What triggered your desire to become a filmmaker?
This involves a semi-embarrassing confession: I was actually a child actor from a pretty young age, and being on set when I had barely started school was about the most exciting thing I could imagine. Disneyland was for suckers – the set of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was the real theme park. So acting was always the thing I thought I would do, because it’s just what I did do.
Fast-forward to a failed (and then devastating) attempt to get into drama school, I went to study film instead. I guess I’ve been around lights and cameras and crew since I was capable of memorising lines, and it never occurred to me to even try to be good at anything else.
Laugh It Off
Were you self-taught and learn on the job or did you go to film school?
I actually feel like I did both – I did a Masters in Filmmaking at the University of Auckland (a great school with great teachers) but alongside those post-grad years I ended up working with & producing for Tim Van Dammen, a prolific indie video director who’s gone on to make amazing things. I can see now how synergistic and lucky that was: getting to be on the front lines but not bear any of the creative burden was a unique window in how to manage that burden, and especially how to manage it on a shoestring.
You have an enduring collaboration with the artist Chelsea Jade – how did the relationship first come about?
We met because Chelsea was dating a good friend of mine James – also a very talented musician – while she was at art school. James composed the soundtrack for my Masters film, and Chelsea even helped out on set with some art department stuff.
She was making music as Watercolours at the time, and though I can’t exactly remember how I convinced her to let me pitch her a video, I do remember spending a long time writing a very terrible but very well-presented treatment.
She promptly and politely declined that one – phewf – but maybe she didn’t have any other offers or maybe I chose good fonts in that treatment, because we ended up workshopping some new ideas together, and then made a video that we were both very proud of. When Watercolours went away she took that video offline, but if you DM me and CJ doesn’t read this maybe I could send you a link 😉
How does the collaborative creative process work between you two? Do you, for instance, both work on the narrative together and then you nail it down in a storyboard, or is it more spontaneous and free-flowing on the shoot?
It feels like the process between us has swirled & shifted over the years. Generally speaking CJ has a seed deep in her brain for a video – something she wants to do or something she’s found visually exciting or even just a photo of a panel in a studio, as was the case with Life Of The Party. She brings that to me, and over a few sessions the two of us figure out how to make that seed bloom into a full video.
We used to be much more emphatic about writing each and every shot in advance – knowing how every second of the video would unfold. When we made Visions, for example, we sat down and talked about images or ideas that we liked, how we wanted it to feel, what we wanted to try doing with her and the camera, and over a few sessions we winnowed all of those loose ideas into a prescriptive shot list.
A few days before the shoot we went to the location and I filmed a low-rent version of the entire video on my phone, just to make sure it was going to slot together. So that kind of meticulousness set a template moving forward, and that level of detail is something I always felt like I needed to have been doing my job properly.
As we’ve both grown as creatives and learned to trust ourselves more it feels like we’ve both been striving to liberate ourselves from that mode, and to treat the actual shooting of the video as the place for creativity, rather than a mad dash to tick everything off the shot list. It’s a delicate balance though, and it’s still hard for me not to have every tiny element planned. I have to do a lot of deep breathing.
Do you both edit the film together?
The act of editing is all me, but Chelsea is very present and engaged, even though we live in different cities. I’m maybe a bit of an oddity in that I quite like notes and the notes process. I like sculpting things. I enjoy things being bad and becoming good.
There’s a strong choreography element in most of the videos – do you work with choreographers or do you figure the movements out yourselves?
It’s varied from video to video. We worked with a talented young choreographer Tori Manley-Tapu on Low Brow, though she had to bail on the shoot at the last minute, so Chris Parker swooped in on the shoot day to help us through it. Chris is a very successful and hilarious New Zealand comedian who also happens to be a beautiful dancer, and he then ended up choreographing the dance routine in Life Of The Party. Chelsea devised the dance routine in Laugh It Off entirely herself. Michael – the male dancer in Super Fan – literally generated those moves on the spot. I said “Think David Byrne. Think geometric. Think big.” and he absolutely smashed it out of the park.
There’s a certain ingenious resourcefulness in your work – is this because of budget constraints?
Absolutely, and this is a very stereotypically “New Zealand” idea that exists over here in all walks of life. Just because you don’t have $100K doesn’t mean you can’t make it look like you have $100K, y’know? It’s kinda wound itself into my approach now: the first time I made a commercial with a large budget I got in trouble with the producer for trying to do some last-minute problem-solving without spending any money – she had to call me and explain that that was what the budget was for. But the flip side to that is that what we’re able to achieve is generally down to the generosity of an astronomically large number of people, both with resources and time, so it isn’t entirely a real thing. There is an amazing grant system for music videos in New Zealand (shout out NZ On Air), but it’s still very small when compared to the size of budgets even in the Australian market.
How do you resolve any difference of opinions?
Chelsea wins! Ha, no, I mean, I think difference of opinion is sewn very tightly into the job description. We do lots of talking and lots of listening, and that’s true for everyone involved at every stage of the process. I prefer strong opinions, and I like heated discussion, because – and I’m quoting my wonderful producer Rosabel here – when you have to consider killing something, you’re forced to consider what its value is. But it’s rare that either of us choose anything to die on a hill over, and ultimately the music video is for Chelsea, and she has her whole brand to consider, so she has the final say.
Life of the Party
Apart from your collaboration with Chelsea Jade what else have you directed?
Some commercial campaigns, a bunch of web content, a limited-run studio show at one of the terrestrial broadcasters here, and a whole lot of music videos. It feels like there are a lot of directors in New Zealand for a tiny market, so directing can’t always pay the bills, and I do a lot of editing for that. I’ve worked with my dear friend Finn on a few music videos recently, and one has had a lot of success at festivals around the world. I’m currently writing and directing a factual show about climate change for The Spinoff.
New Zealand is being heralded as the country that got it right during this global lockdown. How are you spending your days during lockdown and is there anything in particular that you’re finding inspiring to watch, read, listen to?
I’m actually bananas busy working on that show from home, which is a very strange feeling in this time of global chaos. It’s a strange time to be a filmmaker, and I’m incredibly lucky to have been working while so many of my peers have had projects grind to a halt.
I’ve been listening to a lot of alt-electronic – something about the state of things has made me feel a bit allergic to choruses. Jon Hopkins, Bicep, that kind of thing. I’ve also felt a bit allergic to “new” television and films – I’ve struggled to engage with anything made for now but made in a world that was so different, if that makes sense.
I kept starting books and not being able to finish them until I found a Joe Sacco book about the horrors of the Bosnian War. It feels weird to say that that’s been comforting, but reading about what that part of the world has suffered over decades, lifetimes even, really chucked this whole blip into perspective. My girlfriend and I are watching The Sopranos from the start, which is such a terrible joy. It hasn’t aged a day.