Little Black Book
26 September 2022
Tim Potter is an award-winning comedy director, screenwriter, and actor who recently joined Truce Films. He’s directed spots for Telstra, Nissan, Carlton Dry, Vicks, Sorbent and Beyond Blue, as well as his own shorts and series. Tim took the time for a chat about how acting experience helps directing, the importance of the casting process, and the love of an underdog story.
How did you first get into performing?
I was studying an English and Creative Writing degree when I started taking acting classes on the side. The classes were run by an acting agent, who basically used them to recruit actors to their books. It’s fair to say, they were pretty shithouse - think Stephen Merchant’s character from The Extras. They also took all their own headshots in a dingy back room - another clear warning sign.
But it was around that time that I also started doing stand-up – I was dared to do it by a mate, so chose to give it a crack. I thought, ‘If I can get up in front of a room full of drunk people and make them laugh, then that’s probably as hard as it’s going to get – being an actor will be a breeze…’ I’ve since realised that’s not the case [laughs].
How does your experience as an actor and performer inform your approach to directing?
After those initial and highly questionable acting classes, I was fortunate to get into the VCA and graduated from the drama school. Having since been cast in a whole bunch of commercials, film and television, one of the most important elements that I’ve learnt on set, is to make the actors feel as confident and supported as possible. It’s invaluable. Having experience as an actor, also means you end up with a shorthand when communicating with talent – we know how to talk to each other. You become a teammate and an ally, as opposed to working two steps removed.
My process for ads is to personally prepare the actor’s role as well. It might sound weird, but I’ll learn the actor’s lines, as well as map out their blocking. With a 30-second commercial, it’s imperative that you catch all those golden moments and that everything fits. That preparation helps, because it means I know where the actors are coming from and what they’ll be wanting to achieve.
Your recent spot for ANZ has a very sweet and comedic tone – how did you achieve that?
The aim was to convey an authentic relationship and a genuine connection between our couple. We wanted to balance the sweetness with a playful comedic touch and get across some genuine moments.
Casting the right talent is one of the most important jobs – and knowing the tone and performance you need to achieve from the beginning. For the ANZ spot, I had the two lead actors in mind from the get-go – so it was rewarding to get them into the audition room and see that they delivered.
In this case, we’d worked together before, so I knew I could trust them. I knew that we could discuss an idea and just have the confidence to play, basically. They also brought a truthful quality to their performance and the sense of playfulness needed to make spot come alive.
It sounds like you enjoy the teamwork element of directing…
Absolutely – the collaborative nature of advertising is the most rewarding aspect for me; assembling your team – whether it’s your D.P., art department, casting department – and going through each of those moments and stages together. It's kind of like getting a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and working through it as a team.
All the crew who work in advertising and commercials, also work across film and television: you’re collaborating with super talented individuals – the cream of the crop. It’s also rewarding to team up with many individuals who I’ve worked with on both sides of the camera.
Are there certain themes or sensibilities you’re drawn to exploring in your work, whether in narrative or commercial?
Comedy, but comedy with heart – especially when there’s an innocence to the character, and potentially an underdog story. So, characters who are trying to achieve something with the odds stacked against them and ones that people can relate to – an inherent vulnerability.
I'm also attracted to building worlds that are slightly fantastical, with a hint of absurdity. If you create a world that’s sweet, innocent and full of heart, the audience immediately connects with the characters, allowing you the freedom to then push the comedy and make it a little darker.
Are you inspired by any other work or directors?
When I started directing commercials, I was mentored by American comedy director Justin Reardon. It’s fair to say he didn’t resemble the typical ad guy – but with each new job, his passion and dedication were unrivaled. Watching the way that he navigated each element of the process was the perfect introduction to commercial directing.
As for other directors I’m inspired by, I obviously can’t go past Taika Waititi – not only his feature films, but equally his short films and commercial body of work. I seem to gravitate towards stories and characters that have a unique mix of absurdity, vulnerability, and heart. Richard Curtis’ films and movies like The Castle were pretty formative.
I’ve also always loved the work of Aussie commercial directors like Tim Bullock and Tony Rogers – their casting and tone are always spot on, with wonderfully weird and flawed characters.
Outside of your commercial work, what other projects are you proud of?
I wrote and performed in a short film called Lemonade Stand, which was fortunate to win at Tropfest. We had an awesome creative team, featuring many people I still collaborate with in the commercial world, and it all just seemed to click. The film took us overseas and, in many ways, became the trigger that started my commercial directing.
My most recent short, The Man with the Golden Throat, was another short that I wrote and performed in, and this time also directed. It had its world premiere at Manchester International Film Festival. It’s all set in a run-down voiceover studio and focuses on a middle-aged voiceover artist, who’s given a final chance to prove to both himself and the industry that he’s still got what it takes. The studio is on the brink of collapse, he’s a drunk and it all ends in a bit of a trainwreck - basically the kind of dark comedy I love.
I’ve done a lot of voice acting, and anyone who works in that environment, will appreciate that it can sometimes feel a little absurd – so I took some inspiration from that. There’s been moments that I’ve been in a studio, a room full of agency and client (all juggling their lattes and bento boxes), and you’re being told to repeat a word like ‘truck’ 400 times – a word can quickly lose all meaning [laughs].
You recently joined the Truce Films team. What do you enjoy about working with them?
The thing that attracts me most to Truce is that they’re all very genuine people. My main aim is to always work with people who are genuine, generous and dedicated – no egos. Our history goes back to when I was cast in one of their earliest ads, when I was straight out of drama school, so it’s exciting to now be joining the ranks and working together. We also had some success on the film festival circuit around the same time as well.
Truce also have a narrative arm, which is going from strength to strength. In the last few years, they've really backed themselves and brought in some great talent, fantastic producers and are growing exponentially, which is really exciting to see.
Any exciting projects currently in the works?
I’ve got funding for a television comedy project, which is in collaboration with an ensemble of neurodiverse actors and actors with mixed abilities. I’ll be directing, and both myself and a colleague will be writing the scripts – but the aim is for it to be a collaborative project where the actors are equally involved in shaping the work together.
I also have a couple of upcoming television attachments, whilst working on a handful of personal comedy series - one that will see me return to the world of stand-up comedy.