From the Ted Lasso set, the masterful comedy director tells LBB’s Alex Reeves about signing to Merman, what he misses about shows like Father Ted and what he admires about one baker turned film star
Declan Lowney is behind some of the most beloved comedy moments of the past three decades, having directed some of the UK’s best-loved TV comedies and commercials, from the cult hit of Father Ted to mainstream favourites like Little Britain and Cold Feet. He has won two BAFTAs and six BAFTA nominations for comedy direction over his career as well as two of his shows winning International Emmys.
His commercial work covers a breadth of brands including BT, Halifax, Santander, Sky and the AA. And how could we forget his Warburtons bread campaign, which has featured performances from Sylvester Stallone, The Muppets, Peter Kay, Robert De Niro and most recently George Clooney.
Most recently, he’s been finishing up production on season two of Ted Lasso, which drops on Apple TV+ in late July. After the long (but worthwhile) slog of producing and directing Jason Sudeikis’ charming football-based sitcom, he’s keen to get back to a snappy commercial shoot. And having just signed to the Merman roster for UK representation, he’s set to get that ball rolling. LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with him (and his producer of 17 years Simon Monhemius) over a video call from the Ted Lasso studio.
LBB> You’re currently working on Ted Lasso for Apple TV+. What’s that experience been like?
Declan> I did a few episodes of the first season, and then Jason asked me to come back and be across the second season as a producer and I've directed four of the episodes this season as well. So we're literally 12 days from finishing. It's been a long old haul. It is a big commitment.
It's interesting, I've been a producer-director so I am part of hiring the other directors, and then I'm keeping an eye on them, making sure they're not doing anything mad. If they get into trouble I'm there to help them out. The schedule is quite demanding, so they'll miss scenes and dropped scenes, so I come in afterwards and pick up those pieces as well as doing my own episodes.
It's just fantastic to watch other directors working. As a director, that's not something we get to do. It's been an inspiration. We're all so different, every director has a completely different approach and it's fascinating to watch that process.
LBB> You’ve just signed to Merman, which makes a lot of sense considering their comedy pedigree. How are you feeling about that?
Declan> And it's run by mythological creatures, which seemed like a really good reason to get involved with them. Sharon [Horgan]'s a real comedy force, and there isn't another commercials-making comedy person like her, so to be part of that is fantastic for someone like me.
LBB> What sort of scripts do you love to see?
Declan> When someone calls me and says they've got a comedy script I get excited because I love reading stuff, especially stuff that's funny. The anticipation is huge and the expectation can be huge. Sometimes I'm disappointed because it just doesn't work. Every now and then you go, "fuck me, that's a fantastic idea". Case in point: when the first Warburtons script came in. The notion of Hollywood stars pitching a movie idea to the head of a bakery was just such an outlandish and silly idea but I could see that working.
The Bank of Antandec for Santander. That was such a smart idea. So when I get a script like that I just get super excited.
There are scripts that are already really funny on the page. But when you get to meet [the creatives], if you sense that there's a willingness to cooperate or collaborate to play with the idea then that really excites me.
Working with all these American writers, you see that it never stops. On the floor, even as Jason's performing, he's thinking of other ways of doing it. End lines - alts, alts, alts, shoot a different line. So much of comedy only gets made through going "that's a funnier delivery", or "that one feels a little off at the end". It is evolving, and it's unlike traditional commercial making in that respect.
Making commercials can be very prescriptive and I think it has to be because somebody wants to know what they're getting before they commit. But with comedy, there's got to be a bit of room for manoeuvre. Our imperative is always to shoot the script, but I always think when I meet writers and creative directors, is there a sense that they will want to collaborate? Will they let us play with this a bit, because I think that's where you start to make the comedy happen.
If you're directing a TV drama and your leading actors are going "hey I've got a more dramatic idea for the end line - how about this?" You can't do that in drama. But in comedy, the whole point is to make them laugh. So if you can make them laugh and keep it on point and keep it on story then you're in a very happy place.
LBB> When you get a script in that excites you, how do you approach writing the treatment?
Declan> I think if you don't get the idea, then you don't get the job. You write the treatment that gets you the job because you know what you're talking about, you know what they want, and you understand it. Each one is different.
I love it when I get the idea and it just immediately speaks to you and you just know you can write a few thousand words about it that kind of make sense. Treatment writing is all about tuning in to the creatives. It's your way of showing them that you understand what their idea is. It's tough being a creative isn't it? You've got these directors coming in and dazzling you with all this stuff but, which of them really understands it? I think the treatment is your way of explaining to the creatives that you understand where they're coming from.
LBB> As a director, who are your most important collaborators?
Declan> I think it is the writers. The words are the thing, so working closely with the writers. Some creatives don't necessarily want that proximity, but some of them are wide open for it. I think with the creative director and the creatives, knowing that you are all on the same page is crucial.
