Sweetshop director James Haworth talks the art of comedy, Russian hi-jinks and the virtues of ‘Nordic walking’.
Comedy director James Haworth is best known for his talent for finding the funny in everyday situations and ordinary people. Contrary to common advice, he’s repeatedly worked with children in his commercials and occasionally even with animals. It seems he has a knack for coaxing natural performances out of people, despite often placing them in the zaniest of situations. Apparently, he’s a natural, plying his craft for Circle Productions in Canada and Sweetshop everywhere else in the world.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with James to find out what sort of person it takes to create so many chuckle-worthy spots.
Do you remember the moment you first picked up a camera and thought, ‘this is what I want to do with my life’? Was filmmaking an obsession from childhood or was it something that evolved over time?
Professionally speaking, I took a slightly roundabout route into directing, starting out as a producer first. The problem though, was that I couldn’t add up or work out percentages, so directing seemed the natural thing to do if I wanted to remain in the industry for longer than a week. Even as a producer I was a keen photographer and loved to make people laugh. That has always been with me and you only have to look at photographs of me as a toddler to see my mother smiling, and my father crying with laughter; so comedy was something that came naturally and I was drawn to.
How did you get your start working in commercial production?
I landed a job as a trainee producer at Ogilvy & Mather in London, working with the amazing and inimitable Head of Broadcast at the time, Peter Harrison – thank you Peter!
You’re most well-known for your comedy spots – and I’ve heard so many filmmakers say that comedy is the hardest thing to do and get right. Are you some kind of masochist?!
Ha! Not exactly. You have to choose your scripts carefully. Comedy is subjective, and a script that is funny in one market doesn’t necessarily translate to another, so like any great comedian you have to know your audience.
And talking of comedy, I’ve also heard the theory that the more fun you have on set the less fun you see on screen. What are your thoughts about that?
I don’t think a set has to be unhappy to make a funny ad. I’m not sure people work at their best when they’re unhappy. It is true to say though that something that makes you laugh on set won’t necessarily make you laugh in the edit.
A lot of comedy is about timing and I find it’s often the ‘dead’ moments where nothing appears to be happening on set that I gravitate towards in the edit. Dwelling on those cringe-worthy awkward moments can elevate the humour in certain instances. For instance, I’ve just completed a campaign for a global firm of tax accountants. In one film, there is a shot where a spokesperson simply stares at camera for an uncomfortable amount of time. It completely stalls the edit. As you watch the film you naturally think ‘cut to the next shot now please’, but we don’t. And that renders things funny because it’s just so properly awkward. Oh, there was also a carnivorous plant chomping on her hair at the time and this probably helped raise a smile as you feel so much comedic empathy for the poor woman.
For performance comedy, casting is key. What’s your approach to casting?
I tend to gravitate towards working with comedians because they understand comedic timing, they get that what’s not said is often as funny as what is, and most can ad-lib which is useful. I’ll always shoot the script, but then also always off-road a bit. It’s amazing just how much stuff that comes out on the day ends up in a cut.
For proper laughs, you have to work a bit freely. It seems to me that if you want funny, you surround yourself with people that understand funny. So that’s how it’s done. Employ comedians, sometimes setting them alongside real people to bounce off, then just stand back and take the credit for their greatness.
You do a lot of work in the US and Canada as well as the UK – are the differences in humour really as great as everyone says?
I’m very lucky to work as much as I do in those markets. They have really talented creatives who come up with great ideas. In terms of the differences, I genuinely think that we’ve reached a bit of a level playing field for the most part. The differences are not as big as they once were. Of course, every script is different, but I like the dry, underplayed stuff. I also love odd comedy; any opportunity to go left-of-centre gets me as excited as a teenager who has just discovered the internet. My job is to guide the clients, and give them the confidence to not over-egg the pudding. Fear can kill comedy and that is universal.
I loved your Sun ‘Wobbly Tooth’ spot. The close-ups are quite convincing. How did you do that?
I had his tooth removed in the make-up truck just before we shot. I think it only hurt a little bit. But don’t worry, it was glued back in again when the cut was approved by the client and we gave him some chocolate for his trouble.
What’s been the craziest shoot you’ve ever been on?
They’re all a bit crazy – I guess that’s the nature of creating films for laughs. But there is one that stands out above the rest. And that was a shoot in Latvia for the Russian market where there was a run-in with the Russian embassy and my producer was assaulted because he wouldn’t play the lead in the ad (he’d been a stand-in in casting). One shot involved re-phasing the traffic lights in Riga to create a traffic jam, just like The Italian Job, which we did – or I thought we did until I discovered the service company was using PAs in cars to not move when the lights turned green because it was cheaper than talking to the council.
When we got to the skyscraper that we were going to shoot this from, the caretaker was found halfway up the building (47th-ish floors) on an access ladder swigging vodka and threatening to jump.
Luckily, we talked him down and got the shot. I think the producer promised to let him look through the camera and the thought of being able to do that made him change his mind. I always like to think that not only did we save his life, but that he’s now an accomplished director.
I genuinely think ‘what the fuck are we doing?’ so often and I think that thought is probably why I love making the type of commercials I do so much – I simply find myself in properly ridiculous situations almost constantly, and that’s a huge draw because you only have one, right? Life, I mean.
As a director what’s the most frustrating thing about your job?
The fear that can develop in some clients on a shoot.
And the most exciting?
The fear that can develop in some clients on a shoot.
Who are your creative heroes and why?
@Lookatthisrussian on Instagram.
Your dog features heavily on your Instagramfeed. Is she a big inspiration? And is it true you have a soft spot for chickens?
Ah, Wilma the Boston Terror. She comes everywhere with me – in fact I’ve had agencies ask if I can bring her to meetings, which I do in case it helps me win a job. She’s usually quite pissed off though, and sits in a chair at the table snorting and glaring. She’s constantly unimpressed because she loves bathing and would rather be doing that. My chickens are dead – a fox ate them. I don’t want to talk about it.
What do you get up to outside of work? How do you refuel your creativity?
‘Nordic Walking’ which is basically cross-country skiing without the skis. I travel such a lot and it’s a great way to see the world and keep fit. The downside is that I get laughed at constantly. I was ‘Nordic Walking’ past a café the other day and a woman stood up, pointed at me and started laughing. I swear that the coffee she was enjoying came down her nose. I did get my foot stuck in the drain as I was walking past the Sydney Opera House though, which added to the hilarity.
This seemingly mad marching all around the globe is where I have my best ideas – you see so many strange and wonderful things simply by being out in the world that they inspire you, and that particular day I had a treatment to write so I went for a ‘Nordic’ to clear my head.
This interview was written by Alex Reeves and published in Little Black Book on 25 July 2017.