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Sit-down with a Super Bowl Director: Tom Kuntz on VW's 'Get Happy' Ad

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In a special Super Bowl interview series, Creativity talks to the directors behind some of the game's winning spots. This time, it's Tom Kuntz, the director of VW's "Get Happy" ad. He follows an interview yesterday with Noam Murro, the man behind Taco Bell's "Viva Young." (Both VW and Taco Bell work with Deutsch for creative). Stay tuned for our conversation with RSA director Jake Scott, who shot "Brotherhood," the emotional A-B InBev commercial for Budweiser about a Clydesdale owner and his horse.

Tom Kuntz, on set for VW
Tom Kuntz, on set for VW

Director Tom Kuntz of MJZ arguably has defined comedic commercials for this generation. Known for his fastidious attention to detail and story, he brought the funny to DirecTV's "Effects" campaign, which features random Joes in increasingly sticky situations (like reenacting scenes from "Platoon" with Charlie Sheen), he directed some of the most-talked-about work for Old Spice, including "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" and the recent "Muscle Music," as well as a slew Skittles ads that brought on a zeitgeist of quirkiness in candy marketing.

For this year's Super Bowl, he participated in a bit of controversial merry-making, for Volkswagen's much talked about "Get Happy." In it, we see a white guy from Minnesota break out into Jamaican patois as he tries to boost the spirits of his fellow office workers. It's miffed some folks, but largely been well-received, even by "Jamericans."

Creativity talked to Mr. Kuntz about the controversy, and what went into shaping the star's happy Rasta guy character.

Creativity: What are your thoughts about some of the complaints about the ad being racist? Did you consider the potential reaction when you first saw the script or while you were directing it? Did you feel like you had to be careful about anything?

Mr. Kuntz: I have not been following the response very closely. The idea was always inherently dancing around an interesting topic, but that's what makes it an interesting creative idea in the first place. I don't know how anyone could think portraying a community or race as super positive and happy is "racist."

Creativity: The talents all pull the accent off pretty well. Did you require people to speak in Jamaican accents during the casting? What was the selection process like?

Mr. Kuntz: It was fairly organic. Lots of actors came in and didn't sell it well. Others, like our lead, knew how to own it and made us smile. Simple as that.

Creativity: The performances could have come off as really painful, but they didn't. It seems like there was just the right balance of restraint and enthusiasm. How did you get the talent to walk that fine line between just cheesy and bad--and funny?

Mr. Kuntz: The truth is, this sort of question is very hard for me to answer because it's what I do, and when I'm doing I don't think about "how" I'm doing it. I just follow an inner compass that guides me where to push things. That said, none of us were positive which way this would play the best, so in every set up I explored a wide variety of tones and reads from our hero--varying from the extremely earnest, caring, wise old Rasta man, to the moronic American guy who has no idea how to talk Rasta. As the day went along it started to become clear where the sweet spot was, but it wasn't for lack of exploring.

Creativity: In directing this particular spot, outside of the performances, what were the other main things that you were conscious of in terms of making the humor work?

Mr. Kuntz: I felt we needed the entire thing to exist upon a backdrop of blandness and negativity, so our guy shines like a light of happiness amongst it all. I also think there may have been potential to be tempted by sarcasm in how we executed this, but I was attracted to the almost non-ironic, non-sarcastic positive message the entire thing is portraying. Visually, I wanted the entire thing to have subtle movement to it so it had a subconscious feeling of forward momentum.

Creativity: For you, what's the most important thing to keep in mind when directing a comedic spot? On this particular ad, how did the comedy differ from other spots you've done?

Mr. Kuntz: Every project has its own voice and demands different muscles to be flexed. I personally work very instinctively and let the material simply talk to me and dictate what all the answers are. I don't have a formula except to trust myself and let the story telling and material dictate what all the "right" answers are. That said, I usually engage in a project in the first place if I find a core idea or quality about it inherently noteworthy for one reason or another. It has to have a simple, exciting, fresh element at its core for my mind to grab on to, and once I grab on to it, the rest of the process is just about making sure that one little kernel of what's great about the idea makes it to the screen. For this particular project, I think I was drawn to the simplicity and optimism: "Guy drives a VW and becomes a happy Rasta man." To me, that's a simple, fertile notion.

Creativity: What do you think of the Super Bowl as a venue for great creativity? A lot of people say it's just a platform of dumbed-down ideas. Do you think things like ad rankings affect the quality of the spots we see during the Super Bowl?

Mr. Kuntz: I've personally never thought about it too much or fancied myself a "Super Bowl commercial director." It is indeed a platform where a certain type of populist tone and humor and mass appeal thrives and I don't necessarily fancy myself that guy all of the time. But if an idea is approved for the game and it also excites me, I'll go for it, but I don't think about it much more beyond that.

Creativity: Knowing that something is for the Super Bowl, does this affect your approach to directing it at all? Does it add any pressure?

Mr. Kuntz: If you are making a Super Bowl ad, I think you would be nuts to not think about what sort of room you will be playing to.

Creativity: Outside of this one, and any other spots you've done for this Super Bowl--what's your favorite Super Bowl spot that you've directed and why?

Mr. Kuntz: I haven't really directed that many, I don't think. I did Fedex "Pigeons" a few years back. That one still makes me chuckle when I watch it and I'm still amazed we got that car to fly through a window and land right on its mark.

Creativity: A lot of Super Bowl work is either teased ahead of time or broken online before game day. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think it takes away from the impact of the spot on the big day?

Mr. Kuntz: This question has come up a lot with people I know in the last week. I personally don't understand showing something before the game. Feels like it could potentially take away from the excitement of seeing it for the first time along with the rest of the world. That said, I am quite certain that if clients and agencies are doing it, then they have a huge spread sheet proving it is the right thing to do.

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