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The Secret Life of Matthijs van Heijningen

In this interview with Dutch commercials director Matthijs van Heijningen he shares the secret stories behind his multiple award-winning advertising campaigns. With spots such as The Bear and Closet, Matthijs shows his famously comedic approach to TV commercials is no accident; these are some of the most popular ads in the business.

The Secret Life of Director Matthijs van Heijningen

Closet

The only thing that worried me with this pitch was – would you ever believe the story? That gave me headaches. So the key was finding the actor who looked like he believed.

I always believe that characters have to be serious in a situation that’s ridiculous. It’s a bit like Kafka’s books, I call it the comedy of horror – comedy for the reader but horror for the character.

Ideally, like The Closet or with Perfect Day, the concept is really clear. And the concept is hidden in the story. For The Closet, Canal+ wanted to advertise the greatness of their scriptwriters. And it works because it shows how great this guy is as a storyteller.

The Closet, Yellow Pencil, 2010

The Bear

Originally this was the story of a sweet bear becoming a director. But I thought – if he’s a sweet bear then it’s cruel that he’s dead on the floor at the end. I didn’t get it. So I said, “The only way to do it is to make the bear an asshole”. To demonstrate, I showed them videos of Michael Bay on set screaming at crew members. Now that’s funny. So yes, the bear is based on Michael Bay.

I’d just finished a movie (The Thing), so a lot of the moments – sitting in the trailer, the panic and outrage in meetings – were based on what happened to me.

The Bear, Yellow Pencil, 2012

#FortyEight

Edward Norton – he’s a movie star; he’s famous for being difficult. And he has his own opinion on what’s funny. I would explain it and he’d say, ”I'll do this and this”. With a guy like him you have to do five or six takes, so he’s happy, then you have to do more to make you happy. I certainly had to tone him down a little. Us Europeans understand subtlety instead more than the in-your-face style acting. Subtle is my kind of humour.

#FortyEight, In Book, 2014

Perfect Day

This was challenging because of the musical aspect. Every shot had to be locked to a certain part of the text. You can’t say "oh we’ll use this shot later". You have to work harder in pre-production. I usually go with the flow on set, but here that wouldn’t work.

Obviously these guys were actors and not singers, I liked that their singing wasn’t perfect. You wonder "why are these guys singing?", and then you realise – it’s just friends who enjoy killing each other.

So suddenly I had great admiration for musical directors. Though I still hate musicals.

Perfect Day, In Book, 2014

The D&AD Next Director Award aims to discover and showcase the next generation of talented directors from around the world. Are you next?

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