Back in the day, suits did wear suits. I also had a handy collection of polyester ties. But what I really brought to Saatchi & Saatchi was a deep hunger and passion to do something creative. The idea that you could get paid in that field was so exciting. 

It was a magical time then, at Saatchi’s. Bob Isherwood, who became worldwide CCO, was the CD there, and he had this ‘nothing is impossible’ mantra, which everyone lived by and believed in. It was a brilliant inspirational fun place to work. 

They were grooming me to be a CEO, but the whole ‘nothing is impossible’ thing fed into me starting to make short films. 

I thought I’d be better off there as a suit than a creative. They were grooming me to be a CEO there, fast-tracked me quite a lot, but the whole ‘nothing is impossible’ thing fed into me starting to make short films. They were right behind it. They didn’t see it as a conflict. They saw that as evidence that nothing is impossible. 

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Above: Bullock featured as a Zombie in his short film Bondi Hophead Zombie Freak-out.

The first film I made was a schlocky horror about zombies. We cast people from the agency, borrowed all its camera equipment, shot it over an Easter holiday, and won a trip to NY to meet the people behind the schlock film company, Troma. We were just having fun, we weren’t trying to win it. So, I thought, maybe I’m good at this.

My early inspirations were the horror guys – getting a reaction was what drove me. Making a people laugh, or scaring them – anything that got a reaction. They sparked the wonderment and sense of magic in me. 

The creatives were harsh critics. It was a really good training for being a director later.

The creative department were harsh critics of any creative concept, so you learnt quickly to not feel wedded to an idea, and to strive to better it. Ideas are disposable. The best ones win. It was a really good training for being a director later. They were so harsh. 

My first TV ad was about a father who cuts down his child’s swing set and turns it into a soccer goal, a darkly comic spot, with the line: “Take soccer seriously?”. 

I learnt the language that creatives spoke. It was an easy transition, dealing with all the colourful characters you meet in the creative world. But suddenly, some of the most respected creatives in Australia were asking me what I thought was funny, and how to make something funnier. That was a trip for me. What I always instinctively knew was suddenly validated. 

Foxtel – Swings

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Above: Bullock's first TV spot was a darkly comic film for Foxtel.  

It makes complete sense to me now that being a suit led me to being a director, even though it is a surprise to a lot of other people. You have to deal with a whole lot more as a suit than you do as a creative. It’s about dealing with issues, and understanding the client point of view. It’s all very well to dream this crazy stuff, but we’re trying to do the right thing by the client. 

Making someone laugh is a joyous reward. It felt easy for me. It was naturally in my pocket. There were two reactions I knew very well – how to scare people and how to make them laugh. There’s not much of an avenue in scaring people in commercials, so comedy felt like a natural choice. 

It was so ludicrous we found it palatable. 

In the 1990s, English beer ads were exceptional, whereas Aussie beer ads were all jingles and blokes. Then, in the early 2000s, comedy and storytelling started appearing, and that was my first breakout spot. The then un-PC, and now very un-PC, Woman Whisperer

Those kind of spots were about magical wish fulfilment – what’s the most stupid thing you can imagine that could happen to save you and allow you to stay a little longer with your friends. It’s a heightened, knowing stupidity, knowing how wrong it was. It was so ludicrous we found it palatable. 

Foster's – Woman Whisperer - (:45)

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Above: Bullock's spot for Carlton, the "now very un-PC" Woman Whisperer. 

Woman Whisperer came out the same year as Dove Evolution. Hungry Man took me on internationally, and Ben Priest [Founder and former CCO] was just starting up adam&eve in London was just starting out, and one of the foundation clients was Fosters. I started on six years of Fosters off the back of that. Which was an incredible privilege. 

At first I wasn’t sure I should do it. It was a stereotype of Australians, and a broad comic look at Australia. I got on the phone and talking with Ben Priest for half an hour, and I was so inspired by his pitch, it was like, I HAVE to do this campaign. 

Comedy is someone else’s tragedy.

Comedy evolves. People are a lot more aware of different sensitivities, and a lot of comedy is being retrospectively cancelled out. Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High was loved across Australia, but now is being retrospectively cancelled, and all the people who loved it are saying how wrong it is. 

The weird thing about comedy is that it usually is at someone’s expense. Comedy is someone else’s tragedy, as someone clever once said. Pain or tragedy or misfortune leads to comedy. That’s a truth that still applies. 

Toyota – In the Middle

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Above: Bullock's brilliantly told story for Toyota featuring a couple sharing custody of their Hi-Lux was "risky territory".

