The Cows Come Home: An Interview with Fred Savage

When we created our latest Real California Cheese commercials, we wanted a director with a deft comedic touch to bring them to life. Who better than Fred Savage, the actor from The Wonder Years and a director on Modern Family and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia?

I spoke with Fred about his thoughts on directing comedy, his transition from actor to director, and his feelings toward the Happy Cows campaign.

It seems that in both your acting and directing, you tend towards comedy. Is that something that just happened, or was it intentional?

I’m a lighthearted person to begin with, and I try to approach everything with a sense of comedy or levity. That’s naturally sort of where my sensibilities lie, so that’s what I gravitate towards, ya know, with my work. I think it’s ultimately a more fun way to go to work for me. Doing funny, light stuff, it makes coming home much better than doing that dark heavy stuff. I don’t know if I could deal with that every day.

As both an actor and director, how do you approach drama versus comedy? Do you prepare differently?

I think at the end of the day, it’s all about just being truthful, and telling a story from an honest place and making sure the emotions are real. That’s just as true, if not more true, for comedy as it is for drama. You know, the jokes are kind of there, are inherent in the writing, in the script. The preparation is how to tell the story in the most truthful, honest, relatable way possible. If you do a good job with that, the comedy will come. So for me the preparation is all about kind of boiling it down to it’s most basic elements and just being truthful in the storytelling.

Over the years it seems you’ve put more directing on your plate. How is it that you made the transition from actor to director? What spurred on that transition?

I think it’s something I’ve always wanted to do ever since I was a little kid. When I graduated college I had the opportunity to do it and try it, and I really enjoyed it and it went well and I felt like I had an aptitude for it, and fortunately, year after year, the business has grown and I’ve gotten to do varied and better things and break new ground. Every year is something new and something different. Producing shows. Directing shows. Shooting pilots. Developing stuff. Getting into the commercial world, which was a big goal of mine. So there’s just been a real momentum.  Every year is better than the next. I enjoy it, and it’s going well, so I wanna stick with it.

What is it specifically about commercials that interested you?

For me it was just another way to tell a story, ya know? I think that I’ve always loved commercials as an art form, as a storytelling device. And as a storyteller myself, it was just interesting to me to push yourself and stretch yourself in ways that you can tell a story in 28 seconds, 27, 26 seconds. It’s been a really great experiment so far (laughs). Meeting up with Preston Lee and the team at Über Content, I think they saw the enthusiasm that I had for commercials and really got behind me and in a short time have been able to do some really exciting work.

I noticed you generally do shorter content—commercials and TV shows and some features.  Is there something about the timing of the production process in TV that you gravitate toward, or would you consider doing a widely released feature?

For me, features are just another way to tell a story. I think that television shows are really exciting for me in that it’s quicker, it’s faster paced, and get to tell a story over a process of several years. There’s potentially 60 hours of story to tell with television shows. Whereas a feature, you tell your story, you’re developing characters, you kind of wrap it all up in 90 minutes, 100 minutes. In some respects you’re saying TV is a shorter way to tell a story, but in other ways I think its much longer, you get a much longer look into the future and figuring out who these characters are and how they relate to each other and how they’re gonna develop over time.

With all of the roles you do, in acting and directing and some voiceover and stuff—are any one of those more satisfying than the other, or do you appreciate the variety?

No, it’s the variety, the variety. I think that’s the most exciting part of my day is not really knowing what the next day is going to bring. One day you’re doing voice spots, you’re directing, you’re working with a writer, or you’re pitching a show, or you’re developing a feature, or you’re shooting a commercial. I enjoy the variety and the breadth of work. And at the end of the day for me again, it’s all about finding kind of new and exciting ways to tell a story.

How was it working at the cows for California Cheese?

It was great, I think it’s a lot of fun to be part of a campaign that’s been running for so long. I know that campaign, I know those cows, and I know Deutsch’s work, those long running relationships. Whether it’s with the cows, or Volkswagen, they’re part of these long legacy campaigns, and it’s exciting to be a small part of it. My kids are a great sounding board. They love that talking cow, man. They loved it. They ask me to pull it up on my computer all the time.

 

Fred Savage is represented for commercial work by Über Content. His upcoming directing projects include ABC’s “Modern Family,” CBS’s “Two Broke Girls,” and various television commercials.