All stills from Natalie Rae’s Nike, Play New
You come from a family of filmmakers, including your brother Miles Jay – was becoming a director an inevitable career for you?
I tried to avoid it for a long time! I thought there must be something else I’d potentially like more, carve out a new path. I studied journalism and was looking ahead to International Relations. But then I made my first film on 16mm, and I was HOOKED.
Where do you tend to find creative inspiration?
My friends. The people in my life inspire me more than anything. The conversations, the bad jokes, the kitchen dancing, getting through hard times together. Human contradiction and complexity. Also music.
We love your dynamic new spot for Nike, PLAY NEW, which is all about celebrating fun in sports. It’s a huge departure from the norm – most sports ads tend to focus on the gritty process of achieving excellence by pushing yourself to your physical and mental limits. Was that point of difference what attracted you to the script? How did you get involved with the project?
I thought the insight that we have to feel free to be our best was beautiful. That hit home. We need to be able to make mistakes, try things, not judge ourselves to get to a deeper place in whatever we’re doing. To learn about the fear and pressure to be perfect these young athletes are put under is just so oppressive. I am passionate about how youth can help the rest of the world discover innovation. These young Korean athletes are using this spot as an opportunity to do that. WK reached out and I was thrilled.
The spot pivots on the tension between Korea’s rigid, disciplined, competition-driven approach to sports and the joy of breaking free and simply enjoying movement. How much research did you do into Korean culture ahead of production?
There was very deep research done by the agency which was shared, as well as my own research team that was full on for the treatment process and prep. I even had some ongoing until the shoot to find nuances in Korean cinema as we refined storyboards. Endless articles, videos and testimonies of young athletes who had experienced or seen some kind of abuse. As well as using casting and location scouting as a way to learn more on an interpersonal level. The local crew also had lots of interesting stories and insights. It was part of the process every day to keep refining and delving deeper.
What were the biggest challenges involved in production? Were there any Covid-related restrictions, particularly for such a large-scale shoot?
The biggest challenge was prepping the entire job from a hotel room and not being able to leave it (at all) for 14 days! Doing a sports film – where you want to create energetic transitions and find the most epic locations, and chemistry with cast – it was a pretty great challenge to not be able to experience things in person. The actual shoot was intense, but mostly because it was so ambitious. But since everyone was so passionate about the message, we pulled it off.
What are your favourite aspects of the finished film?
I think these young athletes are truly captivating and transformational in the film. They came in with no experience with filmmaking but a huge passion for the idea. Seeing them literally light up the room with their PLAY NEW expressions was so pure and real. There were tears shed between takes – as just having joy in sport was so rare and powerful. I’m really proud of the authenticity that we captured. It was also really special for me to work with a close friend, Rina Yang, and for her to bring vibrancy and heart into all the cinematography and story. My EP Dom Thomas, producer Ellie Fry and editor Tom Lindsey are incredible. We had the best team, who all really gave a shit.
As your first big brand sports ad, PLAY NEW marks a big stylistic departure for you. How do you think it has pushed or developed your filmcraft? Would you be keen to do more of this genre?
It’s allowed me to access more sides of myself and bring them into one spot. We all get so quickly type-cast in advertising. I hope those things can start to change. I don’t feel like it’s that big a departure, because it still feels like me. But I did enjoy the challenge of combining the subtle emotional storytelling with a more technically complex, energetic and stylish piece.
What kinds of storytelling opportunities do you hope to tackle in future commercial (or personal) projects?
I hope this opens up more sport work for me as I love being able to work with such raw emotion and grit. I also love how these films can connect us and transcend language. Stories that are about the shared human experience that can be original, fun and meaningful. Bring them on!
Interview by Selena Schleh
Object & Animal website
Daughters documentary website