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12th December 2016
We all get a little bit Elton John…
After a solid year of promos for the likes of Miike Snow and Run the Jewels and commercial collaborations with Adam& Eve and BBH we caught up with UKMVA Best Director Ninian Doff to discuss erotic Cold War daydreams, tyrannical true love and an exciting new competition for Sir Elton John

Launched today at eltonjohn.com/thecut, Sir Elton is giving emerging creative talent the chance to pitch ideas for three of his classic tracks that never received a music video at first launch – Rocket Man, Bennie and the Jets and Tiny Dancer. So cancel Christmas, get your thinking caps on and grab your place in music history with a once-in-a-career opportunity to collaborate with a living legend of the music industry. The winning three films will be produced through Pulse Films, giving new talent access to the global studio’s resources and expertise. What are you waiting for?!

We’re going to dive right in and start over-analysing your two collaborations with Miike Snow this year – Genghis Khan and Pull My Trigger. In Genghis we see a campy demented Bond-esque villain fall in love with his dashing nemesis and desert his wife to shack up with the object of his real affection. How in god’s name did you come up with that idea!!!

It’s all there in the song I guess. What caught me was this up beat, super catchy pop song about a relationship having the main chorus line be “I get a little bit Genghis Khan.”  Now Genghis Khan is responsible for about 40 million deaths, so referencing him as your emotional state in a relationship I thought was really funny. It got me thinking about evil people falling in love which naturally led to the iconic movie goody/baddy tropes. Then of course the song being so upbeat and fun let me subvert and twist these clichés and bring in unexpected and uncontrollable urges to dance! Also, and this sounds a bit cheesy, but with how dark the news and the state of the world was (and is) I remember just really wanting to make a bit of work that was super positive too. 

The Strictly Come Dancing style madness follows through into Pull My Trigger where the same two actors are now in a Cold War face off on the brink of mutually assured destruction. Are the characters here meant to suggest a continuation of sorts from Genghis? And why the erotic Busby Berkeley meets Cabaret daydream sequences?!

I think some quite fun fan theories have been constructed as to how the two stories could link, though for me it was always more of a parallel universe. It came about because after the success of the first video everyone was keen to do a sequel, but I actually was the only person who wasn’t keen! I just felt that the response to Genghis Khan was so incredible (blogs filled with fan art, comics, fan fiction and even amazing cos play outfits) that I didn’t want to spoil the connection to the story or characters. Yet… I also really wanted to work with the cast again, play with choreography and this odd serious-but-ludicrous musical style. So then when I thought of a parallel universe – same cast and style but whole new mythology suddenly it was so exciting to delve back in. In terms of the dream sequence the chorus this time is the erotically charged “pull my trigger” so I knew I wanted to visualise the nuclear button – the concept of power and destruction – as a super seductive and lustful desire for men in power. The Munroe-esque actress on the button acting like a siren in classic myths: luring sailors to their deaths by crashing and destroying their boats on the rocks.

We love your unique spin on playing with lip-syncing, using it to pull in a diverse spread of characters and almost re-imagine the meaning of these two tracks. It seems to fit in with quite a mischievous attitude to mixing up the expected visual language of music videos. Is this something you’re consciously doing or is it more a case that this is where your humour naturally gravitates?

I really love music videos. I think they’re a medium that allows both wild creativity but also a huge audience in a way that short films don’t actually have. Having said that there’s also though such a danger of being a bit lazy in music videos – being very literal to the song and cutting in a standard performance shots to bulk up the edit. So I think the challenge is always to work with the track, but also surprise everyone with your take on it. You’re right that with these videos specifically I tried to push as far as possible how you can use lyrics for totally new narratives! So both videos are structured and edited totally linked to the song but in a totally new world/concept. I’m really proud of how it feels so natural making the lyrics work for very specific pieces of dramatic dialogue in scenes they were never intended for.

Speaking of humour your Run the Jewels video was an unexpected delight – basically insect porn! How did you make the creative leap from the lyrics of the track to the idea? And was it a tricky one to convince the artists to go with or were they on board as soon as they saw your treatment?

Well it’s very astute this question follows the last one as this was all about lyrics too. This was one of the few times I’ve made a point of letting an artist know I really wanted to work with them and so was delighted when they sent a track back. Then my heart kind of sank when I was listening to it – what the hell do I do with that chorus line?! It’s impossible to ignore it but also RTJ are a super smart band so I knew I had to be clever with it and obviously not just be crude or obvious. The song also has a great structure that in the final verse Gangsta Boo comes in as a female voice flipping it on its head with a new chorus line that takes it to the next level.

Sometimes ideas come really fast but this one was actually a real battle. It was so hard to crack – for a long time I was trying to write this about amoebas under a microscope having sex! Then just as I was about to give up I went up a notch on the microscopic scale to insects and plants and it clicked instantly, finally having a logical twist for the Gangsta Boo verse. It got signed off pretty much immediately actually – I heard later that they’d been trying to crack an idea for this song for about a year before mine came along so really pleased I nailed it.

We’re sharing the video you’ve just made as part of Pulse’s involvement in a big Elton John and YouTube competition called The Cut – can you tell us a little about that? 

The competition launches today at eltonjohn.com/thecut and is aimed at inviting emerging artists and film makers to submit ideas for one of three classic Elton John tracks that never had music videos made at the time they were released – Rocket Man, Bennie and the Jets and Tiny Dancer. Each track has been assigned a visual style – animation, choreography and live action – so we’re hoping to receive a really exciting range of ideas from around the world that put a contemporary spin on Elton’s music. Hopefully the competition will speak as much to die-hard fans as it does to a new audience who might know Elton’s music but not really have delved into his back catalogue. 

The competition will be looking for outstanding creative ideas that will be whittled down to a shortlist to be judged by an incredible panel including Elton himself and Bernie Taupin. Pulse have been working with Elton’s entertainment team at Rocket, the creative wizards at YouTube and AKQA to bring the idea to life and will be putting production support behind the winning videos.

Next year marks Elton’s 70th birthday and 50 years of his song-writing partnership with Bernie so it’s a real honour to be involved in marking those momentous occasions. It’s a good budget and will get massive exposure so definitely worth people checking it out. It’s an amazing opportunity for new talent to kick-start their career with the backing of a legend of the music industry.

Have you got any forthcoming projects we should be keeping an eye out for? Any creative goals you’ve set yourself for 2017?

I spent every (brief) free window last year writing a feature screenplay. That’s the big one for next year. Writing something that length was an amazing experience and I’m insanely excited about thinking about shooting it. 2016 was an amazing year for me with the UKMVA Director win being a rare moment in life where an actual wild daydream comes true. But rather than relaxing I’m hoping to step it up a notch again with the film. Also hopefully a few music videos too as I can’t stay away from them.

Check out The Cut, Elton John’s unique new talent competition supported by YouTube, AKQA and Pulse Films at eltonjohn.com/thecut

Pulse / Ninian Doff