There's a 60-second spot on Harald Zwart's visually arresting and often very funny reel that encapsulates his talent for casting, timing and comedy. The scenario is this: a frustrated driver with a cute young son in the back is stuck behind a moving van. Two men, impassive of mien and wholly indifferent to the driver's predicament, fastidiously load small objects into the truck, regularly pausing to take in the air. The driver gets out of his car to remonstrate with them. As he returns to his vehicle, he discovers that his son has consumed the candy bar he'd been eating. The message: "Buckle Up."
As a piece of advertising, written and directed on behalf of the Danish Road Safety Council, the commercial may lack conviction; as an example of pure and witty filmmaking, it's exemplary. All credit to Zwart, who loses no time in capitalizing on his opportunities. Remarkably, he started directing at the age of 8 -- "It was puppet animation," he says simply -- and decided on his future when he caught up with Star Wars at the advanced age of 12. "As soon as I saw it I knew where I wanted to go," he declares. "I had to direct."
After leaving school in his native Norway, he spent four years at the Film Academy in the Netherlands, learning everything he could about celluloid. On graduating, he returned to the frozen north, where he began directing commercials, some of which attracted favorable attention at the Cannes Festival. Zwart quickly became a name of note in the Scandinavian commercials pantheon. Eager to develop his skills, he acquired a French agent and started to make Gallic blandishments alongside a director called Fabrice Carazo.
When the latter was headhunted in 1995 to a new London production company by the name of Pink, he introduced Zwart to the outfit's founders, Karen Cunningham and Bash Robertson, who were duly impressed by Zwart's droll and elegant work. They ended up signing him, too. "It was in England that I really began building up a reel," says Zwart, who's now 33. "Among the first commercials I directed was a spot for Vigorsol mints through Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and I've subsequently done a lot of work for them. In fact, it's become a bit of a joke -- people think I'm BBH's house director. But I don't care. As far as I'm concerned, it's one of the very best agencies around."
The feeling is clearly mutual. Says John Hegarty, chairman of BBH: "He's our sort of director. He understands the relationship between style and ideas and strikes a perfect balance between the two. He takes the shape and form of an idea and gives it character and depth."
One of the BBH commercials Zwart made, for the launch of the Polaroid Spice Cam, improbably features the Spice Girls as convent schoolchildren, who are expelled when the horrified nuns get ahold of their Polaroids; a hilarious BBH spot for Vigorsol gum features a chubby girl on the beach, who, rather than become svelte when she chews the gum, as she wishes, finds that everyone else on the beach has become fat -- including the local Baywatch-style lifeguard babes.
Says BBH copywriter Mark Hatfield: "Harald thinks on his feet and puts a lot of himself into commercials. About halfway through a shoot he'll say, 'Wouldn't it be good if we did this or that' and it strengthens the ad. Technically, he's so nailed down and together that it allows him to throw in these wild cards."
Zwart's reel has impressed numerous glitterati, most notably the judges at last year's London Advertising Festival, who gave him the Director of the Year bauble, and one Steven Spielberg, with whom Zwart has discussed collaborating. Inevitably, he already has a feature in the works, One Night at McCools, which he is about to start shooting. Starring co-producer Michael Douglas, as well as Liv Tyler and Matt Dillon, "It's a performance-based black comedy," says Zwart. "Exactly my kind of area. I'll be filming for 40 days and then it's back to commercials."
Is it any surprise that earlier this year, Variety tipped him as one of "10 directors to watch"? Zwart likes irony, sarcasm, slow-burn gags -- items that are at a premium as the millennium approaches, but he always manages to find them. "Comedy is my genre," he says. "I never take things seriously. I can joke about the most serious of topics. There's room for sarcasm and comic twists even when the subject is tragic." To achieve his comedic epiphany, Zwart needs to get the casting right. "Casting is the most important thing in all performance media," he says. "I can spend weeks casting. You can have all the special effects you want, but if viewers don't relate to the people, it won't work."
In a typically involving Zwart spot, the face of a baby morphs into that of a 60-year-old man to demonstrate the Ford Fiesta's capacity to accelerate from 0 to 60. He likes his films to look spectacularly good. "There's no reason a commercial can't be both funny and visual," he says. "Why can't a comedy commercial be as visual as a perfume spot? I like to think I deal in visual comedy. But you've always got to keep a balance. I try to combine the maximum