Combining the directorial talents of Tommy Nagle & Richard Paris Wilson, London outfit WE ARE COWBOYS have steadily been making a name for themselves in the music video world. Their latest outing, Simple Days for Button Eyes, sees an old cowboy face down love, death, and his violent past one last time. Less a typical DN interview article and much more a mini-masterclass in independent music video production, all the way from concept to delivery, Richard and Tommy very kindly talk us through what it takes to create a quality Western promo with a soul.
RESPONSE TO THE SONG
Richard Paris WIlson: I heard the song and instantly thought it had to be a Western. My creative partner Tommy Nagle thought so too. I don’t even particularly like Westerns, but we just couldn’t see the music video working any other way. The challenge then became finding a location that would make it possible. We did a sci-fi recently that contained VFX in every other shot, but you can’t cheat the Western look. The Western is wooden buildings, saloon bars and men with long hair. It has to be real.
What felt like an incredible long shot, quickly seemed possible when we found Laredo. I just didn’t know places like that exist in the UK. And even though I’ve been there three times now, I still can’t believe it. Laredo is a jaw-dropping street in Kent with 40 fully-functioning, authentic 1860 buildings, with interiors and exteriors. On the weekends people even live there. Once we had that, the trick then became writing a story. And a concise story at that, as we only had the money for 1 day’s shoot and about 4 or 5 characters.
WRITING THE STORY
RPW: Dead Man, the 1995 Jim Jarmusch film starring Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer was my main inspiration. Dead Man is described as a ‘post modern Western about accountant William Blake who encounters a strange North American man named Nobody, who prepares Blake for his journey into the spiritual world’. One of the best things about it, is it takes the genre of the Western and makes it feel weird; almost other-worldly. Everyone and everything just feels so doomed in it. There are countless skulls in the background of numerous shots, and people are always pointing their guns at the camera; at you. Depp’s character isn’t dead at the start, but he may well as be. The whole film is just incredibly foreboding. Death is everywhere.
I guess I took the subtext of that story and made it the text of ours. But I also wanted to create a story about the death of the Western, as a literal place. To turn a Western town into a ghost town, except, the characters in the story wouldn’t be aware they were dead, just like how the characters in old Western movies you see on TV are all still running around, even though time has long since moved on.
When I write, especially for music videos, I always try and stay away from the perfunctory soap opera scene. I try and write situations that spark questions, and allow the story to veer off into several directions. It’s not necessarily a logical, thoughtful process, and I’m not even saying it works, but it’s just what I do, because it’s what I find interesting. Trying to create environments where anything could happen is important – an old man could point his gun and kill the protagonist in the first act, just as easily as he could point his finger and laugh. There’s no fun to be had in arguments you’ve seen a million times before. And the stories in music videos need to be quick and interesting.
Writing stories for music videos is tricky: you’re basically back to the era of silent filmmaking. You’re relying upon facial expressions for what would conventionally be dialogue, and location, cutaway shots and composition for what would conventionally be exposition. But it’s also incredibly liberating, because the form is open to abstraction. Even the most mainstream of music videos are absolutely bonkers. Still, my approach is usually for a self-contained story, which simultaneously has a mystery and an answer. I am nowhere near the master of this – not by a long shot – but the balance between world-building believability and genuine unpredictability is important to me, and something I hope to keep developing. Of course, while I wrote the central parts of it, the story was developing right through production, and even into the editing phase, and was part of the collaborative process between Tommy and myself, with even our editor, Riccardo having input.
Tommy Nagle: When doing research on late 1800s Western period dress, we realised how modern much of the clothing seemed. We bombarded our amazing costume designer, Mariko Aoki with screengrabs from a variety of sources, from Unforgiven to Red Dead Redemption, and she went ahead finding scarves, waistcoats, and actually making Julia’s emerald green dress from scratch.
TN: It’s a massive risk when you’re casting without auditioning, or even more extremely, as we did in a few cases on this video, from a photograph alone, but due to time and budgetary constraints, there’s not much else we could have done. You don’t know if they’re going to be awkward divas, or if the photo was from 20 years ago, or if they’re just going to be a bit crap. Thankfully, quite apart from all the cast having the required acting chops, they were great people too, who mucked in, braved the cold and did all that was asked of them on the day.
