"I'm not sexy, I'm not cool, I'm not hip," Jeff Labbe chuckles. Well, he must be doing something right; less than two years after quitting his career as a CD/AD to direct, Labbe's already got a standout reel, via @radical.media, that demonstrates an eye for detail and the emotional nuances of a gifted storyteller-while spanning a broad range of styles from visual narrative to dark comedy. "Directing has a different focus from being a creative," Labbe notes, "but when you're talking about an idea and how to 'plus' it, all the worlds mesh. I'm only trying to 'plus' it through performance or what's going to make the spot better."
He was "plussing" pretty well as a trophy-collecting creative, too, at shops like Wieden + Kennedy and TBWA/Chiat/Day, where his credits include classic spots like Levi's "Badger," Nike's "Beautiful" and Fox Sports' "Beware of Things Made in September" campaign. But, says the 40-year-old Louisiana native, despite the absence of any formal film training, he learned plenty of invaluable lessons on the set, working with talents like Traktor, Spike Jonze, Frank Budgen and the late Johan Camitz, and he felt it was time to make the leap. "I knew I had to come out with a point of view. I didn't want do a reel as a marketing tool for the masses; I wanted to do strong concepts grounded in soulful, entertaining, funny truths. I like to walk into a project and really put a lot of soul into the film, make people feel the idea more than just watch it."
He does just that on "Night Runner," a gorgeous and moody adidas spec spot that opens his reel. In the wee hours, a woman groggily runs through the street as the rest of the city is winding down, passing smooching lovers in a car and late-night construction workers. She gets home, crawls back into bed, only to wake to the ringing of her alarm clock, put her shoes back on and set off for on her official, post-somnambulistic jog. While that spot has all the richness of a high-production blockbuster, Labbe took a more lo-fi approach on a jarring pro-bono ad for the United Neighborhood Organization, for which he spent a month of prep on police ride-alongs with his brother, a Compton-based sheriff and gang specialist. Shot entirely on handheld DV in the heart of Watts, it shows a pair of cops raiding a school bus and frisking kids like they were drug mules-only to confiscate their textbooks and worksheets. "What I tend to do with my work is figure out an execution that's going to work for the concept dead-on," Labbe says. "When I walk away from the work I like to feel that I don't know if there would have been another way to execute it. I could have done UNO with 35mm cameras, and it would have been a lot simpler, but I don't know if it would have had the depth and rawness to make you really feel that a bus was just invaded by people."
Labbe recently shot two lighthearted Powerbar spots, featuring athletic greats called upon to prove their prowess in the most unlikely scenarios: Tiki Barber gets tackled by passersby in the concrete jungle; Carmelo Anthony goes to the supermarket and deflects flying meat, toilet paper and other sundries that shoppers attempt to land in his cart. Labbe recently directed a delightfully dark comic series of downloadable cellphone shorts for MTV/Motorola, which he also co-wrote with former creative partner Mike Folino. Entitled Head and Body, it stars a guy whose head is inconveniently separated from his body, making for an absurd but poignant relationship of self-love and -loathing.
Whether he's doing gloss or grit, "The stories I gravitate to have a lot of emotion," Labbe says. "There's also very little dialogue in most of my work. Some of the guys I really admire aren't dialogue-based"-he cites the aforementioned Camitz, Budgen and Jonze as well as Ivan Zacharias. "Unless there's great dialogue, when people start talking in commercials the general public sees someone selling something. Commercials should be the quiet break between what's going on, not the disruptive break, or the intellectual break between terrible sitcoms."
"I think Jeff was always meant to be a director," observes former partner Kash Sree, now a CD at BBH/N.Y. "He's just kind of wired that way. It sounds really lofty, but I feel that he's like a mini Johan Camitz. He can do humor stylishly, and he can tell stories. He always has a point of view and that's what you want. I remember being on a shoot with him and thinking, Jeff, leave some room for the director!-even though a lot of what Jeff was saying was right."
Now that he's finally behind the camera, what about leaving room for the creatives? "When I made the leap, I wanted to leap," Labbe says, meaning there's plenty of creative accommodation in his style. "I just see myself as a guy from Louisiana who used to be a creative and now he's directing. [Wieden's] Hal Curtis used to be an account person, and I never once said to him, 'Hal, you're acting like an account person!' Getting on the phone talking to people about what's best for the product doesn't interest me. That would be creative directing, and I was never a good creative director," he laughs.