James Chappell on set Blasterjaxx, Legion
Your work is full of filmic tropes and influences, like The Ring in Supermarket Riots or the mash-up of From Dusk Til Dawn and The Warriors in Proceeds of Crime. Tell us about some of the films that made an early impression on you.
I love 80s and 90s horror, sci-fi and action films. I grew up watching these films – they were essentially my drug and escape from the world. As a kid, I sat in front of the big old TV and loaded rental VHS tapes into the VCR all weekend, like a mad child. I was hooked on the wild, bizarre and grotesque imagery that you could find in the horror and genre film aisles at Blockbuster. It was an obsession that started early, and now all these crazy visuals swim inside my head, waiting to be unearthed and re-contextualised through my directing work.
What was your route into directing?
My route into directing was the videographer route – buy a camera, convince someone to let me shoot their dance party, their wedding, their fashion event etc – which was great, because I tried many different things and experimented. It taught me different styles and I learnt how to shoot, edit, colour grade and deal with people and client expectations, albeit small scale.
Quickly growing bored of doing everything myself, I convinced someone to let me direct their $5k music video and I got a DOP who was more experienced than me, which improved the visual product miles beyond my Canon 7D camera. From there, the artist’s manager was impressed by the result and brought me onto bigger music videos with bigger artists. I started shooting videos for music labels like Sony and Universal and slowly building a name for myself in Sydney as one of the go-to music video directors. Eventually, I started getting Vimeo Staff Picks on some of my short films and music videos, and in 2015 I got represented by Tommy LaBuda in LA. In 2016, I shot my first video in the US for Transviolet and Epic Records. As a kid, it was always a dream of mine to shoot in LA, so that was a very cool ‘pinch me’ moment.
Night shoot, Blasterjaxx, Legion
You’ve described your approach as ‘shock and awe’, but there’s a healthy dash of tongue-in-cheek humour alongside the horror. As a filmmaker, how do you go about striking that balance?
I agree my sense of humour is very tongue-in-cheek, quirky and darkly offbeat. Striking that balance with humour and tone is something I’ve had to experiment with in order to get it right. It’s a tricky balance for sure, I can’t say I’ve 100% mastered it either. I just create what I think is funny and hope that people will understand where I’m coming from.
Styling plays a big part in your work, whether it’s the shaven-headed Birds of Prey girl gang or the punk hackers in Blasterjaxx’s Legion. Do you work with a regular stylist?
I love memorable female characters from the movies I watched as a kid – films like Tank Girl with Lori Petty or Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element – and I’m always trying to bring some attitude to my work through styling. I have worked recently with an amazing stylist, Millie Sykes, who is exceptionally talented and has a striking personal style. I really gravitate towards stylists with a unique style who like to make a statement. Aesthetics and styling are always at the forefront of my thinking.
Your latest music video, for Blasterjaxx’s Legion, is based on the Watch Dogs: Legion video game. What were the biggest challenges involved in turning the video game visuals and storyline into a filmic narrative?
One of the biggest challenges was the fact that the game is set in ‘future London’ and we filmed in Sydney. Luckily, a lot of the old train stations in the city were built over 100 years ago and have a Victorian aesthetic; Museum Station was the perfect location to give us that London Underground vibe. I also shot the rest of the scenes in industrial locations which had an essence of Hackney Wick.
As for the futuristic element of the game, we had to build futuristic props and do lots of VFX work to make the video feel like Watch Dogs. That was challenging but exciting to nail. Due to the relatively small budget, I kept the storyline simple enough to follow so I could hang some epic visuals and specific characters from the game. Getting the styling right for the oppressive Albion security force which has taken over London was tricky, but Millie Sykes rose to the challenge. I think her work on the DedSec hacker anti-heroes was where she really shone, and we gave those characters a live-action edge that wasn’t in the video game.
Another recent project, Supermarket Riots, was inspired by pre-lockdown panic buying and the media hysteria around it, filtered through an ‘80s horror aesthetic. 2020 has felt a lot like a horror film at times – has it been a source of creative inspiration for you?
Totally! This year, the events surrounding the pandemic have shown us that pedestrian spaces like supermarkets can become sites of charged tension and horror. This is my passionate love letter to all my favourite VHS nasties – ‘The Blob’, ‘The Ring’, and ‘Poltergeist‘ – as they convene in the aisles for ‘The Rocky Horror COVID Show’. The main thing here was instead of floundering around, I went and made a low budget video, threw my own money into and purged all that anxiety and frustration into a weird and wonderful art piece with a cool artist willing to go there with me.
Anti-heroes, like the retribution-seeking character in The Grid, who lets nothing – not even incineration – get in his way, or the Birds of Prey gang in Proceeds of Crime, are prominent in many of your films. What’s the appeal of the anti-hero for you?
I think the idea of the underdog or the anti-hero really fascinates me, that sort of unrelenting drive to achieve your goal and overcome adversity against all odds. To go along with that character and be taken on a wild journey, with twists and turns that are unexpected. That is what I grew up watching and loving at the local video store, so I always try to replicate that for some other viewer in my work. I want people to be thrilled and challenged with the intensity, dark humour and weirdness in my work.
Much of your work feels cinematic in its ambition, as if envisaged for a bigger screen – do you have any plans to write/direct a feature film?
I have plans to direct a feature and have a few in development, but, as you know, it’s much harder to get finance for a feature than a short film or music video. I’m currently working on a new short film, Shelly, which I hope will garner attention with its wild cinematic ambition. The film is about an old fisherman who is grieving his dead wife. One day, he catches a baby great white shark and takes it home with him. He builds a tank in his garage, but soon things begin to get out of control – the neighbours’ pets’ go missing and he has to move it into the swimming pool. It will be a darkly comic, fishy tale with the metaphor of grief being a hungry shark that has to be fed. In terms of my first feature, I want to ensure that it is original, explosive and undeniably well told so that people want to see more from me and not the opposite.
Interview by Selena Schleh
BTS photographer Thom Davies
Dir. James Chappell Cine. Kieran Fowler Prod. Yingna Lu Edit. Brad Hurt Color / VFX. Matt Fezz Sound. Sonar Music Stylist. Courtney Fitzgerald-Power 1st AD. Steven Kirkby 1st AC. Charles Mori Steadicam. Jono Tyler Gaffer. Mat Wilson Best Boy. Nathan Grant Make Up. Julie Tattam Pyro. Lou Stefenal SFX. Thomas Van Koeverden Prod Managers. Clare Conway / Shiki Mueller Prod Assist. Ella Morgan Stunts. Igor Breakenback Stills. Katie Zillmer Label. Dim Mak