Your father was in the film industry; how did his involvement inspire your own career paths?
Sophie Cole: Because of our dad, we ended up spending a lot of time on-set growing up. We’ve basically done every job under the sun: from food styling, props, PA, set dressing and wardrobe… We initially fought it for a few years and did other jobs, but without realizing it, we’d developed a love for film and the contagious energy of being on-set and directing couldn’t help but creep into our subconscious as a vocation. Our dad remains our most trusted sounding board; he’s an invaluable asset.
At what point did you decide to become a directing duo?
Walker: A few years ago, I came back from cooking school in Paris where I was working with restaurateur Keith McNally to open a restaurant in New York, and Sophie was back from working as a costume designer in LA. Over the holidays, Sophie’s boyfriend (a DP) was working on a project for his reel and we couldn’t resist inserting ourselves into the creative process before basically taking over the whole thing. When we finished the film, I called up Sophie and said, ‘Stop what you’re doing; we should be directing.’
How do the dynamics work – do you take turns to play captain or do you generally work in unison?
Sophie: Mostly, we like to do everything together. We know a lot of duos have a more intense division of labour, but that’s not how we work. For us, the push and pull of perspectives makes being in a duo worthwhile. That said, on the day, we do follow a bit of a formula to avoid confusion – I tend to stand by the monitor, while Walker is out on the frontline. After every few takes, we check in with each other and compare notes. It’s a straightforward method that keeps us unified.
Please give us a low-down on your typical creative process from brief to edit.
Walker: The beginning stage of a job is crucial. We painstakingly work through everything during prep; finessing or tweaking the creative we’re given, sometimes even turning it completely on its head. Before we even start to think about writing a treatment, we play through all our creative options to figure out the absolute best approach to the script within the allotted limitations. Then we start to refine our ideas and tailor them into a central concept that informs and guides all of our subsequent choices: dialogue, blocking, wardrobe, etc.
We like everything to be fully dialled in by the shoot so that we’re doing as much heavy lifting as possible in advance and have the room to respond to whatever unexpectedly presents itself on the day. In the edit, we usually know exactly what we’re looking for and end up following our boards pretty closely. That said, we try to not be too precious about any of our ideas – if something’s not working, we’re able to let it go.
How do you settle any disagreements?
Walker: Fight egregiously and then almost immediately make up.
Sophie: We are siblings after all. I’d say we’re very efficient fighters. We love each other so we don’t stay mad.
How much did your upbringing in New York contribute to your outlook and why does LA feel right for now?
Sophie: Most people would say we’re very East Coast, which we love, because it positions us as outsiders in Los Angeles – there’s something fun and voyeuristic about looking at a city from a third-person perspective. What other people might shun for being cheesy, we love, because it feels foreign and other from the grind that is New York, where everything has to be so hip all the time. That gets boring. The West Coast is exotic, not to mention, it’s Hollywood, so the whole industry is here. We’ve gotten so many opportunities through friends, or random people you would never possibly meet elsewhere.
Your spots tend to capture a certain je ne sais quoi; a magic that often goes unnoticed in the everyday. What keeps you both inspired?
Walker: We draw a ton of inspiration from people we know or see on the street: an old lady hailing a cab, the bartender at our favourite Italian restaurant, our friend from high school. We’re constantly sneakily taking photos of people we see that we’d like as characters in our films. We just really love people, so it’s important to treat our characters with respect and dignity and flesh them out properly. We hate caricature. There’s such a tendency in our field to unnecessarily oversimplify things. Great cinema will make you laugh AND cry. That’s what we aim to emulate in the 15, 30, 60 seconds of whatever we’re making. If you strip back the style and the art direction, at its core our work is about humans, and showing people in all their complexity.
Commercials, music videos – are there any plans to venture into other formats?
Sophie: We are working on a few scripts right now that may turn into shorts or even a feature. We love making commercials so there will always be more of that, and we’re looking to do our first music video. We’re in talks with an artist now, so we’ll see. We want to do it all; maybe we’re greedy but there is two of us!
Where did the idea for Present Day Athens come from and how did the project develop?
Walker: I was at the gym when a song came on my playlist and it had the best groove. I had this clear vision of a guy dancing in his living room and how fun it would be to recreate visually. Then that evolved into the same guy outside and we turned him into a traffic cop. Semi-urban environment. Hot summer. Sort of a “Do the Right Thing” vibe. Then we were like ‘ok, this is fun, but it can be more original’.
We were super into westerns at the time, so decided to set it in the desert and make him a sheriff. The original song didn’t work anymore so we switched it to the present ODB track. We wanted there to be some sort of initial set-up that felt serious and intense, really emphasising the heat and desolation, so that when the music and the dancing started, it felt like it came out of nowhere. It was one of those ideas that spiralled and ended up in a completely different space; it became much grander and more surrealistic than its humble beginnings.
You shot the short in Palmdale, California in what looks like pretty extreme weather conditions while Sophie was recovering from a wrist operation. What was that like?
Sophie: Awful. It was awful. I mean, it was fun in a punishing-part-of-production – which is why we do this and love our jobs – sort-of-sadomasochistic way, but we definitely pulled off a real feat, even just from a logistical standpoint. Balancing the budgets, dealing with the super isolated location, the heat; all the crew busted their asses and worked for little or nothing. Securing the cars was the hardest part.
We put an ad in a local paper, if you can believe it, and this crazy woman named Michelle reached out. In fact, she was the only response we got, so we were pretty lucky. Sure, it required Walker to wait in a crew van on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere until 4:30AM to collect them all, with a call time of 5:30AM, while I anxiously lay awake in a motel waiting for updates, with a previously-shattered wrist fresh out of surgery, but we got it done. And it was a blast. The high riding home after that day was worth it. We knew we’d gotten exactly what we wanted. You’d be shocked at how much energy you can have after not sleeping and shooting a 14-hour-day in 100-degree heat.
Tell me about the choreography in Present Day Athens; was there much room for improv?
Walker: We had a really intense vision for this. Our DP took iPhone videos of me doing the dance in the street outside Sophie’s house… I still have the footage on my computer. We knew the exact route we wanted him to take, and what parts he would be at for different segments of the song, but the actual dance moves in between were a hybrid of our original vision and the unique flavour that our actor, Brad, brought to the table. He had no previous dance experience but loads of swagger that he showcased in his audition, so we ran with that. We hired this amazing choreographer, Lisa Eaton, who took what we wanted, and what Brad was giving, and made it work. We only did one rehearsal the day before and then she coached him through various sections on the day.
You’ve recently signed to Spindle in London – what would be your ideal first job?
Both: We are always hoping for projects with yin and yang. If something is meant to be funny, we want to temper it with emotional softness, charm, and charisma, and not make it JUST about the laugh. Alternatively, if we are doing something more emotional, we don’t want things to get so heavy-handed. A little levity can go a long way. To us, it’s this push and pull that makes moments relatable and real. We want to pursue creative opportunities with enough range for us to craft something unique and compelling, where we can slot in some of the beloved characters we’ve observed. A lot of our favourite work has come out of the UK market and we’re ready to put our stamp on it. We really feel that Spindle gets us.
Interview by Olivia Atkins