Director AJ Colomb: “Comedy Is a Safe Place For Me”
AJ Colomb thought she had to do as everyone else did in her hometown– pick a ‘safe’ career path (law, in her case) and pursue it quietly. The ‘done thing’, however, held no appeal as AJ didn’t see the academic route being right for her; instead, she signed up for a cartoonist course. Fatefully, the course was merged with a filmmaking one, giving her the introduction and the path to what she really loves: directing. The South African-born AJ got her first taste of professional sets at the young age of seventeen as a runner and it wasn’t long until she was making behind the scenes films, assisting directors, and learning all the ropes.
Fast forward to today and London-based AJ is well-known for her comedic work, spanning from the wry to the absurd. In 2017, she won the YDA for the entirely self-made Visit Iceland spot, which spoofs a certain kind of tourist experience with great lightness of hand. Recently signed with Irish production company Banjoman, AJ has a natural affinity for Irish advertising and humour, which has seen local brands clamouring to get her on board. Since joining them she has worked with Tayto, Fruice and most recently, the dairy brand Glenisk. Each of the spots are funny, a little off-the-wall and undeniably Irish.
LBB finds out how this native South African has developed such Irish charm, how she’s keen to bring humour back to advertising, and why deadpan characters capture her attention....
LBB> Tell us a little bit about yourself - how did you get into directing? Was it always a dream you wanted to pursue?
AJ> I had no idea it was a career or a job when I was growing up in South Africa. I wanted to be a lawyer for a bit but I realised that I wasn’t academic. I’ve always really loved cartoons, to the point where I thought I might become a cartoonist. I moved to England as a teenager, and I went to college where they offered a cartoonist course. I think I was the only person to sign up, so they merged it with the filmmaking one and that’s how I got my introduction to it. I knew I loved films, but I didn’t know it was a career path. From that moment at 17 onwards though, film became the thing I was really passionate about in a professional manner.
I then went onto university to study film and joined RSA Films as a runner afterwards. Starting my own creative research company doing treatments followed as a way of funding my own films and pursuing directing.
LBB> Would you describe your path to this point as non-linear?
AJ> Definitely. I thought that I had to do the thing as everyone else, like becoming a lawyer, something I wasn’t good at. I was always good at arts and had an interest in photography too. It all led to filmmaking eventually.
LBB> How long have you been shooting work for Irish brands?
AJ> I did a few things before lockdown started, so counting that I’d say it’s close to 3 years. I’ve been with Banjoman for about 2 years now and it’s starting to pick up as I’m getting lots of great scripts.
LBB> What’s your experience been like working in Ireland - what do you like about the scripts, humour, culture?
AJ> I like that I’m getting scripts that are very character driven. The Irish have a very deadpan sense of humour that I really like. I’m very into the characters that they come up with. There’s a lot of natural humour that comes through in the characters and scripts. The crews are also fantastic to work with, so it’s always a pleasure to shoot out there. The people do make it and I feel a lot of affinity for Irish culture - I have a lot of Irish mates.
LBB> You’re referred to as a comedy director - were you always interested in the comedic genre?
AJ> Definitely! It took me a couple of years to really understand what my passion is and what I enjoy doing. When you first start making films, you want to do the coolest Nike campaigns (which I would still love to do!), the coolest music videos, all this crazy stuff. In a way, that’s easier than doing comedy, but I’ve always loved it - it’s a safe place for me. I then asked myself why I’d never made a comedy film. Once I did the Welcome to Iceland film, it all took off from there. I felt really comfortable building those characters and getting the most from a relatable situation. I definitely want to continue being known as a comedy director alongside exploring things like car and sport commercials, with a comedy edge.
LBB> A lot of brands are currently focusing on big issue ads, but audiences tend to connect with and remember the comedy ones more often. What do you think about it?
AJ> I agree and especially after the time we’ve all had. We all need and want to laugh. Comedy never dies and at the moment there’s probably even more of a craving for it. It does seem that at the moment comedies, outside of the comedy present in blockbusters, just don't get the same kind of budgets or recognition. It doesn’t win Oscars. It should though!
LBB> Tell us about your latest ad for Glenisk - how did it come about? What was the initial brief like and how did you put together a response?
AJ> I thought the brief was very fun and clever while still getting a message across. We wanted to capture the essence of living with someone else and how annoying that overfamiliarity can be. The fun part was using the same actress to play both parts and directing her in those distinct roles. It was a light and lovely project to work on. Everyone was fantastic to work with and they were very open to my opinions, so it felt collaborative as well. The biggest challenge was ensuring the actress was delivering two distinct regional Irish accents for each character, Dublin and West Country - I was on Youtube the night before brushing up on them!
LBB> What has been your favourite ad that you’ve directed so far and why?
AJ> It has to be the Visit Iceland one; I funded it myself, I wrote the whole thing. It was just me, my DP, and producer running around Iceland with two actors from Denmark. I edited it alone, which took a good few months - something I’m proud of. I was chopping it up and throwing bits away, it was a frustrating experience too. I got a lot of advice from fellow directors to help me. I had been making videos and music videos in the past and I felt like it wasn’t quite coming together for me, so I said to myself that this was the last thing I would really go for. If this doesn’t work out, I’m not meant to be a director. After I finished the ad, I was signed, and I won the Young Director’s Award for that category.
LBB> Where do you find inspiration? Any particular creative heroes you look up to?
AJ> My dad has to be one of them. I grew up watching Fawlty Towers and a lot of older British comedy thanks to him, which I just absolutely love. I reference it quite a bit in the treatments and characters I create. John Cleese is on the list of inspirations; Edgar Wright, Ricky Gervais, Dawn French are on the list. A lot of my humour comes from watching them and I like to push the boundaries of comedy, I like the darker side of it. David Fincher is probably my overall favourite director. I’m very drawn to character-driven stories, you could say I’m a little bit obsessive about characters and the directors that do them really well.
LBB> What’s next on the horizon for you?
AJ> I have three commercials lined up in the next couple of weeks. I’m concentrating on my commercial career quite a bit at the moment. I genuinely really like them - watching and making!
LBB> Tell us about a dream project you would love to work on.
AJ> A fantastic comedy with a really solid cast of actors would be the dream; though I’d love to make something epic like Kingpin! I do love 90s comedy classics. I’ve also been writing a feature script about my upbringing in South Africa, set during the apartheid and dealing with my uncle’s coming out in the AIDS epidemic. I would definitely love to create work addressing South Africa and its history.