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ZEAL APPEAL A GUY WHO FELT HE WAS PERCEIVED AS 'GRATUITOUSLY STRANGE' AT CLIFF FREEMAN & PARTNERS, OF ALL PLACES, KEVIN DONOVAN USED TO BE A WEIRD ART DIRECTOR. NOW HE'S A WEIRD DIRECTOR, THOUGH THE STRANGENESS OF HIS REEL MAY NOT BE ALL THAT GRATUITOUS

By Published on .

LAST YEAR KEVIN DONOVAN stunned his colleagues at Cliff Freeman & Partners when, after two years at the agency, he left and joined Bedford Falls, Los Angeles, to direct commercials; but after impressive jobs for HHCC, Livingston & Co./Los Angeles and Deutsch Inc., which comprise some remarkably strange commercials-not to mention an exceedingly bizarre spec spot for Doc Martens that garnered much agency attention-it's becoming increasingly plain that Donovan has finally found the creative outlet that eluded him in a journey through five shops in six years.

Donovan "was always envious of the director who could walk away at the end of the shoot," recalls former partner Todd Godwin, a group CD at Lowe & Partners SMS who teamed with him at Levine Huntley, BBDO and a freelance agency called LHS & Used to B. "The internal agency politics he had no patience for, and he really didn't want to be good at it."

"It was like I was never going to express myself in a way that they would understand," says Donovan, 33, referring to clients and agency higher-ups. "I'm still saying the same things that I did three years ago, but now they sometimes listen; before they'd just look at me and say, 'What, is he on drugs or something?' They just thought it was weirdness for weirdness' sake.

"Cliff [Freeman] always thought I was being weird," he adds, "and as strange as his work is, he always thought I was being gratuitously strange."

While Freeman admits he was "quite amazed" by Donovan's sudden decision to direct, he insists he never considered the art director a weirdo. Rather, he says, "I thought that he was extremely intelligent and ambitious." And if his work didn't get through-and it usually didn't-it was because the shop is competitive and maybe Donovan wasn't communicating with him sufficiently, he says. "I have certain ideas of what will work," Freeman adds. "There's not a lot of opportunity for experimentation.

Well, now there is. "When Cliff picks someone for those Little Caesars spots, as much as those characters are verging on Fellini circus performers, they have something about them that just tugs at your heart," Donovan explains. "I'm probably missing that emotional makeup-I just go all the way for the circus."

Consider the pivotal Donovan spec spot for Dr. Martens boots, in which a mystic zealot tramps through Death Valley barefoot, sporting tattoos that read "sacrifice," "pain" and "truth," mumbling in Aramaic and whacking his back with a stick. Suddenly a hand appears with a glass of water. He rejects the temptation by zapping the glass with a cartoony laser blast, then utters something that translates via title card as "Man desires more than water." When a hand dangles a nude centerfold in front of him, he shudders, blinking his eyes, with lids alternately labeled "good" and "evil," then clothes the nude with a cutout paper doll dress. Finally the ground opens up and hands thrust up a pair of Dr. Martens boots, which he holds aloft as if it were the Holy Grail. "Now, shoes I can use!" he proclaims. In the next scene we see him trekking away, barefoot as always, beating his back with the boots. "They fit your feet, they fit your head," goes the tag.

While Donovan says the spot was inspired by his "repressed Irish Catholic upbringing," he acknowledges a stylistic similarity with the quirky graphic gags of a Little Caesars' commercial. (Ironically, Donovan saw only two of his Caesars spots produced in his time at the agency-a little number in which two grannies vie to see who has the bigger truck and a zany fling called "Farting Cow.") "My inclination was always, why should a Cliff Freeman humor style be totally separate from David Fincher special effects?" he says of "Zealot." "A marrying of the two would be a great thing. The film is beautiful enough and it's convincing enough that you buy into the joke and it makes it all the more powerful."

Still, the peculiar look of "Zealot" is right at home on Donovan's reel. Two equally deranged spots for Deutsch and British Knights, for instance, tap two unlikely sneaker endorsers: a paranoid schizophrenic and a teenage thug who schemes a demented torture test for BK's new Rods shoe. In the split personality spot, in which a guy wears BK's Dymacel basketball shoe on one foot and a Rods shoe on the other, Donovan captured the manic teen's mood swings by exaggerating his herky-jerky movements with orange lighting, a blitzing soundtrack and cutaways of a snarling dog.

A campaign for HHCC/Boston and Southern New England Telephone that compares things invented or inspired in Connecticut with "a new way to call out of state" is certainly one of the strangest long-distance service ideas to surface since divestiture. One spot, which looks more like an excerpt from "The Kids in the Hall," kicks off with 20 seconds of tight closeups of people waggling their brightly colored tongues; then the camera swoops down on a woman holding a lollipop, which swirls into the circular logo for SNET. Title cards explain the lollipop was invented in Connecticut.

But it was the "Zealot" spot that attracted Livingston & Co. copywriter Jon Pearce to hire Donovan for two California Department of Health anti-smoking spots, which represent Donovan's move into more serious material. Aside from the spot's casting and unusual camera angles, Pearce says he was impressed with "the sophistication and inventiveness" of his imagery. "Even though the spot was stylized and funky, there was a real strength in his visuals."

Shot in slow motion b&w, we see a man as he smokes his way through the day, his victims vanishing in tobacco fumes, over which a number is projected-the death toll attributed to second-hand smoke in California each day. In a second spot, Donovan returns to a circus-like atmosphere as a smarmy tobacco industry exec lies about the dangers of nicotine, his head shrinking further with each additional untruth until it is finally sucked entirely into his neck.

While Donovan cites Fellini, David Lynch and the early films of Sergei Eisenstein as influences, he says he more often borrows from fine-art influences, mainly American painter George Tooker, whose emphasis on strange and distorted perspectives comes through in the spots for SNET and BK. Under Tooker's objective brush, people "almost become like chess pieces rather than human beings," Donovan says. "I may use it for humor, but he does it in a way that really shows the alienation of a human being in relation to his environment."

Growing up in Helena, Mont., Donovan shot his first films of sports events as a kid, borrowing his dad's Super 8 camera and editing them in the basement. And even though he was a star art student in high school, his parents coaxed him into pursuing a business degree at Montana State University, where he played linebacker on the football team. After graduating he took a job at Boeing in Seattle and spent the next 10 months in misery, tracking documents on a computer. Art classes at the University of Washington inspired him to enroll at Pasadena's Art Center for an advertising degree. Upon graduation, he moved to New York and joined J. Walter Thompson, where he met Todd Godwin, his future writing partner. Even then Donovan recalls being lured by the director's role. "I was always the guy siding with the director," he says, "when he would have some bizarre idea or something that would really change the script markedly, usually for the better."

However, a few of Donovan's stranger boards squeaked through to hint at his future directing style: A freelance spot for a dog trainer, which won a One Show Silver Pencil, is a frenetic comic sketch of a mutt ransacking an apartment. A Milton Bradley spot for Levine Huntley puts an unnatural glow on the game genre as a cleaning lady and a physicist face off at Scattergories inside a nuclear reactor.

Last year, besides "Zealot," Donovan also shot a spec spot for Champion athletic apparel, called "The Dribbler." A touching, quirky tale about a little Harlem boy who decides to become a dribbler when all the hoops in the neighborhood have been vandalized, he dribbles all over town until he's reproached by an angry neighbor. "That's the day I decided to be a rebounder," the kid says spritely.

Calling the spot autobiographical in "a very warped sense," Donovan explains, "There's a part of me being a sports fanatic and a strange, annoying child who has a lot in common with that kid."

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