THE ELEPHANT MAN

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His triple win at Cannes in 1996 encouraged Dutch director Rogier van der Ploeg, he of the famous Rolo spot, to try his luck in the United States. How can he lose? Creatives never forget.

Advertising has annoyed me all my life. It is almost always an interruption of what you really want you to see."

If someone had predicted 10 years ago that Rogier van der Ploeg would one day have an international career shooting commercials, the lanky rock guitarist-cum-director would have scoffed. "With few exceptions, I hated advertising," the 35-year-old Dutchman says with characteristic bluntness. "I was and still am a film buff. So my priority, when I finally did start making commercials, was to entertain people -- or at the very least, to avoid insulting them."

It's safe to say that Van der Ploeg succeeded. He recalls how several of his commercials seeped into his native Holland's pop culture so deeply that people from all walks of life used catchy lines from the scripts to make each other laugh. The Fruitjoy commercial, for a popsicle that changes color as you lick it, is a good example. The spot shows a man sitting at the wheel waiting for the light to turn, absentmindedly picking his nose; while on the backseat, a little boy is admiring the popsicle he just took out of his mouth. "Hey, it's green!" the tyke exclaims -- and dad hits the accelerator. After the collision, as the airbags are deflating, a small voice is heard from the rear seat: "And now it's red again."

That simple monologue became almost a national treasure, in much the same way that Budweiser's tearful "I love you man" did in the United States.

The spot is vintage Van der Ploeg. He has a bent for modern-day slapstick (also much in evidence in his famous Rolo commercial, the one with the elephant who waits decades to get revenge on a nasty kid), and considers himself a storyteller first and foremost. "I wouldn't do a car commercial that consists of beautifully shot footage and a voiceover," he says. "Or a perfume spot with women in flowing gowns dancing around a bottle. Other directors do that much better. I want to do commercials that have a beginning and an end."

He'd also hate to become repetitive. "After Jonathan Glazer shot 'Frozen Moment' for Nike, which I liked, about 396 directors from all over the world did spots that looked exactly like it," Van der Ploeg says, a little incredulous. "That's another reason why I prefer story-based commercials: stories are new almost by definition, whereas fancy camera techniques and special effects are too easily copied."

But given his original aversion to the trade, how was the Dutchman persuaded to take up advertising at all? "I saw some international awards show reels," he recalls a little sheepishly. "And I became enthused. It opened my eyes to the fact that there actually are great spots out there. It became a challenge to compete on that level."

He had trouble finding his style in the beginning. "I couldn't let go of the preconception that spots have to be slick and professional-looking. After I'd done three I wasn't happy with, I decided to throw in the towel -- but only after I'd done one final commercial that was just me, one I did with my handheld 16-millimeter Bolex camera. It had to be wild. I wanted to go out with a bang." After that spot, Van der Ploeg assumed, he would be persona non grata in Dutch advertising. No dice. Agency folk complimented him on his original style and gave him all the work he could handle, and the director realized that maybe he was on to something after all.

So did the cream of the international advertising community. At Cannes in '96, Van der Ploeg was as stunned as everyone else by his hat trick: a Gold Lion and the Grand Prix for the Rolo spot, plus the Palme d'Or for his production company, Amsterdam's Czar Films. "I believe Joe Pytka had four major wins in Cannes once, in his heyday, but for our unknown little company to come out of left field and snag three of the big prizes, well, it was unprecedented. And wonderful, of course, even though I was pretty dazed and confused. The magnitude of it didn't really sink in at the time." The only other regret he had was that, not believing he'd win anything substantial, he hadn't asked his girlfriend along on the trip. Last year, she was right there in the audience, beaming as Van der Ploeg collected another Gold Lion -- for the Fruitjoy spot.

Last month, the couple moved to New York, because Van der Ploeg had grown tired of not being very involved in the creative decisionmaking. While he's fairly happy with the anti-tobacco spots he did for the Massachusetts Department of Health last year, and with his Tidycat spot for Ralston Purina, he ultimately didn't just want to be flown in from Europe for a shoot. "One of the reasons the Rolo commercial came out so well was because of the synergy between the agency creatives and myself," he insists. "I made small contributions to the story, and they suggested ways to shoot things. I like to be able to kick ideas around. I like face-to-face contact. So now I live here." He's already parlayed his local presence into a few Budweiser Super Bowl spots, work of which he's justifiably proud.

Still, Van der Ploeg would mostly like to be remembered for something he hasn't tried his hand at yet: making feature films. "I'm not talking about Hollywood," he responds adamantly to the interviewer's mere mention of Tinseltown. "Screw Hollywood. Too many directors make big, beautifully shot, painfully empty movies there. Someone like John Cassavetes, on the other hand, rarely left New York City, and did some stunning independent films -- on his terms. And on a dime, if necessary. If I have to sock away the money I now make directing commercials and use it to make my own movie, no problem."

That's assuming the ad work will keep coming for a while. Will Van der Ploeg be able to make the transition from flavor-of-the-month to titan of the commercial set? The guy has little to worry about, says David Verhoef, director of broadcast production at Cliff Freeman & Partners, who worked with Van der Ploeg on an Ameritech spot last year, while at Arnold Advertising. "Rogier excells in getting genuine performance from his actors," says Verhoef. "And there's a maturity to his work. Other young directors often think that a funny script can be made wackier with fish-eye shots and other extreme angles. Rogier is more straightforward, almost to the point where his stuff comes out just a little unpolished."

Van der Ploeg concedes the point. "One reason why I use film, not video, is that with film you can't play back a scene right after you've shot it," he says. "Which is good. I want to focus on the performance, not on whether a lamp should be an inch more to the left or to the right."

Karim Bartoletti, a producer at DDB Needham/Chicago who just finished three Bud spots with Van der Ploeg, predicts that the director is "going places." "He doesn't seem to have an ego, and he sees things through to the end. Most directors will come in, do their scenes, and leave. Rogier sticks around for the editing phase. He likes team effort. And now that he's shown his stuff here, I no longer have to convince my creatives that the guy indeed speaks English."

For his part, Van der Ploeg has encountered few obstacles since his immigration, language- or otherwise. "The one major headache," he quips, "is getting people

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