Jeff Zwart is a rock star, both in the driver’s seat and director’s chair
One thing you need to understand about Jeff Zwart: the man lives a life that does not require special effects, Instagram trickery, or, for that matter, a vacation.
If you don’t already recognize Zwart’s name from his adventures in the car world (his record-setting runs up Pikes Peak, perhaps, or his vagabonding in a 1953 Porsche 356) you certainly know his professional work.
That Jeep Super Bowl commercial from earlier this year? He directed that. The 2012 “Cadillac ATS vs. the World” series? Also his work. That Porsche Panamera spot from a few years back? You know, the one where a hundred million dollars of precious Stuttgart metal danced and weaved across a dry desert lake bed? (OK, that one involved some special effects.) Yep, you guessed it: also Zwart.
Perhaps the best measure of one’s success in life is not fame, or money, or a garage that includes, among other things, a Porsche 959, Gmünd 356, and 906 Carrera. No, the true measure is waking up on a Monday morning and not immediately counting down the days until Friday, when you won’t have to do whatever it is you’ll be doing on that Monday morning. By this measure, Zwart is a model of success.
On any given Monday, odds are that Zwart will be doing exactly what he pleases, whether that involves directing a commercial or racing a car. And given how seamlessly those pursuits feed into one another, it’s not always clear where Zwart’s professional duties end and where his personal adventures begin.
“If I were to make a list of my three favorite things to do in life,” Zwart says, “they’d be hanging out with my family and my dog in the mountains; going to the Nurburgring and hammering around in a rental car all day long; and directing a television commercial, which I really view as recreation and therapy. If I could do anything I wanted tomorrow… I’d hit the road and shoot a commercial.”
Explorer from a young age
Where Zwart got his creativity, his wanderlust, and his taste for speed is not entirely clear, but he is quick to ascribe his general outlook on life to his parents. Dad was a plastics engineer and Mom a school teacher, and they instilled in their son a sense of adventure, a general curiosity about the world, and a belief that life is short, fascinating, and anything but a chore.
That’s probably why Zwart’s parents did not object when, at 16, their son and his friend announced plans to take their savings and bicycle across Europe. The Zwarts were not an especially well-traveled bunch at this point. Sure, they moved around the United States a lot for Dad’s work, but neither parent had ever been to Europe. Heck, they didn’t even know anyone in Europe, but they knew better than to stifle their son’s curiosity. Thus did the two teenagers find themselves deplaning in London in the summer of 1972 with nothing but backpacks and bicycles. Six weeks later, after pedaling across the continent, Zwart and his companion put their kickstands down in Munich just in time for the Olympics.
Diving head first
This embrace of the unknown, of the thrill that comes from stepping off the ledge and trusting in his own abilities, has defined Zwart’s life and career, both as a director and as a driver. With few exceptions, betting on himself has paid off well. A few years after that first trip to Europe, he gave up his veterinary studies to enroll in ArtCenter College of Design with the dream of one day shooting for Road & Track. Within a year of graduating, he was shooting the cover for that iconic magazine. Soon thereafter, he was tapped to photograph R&T’s annual calendars and its Formula 1 spotter’s guide, heady stuff for a kid from Long Beach whose career goals, only a few years earlier, had centered on preventing distemper in the neighborhood golden retrievers.
Was that California kid—who caught the racing bug at circuits like Spa, Zandvoort, and Le Mans while in veterinary school in Germany—ever gobsmacked by the life he was suddenly being paid to live? Without hesitation, Zwart recalls the fighter jets. Back in the 1980s, someone at Northrup saw Zwart’s Formula 1 work and decided to send Zwart into the sky in an F-18.
“It was certainly a pretty magical moment when I got to shoot actual fighter planes from the co-pilot’s seat,” Zwart says. “There are just some times where you just find yourself with huge scenes in front of your camera that are so magical, and you can’t believe someone has actually asked you to photograph that. It’s pretty cool.“
Magical, sure, but whether he’s shooting race cars, or fighter jets, or the latest big-budget commercial for an automaker, the stakes are high. For Zwart, however, if there is no challenge, no stretch, no hint of discomfort and unease, it’s almost as if he can’t be bothered. After all, he didn’t get to live this sort of life by being complacent.
“We always joke with my crew that if it’s not an uncomfortable shot, it’s not a good shot, and I just love that challenge,” he says. “You need to step off, you need to rely on your experience, and challenge yourself to keep moving forward, and that in itself is extremely entertaining to me.”
Behind the wheel
In the late 1980s, this ethos carried Zwart into a racing career of his own. Soon thereafter, in 1990, he came within a scoring technicality of winning the overall championship in the U.S. ProRally Championship in a Rod Millen-built Mazda 323 GTX. Zwart is best known, however, for racing Porsches—especially for racing 12 different Porsches up Pikes Peak over the past 16 years. And racing, it must be noted, is not merely a way to pass the time. It feeds directly back into his professional life.
Translating experience into entertainment
“If I were to describe what I do it would be the visual interpretation of speed,” Zwart says, “and the reason I can sometimes do this differently than other filmmakers is that I have that first-person experience. I have pushed cars to the limit all over the world. I have visualized it through a helmet. I’ve been in every awkward and every successful automotive situation and this helps me tell a different story.”
This experience enables Zwart to pursue a style that centers on realism, on conveying the essence of speed without the aid of special effects.
“I gravitate toward projects where I can make the most out of the action of the car without hiding behind special effects and trickery,” he says. “Hopefully I do a pretty good job of shooting the action for real so that we don’t even need special effects.”
Film production and racing are also similar in another crucial sense; each requires an intensity of focus and a level of self-confidence that most people never have or never will develop in themselves. Far be it from Zwart to boast of his own capacities, but he certainly knows what’s at stake when he steps onto the set or straps himself into an 800-horsepower 911 on race day.
“Talk about a high-pressure situation,” he says. “After a week of practice [at Pikes Peak], I’m prepared and I’ve qualified, but you only get one run up that mountain—12.5 miles, no pit stops, no second chances. You have to go into a mode where all of your experience is going to play out in your mind and get you through what’s in front of you.
“The same goes for shooting a commercial. All your experience comes into play to get it done by sunset. And there are consequences in both instances; just as there are huge monetary consequences for not being done by sunset on a shoot, there are very real physical consequences at Pikes Peak.”
And it doesn’t matter if it happens on a Monday or a Friday. If the day the ends in “y,” it’s a day when Zwart is happy to wake up and get started.