Mystery Unsolved

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Ulf Johansson
Ulf Johansson
None of the trolls pictured here is Ulf Johansson—he claims to be the one furthest to the left—but the illustration, by Swedish artist John Bauer, who grew up in the director's hometown of Jönköping, is what Johansson wanted to run in lieu of the usual publicity headshot. "I grew up in an area where there are lots of trolls," he explains matter-of-factly. He used to work at Traktor, so this kind of behavior is understandable, but in the nearly four years since he left the slightly twisted directing collective to start his own shop with executive producer Philippa Smith, Johansson remains slightly twisted himself—so he's the perfect guy to have directed this year's infamous and short-lived Super Bowl "Mechanics" ad, from TBWA/Chiat/Day/N.Y., which features what is almost certainly the first man-on-man kiss in the history of the big game. In the spot, the two mechanics nibble up either end of a Snickers bar, à la Lady and the Tramp, accidentally lock lips, then try to exorcise the homoerotic vibe by ripping out their chest hair. It managed to rile homophobes and gay-advocacy groups alike. For his part, Johansson says he was "puzzled" by the reactions. "The intent was not to offend." And it's worth noting that, in spite of the furor, a focus group convened by USA Today to rate the Super Bowl ads put the spot in its top 10.

If this scandal was unexpected, well, Johansson makes an effort to incorporate the element of surprise in all his work. "The only common thread on each job is being well prepped," he says. "But the boards should only be a framework for the story and leave room at the shoot for the unexpected." One of his favorite brushes with the spontaneous came on an Axe commercial he shot for BBH/London. "The dogs were let loose and the naked guy was chased for real," he recalls. "All hell broke loose, but the take was fantastic." Johansson's second Super Bowl offering this year was a campy Godzilla spoof for Garmin GPS navigation systems and Fallon/London, for which he spent many hours directing a frenetically kicking and stomping man in a "Maposaurus" monster suit. "We gave him a sugar rush, and it was more a question of trying to stop him."

While Snickers and Garmin showcase his outright silliness, Johansson's work for Nike ranges from light comedy, like 2004's "Michael Vick Experience" and "What If," featuring famous athletes in a sports switcheroo, to downright emotionally charged film. Particularly outstanding is the "Joga Bonito" campaign for last year's World Cup, out of Wieden & Kennedy/Amsterdam, which features soccer legend Eric Cantona and celebrates the way soccer ought to be played: with passion, teamwork and jaw-dropping dribbling. Johansson follows the superstars and captures not only their skills but their astonishment at their skills. Unlike much of the surreal and ironic work that Traktor is known for, these spots practically glow with innocence and wonder.

Elsewhere on the silly front, he's directed the Skittles "Sour Man," who administers overzealous physical exams to those with the temerity to reach for the candy, as well as BBDO/N.Y.'s eBay Express spokesman, who, in an interlinking series of spots, is harassed by various doppelgangers. But however offbeat they may be, Johansson's characters are rounded out with genuine emotion and tenderness. One of his earlier Snickers ads, also for BBDO, for example, features an oddly deluded office worker who tries to hide his baldness under an improvised toupee of Snickers bars, only to have his bubble burst by a gaggle of co-workers. "We know you're bald," they cruelly reveal, and the spot cuts to the poor man weeping in his car before he gingerly removes his cretinous packed-with-peanuts hairpiece. "Clearly a sensitive subject if you cast the right person," deadpans Johansson.

So has he learned anything new since going solo? Who knows? He cites only "the importance of teamwork with the client, agency and the crew." And despite finally having the chance to speak for himself after a dozen years when all remarks were attributed collectively to Traktor, Johansson is quiet on many subjects, including the reason why he left. "It was time to come out of hibernation," is all he offers. Still another mystery is the name of his production company, which seems to alternate between Smith & Jones and Smith & Sons. His explanation? "It's a Smith family-run business." (In addition to Philippa Smith, his assistant is also named Smith.) Even his future projects remain mischievously under the troll's wraps: "I'm planting acorns in the hopes they will grow into big oak trees," he says.
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