Fall 2019

From Sweden With Verve

A born storyteller, commercials director Fredrik Bond hooks viewers with offbeat humor and a touch of the macabre

By T.L. Stanley

Director Fredrik Bond (Photo: Courtesy of Fredrik Bond)

Like millions of television watchers, Fredrik Bond tuned in to Top of the Pops when he visited the U.K. as a kid in the '80s. He was less interested in hit songs and live performances, though, than he was in watching and videotaping the ads that ran during breaks. He'd later splice them together to create his own commercials.

Back home in his native Sweden, he'd insist on arriving early to the movie theater so he could see the 20-minute advertising pre-show.

"We didn't have commercials on Swedish TV, so it was special to see them," says Bond. "I was obsessed from an early age."

It's little surprise, then, that Bond has built his career in advertising, directing commercials for heavyweight marketers like Guinness, Adidas, United Airlines, Gatorade and Coca-Cola. Over the past few decades, he's amassed an armload of awards (Cannes Lions, Clios, D&AD Pencils, ADDYs, Emmy recognition and eight DGA Award nominations) for work with McDonald's, Heineken, Puma, Smirnoff, JCPenney and other companies.

"I love dissecting and getting close to characters," says Bond, a veteran of several Super Bowl ad derbies. "And I've always been fascinated by how efficiently you can tell a story and pack so much into a short-film format."

A memorable Apple spot called "Dive" highlights his penchant for character studies. The ad, for the iPhone 7's water-resistant speakers, follows an older gentleman as he wows everyone poolside with a stunning high dive.

Bond insisted on multiple casting sessions to find the right fit, enlisting military scouts to look for experienced divers and going back-and-forth with the agency because, he says, "I wanted to push it to the limit and see if there's somebody we missed out there."

A bricklayer from Napoli, not an actor or athlete, landed the role, in part because of his bravado. "This one was quite hard," Bond says, "Because he wasn't doing much. He was just walking, exuding this confidence, this inner love" for the public performance that was at the heart of the commercial.

And Bond wanted someone who could dive "for real," with no help from effects. The bricklayer, who spoke only Italian, promised to do 10 epic belly flops from the pool's highest platform. "He complained after nine takes," Bond says, though that was enough to capture the moment.

iPhone: "Dive" (Screenpulls: Apple)

"Dive" is typical of the way Bond works, choosing his stars based on "unique physicality" like a pronounced limp for the Spider-Man character in the Philips "Everyday Hero" ad. It also shows his preference for in-camera shots over effects.

"I'm not very technical—I don't like technology so much," he said during the 2019 edition of "Meet the Nominees: Commercials" at the DGA in Los Angeles, talking specifically about a choreography-heavy Virgin TV spot called "Harmony." "There's CG at the opening and end, but 80 to 90 percent of it is in camera."

Bond, who's shot recently in Los Angeles, Prague and Portugal, brought dozens of Jason Statham clones to life for LG's "World of Play," "spending a fortune" on look-alike masks that didn't end up in the finished product.

"Even though they were well made, you could spot the masks in a millisecond," he told the DGA Meet the Nominees audience in 2017. "In the end, we used a lot of face replacements."

He had five days with Statham, a rare stretch for a celebrity shoot, but he couldn't convince the martial arts-trained movie star to do a dance sequence. "When I work, I like to have one challenge that's hard to accomplish and try to nail it," Bond said. "He wasn't going to dance, but I did not give up." (A choreographer did the steps instead, with a Statham face added later).

Among Bond's other lauded campaigns are those for H&M, featuring a perfectly deadpan David Beckham sparring with Kevin Hart, who's wrangled the lead in the fictional biopic, "I, Beckham," and its Vegas musical revue; and Heineken, with Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldinho in an action-packed sci-fi manga-mashup called "The Wall" that blends robots, drones, geishas and parkour.

Another piece of Heineken work, about a legendarily smooth guy on an epic night out with a beautiful gal called "The Date," spawned its own behind-the-scenes mini-movie that's every bit as entertaining as the decorated commercial. (While the ad's star walks viewers through a restaurant scene and juggles knives, the director spins a dinner plate on his fingertip. And that's just a small slice of the video's charm.)

Bond just finished a Coke campaign in Europe called "Lightly," a mini love story that shows the ups and downs in a relationship in side-by-side frames. It's one of his new favorites, he says, because it displayed "a lot of heart" and came from a "soulful place."

Coke: "Lightly" (Screenpulls: Coke)

While he's in demand these days, the self-taught director had a few doors slammed in his face in the '90s when Bond was trying to jump-start his nascent career and show off his unique aesthetic.

He had created three 60-second spec ads: one featuring a sadistic piano teacher who keeps slamming the lid on a student's hands when he plays the wrong notes (tagline: "Milk for strong bones"); one for Chiquita bananas involving an ominous encounter on a subway; and a third depicting a couple "shagging" in a runaway Volvo. (It was the director's way of highlighting the car's double air bags.)

He introduced each unsolicited ad, with its twisted sense of humor, during in-person meetings he finagled with the brands.

"I thought they should've appreciated that someone was working for free, but they threatened me if those ads ever saw the light of day," he says. "They said, 'We'll sue you!'"

Bond can laugh about the experience now, realizing that his approach was gutsier than it was realistic. But the work, as it turned out, was a well-timed salute to one of his heroes, Swedish commercials director Roy Andersson.

A trade publication, Shots Magazine, wrote about the black comedies, in effect giving them an industry stamp of approval and drawing attention to Bond's offbeat sensibilities. That happened just as brands were starting to take more risks in their marketing messages.

Calls came in from ad agencies, and Bond landed some gigs, slowly building his CV.

"It was tough to break in," says Bond, who leveled up to shooting after working as an editor. "I had the tenacity to keep going, and people gave me a chance."

H&M: "I, Beckham" (Screenpulls: H&M)

Though he might've been a little typecast in the beginning, Bond didn't gravitate just to dark material, he says, but instead looked for "projects that had soul and humanity."

These days, he immerses himself in each project, he says, honing "a singular voice and vision" with the client, agency and crew. He describes his prep as extensive, when time permits, during which he draws "very poor" sketches, listens to music, writes treatments and talks through the ideas with all the players, trying to crystalize its concept.

While it's time-consuming, he embeds himself in the casting process. "I love casting, even though it can be exhausting," he says. "It's important to be excited about what these people have to offer."

Armed with his trusty Hasselblad, he photographs casting sessions, sets and scenes for his own reference. "Commercials are so fast, so any tool that sort of slows down the process and makes you reflect is a good one," he says.

While having a firm hand on the reins, he says he's open to thoughts and suggestions from the crew because "I love a climate where even a PA can come up with an idea. It's not a free for all, but there's an openness, and I enjoy the participation."

Bond plans to follow up his first feature, 2013's Charlie Countryman, starring Shia LaBeouf and Evan Rachel Wood, with another drama, this time laced with comedic elements. He's not sure when it will happen, but it's on his to-do list.

Meanwhile, he'll continue shooting ads, including an action-centric spot coming up for consumer electronics brand HP. He thrives on the collaboration with clients and agencies and the genre hopping he's able to do in the work.

"You never know what will come up next," he says. "It's completely unpredictable, and that keeps me energized."

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