 06 Apr 2021 10:56:00 GMT