There’s not much humour in commercials these days but we can always count on your work for some good laughs. Has this always been the case, did you ever make serious films? When did you first realise you were good at telling not gags but intricately involved comic stories?
God pointed his finger at me and said: “Bart my son, you’ll be the fool. Go out there and entertain the people, make them smile, make them forget their misery, for at least 30 seconds!” So that’s what I did. Ever since I started directing I can’t help but entertain the viewer. Of course I sometimes try a serious story but my heart lies with comedy. I don’t like the ‘laugh or I shoot’ comedy. I don’t like the easy jokes. I always look for some human tragedy inside the comedy. If you look at the boy in my Brother commercial he unintentionally puts himself into a very shitty situation. I like that, it makes me smile.
As unfunny as it is analyzing what makes your work funny, it seems you’re the master of visual timing with extraordinary attention to detail. Please tell us about your production process and how you evolve the idea?
I like scripts that relate to some kind of reality. No matter how weird and unbelievable the ending. The script needs to be based on a truth so to say. I want to identify with the character(s). I need to understand their actions or as in most of my commercials their reactions to the situation they are in.
How soon do the creatives engage you on the script?
It happens more and more that creatives involve me in the early script development, sometimes even before having it presented to the client. This is a great evolution because it will only benefit the process and final result on creative and production level.
Do you detail everything in pre-production or does a lot of the story unfold in the edit?
For me a shooting board is crucial. Not only because it makes the presentation and communication with agency clear and easier. Most importantly creating a shooting board helps me to dig deeper into the story. I need to create a detailed vision of how the story develops visually and dramatically. As soon as I have a rough idea I can work on the details. Not that I lock everything down though. I am very fortunate that one of my best mates is a very talented storyboard artist and a crazy mind.
For me filming is like making music with a band. I need to have a good basis and rehearse it into every detail. Once on set or on stage this basis gives me the freedom to play, improvise and be surprised.
Do you work with a regular editor who understands the precision timing and knows when to cut?
I have a small group of favorite editors I always work with. Over the years they’ve gotten to know me very well. They know my taste, my timing, and my irony.
Do you work with performers who you know or do you cast afresh for each commercial? What is your directing process with the cast?
Always fresh faces for new commercials yes. And I always try to be at the casting or recall to meet the actors and play with them. I think it is important to feel the energy and find out if we connect. This testing also helps me to figure out what direction works best. It’s a great opportunity to check and rehearse.
You’ve worked on the Canal+ account regularly. Do you pitch or is it a matter of just getting a phone call with a new script they want you to shoot?
Haha…that would be great to just get a call to do the next Canal +. It is always a pitch. And to be honest I quiet like pitching because it creates certain pressure. A pitch really challenges me to find the best possible treat for a script.
Three of your commercials have been released in as many weeks. Are you working back to back?
Yes, it has been a pretty busy period but the jobs are exciting. And who can refuse a job with John Malkovich playing a vampire? Working with one of my favorite actors was an amazing experience. Apart from being a super kind and calm person John brings a magical energy to the set and the image.
What has been your worse nightmare experience in producing a commercial?
Compared to Terry Gilliam’s ‘Lost in La Mancha’ the following story is peanuts. We were shooting the Centraal Beheer commercial Acupuncture in Bangkok when one disaster led to the other. First of all the building in which we were shooting was owned by mafia, we found out too late. Every hour we had to throw money at them to be able to keep the location.
Next was the problem with the second skin of the actor. We needed to create a fake rubber skin layer to fix all the needles to. One early morning when I arrived on set to check the fake skin on the actor we discovered that it looked shit. Soon after the liquid was painted on the actor it dried out and became too thick and hard. It did not react at all like a normal skin. Our special effects guy we brought with us from Holland didn’t have a clue and freaked out.
Later he discovered the problem: because he was not allowed to travel with his liquid in hand luggage the molecular structure of his liquid changed because of the extreme cold in cargo. Anyway, we needed to find a solution…the only good solution was to use real needles into the real skin. Our actor agreed on filling his face with way too many real needles. But they could only stay in his face for three minutes otherwise he would faint or become really ill. To solve the next shot one of the creatives then offered his back to put more than 40 needles in it…. The wider shot we could luckily fix in the post.
Back in the edit seeing the material we found that many takes were out of focus. The local focus puller fucked up big time. In a long and difficult edit we finally managed to use the bits and pieces that were in focus to create a funny story…
And which piece of your work are you proudest of and why?
Probably due to my Calvinist Dutch background I am not very familiar with the word ‘Proud’. But if I would pretend to be proud it would be at the Centraal Beheer mentioned above. Mainly because it was such a tough job and luckily the result doesn’t show.
Who or what would you say were your greatest influences on the way you work?
Aki Kaurismaki, Jim Jarmusch and Roy Anderson are my heroes. Not sure if that immediately reflects in the way I work but they definitely have influenced me on the way I see subtle or deadpan comedy.
By the way I can’t wait to see the new Roy Anderson movie ‘The Pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on existence’.
Apart from commercials are you interested in directing any other genres, perhaps movies?
I am an extremely impatient and easily distracted person. That is probably why I like doing commercials. Short creative explosions: develop a treatment, win the job, prep the job, shoot, edit, finalize it. It fits me well; I like the speed, l like the process, the fast result.
Maybe when I am older, wiser and finally got rid of my bloody impatience I might consider a longer format. Or I become a bicycle repairman in the center of Amsterdam.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Thanks for putting me down on a chair and forcing me to reflect on my work.