A few weeks before the shoot, Rich posted a couple of castings on the talent website StarNow, with some brief, one sentence descriptions of what we were looking for with regard to each character. For the most part, these descriptions were pretty generic, so as not to preclude any certain type of actor from applying, but in the case of the lead Dame, we specified an ability to portray both ‘presence’ and ‘vulnerability’. (Not that that didn’t stop clearly unsuitable actresses from applying…)
We each went back to the castings every couple of days, doing our own version of a badger cull, politely rejecting the applicants that just didn’t look right for the part (Armenian strippers or Morrisons’ deli counter workers), rejecting the ones that looked like desperate twats and then arguing over the ones that did look right. Some folk’s profiles had videos of things they’d worked on before, fewer had actual showreels, and most had a mix of headshots, selfies and screengrabs of them being extras in the background of online Bingo adverts.
Rich had worked with some of the cast before, so he knew we were sorted for the lead cowboy and his younger self, (I think the lead cowboy, Brian, may turn out to be Bill Murray to Rich’s Wes Anderson, but that remains to be seen.) yet casting Julia in the role of the lead dame was a pretty big risk – she hadn’t had massive amounts of acting experience, but there was something about her that we couldn’t overlook.
I was all for casting a much more experienced actress who had a showreel, and thus actual evidence that she could act. There was a decent amount of back and forth between Rich and me, his winning gambit being the cynical, yet true “It’s always useful to have a beautiful face on your video’s thumbnail.” Just sayin’. It was a hard decision, as we knew that the other actress would have been brilliant, but Julia’s smile won us over, and ultimately we both felt her ‘look’ was perfect for the role. The gamble obviously paid off, because she was great.
Rich can tell you a story about inadvertently renting the smallest astronaut’s helmet in the world for a music promo, and completely lucking out (on the day) that the actor hired to play the role had a tiny head. We didn’t want to run into any last minute costume problems like this, so it’s important to mention that your choice of cast informs your costume decisions. Mariko did fittings with both Brian and Julia, to make sure that pieces fitted just right, especially on Brian, since he’s a six foot five monsterman.
TN: You often hear people asking famous filmmakers for advice. Things like “How can I break into the industry?”, and “No-one will buy my script, what should I do?”, or “How do I murder my ex-wife and get away with it?” Invariably the answer is a derivation of Nike’s maxim: “Just Do It.” They’ll generally follow up said maxim with “It’s easier than ever to make video content, and nobody else is going to do it for you, so just go ahead and do it.” Very true. But that being said, if you want to make content of a certain quality (not that video shot on an iPhone doesn’t have its place), you need to be able to manage whatever your particular level of budget is effectively.
We had our concept, but in order to birth that idea, squirming and bawling into the chilly light of day, we had to find a suitable location, a cast, crew, kit, food and transport, all squozen out of a £3k budget. We discussed the budget with our main producing contacts for the project, the wonder-brother team of Lewis and Ross Lindgren to figure out what was essential and what had to be dropped.
Case in point – a horse. To have our cowboy walking through the forest, leading a horse, its breath slowly rising from its nostrils as the morning light flickered through the swaying branches above would’ve looked amazing, but we just couldn’t afford it. The decisive point was that the horse made no difference to the story. Nothing changed if it was there or not, and so we decided it was window dressing that we could dispose of. So dobbin was carted off to the glue factory. Figuratively, of course. (We ate him in bolognese instead.)
A bit like a budget wedding, we pulled in favours wherever we could, we did as many of the other jobs ourselves (casting, producing, art department..ing) as we could, trying to save money at every turn. Crude it may be, but cash was king on this project. People are more willing to work for slightly less than normal if they know there’s a (semi) fat stack of notes awaiting their sweaty palms at the end of the day. Much more glamorous than a BACS transfer a month down the line. And for the people that didn’t get any money at all? Put it this way: Everyone should get paid in one form or another. The students got to experience a day on a film shoot, and the actors we couldn’t afford to give actual real-life money to got currency in the form of another piece for their showreel. Everyone’s happy. I hope.