Also having a relationship with the client. Jonathan Warburton is a really nice man, and over the commercials we've done now we've gotten to know each other a bit. There's trust there. Sometimes he doesn't like what I ask him to do but he'll do it.
The same goes for Martin Thatcher - we did Thatchers Cider for a few years. To be able to talk to the client and explain how you're going to treat their story and to promote their brand, I think that that's another important relationship.
LBB> It's interesting that you've named both of those clients as well. They're both people with their names to their brands - family businesses.
Declan> Yeah, they’re very underlined aren't they? With Jonathan there's a lot riding on his performance in the commercials. So feeling you're in good hands is important.
LBB> What’s the most fun you've ever had on set?
Declan Thinking about commercials, the Peter Kay Warburton's spot was a four-day comedy masterclass. It was like being at one of his shows, on the side of the stage watching him. Peter did the script but then he did 100 other things as well, and each one was different. I don't know if he even knew what was going to come out of his mouth sometimes. That was a very, very funny experience.
I like to have a laugh on the shoot, and I think especially comedy shoots, if people aren't having fun there's something not quite right there. An air of lightness is important on the set for comedians to be able to give what they give, for them to feel they can play around and try different things. A set where everything is very serious, sober and straight isn't where you'll find me.
LBB> When people are having too much fun that might make a producer anxious sometimes!
Declan> Well Simon's used to it! Once the work is getting done and you're getting what you need, but I think you're more likely to have a good comedy result when people have a good time.
Simon> I think we know we're on track when all the crew laughs so much you spoil a take, you know that you know you're kind of hitting a sweet spot then.
LBB> You’ve got a massive, impressive body of work to your name. Is there anything that you don't get the chance to do as much as you'd like to as a director?
Declan> I did a lot of live TV and some of my earlier comedies were multi-camera studio sitcoms like Father Ted. And that's a very different sort of discipline. Because you do multiple takes sometimes, but there was a sense of putting on a show and being live. That's quite a buzz that you don't have shooting single-camera comedy without an audience. It's hearing the response, hearing the laughter and knowing when jokes are landing. When you're shooting a multi-camera sitcom, the visual mixer is cutting the cameras and the audience, even though they're watching the show on the floor, are mainly watching monitors. So when you cut to reaction shots dictates when they laugh. And you can tell sometimes that you've just been a half second late or a second early. The science of that is fascinating to me - knowing how and when to make people laugh, but that does then inform your approach to shooting single-camera stuff.
Something I don't get to do enough, perhaps, in commercials, I think, is have enough time to play around with comedy - the scripts are more prescriptive, or perhaps clients are more prescriptive in how they want the story told. There isn't enough time to play around with the comedy sometimes to try things different ways.
LBB> Obviously the pandemic has changed a lot of things quite fundamentally, but are there any ways that it's changed the way you work that you think will stick?
Declan> Ted Lasso has been shot under very strict protocol. 96 days shooting and wearing masks all the time is pretty tough, especially in comedy. The actors wear plastic visors that clip around the neck so it doesn't mess up the makeup, so at least you can see their faces. Because at first we were rehearsing with regular masks, and it's impossible to tell what's going on in someone's face when you can't see it all. That's something I won't miss and would like to see the back of.
I guess the ability to do more things remotely has been interesting, not to have to go all over the place to do recces. You send somebody with a camera and you do a live link up and look at them shooting details of a location. That's been very useful.
And casting. I do love going to castings, but to be able to do the first trawl of casting remotely is helpful, but I miss being in there with the actors. Actors can put themselves on tape and that's great but sometimes you want to go "try it like this or like that" and it's hard to do that on tape. We did some casting remotely, where I was actually live in the studio.
Simon> We've done a bit of that and that works quite well. Remote working does actually allow you more involvement, sometimes. It keeps you at arm's length other times, but it's easier just to dip in and out, or you can jump into an edit without having to go into the edit suite.
Declan> And if you can do that two or three times a day, you can get more done in some ways.
Simon> There's times it's great to get everyone together in a room working on something. There's times it doesn't actually move things on very much. Especially if you've got five days to edit a job and the time is quite tight, having six people sitting in a room together for three of those days actually can slow it down rather than speed it up. I think those compressed moments where everybody gets on a call together and talks about something with the editor is actually quite an efficient way of working and it does make you focus on what matters and what doesn't. Having said that, there are other times we do miss the face to face thing for sure.
Declan> And the lunches.
On this show [Ted Lasso] I've been doing quite a bit with the editors who are in LA, so to be able to do a Zoom, there's a third screen which is the monitor in the cutting room for them to cruise through takes with us. That's a facility we've never had before. So, yeah, some benefits.
LBB> And what are you most excited about right now or in the future?
Declan> Not shooting every single day for weeks and weeks and weeks. Shooting something short like shooting only 30 seconds or a minute will actually be a joy. Long form is fantastic and I love it. And the thing is, everybody who's in TV wants to make adverts, everybody in adverts wants to make TV. Let's just swap over for a day once a month or something.