His tendency to populate his work with miniature giraffes and blokes with blowholes, has seen Tim Godsall help to reshape US advertising, pushing the mainstream to take a lopsided stroll into the quirkily comic. And, as David Knight discovers, the director is as adept at character- and dialogue-heavy spots as more cinematic storytelling

Tim Godsall has directed some of the funniest, quirkiest, and downright oddest commercials of the past decade – offbeat, deadpan, often surreal ads with sharp writing and some very wacky characters.

For Altoids he introduced Blowhole Bob, the man with a whale blowhole in his neck; for DirecTV, the Russian oligarch with a tiny pet giraffe; for HBO, the couple who perform a fruity scene from TV show Eastbound & Down as a birthday gift to their mortified teenage son; for Old Spice, the guy who self-helps his way to greatness – which means dumping girlfriend Heather Graham along the way… And many more.

Godsall’s prolific output of funny ads has generated numerous awards, with several entering the popular American consciousness. In the process, as this style of comedic commercial has moved from leftfield towards the mainstream, he has arguably helped to reshape American TV advertising. This is certainly what he is best known for in the US. But, as he has been demonstrating with increasing regularity, that is only one aspect of Tim Godsall’s talents.

“Most of the early stuff I did was dialogue-, character-driven work,” he confirms.  “Then I definitely wanted to start doing things that were different from what was expected of me. If there was a chance to do a little non-dialogue movie with a good idea, I’ve jumped on that. Lately that has picked up momentum.” It certainly has. In the past year or so he directed the acclaimed Girlfriend series of spots, for the Axe shower gel range, out of BBH in London – five comic yet cinematic, dialogue-free scenarios where ordinary guys dedicate themselves to keeping their beautiful girlfriends happy – including Brainy Girl, Sporty Girl, and High Maintenance Girl – in order to reap delightful rewards later. The ads have reaped numerous awards themselves – silver at Cannes last year, gold at the Creative Circle, plus prizes at the British Television Advertising Awards, and the Andys earlier this year.

He then made two more Axe ads for BBH: his action-packed Lifeguard and Fireman spots, which plug the fragrance brand’s new ‘space academy’. Both see heroic hunks rescue damsels in distress from (respectively) a hungry shark and a burning building – only for a romantic aftermath to be scuppered by the appearance of an astronaut.

Fishing with dynamite for the perfect beach bum

Then there is his Southern Comfort commercial, Beach, which surfaced late last year. This beautifully-crafted spot which simply has a full-bellied, moustachioed, 40-something man walk along a crowded beach wearing only skimpy swimming trunks, to a soundtrack of groovy 70s soul, is now the lynchpin of the liquor brand’s international ‘Whatever’s Comfortable’ campaign. It highlights Godsall’s long-appreciated talent for casting, but it also throws a spotlight on his, up to now, far less-lauded skill for visual storytelling. There is not a one-liner in sight, and the result is a very cool, endlessly watchable ad – and Beach is now scooping up awards, left, right and centre, quite possibly as you read this…

Meanwhile, Godsall’s dialogue-heavy commercial output continues unabated. Recent work includes ads for HBO, Mentos and ESPN, the latter featuring a middle-aged character called Michael Jordan, who’s repeatedly met with people’s disappointment when they realise that he is not the Michael Jordan.

It is almost like there are two Tim Godsalls…“It’s unusual for me to do an American [ad] where there’s no talking,” he reflects, noting that although the Southern Comfort spot is out of Wieden+Kennedy New York, it is an international campaign, like the Axe ads out of BBH. “The non-verbal ones, the visual storytelling commercials were the anomaly for a while. Now I’ve done enough of them. There might be people who think of me as doing one thing or the other. I’d love to be thought of as someone who can handle both, but it’s never really worked that way.”

When shots catches up with Godsall he is preparing to shoot two new Southern Comfort ads, which, he reveals, will introduce two more distinctive characters to the campaign. The plan is “to knock it into a couple of slightly different corners from the last one, while keeping the same basic DNA.” He is also doing what he describes as “a fishing with dynamite exercise”, by street casting for his new on-screen talent all over the world. Which is exactly how he found his hero for Beach. “It was radical and scary to look at on paper, because we’re used to more of a narrative and a punchline,” he says of the first Southern Comfort ad. “The brief was essentially to find a character who had strange charisma and gravity, was funny without trying to be, and also manly.” And he found his perfect man at a casting in Prague. “He is a bartender called Zdenik who had never been in front of a camera and doesn’t speak English,” Godsall explains.  But he fit seamlessly into the relaxed, timeless scenario: the ad was shot near Barcelona last summer, filmed on 35mm “to get that golden, California 70s tone.”

