Director Brendan Gibbons is one of the industry’s most renowned comedy directors. His ongoing work for Progressive Insurance has built a series of established characters and, here, he discusses the processes involved in creating the right environment for comedy gold.
Q> When you do auditions with actors, what qualities win you over and what are a red flag?
Brendan Gibbons> What’s great is when an actor can reveal what’s going on behind his or her eyes despite what the character is trying to show the world. This lets viewers close the gap and get the joke on their own. On the other hand, a red flag for me is when I feel the acting. Here’s an example – there’s an awkward situation in the scene and a character exits to avoid the awkwardness.
Jason Alexander was amazing at this in Seinfeld. He would do a little point and pause then go. This move felt real for George Costanza. But it also became a popular go-to, and when I see actors do it in casting, it makes me cringe. That move doesn’t feel authentic; it feels like a choice to copy George Costanza. If it’s an awkward moment and you’re supposed to leave, just leave. Exits are funny. Especially if you trip.
Q> Having open communication and rapport with actors seems fundamental to getting great performances; can you share any tips about establishing that rapport?
BG> Commercial sets can be tense. I want the actors to be relaxed and in a mental place where they feel like they can create something, not in a stressful place where people are worried about the schedule or the gardeners mowing the lawn across the street or whatever concern just popped up in video village. So, I try to create a little bubble around the actors where they know it’s safe for them to be artists.
That word feels highfalutin when you’re talking about a TV commercial. But it’s not. We are making pop culture. We have a huge responsibility not to poison the world with bad advertising. So, I’ll let them know that they’re there because they’re really good at what they do. And that we’re all super lucky to be there together doing what we feel we’re supposed to be doing on this earth. That’s even more highfalutin, but it’s true.
It’s damn cool that we get to do this, and I want the actors to start the day with that appreciation. Then I’ll give them each a backstory. A character in a long-form piece has a backstory. Why wouldn’t a character in a 30-second commercial? This is where those vulnerabilities come from. If that doesn’t work, I’ll make fun of them.
Q> What sort of environment do you encourage/foster with actors on set or during rehearsals that lends itself to improv (beyond what’s scripted)? For example, do you encourage them to keep going if they flub lines?
BG> The most important thing is getting to a flow state. Improv isn’t sitting back and letting the actors ad lib. I’m involved in what’s happening as it’s unfolding, feeling the rhythm of the scene and pushing the performances in whatever direction that rhythm needs to go. I don’t like to over rehearse. I want to understand the timings and the structure before we roll, but I don’t want the actors to lose their spontaneity by over doing it.
With this in mind, there are no flub lines. There’s a vibe and there are moments we’re going for. And at the end of the day, only one take of everything we do will make it to the final edit. Who’s to say the magic take of that particular part of the script isn’t the one that the actor got ‘wrong’ on the day? Unless they suddenly break character trying to be funny. That’s childish and selfish. And I’d prefer they leave that to me.
Read the full Q&A HERE.
Watch Brendan’s work HERE.