A lot of people said my Toyota Hilux spot was risky territory – child custody transposed to an automobile. But I’ve lived that, I’ve lived some of those moments, and I find it funny. It’s an exercise in walking the tightrope, and that’s where comedy lives or dies. How you can bend that just far enough to be funny, and not too far that it’s not funn

My favourite ads are ones where you get the script and read it and you think, wow this is so funny on the page, I just need to bring this to life, with great casting, beautiful camerawork, and a few nudges here and there. One is SpecSavers Vet. When I read that script I laughed out loud.

It’s an exercise in walking the tightrope, that’s where comedy lives or dies.

I was watching The Last Leg and John Cleese was a guest, and I was saying to my dad how much I loved him, and at that moment the phone rang. It was Blink in London saying I had the SpecSavers script with him in it. I’ve had the joy of working on four SpecSavers spots. I love it.   

The best creatives are often the nicest. Over the years I’ve found many of the people that are at the very top of their game – such as adam&eve founder, Ben Priest; the SpecSavers guysGraham Daldry and Richard James; Jean-Cristophe Royer and Eric Astrogue, are just lovely people. They’re meticulous about the craft and preparation, but they are really easy to work with. I aspire to be that sort of person, even if I’ve got a long way to go.

Above: Getting to work with John Cleese on a SpecSavers spot was a highlight for Bullock, and reading the script for SpecSavers' Vet made Bullock "laugh out loud".

Cleese was amazing to work with. What benefited me was that I loved him, but I wasn’t a fixated fan. He was lovely to meet, and he had very firm boundaries about what he was willing to say or try, because it’s his character and his legacy. The key thing was to be true to the essence of it. 

In a behind-the-scenes video, John said: ‘Not many directors know what they’re doing, but this one does’. I can put that on my gravestone. 

It’s a cliche to say it but casting is the most crucial thing. Comedy all lives or dies by casting. You can’t teach someone to be funny. You can’t direct them to be funny unless the idea is of a deer in the headlights. And, if I’m not laughing in the casting but I know the idea is funny, then I know I have to keep looking.

If I’m not laughing in the casting but I know the idea is funny, then I know I have to keep looking. 

Some spots live and die on the casting. The trickiest decisions are when you have a close choice between two actors, and you really start interrogating and watching them over and over and over, trying to find the right person in the margins. Other times they just walk into the room and it can only be them. 

The ‘Woman Whisperer’ turned up wearing exactly what we ended up filming. I didn’t have to do much to make him funny at all. I just said, "it’s gotta be this guy and it’s gotta be what he’s wearing".

We keep workshopping the scripts right through the production process. I’ll discuss things with the talent, and once we’ve checked off all the things we want to achieve, I’ll ask them, ‘what would you say’, or, ‘do you have anything else you would like to try?’.

Above: Bullock enjoys getting different reactions, like in his 2018 spot for Lotto Powerball, while collaborating with cast members can pay off, as with his spot, Haircut, for Fosters. 

One classic example was shooting a Fosters UK Good Call ad. We thought we had this funny line at the end, but we kept doing it, I said to Ben Priest, I don’t think it’s funny. We’ve got to think of something else. Then I went back to the guy, and I asked, what would you say? How would you lie to your partner if she had a bad haircut? And he said [doing hand movement] ‘FIT!’ - and I could hear the whole place erupt. It's those moments, those happy accidents you’re chasing, because instinctively you know something’s not quite there – they pay off. 

Getting different reactions continues to drive me. I began to paint myself into a bit of a comedy corner and I was looking to move people in different ways. For instance, NZ Lotto Armoured Truck was all about building dramatic tension and having the audience on the edge of their seats before delivering an emotive payoff... all within the space of two minutes.

I love comedy that arises truthfully from familiar situationsThe Office (UK version) turned things on the head for me. Playing things so close to reality feels so normal now, but back then it was groundbreaking to play it that close to the line.

Tarantino made me want to be a director.

Tarantino made me want to be a director. Nearly anyone who had creative aspirations at the time thought, ‘if a guy who works as a video store clerk can do it, so can I’. I guess that’s what you needed, that sense of belief that you can do it. That whole ‘nothing is impossible’ thing. 

We founded Scoundrel Films nearly 10 years ago. We’re proud of it because the key word behind it is integrity. Adrian Shapiro (Co-Founder) and I wanted to make work that has integrity, and act with integrity as a company. It’s been quite a journey. I enjoy being surrounded by other people who direct, and championing other people’s careers. 

Directing can be quite a self absorbed, selfish profession, it’s nice to not always be thinking on your own.

Photo credit for main image; Scott Heldorf