A right royal Coen Brothers coincidence

It has taken a while for Godsall not to be immediately associated with the spoken word – but then, words are a big part of his background. He arrived from Canada in New York at the end of the 80s to work as an editorial assistant at SPY, the influential, yet short-lived, American satirical magazine. “I had this romantic idea of being writer, but didn’t do the necessary work for that. And I was a bit in over my head, working with clever, ambitious Harvard kids who went on to big writing careers.”

Instead he discovered advertising, putting together what he calls “a crude stack of fake ads” that were good enough to get him junior copywriting jobs in Toronto. And by the mid-90s he was back in New York working at Kirshenbaum and Bond. “If you wanted to work in advertising it was the best place to be at the time,” he says. “There were lots of interesting people working there, lots of interesting ideas ricocheting around the walls at any given time.”

Other future directors, like Tom Kuntz and Mike Maguire, were in the creative department and Godsall ended up working on some spiky commercials that barely made it on air. “The Coen Brothers directed an Olympus ad for us which involved tabloid photographers and a car chase and a blond woman – and it appeared two weeks before Lady Diana was killed in Paris, so it was immediately pulled,” he recalls. Nevertheless, like several agency colleagues, he caught the directing bug himself, leaving to put a reel together. He received his first break shooting a film for ESPN, out of W+K in New York – a three-minute, documentary-style promo for the sports channel’s anniversary that featured different superfans, including Beastie Boys’ photographer and basketball nut Ricky Powell, and the late writer and Muhammad Ali confidante George Plimpton. “Because I wanted to make commercials, I then cut the marquee interviews into little 30-second spots for ESPN Classic – a bonus operation,” he says. “It was a well-run brand from a good agency, so it gave me credibility with the next few projects.”

Pressure to confess and coiffure compliments

Back in Canada he directed a low budget campaign for Swiss cheese company Leerdammer with a vibe he describes as “like Matt Groening’s Life in Hell with Eastern European guys.” It became a cult favourite among Canadian ad creatives, leading to other work, including award-winning campaigns for Rogers AT&T and BC Lottery, and for Toronto’s Worldwide Short Film Festival. A promotional spot for the latter proved to be a defining moment. In one ad a know-all film studies teacher explains to his class how to do a ‘good cop/bad cop’ scene within the brief time frame of a short film, uttering the immortal line, “confess bitch – nice hair”. “That line was this kind of lightening rod,” notes Godsall. “As a result I got a lot more work like that – character pieces with simple, irreverent dialogue.”

Godsall had moved to Biscuit Filmworks from original base Epoch Films, and after ‘confess bitch, nice hair’ – a gold winner at Cannes in 2004 – things began to take off in the US. A couple of years later he directed the campaigns for Altoids and Holiday Inn, and other spots, such as Starburst Tashi (featuring Kristen Schaal before she found TV success with Flight of the Conchords), which became mainstays of his reel, won awards, and sealed his reputation for dialogue- and character-heavy offbeat comedy.

The freakish characters in the Altoids ads, like Blowhole Bob, who only attract people’s attention for being in possession of the new chocolate Altoid, were played completely straight, and Godsall agrees that this deadpan-wacky humour has proved influential in American TV advertising ever since – if not exactly going mainstream: “That sensibility has certainly been wheeled out more often. There are only a few agencies or teams that can do it in a way that seems genuinely surprising and funny.” He says that Holiday Inn was a different case, with three improv comedians cast to play a trio of childishly idiotic businessmen – a courageous idea that paid off handsomely. “We had one script but ended up shooting seven commercials,” says Tim. “We threw them ideas and instructed them not to swear, mention religion or a competitive hotel chain, and off they went.” The ads proved very popular with industry and public alike, and more were being planned when the actors demanded a big hike in their fees, which effectively killed off the campaign.

Where there’s a Will Ferrell, there’s a way

Godsall has continued to encourage script flexibility and spontaneity whenever appropriate. “From a dialogue standpoint I’ll usually have some alternate ideas to try on set, like different versions of endlines. It’s good to be able to look at three or four different edits to see how it could resolve itself.” He also directed several completely improvised ads with Will Ferrell for Sprint and Old Spice, as respective tie-ins with Ferrell’s movies Talledega Nights and Semi-Pro. “We ended up with 10 or 11 ads for each, even though we had one legal script. For Sprint, apparently Will didn’t like the script very much, so we sat down [and thought] about doing some improv stuff. I said, ‘if you don’t mind I’ll put two cameras on you, give you a theme at the last minute, maybe a new prop and you can find your way’. And he loved it. He was so instinctive and funny, the problem was the crew would have to hold their breath and not ruin the takes.”

