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20th May 2014
Dance hit
Title of film: Sia, Chandelier
Director: Daniel Askill
Daniel Askill's spectacularly simple and stunning film for Sia tips ten million hits. 1.4 skypes with the Australian director about his creative relationship with the singer

You’ve worked with Sia before, almost ten years ago on Breathe Me. Has this been an on-going creative relationship and how do you work together or does she give you complete creative freedom?

We’ve been very close friends since the Breathe Me days all those years ago and we’ve spoken about quite a few projects since then but for timing or budget reasons it hasn’t happened. However all the moons aligned for Chandelier and it was nice to discover that we still had a special creative chemistry together. We’re almost opposites to some extent, it’s very yin yang when we come together.

How does that manifest itself?

I’m completely non-confrontational and my directing style tends to be on the diplomatic side, I try to feel everyone out and find how I can take everyone towards this sweet spot which is comfortable for everyone. Sia has really strong opinions incredibly quickly so it’s somewhere in between those two places… we never ended up in an argument or had extreme creative differences, it felt more like a dance towards a place where we both feel really comfortable with what we are doing.

Chandelier is stunning, not only for the way it’s filmed but the feistiness and intelligence of the young dancer, Maddie Ziegler. Where did you find her and how did you go about directing her?

I have to give Sia the genius stroke of Maddie. She loves reality television shows and one of the shows she’s obsessed with is Dance Moms which I’d never heard of. This was not of course the first idea – we’d been knocking things back and forth since Sia first rang me up about working together on Chandelier.

She knew she wanted to do something with dance, and one day she emailed or called me saying ‘it’s got to be this girl Maddie Ziegler, I’m absolutely in love with her, it would mean so much to me’. So next minute Maddie was flying out from Pittsburg with her aunty and little entourage and Sia was sitting me down to watch several episodes of Dance Moms and it was clear from watching them that this girl was a little super star.

On set in between takes she was like any other lovely 11 year-old. Sia and I were giving her a bit of direction and Ryan (Heffington) did a beautiful job of choreographing her but the emotional intensity is really 95 percent Maddie channelling some spirit, it’s incredible what happens to her when she begins dancing. Sia and I basically broke down in tears the first time we saw her run the whole piece.

Sia has had this incredible trajectory into pop territory and has been writing songs for stars like Beyonce and Rhianna but still at heart she has an independent spirit and her idea of bringing someone from the context of reality shows into an arthouse environment with a film and choreographic language, is what became the idea.

I guess a lot of her pop fans may have expected a big American pop video but it felt a lot more interesting to try and do something with a bit more artistic credibility, a little more left of centre, bringing the mainstream and indie worlds together to some extent.

The location looks interesting, how did you find that?

We shot that in downtown LA. We basically went out with a location scout looking and that was the one that hit the mark. It’s a building called the Herald Examiner, the old newspaper building which has basically become a bunch of discreet film sets. We augmented and added a bit to the rooms that we ended up using.

What did you shoot it on to get that melodic pace like in your earlier work for Wim’s See You Hurry track (see in Related Content)?

Yes that video was in the back of my mind when we were doing this. It was all Steadicam. We shot on Red, we actually shot it all at a base frame rate of 50 fps but it ends up running in real time at 24 fps.

The DoP Sebastian Wintero, who I worked with for the first time on this, did a beautiful job of lighting the whole space, it was almost invisible, he lit from behind the windows, up behind the ceiling, so that we could see 360 degrees and move from room to room … it really became a ballet between the steadicam operator and Maddie.

It wasn’t quite one-take was it?

The final video isn’t one-take but we shot Maddie doing it in one-take and that’s another credit to her insane talent, she was flawless. She would hit that routine with the same intensity and level of emotion every time. We were tempted to release a full take, completely unedited, as the final video to show that she could really do that but there are just some things you miss in the one-take, like the close-ups, so we edited it a little bit, really beautifully cut by my brother Lorin.

So Lorin edited it? (see 1.4 profile with Lorin Askill)

Yes there was a funny little story about that. We’d finished shooting it in LA, I’d flown back to NY, I live most of my time about an hour upstate of NY so we’d taken all the footage up to my house and we were settling in there. On the first day of cutting it we sent the first edit across to Sia and she was like ‘I don’t know what I was thinking, not being part of doing this with you guys’, so next thing Sia flew us both out again to LA – she’s got a beautiful place out in Palm Springs – and we camped out there for a week and a half while the three of us cut it together, which was a lot of fun. Well it was cut by Lorin with Sia and I floating around checking how it was evolving.

You’re from a phenomenally artistic background in Australia…

I feel fabulously lucky with my younger brothers Jordan and Lorin in that we like collaborating and working together, we have a great short hand with each other. Our dad is a musician, he’s a percussionist, and my mother studied painting, so we were always around creative stuff and it seemed like a natural path. I’m sitting downstairs in my studio in New York and they are both upstairs in their studio.

Your short film We’ve Decided Not To Die was a big hit on the festival circuit. Are you interested in shooting longer format?

Absolutely. I spent a lot of last year doing the rounds of studio meetings and had a feature film going into development which sadly fell apart at the end of last year. I’m developing something of my own as well as another with someone else. So hopefully before too long i’ll have a feature film figured out.

LINKS:
Daniel Askill

Credits
Sia, Chandelier

Director: Daniel Askill

Director of Photography: Sebastian Wintero

Choreographer: Ryan Heffington