Lionel Goldstein was conceived during a drunken afterparty at Cannes in 2000, when Belgian directors Koen Mortier and Joe Vanhoutteghem, both 38, were commiserating over the frustration they experienced with all the agencies that had turned them down for the humorous high-concept work they hoped to do. "Our showreels are very visual," explains Mortier, "so we decided to create another person that did funny work." The newly born Goldstein indeed went on to shoot the comedy commercials his creators had longed for, including a local road safety PSA in which literally lead-footed folks clumsily plod through quotidian scenarios, and a Frisk gum campaign, for Wieden & Kennedy/Amsterdam, which landed the duo the trophy that cheekily inspired their alter-ego's moniker, the Gold Lion. The work illustrates ludicrous brain-testing situations, as in one spot where a dim bulb distinguishes a real horse from a lineup of men clearly done up in equine guise.
The rest of the reel follows ridiculous suit with other characters: a Dutch fire brigade that drenches the distressed with water, even though the 911 isn't about an inferno; ambitious reporters for DeMorgen Newspaper who stealthily plant themselves in the heat of the action, including one hard-boiled journalist who, during a cocaine raid, emerges from a man's butt gloved in a XXXXXL condom. Most recently, Goldstein just launched into a round of spots for Fox Sports and TBWA\Chiat\Day, fresh off of snagging another Gold Lion for their ear-pong spoof for Xbox and BBH/London, featuring a table tennis champion who uses his Dumbo-like ears to paddle his way to national sports hero status. "The type of work we do feels smart, but in way, it's sort of dumb," observes Vanhoutteghem.
In reality, there's a kind of fuzzy science to the Goldstein brand of wackiness. Many of their spots, like "Ear Tennis," have an absurdist documentary feel, which stems from the team's preferred M.O. The directors like to work in an open-ended manner, preferring to collaborate with agencies on concepts rather than to execute detailed scripts. On shoots, they keep setups simple in order to allow a freedom for both actors and crew. "We only do one take, and if we don't like it we go on and improvise on the next one," notes Vanhoutteghem. "It's not like directors asking actors, 'Can you do this again?' We want the action to be really realistic and fresh. If you repeat things, you can feel it in the acting and we don't want that." Talent is crucial to Goldstein's humor, and the directors are dead set on working with extras instead of professional actors to keep expressions genuine and, perhaps, naive. "What we hate is humor when characters think they're funny, when people act funny," insists Mortier. "Our characters don't know what they're doing, so they do funny things, they become funny, because of their innocence, in a way. We kind of abuse people."
Indeed, on set it's double the punishment, considering Goldstein is not actually one, but two directors. And if directives from dual mouthpieces create a mixed message, that's even better. "We don't prevent confusion, we create confusion," laughs Mortier. "The actors should be confused, that's the goal. If there's no confusion, we don't do good work. The only important thing is to keep the concept in mind. The rest is all changeable and can be filled in."