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10th April 2013
Summer loving
Title of film: River Island, Morning After
Director: Ehsan Bhatti
Production Company: White Lodge, Good Co.
Ehsan Bhatti transports us out of the winter doldrums with his latest short film for River Island. See Go-Pro dog's view video and storyboards in Related Content

How did the idea for this film come about? Were you commissioned directly by River Island again? How does that collaboration work in terms of the origination of the concept and the degree of creative freedom you’re granted?

On this, I led the film creative, working with River Island and the creative agency who were already exploring a route for the SS13 stills campaign with photographer royalty Ellen Von Unwerth in mind. As an extension of the overall campaign, the intention was to provide a narrative that brought the stills to life. The tricky part, however, on projects like these, is that the stills idea often evolves past pre-production through the actual shoot – but the film script can’t get away with being as fluid. Location, casting and styling, even scheduling, had to revolve around the ever-changing stills concept. So even though the client was super-cool and open to some really fun ideas, the concept needed to revolve primarily around the resources we had available to us – one day, a villa, two models and a wide range of product.

Quite often with fashion films one of the key challenges is how to feature a lot of looks in a single film whilst telling a story. How did you come up with the solution to this – to have you characters trying on multiple outfits as they’re packing to leave?

The creative agency was keen to position the film to be shoppable if needed – while the client wanted to split the film across the season to make it relevant to specific trends and hero products. My script hence needed to focus heavily on product, yet still feel like an engaging film with a sense of narrative to sustain interest. We needed to cram a lot of clothes into the film, so I came up with the idea of a ‘trashed’ villa – where we could include lots of product in a subtle way almost contributing to the set design – like the sunglasses next to the fishbowl.

The initial storyline was staged to feel more like the models just woke up: they’d explore the villa trashed after a crazy wrap party for the stills shoot, tracing what happened the night before through the abandoned stylists’ rail, suitcases, polaroids and so on. Quirky art-direction and a humorous twist.The ‘Hangover-esque’ route potentially felt too far from the stills concept – so the final storyline is a far tamer scene of an ‘aftermath’, where the underlying story is all about dressing up and packing bags in a comically haphazard way. For the sake of the shoppable functionality, I scripted in lots of click-opportunities, led by the models – picking up a jacket from a statue or showing lots of different looks in the girl and guys’s camera-flash play.

Where did you shoot? The lighting looks uncharacteristically sunny to be the UK!

Sunny LA – in Frank Sinatra’s old house! Once again, location was down to the stills – and they had the option to make a final decision just a few days prior to the shoot. Luckily, the set worked really well for our concept too. Anything shot in LA just looks like a million bucks, with that smoky warm sunlight and those idyllic hill–top views; it’s totally worth shooting out there as it will instantly raise the production value – especially in a month like November… We didn’t want to rely on extensive lighting so we let the location work for us; where the light started to dip later in the afternoon Richard Fearon the colorist at MPC came to the rescue with some smooth colour correction skills up his sleeve. I really wanted to make more of the location and had scripted this cool little scene around the pool; but sharing the set with the stills crew meant that we were restricted to the house by mere logistics, as they were doing exterior shots that day.

Larkin Siepel DP’d this one right? What was it like collaborating with him (we’re big fans of his at 1.4!)?

Larkin was awesome, he’s typically Californian in that he’s super-chilled and just gets on with it. There were a lot of set-ups to get through and we were constantly racing against the winter sun where the film was supposed to feel early-morning-esque. But there was barely any of the usual delay between set-ups; we actually got more coverage than anticipated because of Larkin, Pete the 1st AD and the crew’s speed. After we’d blocked it out, we just sped through it without really needing to talk about it much at all on set… I really look forward to working with him again on another LA set preferably.

Stylistically this is quite a shift from the Kusama Louis Vuitton film of yours that we featured a while back. As a director how do you think your aesthetic and voice has been developing since we last spoke?

From the outset my ethos has been to make films that are truly engaging and entertaining but also as visually stimulating and aspirational as possible. An ideal brief would allow me to execute scripted storytelling combined with beautiful, stylised imagery. Louis Vuitton’s objectives were very different where the visual language and mood naturally needed to be in line with the existing and distinctive Kusama aesthetic. River Island on the other hand had a far more product-focused brief with an established look I needed to adhere to; which meant I couldn’t style the execution as freely, but could really develop more of a narrative element. I really want to take the highly stylised visual language of fashion imagery, and apply that to captivating stories with scenarios and characters that we aspire to – potentially somewhere in-between the Louis Vuitton and River Island films.

How important do you think it is that there are specialist production companies emerging, like White Lodge, who focus solely on fashion work? Is the creative language and production process substantially different from, say, music videos?

White Lodge understands the culture, the personalities and the language of fashion. It’s an industry still very much intimidated by film-making, so the production company needs to play the role of educator, while still respecting fashion’s unique principles. There’s a fundamentally different objective and audience to speak to that’s unlike music videos for example. The aspiration value of a film is paramount, and White Lodge has a great roster of producers and directors who execute it well because they understand it. The calibre and attention to detail that the stylist, hair and make-up artist, beauty retoucher and the like bring to the table, need to be just as considered as a DP, a gaffer, or an editor. I personally think that for this type of production, you need the resources, knowledge and contacts that give you credibility in what can sometimes seem like a closed community.

A little birdie tells us you’ve got your first music promo due out any time soon (we have good spies!) Can you tell us anything about that piece? What should we be expecting stylistically – a continuation of the more naturalistic tone you’ve set with the Morning After film?

Yes I do, that birdie gets around fast eh?! It’s still very much me, with a more cinematic feel which is something I want to really apply to my fashion work. It’s a little bit darker, but naturally driven by what felt right for the track and the audience. My fashion stuff is about making it warm and not taking fashion too seriously by balancing aspiration against a sense of context, but having said that, I’m looking forward to branching into more music videos and shorts where I can apply that stylised fashion feel I know so well – to different types of powerful storytelling.

Director: Ehsan Bhatti, Production: White Lodge LA Production: Good Co. Exec Producer: Stephen Whelan / Brian Welsh DP: Larkin Sieple Offline Edit: Sam Ostrove,  Cut n' Run Colourist: Richard Fearon at MPC