Jamie Thraves: The art of the music video
Whether depicting giant robots taking over Manhattan or an onslaught of curiously agile zombies, the music video has time and again proved itself to be the most pervasive new art form of recent times. But what happens when its job is to express something more poignant than the whimsical visions of a drugged-up rock and roll star? And, since so many film directors have flitted between feature films and their 3-minute musical cousins, what's the relationship between the two mediums?
If anyone can answer these questions it's Jamie Thraves, the award-winning director of music videos such as the iconic subtitled psychological thriller of Radiohead's "Just" and the sombre reflections of Death Cab For Cutie's "I Will Follow You into the Dark", who also has a feature film scheduled to be completed later this year. With the release of Corinne Bailey Rae's "I'd Do It All Again" he's playing his part in the reemergence of one of pop's most promising talents of the last decade, whose recent hiatus was the result of the tragic accidental overdose of the singer's husband, Jason Rae. Following the video's release, I asked him about his latest project as well as the challenges of being a modern video director.
Who was responsible for the concept behind the "I'd do it all again" video?
Corinne's the best kind of artist to work with because she cares about her videos as much as her music. She's a very smart and strong woman, she knows what she likes, but she was very open to my ideas and she trusted me. I initially suggested some visuals for the video, singing in normal situations, in bed, walking through the park, shopping - she liked those ideas a lot that but she told me she also wanted to run when the song breaks and push through a crowd, so I came up with the traffic idea, the subway and the people descending the steps. Then I came up with the loop concept. I like my ideas to play off the lyrics if I can; if not I play off the emotion of the song and occasionally ignore the lyrics but I'm clearly playing off the lyrics in this video. Corinne wasn't sure about the loop idea at first (she was concerned it might get in the way of her performance), but I was convinced it was the right way to go and luckily she started to embrace it. We agreed the song had a sad beginning, an uplifting middle section and a sad ending, so that's what we aimed for in the video.
Has the art of the directing a music video changed at all for you thanks to the internet?
No. I just try to make my videos as cinematic, interesting and emotional as possible, I don't care too much where they get seen, just that they are seen. It's amazing to see one's work on a big screen but it can be equally exciting to see them on someone's phone too.
What's been your favourite of the music videos you've produced?
I'm going to have to say Radiohead's 'Just' probably because it's my most successful video to date. I've made some less well known videos that I really love and feel they've come from the same place in my head as 'Just' - Death Cab For Cutie's 'I'll Follow You Into The Dark' video for example where Ben Gibbard falls into a dark hole in his room, and an even less well known video for Mansun's 'Negative' which has a man creeping around a room unnoticed by two lovers on a bed; also Damien Rice's '9 Crimes', which has a floating head and is my take on 'The Red Balloon' but it's more like 'The Head Balloon' - I first came up with that idea for Radiohead's 'No Surprises' and had to wait nearly ten years for someone to agree to make it.
The relationship between music videos and feature films is often regarded as quite strong - what are the most interesting differences between the two mediums?
I used to find videos very limiting. I've always tried to turn my videos into short films with a beginning, a middle and an end but I felt very hampered by videos because I love writing dialogue so much - once I'd explored the subtitle concept in 'Just', I felt I couldn't really do that again. I used subtitles very briefly once more in a Neneh Cherry video, a close friend said I should do that subtitle thing again, make it your trademark, though my instinct was not to, but I listened to him for some reason and it didn't work. It's tough to get drama right in videos because, for example, an argument in a video often looks very bad and laughable no matter how well acted, but making drama is my passion so I've tried to make quite dramatic videos, I've got round all the crass stuff by trying to make them quite funny too. So many bands just want performance based pieces and I've tried to resist that as much as possible, though I still enjoy it if the artist is an exceptional performer. Being a pop video director is a bit like being a documentary film maker, we're documenting recording artists, we're capturing this little bit of history, it's similar to Richard Lester making 'A Hard Day's Night' which is essentially the longest and best pop video ever made.
Initially I didn't want to make videos at all because I was so desperate to make feature films. Aafter the Radiohead video I turned down lots of offers because I wanted to concentrate on writing my first feature, 'The Low Down', but in time my appreciation of videos has grown - videos are the closest one gets to making silent movies or musicals, I'm a big fan of Vincente Minnelli. I get to express my love for surrealism too which I feel less inclined to do in my feature film work. I started as a painter at art school (I was an illustrator really - painter sounds so much cooler) but my work was quite dark. I'm a big fan of the German painters from the '30s: Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and George Grosz. My crossover into film had a lot to do with David Lynch's 'Eraserhead' - it got me into the texture of film. So I began making very experimental short films and now I see my videos as a continuation of that work.
