The Thing is commercials director Matthijs van Heijningen’s first film, a frozen terrestrial nightmare that works as an effective prequel to the much-beloved John Carpenter flick of 1982. However, the project was only a distant possibility for the Dutch filmmaker when he first landed in LA five years ago.
“I came to LA and I didn’t know anybody,” he admits. “I worked with MJZ, but mostly on European jobs. It was Spike Jonze who suggested I talk to his entertainment lawyer. Then my showreel was sent out to various agents until CAA picked me up.”
Van Heijningen began the process of reading endless scripts forwarded by his agent at CAA:
“You read hundreds of scripts that suck because the best ones are taken,” he jokes on the process of finding one worthy enough to direct. In fact, it wasn’t until Zack Snyder came across his reel that things really began to happen for the Dutchman on American soil. “Zack liked my work and handed me this crazy zombie script called Army of the Dead,” explains van Heijningen. “It was a huge project, an insane story set in Las Vegas where everything is overrun by zombies.”
The project was so good that Warner Bros. gave van Heijningen the green light to direct the estimated $75m feature. Suddenly he was living the dream.
“I was pinching my arm every day,” he says on dealing with the reality of the situation. “All the clichés came true.”
Van Heijningen had an office tucked away on the back lot of Warner Bros. and met with film idol Tom Cruise on the project. “I remember Katie Holmes showing me their baby while I had all these horrible zombie photos under my arm,” he laughs. “The whole experience was like being in a Coen Brothers movie.”
Then the economic crisis in 2008 brought van Heijningen plummeting back down to earth. Warner Bros. had to kill the project, meaning van Heijningen was back to square one.
It’s fascinating how Warner Bros. cleared my office out within an hour of the news, as if nothing had ever happened. I gave in my Warner Bros. pass, my parking pass and shuffled out of the gate alone.
It was when van Heijningen began contemplating which of his favourite films could be ripe for a remake that he discovered a golden nugget at Universal Pictures. “I thought about all these movies I loved and I discovered that Universal were in the early stages of prepping a prequel to The Thing,” he explains. “It was one of my favourites, so I met with the producers and thankfully I became attached to the project.”
Universal gave The Thing a green light in 2009 meaning that van Heijningen was once again at the helm of a big Hollywood project. “I was excited, but terrified,” he admits.
The script wasn’t finished, we needed to get the right actors from Norway, plus we had to figure out the look of the creature. You can spend a month on prep for a commercial, but a film is 90 times longer. It was this huge mountain looming before me. It was ‘don’t look up, just go, go, go’!
Van Heijningen commenced reshaping the script, back-engineering the story so that a compelling mystery starts off in the Norwegian camp, before the parasitic extraterrestrial entity escapes, in the form of a canine, and infiltrates the American research station. “It was like being a detective going to a crime scene,” van Heijningen says about the writing process. “It was looking at all of the evidence in the Carpenter film and making a story out of it. From an early stage we decided not to have a male lead because MacReady [Kurt Russell’s character in the 1982 version] was such an iconic figure. That’s why we cast a woman. It seemed obvious after I re-watched Alien. I always loved Sigourney Weaver. Her character doesn’t care about her looks. She’s maybe even slightly shy about her appearance because it’s all about her intellect. It’s the same thing here.”
Van Heijningen shot the film in anamorphic format, going as far as using old Panavision glass from the 80s to render a nostalgic feel. He used Panavision C-Series glass, small and lightweight lenses often preferred to newer glass by many DPs because they are lower in contrast. “We had to pump out more light on set because they were slow lenses, but it was the exact look I was going for,” van Heijningen admits. The 70-day shoot was an enormous undertaking for van Heijningen compared to an average commercial shoot.
“You have to solve problems three or four weeks away from shooting, so you multitask,” he admits. “It’s a marathon. After 35 days you’re thinking, ‘man, I’m only half way!”
After wrapping up The Thing, van Heijningen returned to commercials, ironically his first spot being a wry tale about a grizzly bear who becomes a feature film director. Bear is part of a comedic campaign for French premium pay TV channel Canal+. Van Heijningen worked through Parisbased production company Soixan7e Quin5e and agency BETC Euro RSCG. The spot sees a stressed film director, in the guise of an animated grizzly bear rug, who runs amok on set. At the end we see the grizzly rug laid out in front of a TV in his days before becoming a director, inspired by films playing on Canal+. “That turned out to be a gem of a spot,” says van Heijningen. “It was all about casting an expressive actor to play the bear for the animation team. The bear animation is the exact copy of the actor’s motions.”
The spot also features the director’s special brand of wry humour. “The bear is funny, but there is also something very sweet and awkward about him,” offers van Heijningen. “In many ways I have an awkward sense of humour. I always try not to be funny yet somehow squeeze it in. In a way it’s being funny by denial. It’s the more awkward, or slightly ironic, humour that interests me.”
