First off, congratulations on the video for Break My Heart – it’s a much-needed slice of escapism, all the more impressive for being turned around within 10 days. Tell us a bit about the shoot and how you brought the concept to life.
Thanks! We were going to release it a bit later, but Dua wanted to bring a little lightness into the world, which was well needed. A tight turn around indeed, but very skilfully put together by producer Javier Alejandro, in fact we had a brilliant team all round. Speed was of the essence so we were inventing solutions on the hop. I wanted to create this kind of ‘tumble dryer of emotions’ in the way the narrative unfolded, so there was tilting sets, props on rails, stunts and VFX all kind of rolled into one.
Some aspects of the promo feel eerily prescient of the Covid-19 crisis – from the lyrics “I should’ve stayed at home / ‘Cos I was doing better alone” to the shots of Dua in an empty plane, the street of cars but no people, and the creeping sense of boredom in bedrooms and bathrooms. A case of life imitating art?
Ha… possibly! It’s cracked me up seeing some of the memes that have popped up from those particularly prophetic lyrics. I think because that feeling of romantic uncertainty feels so isolating, it worked its way into visuals. And now we all have it for real.
Does it feel strange watching the video, knowing that since it was shot, live-action production (and life in general) has changed so dramatically?
100%. I was actually in the middle of another shoot when it all started to kick off, the client sensibly agreed it was unsafe to carry on, so boom… don’t come in tomorrow. I think for a lot of us, it’s very strange to suddenly go into a hibernation state, because we’re so used to being active and interactive. It’s weird to watch and think back on how what was ‘normal’ then would feel so out of sorts now. Putting 150 people together on a set would be like smoking in pubs! Looking forward to the moment when the new normal becomes a weird memory.
Break My Heart is your third collaboration with Dua Lipa, following on from New Rules and IDGAF, and Stormzy is another artist that’s stayed loyal to you (Vossi Bop and Sounds of the Skeng). How important is good chemistry for creative collaboration?
It’s the heart and soul of the best work. For an artist to let you push the visual, you’re asking for a lot of trust, then on the creative side you want to be able to bounce things around because together you’re setting up who they are and what the track is.
Whether it’s Billie Eilish, Idris Elba, Stormzy, or the numerous dancers, you always manage to get a great performance out of talent. What’s the key?
Trust (already used that … but it’s key), communication, then flow. What I mean is you’ve got to work out how to put across what it is you’re looking for, whilst also (which is important) explaining why, because once they’ve got that, they can flex their talent and deliver something extraordinary. They’re delivering the performance, not you. I know lots of directors have different approaches, but for me, it’s more about listening than telling. Flow is that plus making it fun – enjoying and getting satisfaction out of the process.
Movement and dance are central to your work, and you’ve worked with some of the best choreographers in the business including Marion Motin, Shay Latukolan and the brilliantly named Charm La’Donna. How do you go about choosing the right choreographer for the job, and how closely do you work with them?
I’ve been really privileged to work with some fantastically creative movement minds. I’ve always been a bit of a dance nut and either know the key choreographers or am discovering the rising stars from the scene.
For me, it’s similar to choosing DOP’s. I’m usually looking for something quite within a tonal range that could only be brought to life by their talent. That sounds a bit wanky, but the specificity makes it easier to make something a bit unique. I work really closely with them, we’ll work through references and set up phrase transitions and formations that correspond to camera choreography. Then I try to get out the way so they can add their special sauce and magic.
Another hallmark is your use of in-camera tricks – are you someone who enjoys challenges and problem-solving?
Yep. As a kid, I thought I wanted to be an engineer or an inventor. I got in trouble taking apart a lawnmower whilst trying to make a motorised skateboard (now you can just buy ‘em on Amazon). I think of what something could be or look like, then work out the how.
On the subject of camerawork, you’ve said in a previous interview that you like the camera to be “an active observer”, and watching your reel, you do feel pulled into the action, sometimes to a dizzying extent – it’s hard to be a passive viewer! Is that an approach you’ve always been drawn to?
I’ve always been interested in how certain camera versus subject motion can create more immersive visuals. Most of the time I think of the camera as reacting, searching, counter-moving and sometimes dancing with the subject, trying to be part of the action… then if the audience is the camera it can make the experience feel more ‘immediate’ or ‘dizzying’ like you say. Maybe it’s because whenever I am prepping or shooting, I’m always walking around watching the blocking and unconsciously finding the camera path.
You’re a self-taught success, having never attended film school but instead learning on the job making street-style music videos for UK grime artists. What do you think are the advantages of taking the non-traditional route into directing?
Even though I didn’t go, I became a bit of a film theory nutter, always trying to learn new things from books interviews or by breaking down sequences. I guess it would be good to have been taught that, but then you’d be on the same syllabus as everyone else instead of chasing what you’re into. Maybe that’s one of the advantages of not going – you make your own way and create your own style. I can imagine one good thing about film school is you get a ready-made group of people to make things with, but then I quite liked the adventure of making our own rag-tag bunch of shooters.
What’s the process for creating a concept for a music video – how much are you guided by the lyrics, or is it more of a visceral/emotional response?
For me it’s definitely more of an emotional response. I’ll put the track on and just see where my mind goes. I will walk around listening to it on repeat… maybe do some handstands… but generally something will drift in. Like: this track feels lonely, what does it look like to feel that? This one feels epic: what visuals make my eyes widen and my jaw slack? Then, once I’ve got something abstract in mind, I’ll pull out some of the lyrical threads which can inform and inspire the smaller threads to weave into the bigger concept (locations, compositions, interactions, choreography, etc). So yes, a bit of both, but if the track is good the lyrics will line up with the emotional impact. They should be the brushstrokes and foundation for the bigger picture, which will then make sense when you use them.
Aside from your music videos, you’re building a commercial reel with spots for the likes of Pepsi and Sprite. How does the creative process differ for you when it’s a commercial brief?
I try to keep the processes pretty much aligned. Of course, in adland your jump-off point is someone else’s concept, so often my first question might be to ask how the idea came to them, or what it is that made them connect certain dots to come up with it. This is so I can get on their wavelength and get my head into it too. From there I’ll do the same kind of concept development I’d do on a video, finding the core and building on it; adding in whatever elevates, twists, etc.
What inspires you more generally, and have you discovered any different sources of inspiration as a result of the lockdown?
Overall, I would say I’m inspired by great films, photography and walking about watching people (which has been a bit tricky in lockdown). What has been super cool is it has given me more time to dig into my ever-expanding archive of ‘Links For Later’ I create, which includes anything from new tracks to articles, galleries to stories and other random bits. Also, I am finally working my way through the long list of film suggestions from friends and colleagues, so many of which I’m like: ‘Why didn’t I get round to watching this before?’
How do you think the crisis might shape the creative industry for the future, for better or worse?
I’m interested to see some of the work that comes out in the coming months.
Sometimes creatively it’s good to set clear limitations, because with the limitation comes inspiration in a different direction that you might not have otherwise considered. I mean, this is quite a hardcore limitation, but maybe it’s good for a full creative reset and we’ll all come back fresh having had to think sideways for a bit.
Interview by Selena Schleh