BUDGET TIP: Be sure to only use favours when you really need them. You don’t want to get a reputation as the stingy, needy fucker who rings people asking for one more favour. People will soon flag your phone number and you’ll get through to a lot more voicemail machines…
A word on power. We almost didn’t hire a generator, but I’m very glad Rich insisted on it, as we’d have been boned without it. It was pitch black by about 6pm, and carting all the camera kit through the dark and the mud would have been dangerous were it not for the lights being powered by the genny. It was one of those things that was a bit of a bugger to organise though, as it had to get delivered and then carted through the mud like something out of a war film, filled up with petrol and maintained.
TN: Rich and I had a few debates over this – we’d worked with the DoP we ended up using, Carl Burke, on a previous music video. We knew he was top drawer, and that crucially for a video of this budget, he had his own kit (a RED EPIC). However, when I e-mailed Carl about his availability, he was AWOL. We got in touch with other DoP’s (as far away as Glasgow!) some with kit, some without, but none filled the holy trinity of having their own kit, being close to London, and being as experienced as Carl. When he finally got in touch, it transpired he was in – in true DOP form – in the middle of nowhere in Peru on another job. He assured us he was up for it.
We held out for Carl for three reasons:
- He’s the shiz. He knows his stuff. He knows what’s possible and what isn’t. But crucially, he’s a problem solver, which is what you need on set. Rather than be negative about a setup that’s not working, he’ll come up with suggestions and alternatives, which is manna from the Gods for a stressed director.
- He knows people. He took care of hiring both a grip/spark and his camera assistant, which relieved us of some of the burden when we had our producers hats on and were juggling other things.
- He had his own kit, and access to other people’s kit. Refer to point 1.
Riccardo Servini, our editor, also helped out on the day as our AD. This was useful for a couple of reasons. Useful for us, in that we had someone telling us during every setup that we were behind by seemingly exponential periods of time; but also useful for Rich in that seeing the setups during the shoot enabled him to point out things that would be helpful for him when he put his editor’s hat on.
Rich was able to pull some strings with his contacts at The Sutton Life Centre, and managed to gather together a group of students (What’s the collective noun for a group of students? A pimple? A beanie? An ejaculation?) who helped out as runners. I hope they learned some stuff, if only how hard it is to dig a hole in frozen ground…
RPW: Part of the uniqueness of this project is that, unlike most film productions, two people were making these decisions. Tommy Nagle and myself. And it’s very unusual that you’ll get two people, both with God-complexes, working together in harmony. This is not to say we don’t ever disagree, but I am amazed by how Tommy and I repeatedly pull this off.
Our process for Simple Days, was we both separately went through the script and marked down, shot-by-shot, where the camera would be, what lens we’d have on it, how far away from the action it’d be, and what the motion of the camera was. We did this for approximately 80 shots. We then brought these 2 shot lists together and argued it out. Except, we didn’t need to argue, because we agreed on most things. And where we differed, we talked it through, until we’d settle on the best outcome.
The benefit of working alongside someone, is you also get infused with ideas you’d never normally have. Tommy had a great shot idea for a pull-back, on a track, revealing the Old Cowboy wasn’t holding a gun, but was pointing his finger. I’d never have considered doing it that way. And I fervently argued the case for other shots I wanted, and the shot-list became better for those conversations. And ultimately we agreed upon a list that we could present to our DOP; allowing the conversation to start all over again…
RPW: A lot of my favourite moments of directing Simple Days were just tiny, seemingly insignificant moments. I remember telling Julia to look at the piano, and then just look down at the floor as the Cowboy tries to make eye contact with her. It was such a small detail, but she did it perfectly, and it’s one of my favourite bits in the video.
Then there was also the exchange between The Dame and Death at the end of the video, which was written as a full-on kiss. But as we approached rehearsing that scene, it just felt unnecessary, and, in sitting with Julia, we got to the core of what that scene actually was: showing The Dame had succumb to Death and was almost devouring him, because he was the closest thing she had to her dead lover. So, we had her kissing his neck and clawing at his face instead, which I think was much more powerful and visually interesting.
A lot of our best direction for Simple Days was done before the shoot: on choosing the location, costumes, actors, DOP and shot listing. To a degree, on the day we were painting-by-numbers: consciously trying to ensure the ship was always steered in the right direction, adding details along the way and letting people do their jobs.
I guess to an extent, a good Director may seem in charge, but even they are slaves to the work. Which is to say, when I’m giving notes to the actors, I’m not doing so because it’s what I personally want, but because I can see it’s what the story requires. And a good Director is just tapped into that.