His offbeat humour pops up again in Aboriginal, part of a campaign that he directed for telecommunications client Versatel through 180 Amsterdam. The spot features an Australian Aboriginal spinning his bullroarer, an ancient ritual musical instrument used for communicating over great distances. It opens with him listening to the distant sound of a bullroarer from another tribe. He climbs up a large rock, leaving his wife down below at a watering hole, and commences swinging his bullroarer to signal to the distant tribe, but the rope snaps and the roarer flies off, hitting his wife on the side of her head, and toppling her over. A beat on the Aboriginal man pondering the moment nails the comedy effectively.
“The campaign was all about these weird forms of communication,” the director reveals. “We filmed the spot in South Africa, but plucked out a real Aboriginal from the Australian bush. It was even funnier than the commercial. He’d never flown on a plane before, and after 24 hours of travel he was dropped off in exactly the same environment in South Africa as the one he’d left. The look on his face was priceless.”
Other spots in Versatel’s amusing campaign feature a forlorn 18th-century love poet who accidentally throws his carrier pigeon into a closed window, killing both the bird and l’amour in one fell swoop. The campaign became big news in the Netherlands, featuring in newspapers, talk shows, and TV and radio news. The work successfully sells the premise that Versatel makes communication easier in today’s complex world.
Masterpiece for Stella Artois also demonstrates van Heijningen’s ability to direct witty, off-beat humour wrapped in classically lensed material. The spot follows the angst of French writer Marcel Dupont, despairingly toiling away on his masterpiece through a harsh, cold winter. Spring arrives, and he finally emerges from his writer’s den to announce his masterpiece is finished, but when the penniless artist brazenly asks for a Stella Artois at the local bar, its lazy-eyed keeper sees an opportunity afoot. The forlorn writer must trade his precious script for a glass of exquisite European hops, proving yet again for Stella that ‘perfection has a price’. With cinematographer Joost Van Gelder, van Heijningen captured a beautiful organic feel on the spot. “That was a tricky commercial,” he recalls. “There’s actually a cool, organic look to parts of it because the film was accidentally exposed to light in transit.”
Such ‘happy accidents’ on film are something van Heijningen lives for. As for digital in its many variant forms, although he doesn’t shy away from it he prefers film. Interestingly, it has little to do with image quality. “Of course, I’ll use digital if the job dictates it, but I prefer film,” he observes.
It’s not so much an image thing for me, as the fact that I don’t like to see the results immediately. I need to stay with ideas in my head. Sometimes it’s better not to know exactly what you’re doing. Seeing it straight away and analysing it can destroy the creative process. I like to stay in the vagueness of my own thoughts. Imagine composing music and having an orchestra play it immediately. It’s disturbing. It’s better to have it mapped out in your head, to hear it all in your head.
As for other elements that make for compelling viewing, van Heijningen believes backstory and character are imperative ingredients in the creative visual mix, even in commercials. “ You have to set up character, so that the audience can identify right away,” he asserts. “Without character it’s just a series of events.”
A previous spot, Clowns, for Netherlands insurance company Centraal Beheer is an excellent case in point. A nerdy French street cop discovers, via walkie-talkie, that guys wearing clown masks are robbing the local bank. He immediately accosts a driver and passengers on the street, requisitions their car and races along Parisian streets toward the bank. As he flies along, the camera subtly glances over his shoulder to reveal clown masks on the back seat. “The story of a Parisian cop who steals the wrong car and thinks he’s a hero, but he’s not,” laughs van Heijningen. “To identify with him I added some of those little, simple things, like him talking to the flower girl at the beginning of the spot before he runs off to save the day. Saying the flowers look nice means he talks to her every single day.”
When shaping his work, van Heijningen often works alongside editor Jono Griffith. A trusted ally, the two have worked together on projects for more than a decade. “We [grew] up together and have the same sense of style and humour,” says van Heijningen. “He knows why I shoot something in a certain way. Plus, he offers creative suggestions because he understands my language as a director. Finding the music, the rhythm and everything else with someone new is always extremely difficult.”
Between MJZ’s offices in London and Paris production house Soixan7e Quin5e, van Heijningen keeps busy, eyeing boards and pondering the future. For now he is content to nestle close to European business, but he’s keeping his eye on the American film and commercials market.
As for his next feature, horror seems to have hooked its scaly claws into him: “I’m drawn into stories that start normally then descend into something weird,” explains van Heijningen. “That’s why I’m drawn to directors such as Roman Polanski and his films like Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion, where everything slowly goes into this other weird dimension. Maybe my next project will be something like Polanski’s, with dark humour and some deliciously dark comedy. Something like American Werewolf in London, which is, in a way, just a weird story about love and friendship wrapped in a crazy horror movie.”
Whatever it is, van Heijningen’s many fans will be sure to be watching…