Feature films are a different kettle of fish, they are such a massive endeavour. They take absolutely everything from you and you have to give the movie everything it wants because if you don't they can go wonky. I've only completed two to date, and I'm in the middle of making my third. I'm someone who really learns and improves from experience, my first early shorts weren't great, but three or four films in I started to understand how to make them good, it was the same with pop videos. I'm hoping my third feature will be my best yet. Videos have paid my mortgage for many years, they've also helped fund my writing and their success helped get my feature film work off the ground so I'm no longer snobbish about them.
Have you ever worked for an artist on a music video and clashed over the project? To what extent do bands just have to trust your vision for how things will turn out?
Yeah I've clashed a few times, but that's healthy I think. When I know I'm doing something good I can be very strong and persuasive, but if I can't defend something then I realize something's not working as it should...so I always welcome a clash, it usually resolves things for the better. Ultimately we, the pop video directors, are making visual representations of people's music - music that's very personal to them, if I was a recording artist I'd be mortified about someone making a video for me, I know I'd be very choosy about the idea and director, some videos can make great artists look very uncool. It's something I'm very aware of and respectful about. But yes, it's a lot of fun when the band/artist trust your vision.
How much is the creative process involved in making a video a process of collaborating with the band or artist you're directing for? How was it with Corinne?
Sometimes an artist can be quite involved as in Corinne's case; we had quite a few discussions, she was a lot of fun, very creative and very easy to work with, and I relish that collaboration because you can get something very close to what you and the artist both love, but sometimes there is little involvement at all and it still all works out nicely. For example with Thom Yorke, he loved my Radiohead script and just said go ahead and make it for us, and that was pretty much it - he did ask for one shot change however when he saw the final cut and that was a shot of him shaking his arse, he said he thought he looked a bit silly. I thought he looked cool; it was only the fourth pop video I'd ever made at that point and the first video with any kind of money to speak of so I was quite naive - I remember being upset that they were asking for a shot change, but anyone in the business will know that requesting just one shot change is pretty amazing, I guess I was spoilt from the get go. In fifteen years of making pop videos I've only had one video where I was asked for no changes at all. Some artists I've worked with have very little to say until they see the edit that is - then some of them have lots to say.
I read that you're directing a film called Treacle Junior, due out next year - what's the film going to be about and how are the preparations coming along?
Yes, it's a film that I've funded along with my wife, my sister and her husband. It's called 'Treacle Jnr' it stars the brilliant Aidan Gillen from 'The Wire' and another brilliant actor called Tom Fisher. It's about a man, played by Tom, (and called Tom) who goes AWOL from his family and ends up living on the streets of London where he meets Aidan's character (called Aidan). Aidan's not well known at all for doing comedy but he's brilliant at it. Since we made 'The Low Down' Aidan and I have been talking about making a film based on this character for ten years. Aidan gets beaten up a lot in the movie and manages to smile through most of the beatings, it's a drama comedy, a two hander in the vein of 'Midnight Cowboy' and 'Withnail & I'. My wife and I did that thing that everyone says you're not supposed to do, we remortgaged to finance the film, we made it for £30,000. I felt I had little choice, my last film 'The Cry Of The Owl' starring Paddy Considine and Julia Stiles had taken me almost five years to make, so with that and 'The Low Down' that was two films in ten years. I didn't want to spend another five years getting my next film made so I decided to fund this one myself. I workshopped the film in February 2009, finished the script four months later, shot the film in October and now we're halfway through editing the film in December the same year, the energy making this film has been thrilling, I think that energy and spirit is really present in the film. Being self financed also means I'm the only exec in the room, the freedom is intoxicating and now I never want to go back to that place where people need to approve what I do. It's no way to make a film, a great film anyway.
How has your directorial style developed over your career?
I don't aim to have a style, I like to think I approach each project with a fresh canvas and a new set of paints and see what happens, if a style appears familiar in any related work I put that down to taste, internal rhythm and OCD tendencies, parts of which are constantly changing and evolving and other parts that are set in stone.
What have been your favourite theories about the ending of the 'Just' video?
Only the theories that have come close to getting it right and there haven't been many. In fact there's only really been one theory that I've found on YouTube that almost had it but not quite. I've never told anyone the idea, not my friends, not the band and not even my wife. There is an idea behind the man's secret words, there had to be otherwise it wouldn't work like it does. I have to admit it's quite frustrating being the only person who knows and often I've hankered to go onto YouTube to reveal the truth under a pseudonym just to release my pressure valves but I know the answer would be ignored. I have a perfectly logical idea - if fanciful - that works to get people to lay down, but I know my revelation would never satisfy people's expectations no matter how great an idea it is and ultimately the truth would destroy the myth of the video. I'm stuck with it, it's like a curse of sorts, but a fun curse.
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