I grew up in Holland, and my father was one the most prominent film producers in the Netherlands. I basically grew up on film sets. He was quite strict and would only give me money if I worked on his films as the lowest assistant possible, of course, due to my age. In retrospect, I’ve worked in all of the departments – I was a sound assistant, I painted sets, and I was an editing assistant. By the time I was 19 I had already worked on four feature films all while attending law school. After college I realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer or walk in the footsteps of my father with feature films, so I decided to get into commercials as an opportunity to express myself.
My first shoot was a commercial for Yellow Pages, which is called Gouden Gids in Dutch. The campaign was about people in desperate situations, and because they had the Yellow Pages they could easily, or in this case not so easily, find someone to fix their problem. The spot opens with a janitor working the night shift mopping the floor at an aquarium while wearing headphones. He’s dancing, does a fancy spin and accidentally cracks the shark tank with his mop, and the glass slowly starts to shatter.
In Holland it won all types of advertising awards. I just tried to do something that was funny. What was interesting about this commercial was that it was the first time I had to think about post-production and green screen work, shoot a guy in front of glass, which isn’t easy, as well as seamlessly add stock shots of sharks. I shot it in 1999, so it has been 15 years since I have seen it. I watched it recently and have no clue how I figured out how to shoot it at that time, because post-production tools weren’t that elaborate then. It’s funny because the spot sort of defines my sense of comedy, which hasn’t changed much now that I look back at it.
At the time Shots Magazine was sort of a bible to new directors and Shots always listed which people were shooting and who did the post-production. I noticed that a company called BUF in Paris was doing all the post gigs, so I convinced everybody that BUF should be on my team since I had no clue. BUF cost more money, but they had a lot of experience at that point already. I think I saved my ass by having them on set and having them explain to me how to do it. The trick was to bluff my way in and convince the client and agency I needed to surround myself with extremely professional people. When you start out you have to surround yourself with people who are better than you.
I had a trick, and sometimes I still do it. When I would write a treatment I would sit down and write it but really envision what it’s going to look like with my mind’s eye. Then what I do is stare at a blank television screen and sort of get into a trance and mentally project my shots on the screen and see if they work. Because if you don’t envision it beforehand you will have no clue on what you are doing or it’s just a piece of paper you are looking at. You have to translate your idea into something visual.
I think for a director who’s just beginning it’s working with actors, because you can control the camera, you can control the art direction and the lighting, but how do you control people? I think in the beginning that was the scariest part for me. How do you control their performance? Maybe you saw something in the casting, but they can’t reproduce it. Of course now I know, but on that first shoot that was the hardest part for me. I learned early on that you really have to spend time looking for the right person.
My aha moment was when I realized that after all the calls and all the meetings I had to persist with my first instinct or vision. You might be insecure with your vision because you are a first time director, but you can’t give up on what your initial creative instincts are and what your vision for the project is.
I guess the most treasured memory is the excitement of seeing it all come together and that it worked – the excitement in the editing room when you put it together and the fun you are having with what you just created.
Yes. It’s a little stiff. I would have shot it handheld. It’s a little safe, too many safe shots. But I completely understand why I did it that way. It was a very structured little spot, and I wasn’t able to go beyond and push myself beyond that structure. I would have shot it much looser.
Yes. The initial thoughts you have when you first read something, for example a commercial script from the agency, that first thought, you should go with it, and don’t let go. Even if everyone else doesn’t agree with you, you either have to pass on the job or stay focused on that first feeling and fight for it. When you read the script for the first time you are basically the audience and after that you are not the audience anymore – you’re subdividing and thinking about technical stuff and logical stuff. If you stay true to your first emotion and what you liked about it then you will enjoy the process all the way to the end.
I think first it helps to have a sense of humor. (laughs). The key is to create something that you personally think is funny. There is no other audience but you. And hopefully your sense of comedy is the same as the intended audience that will watch it. If you start questioning yourself and ask yourself if people will think it’s funny then you are lost, because you are thinking for somebody else. I try to keep my commercials serious but always have an undertone of funniness. My characters never try to be funny – they are always a victim of the situation. For me it’s funny trying to see a character overcome a serious situation.
I like to see how the actor responds to things. It could be something as simple as how he introduces himself at the casting session. If you have someone who fits the description but you can’t communicate with the person, then it won’t work. There is no rehearsal time before a commercial shoot, and you will usually only have one day to shoot. I don’t mold talent exactly to my taste. I am looking for chemistry between myself and an actor.
That’s horrible, because that’s when you realize that the people you are working with have a totally different perception of the script.
Between the ages of fifteen to twenty-five Roman Polanski fascinated me. Not so much of how he shot films but the intensity of them. The Tenant and Knife in the Water, they were very powerful and atmospheric. Polanski had this sense of irony that I liked. And Kafka – I was a true fan of all the stories of Kafka because they were always serious stories about completely absurd situations.
Yes. I think most filmmakers want to do it and have heard stories on how tough it is. I directed my first feature when I was already forty. I think you have to be extremely talented to be able to deal with studio execs in your twenties or thirties.
I think there are two things that struck me. The first was that it just felt like a very big commercial. Instead of the agency you have the studio. With a film though, there is always someone behind you checking what you are doing, because the pressure is much bigger, and there is so much more money involved, and the studios have to make that money back. With features you feel the intense pressure that the film has to make money. The studios do everything to make sure they get their money back. That’s a big battle you have to fight constantly.
Yes. On my second feature I will make sure the script is completely finished before I start working on it. If the idea or script is strong the job is fairly easy. Of course you still have to fight your way through it, but at least you know what you are doing from the start.
This was also a bit of an aha moment for me. If you get rid of all the politics before you shoot, you can completely focus on being creative. If you don’t sort out the politics before the shoot, you are trying to be creative and political at the same time, and these things completely conflict with each other. It is a completely different state of mind. The ideal situation is to get the client to agree to what you are doing and get them to sign off on it before you start, but half the time this doesn’t happen. The better you are at being a politician upfront, the better it will be when you are shooting.
Figure out the stories you want to tell and then start experimenting. You need to find out what your true identity is. Don’t try to do somebody else’s thing. Do your own thing.
Yes, straight away. (laughs) I would say go travel the world and come back when you are twenty-five and then start considering it. Unless, of course, you have shown that you are a genius like Spielberg, and you have been making films since you were ten. But seriously, I think you need some life experience first. I went to college, but also traveled to India to see what’s out there in the world.
The Third Man directed by Carol Reed.
Yes. Rust and Bone. Amazing film.
Yeah, it’s funny. Directors are such a funny breed, because unless you have been an assistant director for many years, no one explains to you how to be a director. Even film schools don’t. You really have to figure it out yourself. When you read about other directors’ experiences, it becomes obvious that everyone has a completely different take on things.
Matthijs Van Heijningen
Director / MJZ