The O Positive director opens up on virtual production, the ease of using Treatment Bot #808 and how Lebron killed his script
Brian Billow is one of today’s go-to directors for the comedy genre. He spent the first part of his career as an award-winning creative director at DDB Chicago and McCann Erickson NY, working with brand clients such as MasterCard, Budweiser and Wrigley’s, to note a few. He parlayed his experience as a creative into an award-winning directing style characterised by both strong comedic performance and a cinematic visual aesthetic.
An admitted improv junkie - he studied the acting craft at Second City Chicago and New York’s Peoples Improv Theatre - Brian’s work also reflects a sixth sense about timing. His most recent work includes several hilarious commercials with The Martin Agency for Geico, 'Ratt', (guest starring the ‘80s rock band), 'Clogging' (with a real-life clogging family of six) and 'Aunt Infestation' (not your typical household pests), all viral sensations; and a satirical social media campaign called 'Abe and Trump Being Frank' to get out the vote, which generated more than three million views on TikTok.
Brian also directed the award-winning commercial stunt 'CappuChinos' for Dunkin’ via BBDO New York. The entertaining film plays on words and those very handy, very large chino pants pockets by depicting relatable folks enjoying Dunkin’ beverages on the go.
Along with these comedic favorites, Brian recently directed a more serious anti-bullying PSA for BBDO and Monica Lewinsky - #DefyTheName, which won a Silver and Bronze Cannes Lion, along with One Show, ADC, D&AD, AICP, LIA and Webby Awards. It features a cross-section of high-profile people like Questlove, Alan Cumming, Maysoon Zayid and John Oliver who were bullied when they were younger but didn’t let it define who they became.
Other highlights from Brian include campaigns for Netflix and Luvs, and his viral video sensation 'BETH' - a short film parody inspired by the classic KISS rock ballad, which earned rave reviews from media tastemakers ranging from Creativity and Adweek to Vice and Huffington Post. His 'Keep an Open Mouth' for Miracle Whip, which premiered during the GRAMMYs in 2013, was called out as a funny and memorable anthem by the Los Angeles Times, Yahoo! News, Creativity and Adweek.
Brian’s efforts have been acknowledged with a number of other industry awards as well, including One Show and Cannes Lions. He resides between Venice, CA. and Brooklyn, and ping pong is his healthy obsession.
Name: Brian Billow
Location: Venice, CA., USA
Repped by / in: O Positive
Awards: One Show, Webbys, AICP, Cannes Lions, LIA, ADC, D&AD
What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?
Brian Billow > There’s nothing better than receiving a simple script with a singular, clever idea. It’s like opening a new pair of Jordans.
How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?
Brian > Treatment Bot #808 - you simply type in a category - i.e. Automobile, Detergent, Insurance, Erectile Disfunction pills, etc. - and it spits out a written treatment along with glossy photographs. An assistant faxes it the agency and the next thing you know you’re complaining about your room at Shutters. That’s filmmaking.
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?
Brian > I always try to sample the product and its good thing I do because I’ve already saved 15% on my home and auto bundle.
For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?
Brian > A creative decision maker at the ad agency. The best work comes from close collaboration with a creative(s) who actually has some say in approvals of casting choices and of course, the edit. So much changes through production for the better and if you don't have a direct link to getting said changes through approvals then you probably miss a lot of opportunities. A close second would be … the on-set medic.
What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?
Brian > Any genre as long as what we’re making relies on great acting performances. Treatment Bot #808 coined a new phrase: “Casting is Everything”, and who am I to argue with Treatment Bot #808.
What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?
Brian > The misconception that I only shoot comedy / dialogue. It’s infuriating. I wish to also be considered for dialogue / comedy.
Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?
Brian > I find it terribly rude to talk about money.
What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?
Brian > Well, one time, Lebron killed our script the night before the shoot sending me and the creatives into an all-night writing frenzy. The crazy part is, Lebron wasn’t even in the spot to begin with. I just like to show him all my work.
How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?
Brian > As the director I have a sort of 'third party luxury'. I haven’t had to sit through all the briefing meetings, the testing and the changes upon changes that a typical script goes through. I get to approach the scripts fresh, similar to how the viewer is going to receive them. I always try to be the voice of the viewer. All the hell and high-water that an ad has gone through leading up to being seen on air or online really doesn’t matter to them.
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?
Brian > Yes, our industry needs more diversity across the board - film crew, agencies, clients. I’ve been mentoring for the past few years and love it.
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?
Brian > Well shooting remotely from home is not something I want to get very used to. I’m so sick of my sofa, and I’m pretty sure my sofa is sick of me. Other than the testing and masks, on set directing hasn’t changed all that much. I guess it’s not all that bad if my biggest complaint is about my glasses fogging up. And I don't even wear glasses.
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)?
Brian > Well yes, we are always protecting for all of the different aspect ratios but anyone can see that the same action that works in a horizontal (16x9 or 2.35) frame doesn’t work well in a very vertical (9x16) framing. I find it best to take the time and shoot specific content for the vertical format that can be composed properly. I love geometry and composition though, so I could talk about aspect ratios all day. For that reason I’m a lot of fun at cocktail parties.
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)?
Brian > To me, the key with any of this is the final technical product can’t get in the way of the story. If the viewer feels the fabrication, they’re taken out of it. Virtual production has come so far recently. The ability to simulate real locations and realistic lighting is next level. The good news for directors is that no matter how great the fabricated surroundings are getting a good story still relies on believable human performances.
Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best?
- Geico, 'Aunt Infestation'
- Fox WWE, 'Anthem | Friday Night Smackdown'
- Dunkin’, 'Espresso-Wear'
- JBL, 'His House'