Herring aficionado, former prison guard and Van Damme-whisperer…
Andreas Nilsson needs little introduction. He’s the director behind one of the most successful viral campaigns ever, Volvo Trucks’ ‘Epic Split’ in which Jean-Clause Van Damme did the splits between two moving lorries. The entire award count for that campaign is dizzying but it includes multiple Cannes Lions Grands Prix (Film and Cyber at Cannes 2014 – and taking the Creative Effectiveness Grand Prix the following year) and a D&AD Black Pencil. But that’s just one example from a reel stacked with comedic, playful, surreal, often dark commercials and music videos.
As a kid he grew in the depths of the Swedish countryside, where you either played for the local football club or went to church. He did neither. Prior to becoming a director he studied art - which he still practices today - and once worked as a prison guard at an establishment housing sex criminals and older inmates serving life.
But there are so many more stories to tell - and who better to tell them than the man himself? LBB’s Addison Capper picked his brains.
LBB> Andreas, hello! To get started, tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up and what kind of kid were you?
AN> I grew up in a tiny small town in the forest in Sweden. Less than 2000 inhabitants where you either played in the local football club or went to church. I did neither. Instead I fled into the world of computers and was a nerd; I cracked computer games and made music and images on the Amiga 500. I lived a pretty solitary life listening to gloomy industrial music and eating herring.
LBB> When did you first realise you wanted to be a filmmaker? I’ve read that you were more involved in the art world before moving into moving image…
AN> I moved away from home at 16 to a bigger city to go to art school. It was like coming home. Felt so good I stayed in art school for eight years which is, of course, way to long. But I simply enjoyed it too much to bother leaving.
LBB> Do you still practice art today? If so, what sort of thing do you do?
AN> I do. I did an exhibition last year at an art venue in Sweden with my friend Alexis Ross. It was an installation piece called Spa Boss. It was a historical sketch of the 20th century spa gangs of LA.
LBB> Once upon a time you were a prison guard - how did you fall into that? Are there any lessons that you took from that experience that have stuck with you? A job like that must give you an interesting perspective on human behaviour!
AN> After art school I was eager to try ‘real’ jobs. So, I had a few. Worked as a lecturer at art college, as a night clerk at a seedy hotel and as a prison guard. I think I learned more on these jobs then I did all these years in school. The prison I worked at was for sex criminals and older criminals that served for life. It’s of course an experience that broadens one’s perspective a bit.
As a kid I had a romantic idea about going to jail. I thought that would be quite a nice lifestyle. Sitting in your cell reading books and listening to music and not being bothered by the world outside. Let’s just say I don’t have that fantasy anymore.
LBB> It would be silly not to ask you about Epic Split. Jean-Claude Van Damme is certainly a character - how was he to work with, especially on such a meticulous shoot?
AN> JCVD is a complex man. I think we haven’t seen his best performance yet. Paul Thomas Anderson or Tarantino should cast him for their next movie. I hope he doesn’t mind me saying this, but I feel he carries a huge darkness inside that would be interesting to see blossom on screen.
LBB> That campaign turned out the be a phenomenon, winning every single award, becoming the ad of the year and getting its own parody featuring Toronto mayor and crackhead Rob Ford. What was it like experiencing all that unfurl?
AN> I remember I was in Miami shooting when it was released and didn’t follow it so closely. One evening I watched the Tonight Show and Jimmy Fallon did a sketch riffing on the spot. That’s when I realised something had happened and went online and saw the bizarre chain of reactions.
It’s funny, it still pops up here and there in all shapes and forms. In the latest edition of Swedish Trivial Pursuit there is a question about the spot. And someone told me that in the new movie about Paddington there is a scene that’s an homage to the spot. It’s become quite a pop-cultural phenomenon for sure. My favourite interpretation of it is a small bronze sculpture made by an artist in Amsterdam. It’s a small, beautifully crafted sculpture of JCVD that is placed on a bridge near the train station in Amsterdam.
LBB> Your promo for 2 Chainz ‘Birthday Song’ is a personal favourite. Some people might consider it to be misogynistic, but at the same time it’s fairly tongue-in-cheek and seems to be parodying some of the tropes you see in music videos of that nature. Would you agree with that? How tricky was it to tow the line between the two?
AN> Yes, of course it’s a play on the absurdity of the lyrics. When I got the track, I was struggling a lot. I mean, a line like ‘all I want for my birthday is a big booty ho’ is pretty graphic and I can honestly say I had never shared the same feeling for my own birthday. But the baroque qualities of the song made me laugh and I felt like I wanted to attack it from that angle. Simply be true to the poetry of the song. Of course, done with a tongue in cheek.
I developed the idea with Kanye who is pretty great in curating projects. He liked the fact that I was so disconnected to the hip-hop scene. I’ve been asked by many other rap artists since then to do a video. But every time they’ve kind of wanted the same video remade, but without any sarcasm or satire. These conversations have made me think of this scene in Spinal Tap where the album Smell the Glove has been cancelled and the A&R girl explains that it’s because the cover was ‘sexist’ and Nigel Tufnel replies, ‘What’s wrong with being sexy?’.
LBB> In an interview I did with you about your Aldi Zeus ad - big shout out to that - you cited Tampopo as one of your “biggest inspirations as a filmmaker”. I have not seen the film all the way through but after you sent me the egg scene I went onto watch a few more scenes on YouTube. What is it about the film that’s such an inspiration for you and how does it inform your work?
AN> Did I say that? I guess ‘my biggest inspiration as a filmmaker’ changes every day. Love Tampopo though. It has such an offbeat humour.
LBB> Your work is so varied but and so it’s difficult to pinpoint a ‘style’ - but things that always stick out to me are strong Nordic comedy with bold, visual aesthetics. How would you define your style?
AN> I feel most at home with projects that have a somehow elevated aesthetic and a dry sense of humour. My favourite projects are the ones where it’s unclear if the viewer is supposed to laugh or cry.
LBB> Which recent projects are you most proud of?
AN> I´m finishing up a French project for SNCF right now that I had fun making. I also like this Old Spice spot I did last year with Von Miller.
LBB> Is there one project from your reel that you are particularly proud of? Maybe for an unknown, hidden reason?
AN> I’m never fully happy with a project unfortunately. Wish I was, it would have been nice to have that feeling.
LBB> When it comes to commercial projects, how do you decide which ones that you would like to work on?
AN> Different aspects. If it’s an agency I’ve worked with before and if I know and like the creatives, it’s definitely a plus. And if the project offers something new for me to learn.
LBB> Which aspects of the filmmaking process are most enjoyable for you?
AN> I pretty much enjoy the whole process to be honest. But I find scouting quite rewarding and an amazing way to see a new city or country. You get a crash course in a specific field and you get the keys to enter all sorts of weird places and situations. And casting can sometimes be fantastic. To see an actor or non-actor come and take a small and somehow mediocre idea and turn it into gold is beautiful to see.
LBB> What do you get up to in your downtime to keep your creative batteries charged?
AN> I eat herring.
Andreas is repped by Biscuit in the US and UK, Czar in Germany, La Pac in France, Story in Spain, Bacon in Scandinavia and Revolver in Australia.