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Sit-down with a Director: Jorma Taccone on AT&T's 'It's Not Complicated'

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Director Jorma Taccone
Director Jorma Taccone
Jorma Taccone is best known for his comedy--whether he's behind the camera, or in front of it. He's one-third of the comedy troupe Lonely Island, out of which he's written, performed in and directed a number of segments for Saturday Night Live. He brought laughs to the big screen and small--he directed the co-wrote the 2010 film "MacGruber," and, more recently, he appeared as Booth, aka the artist guy Marnie dated, in the HBO series "Girls." Mr. Taccone also directs commercials, out of Caviar, and is behind the much-buzzed about "It's Not Complicated" campaign out of BBDO Atlanta, featuring a group of highly imaginative kids who turn what could be very boring mobile provider attributes into a whole lot of fun--with the help of a hilarious straight man, played by actor Beck Bennett.

Creativity got the low-down from Mr. Taccone on what it takes to reap comedy gold from kids' imaginative minds.

Creativity: How did you get involved in this campaign?
Jorma Taccone: I've been working with AT&T kids for over a year now. It started with a series of online/TV spots for 2012's March Madness. The campaign [out of BBDO New York] was called "Brackets by 6-year-olds" and it was Beck interviewing kids, collecting their picks of favorite teams to win the NCAA tournament. We got over 400 mini spots out of it online and bunch for the Final Four.

Creativity: When you first saw the idea for the campaign, what were your thoughts on how to approach it? What sorts of challenges did you foresee?
Mr. Taccone: I thought, "Oh man, this is going to be fun and crazy." The "Brackets" campaign needed literally hundreds of clips, but the improv style set the tone for all future spots. There were no scripts, just questions we made up to get the kids talking. We tried to be as imaginative as possible in order to get weird, natural responses out of kids, which wasn't too hard. The group we hired was super talkative, if anything it was harder to get them to stick to a subject than be creative. Getting kids to focus and the sheer volume of spots was my main concern. "It's Not Complicated" started out with a few scripts but more as a guideline for improv bits which we quickly got into, once basic scripts were covered. Improv-ing is when everything genuinely good and inspired comes out. For both the kids and Beck.

Creativity: What was the casting process like? Stephen McNemmany, the CD at BBDO Atlanta mentioned that you guys had worked with Beck Bennett previously on AT&T work.
Mr. Taccone: As soon as we saw Beck for "Brackets" I knew immediately knew he was our guy. Then, in true commercial world form, we saw another 300 dudes and went back to our guy. For "Not Complicated" it was a no brainer.

Creativity: What were the main challenges in casting the kids?

Mr. Taccone: Casting kids always takes quite a chunk of time. We saw 500 kids this last go round and hired about 80. We shoot four groups of four per day, as the kids get exhausted talking about the same subject for too long--so do Beck and I so the spots usually get weirder by then end of the day. We basically look for kids with the craziest imaginations who love to talk. I try to get a couple overly talkative kids in each group and two others that are open and attentive but not necessarily as big energy so things don't go off the rails. If a kid is really nutty but can't follow instructions it's sometimes not worth it to hire them--though it usually is. It's also hard to tell if kid is just energetic on the day of the audition because their friend is in the group or they had a great soccer game so we try to switch things up in call-backs. You always have groups of kids that don't quite work out however, just based on how you paired them or because its after lunch and their blood sugar is low.

Creativity: Overall, what were the biggest challenges of directing this campaign?
Mr. Taccone: Getting the kids to sit still is always a challenge. We're shooting OTS [over the shoulder] so they're often getting into each others shots. Getting them to remain on track or avoiding saying things like, "And then you kill all bad guys and they die!" is also hard with some. It's a lot of thinking on your feet too as you are constantly trying to edit in your head, listening to the conversation and trying to add dialogue which will make sense out of the amazing thing a kid just said and have it make sense in a logical way. The creatives Jason [Miller] and Roryi [Odani] from BBDO have been great with helping me do that too. Stamina is also tough. We shoot non-stop all day and both Beck and I get exhausted. I usually throw in weird dance takes or odd musical bits on occasion just to wake us up.

Creativity: When it comes to improvisational work, what are the keys to getting great performances, and the right performances from the talent? How does working on these spots differ from other types of improvisational work you've directed?
Mr. Taccone: All the spots are "guided" improv so I try to let the conversation occur naturally and redirect when things go sideways, which can happen quickly. I've found it's best to let things go a bit weird before butting in as you never know what crazy gems will come up. If a group is low energy or too all over the place, I'll step in more and improv with Beck through the kids, feeding them lines until something sparks. It's always best when it comes from the kid though. It's not that different from improv with adults only what they say tends to be much more surprising. The biggest challenge is to get them to say different things as the subject matter is always the same.

Creativity: What did the actor, Beck Bennett, bring to the table? Had you ever worked with him before AT&T?
Mr. Taccone: Beck is "the jam." He's incredibly funny and awesome with kids. He also has his own show online called "Fresh Perspectives" which is him doing the exact same thing with kids only taking about messed political issues of the day and is super funny. I'm big fan of that and his three-man comedy group Good Neighbor, with Kyle Mooney and Nick. My group, The Lonely Island started in the exact same way as those guys and we have very similar senses of humor so we get along great. We are all friends now and I hope to work together with those jerk-offs in the future.

Creativity: Directing improv versus sticking to the script--which do you prefer--how does your mindset change for each?
Mr. Taccone: Improv all the way. It's great to have a structure so you know the beats you have to hit but all the "magic" is from improv.

Creativity: Any interesting anecdotes from the shoots that weren't captured on film?
Mr. Taccone: Oh, we capture everything. Once a group sits in, we're rolling. There is actually something I freestyled in the first round of the campaign where I shot the kids in slow motion dancing to a rap song. It's really funny and weird and plays with the format a little which I love. I also think people would dig it on the internet. I say this in the hopes you will print it and force the issue. I also made a spot where the kids are dancing to the Lori Anderson song "O, Superman" which is super weird.

Creativity: What, if anything, has this campaign taught you about directing?
Mr. Taccone: More than anything it made me want to be father. Kids are incredible. Just astoundingly rad and wonderful. That's more about life than directing.

Creativity: Which of the spots is your favorite, and why?
Mr. Taccone: The rap song one because everyone I've played it for really laughs hard and the song rules. I also love "Laser Boy," "Dizzy" and "Werewolf." There will be more soon.

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