Matthijs Van Heijningen is one of those rare few inspired by the cockroach - more specifically, Franz Kafka's protagonist in The Metamorphosis. "The guy suddenly finds out he's a beetle, but he still thinks like an office clerk," he laughs. "He frets about what his boss will think if he doesn't show up for work, but he doesn't freak out about being a beetle. That level of absurdity, staying serious while the world changes into a complete mess, was really an inspiration to me." His reel reflects this sensibility, as in "The Sculptor," a Cannes audience favorite in which a young Indian man resolutely bangs up his jalopy, ultimately sculpting it into the shape of a new Peugeot. Van Heijningen just wrapped a new spot for the client, a massive effects gig in which a man's sheet-metal dreams literally become reality. "I think my characters are pretty believable, but the things that happen to them are quite absurd," he says.
In general, Van Heijningen, 38, prefers storytelling and comedy over serious fare. "Nobody asks to watch a commercial; I think you should entertain people one way or the other, unless it's for a charity." His dramatic work, however, doesn't need any force-feeding. A Gold Lion-winning PSA for the U.N. emotionalizes dry statistics via still photography dimensionalized in post. "At first, we thought about using stock footage that showed horrible images, but it became pretentious and a bit boring, so using pictures from photographers in 3-D maybe makes it more interesting to watch." Whatever statement he tries to make, Van Heijningen belives "your commercials should be personal. If you don't feel a personal attachment to what you make, it's somebody else's and probably won't have a soul. Sometimes it's difficult to defend, but the trick is to inform everybody upfront of what your aim is."
Upfront, his aim was to be a lawyer, looking to do something different after growing up on the set with his father, a Dutch filmmaker. But, inspired by an ad for Central Beheer, a client for whom he himself later went on to direct, Van Heijningen turned back to film. The spot was "was about an arrogant bastard who drives a very luxurious car," he recalls. "He watches television, sees a hypnotist on the TV and gets hypnotized forever. It was very well executed and I thought, Wow, if commercials can be funny little stories, maybe that's for me."