There has been a constant stream of wisecracking comedic spots ever since, for Time Warner, EA Sports, Sprint, McDonalds, FedEx, and more. He has also directed spots for the current Old Spice campaign, with its trademark breakneck surreal comedy, again out of Wieden+Kennedy New York. “They’re smart people to work with,” he says, “I’m always drawn to the more dry scripts than the wacky, cartoony stuff.” Furthermore, his reputation has even transcended the language barrier. Due to his ability to speak French he has also made a number of comedic ads for French agencies, including for clients IKEA and Volkswagen.

He also directed one of his most popular ads for DirecTV in 2011: Opulence features a shady Russian oligarch, with gold busts of himself and a miniature pet giraffe, who suggests that his enormous wealth is partly due to spotting great deals on his TV service provider. “There are certain ads that are more cult favourites, but DirecTV was very popular,” he confirms. “It aired a ton in the US and the Russian guy had a little following for sure.” (And it was the start of an acclaimed campaign in the US, being followed by several ads directed by Godsall’s erstwhile agency contemporary Tom Kuntz).

But he has also somehow found the time to lay the foundations for more cinematic, ‘non-verbal’ work like Southern Comfort. He directed Men vs Women, an action-heavy battle of the sexes between men and women runners for Nike; his Joyride ad for Doritos is a pocket-sized blockbuster of monster truck destruction; his simple yet ingenious Environment Defence Fund ad Polar Bear, sees paper polar bears come to life over a New York subway air vent; and his non-dialogue series of commercials for Hyundai includes the quite-scary Bull, where foolhardy teenagers break into a bull’s pen on a ranch at night, lit only by torches.

“It’s probably the cliché that most commercial directors say, but I love to work on projects of all stripes as long as there is a good idea underpinning it,” he says. “And the most rewarding projects are when you can figure out the right visual language for a piece and make them what they should be.”

Ironically the crucial project that enabled this breakthrough was a big budget spot that never aired. His Xbox ad Stand Off is pure visual storytelling – a massive pretend gunfight by adult commuters in a train station (it was shot in Buenos Aires), replicating the thrill of gameplay, with minimal dialogue. “72andSunny were bidding against a bunch of intimidating names for this campaign – and they gave two to Frank Budgen and one to me. It was my first opportunity to construct a little movie.” But the ad was then strangled at birth by senior management at Microsoft (Xbox owners), sensitive to US government concerns about levels of violence in videogames. 

That defining unscreened Xbox spot moment

The Xbox ad has still proved to be an important moment in his career, when a new range of scripts came within his grasp. It made work like the Axe Girlfriend campaign for BBH in London possible – a series of ads he regards as among his best work. “I loved working on those and with those guys,” he says. “They were incredibly open-minded about how it might go.”

Captured mainly in single slow-motion takes and shot on 16mm, the Girlfriend ads also feature an unusual, non-ironic voiceover by actor Nick Offerman – who plays Ron Swanson in TV sitcom Parks and Recreation. Godsall admits to being “pretty neurotic” about timings within his ads – “It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking: ‘it will be fine, we’ll tweak it in the edit’” he says, and reveals he was “very nerdy” on this one. “I did iPhone rehearsals of each ad for the timing. It was shot at 48FPS but run at 24FPS, so we recorded the voiceover twice as fast then shot in real time. It sounded peculiar but we hit the beats.” 

When the Axe Nothing Beats an Astronaut commercials followed the Girlfriend ads a few months later last year, he says: “I happily rushed back into the arms of that gang to do another round. They weren’t drowning in money but we were still able to put everything into them so that they look great. Lifeguard and Fireman were intense shoots – rigs and stunts and fake sharks and explosions. Intense but very satisfying. When we got the last shot we knew we had it.”

That defining staring-at-a-man-in-underwear moment

Working UK-commissioned commercials looks set to continue – and it seems not just on international campaigns. Godsall recently shot an ad for The Guardian newspaper with a tongue-in-cheek introduction by actor and Leveson Inquiry regular Hugh Grant, and he will shortly direct an ad for Tango – a dialogue-driven piece, in fact.

So it looks like Tim Godsall will continue to swing between scripted comedy and visual storytelling, at least for the foreseeable future. That is surely due to the fact that several of his strengths – the excellence of his casting, and the direction of the actor’s performances – are common to both. When it comes to casting he says: “For me it’s a Eureka moment. I’ve learned not to overthink it. If it’s a dialogue performance thing, you find someone who gets it. For something like Southern Comfort, you just look at his presence, when he stands there in his underwear, and you go ‘holy shit this is it’.”

And then there is the possibility that he will attract more scripts that just bring all the attributes together. “Casting and blocking and pulling out performances that resonate as true or funny… that is definitely a thing, and it’s hard but gratifying to do. But it’s fun also to figure out the bigger canvas, the storytelling stuff. And if it has both of those things, then it is really fun.”

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