In the world of music videos in 2013, there weren’t many as memorable as Ian Pons Jewell’s stunning promo for Naughty Boy track La La La. Winning the VEVO Best New Artist prize at their UK Music Video Awards and Best Video accolade at the MOBO Awards, the video charmed audiences with a stand-out performance from its young lead, an extremely fluffy dog and the song’s catchy hook. Although the viral success of La La La brought the filmmaker’s work to a whole new audience, here at DN we’ve had a mindful eye on his ever-expanding catalogue for some time. Finally getting time to speak to the talented director, we decided to quiz him on his promo for Naughty Boy and the three other music videos he shot in Bolivia:
What made you decide to shoot four music videos in Bolivia?
It was actually Luisa Gerstein of Landshapes who had the idea to set her video within the world of the Cholita wrestlers. She’d seen my video for Kwes and wanted me to do her debut video, unsure if the Bolivian idea would be possible due to budget and logistics. Through some strange coincidence, which is always a good sign in filmmaking, I had a trip to Argentina booked during the same time she needed the video filmed. She had no idea of this, or that I spoke fluent Spanish. Bruno Travers, who always works on my videos as the camera assistant also happened to be going with me. So it meant the ticket costs of us both were minimal compared to flying out from the UK, so we forked out for Doug Walshe, who shoots all my work.
I packed a two week bag, left my stuff in Buenos Aires, told my friend I’d be back in a couple weeks and it turned into 8 months and 3 more videos. It wasn’t so much about choosing to shoot there, but rather taking each project as it came. After the first video some bands were interested in the aesthetic there and I happened to email the commissioner Sam Seager to let him know I was now in Bolivia and had found a Red Camera there, he then sent the Naughty Boy – La La La track.
I then fell in love with the country and decided to stay after the 2nd video, starting the residency application. I never completed it as the paperwork freaked me out.
Naughty Boy – La La La ft. Sam Smith
With four videos in production, did you have the concepts sketched out before you left, or did they form once you’d arrived and taken in the country?
As I mentioned, the first video’s setting was Luisa’s idea. I desperately tried to write the video before going there, sending Luisa these scripts based on no actual experience of the country and the places. It was quite nerve-wracking for me not to have the control I was normally used to. My work had and still is very controlled, with clear structural changes in narrative happening at certain points planned from the very beginning. Going out there blind was totally new to me. I gave up trying to do these scripts and went out there to see it all, it was great. We got to know the people, the locations, the weather, the views. We then wrote the script together listening to the track. The final piece feels very documentary but was completely structured in the writing with it diverting hardly at all during filming.
Landshapes – In Limbo
The next three videos were all done out of seeing La Paz, the people, the atmosphere, being told about the myths, the politics. I felt I was going to burst from all these new experiences, with the La La La video being one that encapsulated a lot of what I had seen and heard. But the most important factor was meeting Franco, the boy in the video. He left a big impression on me after a corporate video I made with him in for the government. I knew I wanted to write something specifically for him and after meeting a chow chow dog, the two came together in my mind, and the next day Sam sent me the track. It all happened with so much chance and coincidence.
Cloud Control – Dojo Rising
The subsequent video for Cloud Control was again made with the girl, Nayeli, in mind. She is the sister of Franco and she also came to the casting session for La La La. I’d asked her to come due to meeting her and being taken aback at how mature she was for her age. Despite the video being written for Franco, a part of me was worried how he would take on such an important and challenging role without any previous experience. He of course did an incredible casting, so we went with him as planned. But Nayeli also came, and stunned me at how well she listened to direction. I could talk to her as I would any adult actor with years of experience, with her explaining back my notes in her own words as a way to understand them better. I then considered re-writing the script to have them both in the video, but it was too big a change. I promised her something would come up soon though. I then got the Cloud Control track. The idea came from going to a friend’s nephew’s birthday party. There was a clown there not quite able to keep the attention of the children, it was very comical but what also struck me was the aesthetic of a Bolivian clown. So the idea came about of seeing a kid’s party in chaos, total carnage, and revealing the cause, this incompetent clown. Then came Nayeli, I instantly imagined her singing the lyrics, and the idea of her going after the clown who had ruined her party, with the police taking her extremely seriously. Other than a few specifically Bolivian things like the E-Fit, an idea our producer came up with, the rest is a story that could have been told anywhere.
Seekae – Another
Finally, the idea for the Seekae video was something I had in mind a few weeks after arriving. I heard all these insane stories of alcoholics being buried alive in the foundations of buildings as a sacrifice to strengthen them. I’d heard a bridge without the supposedly necessary sacrifice had fallen some years back, so when they rebuilt it, they put a man at each end, standing, inside the concrete. They were hard to believe, but the amount of people who told me about it was staggering. I’m yet to see any “proof” of it, but I do believe it happens, or certainly used to. The “cement man” in the La La La video, the man with the leather jacket, is actually the lost soul of one of these buried alcoholics, which is why he’s covered in grey dust. The video is his backstory, in a way, in a very different genre.
I heard all these insane stories of alcoholics being buried alive in the foundations of buildings as a sacrifice to strengthen them.
Despite the concepts for these videos being different, they all share a distinct visual style that makes the most of your locations and its inhabitants. How important was it for you that these videos showcased Bolivia and its people?
What was very important for me, was they could be postcards for those outside of the country, but also something a Bolivian would also engage with. It fascinated me to be able to make work that had such different readings from inside and outside of the country. They are Bolivian stories, Bolivian people and places, set to Western music. There are things people outside of Bolivia won’t understand or recognise, but be intrigued by. Then you have Bolivians watch it and connect to certain parts they wouldn’t. It was something I’d never done before, and something I loved, to create work with two completely different audiences in mind.
With that in mind, did you have to be careful that these promos didn’t turn into advertising material for the Bolivian tourism board?
I never had a thought toward this at all. It was only after seeing the La La La video being shared with great frequency that I knew it was going to go viral. At the start, we knew we had quite a special video that was being made, but no real knowledge of how it would blow up when released. I’m happy that it has captured something of the country though, I love Bolivia, I miss it dearly, and would recommend to anyone that they go there if they can. I’m happy if the videos do act as something that could promote Bolivia.
How was the production for the videos? Did you bring additional crew out to work on the films? What did you shoot on? Did you shoot the videos consecutively?
The production went well for them all. La La La was of course the biggest challenge, it was a very intense production. We had Dobrina Manolova and Tim Harrison of Studio Murmur working like nuts on production from the UK alongside Gran Angular & Foqus in Bolivia, on different time zones. It meant sending these horribly small files to my editor Gaia Borretti, due to the internet being so slow there, whilst we were still shooting the next part of the video. She would have to get in touch at times to ask us if the shot she was wanting to choose as the best take was in or out of focus, due to how compressed they were.
I brought out Doug Walshe, the DOP I have worked with for a long time for 3 of the 4 videos. Having worked with him on nearly all of my videos, it meant having this solid partnership out in this new place. It worked very well, but we got an incredible crew out there too with the production companies Gran Angular, Foqus and Color Monster. I also brought out Ameena Kara Callender, a costume designer / stylist who I have subsequently worked with on two more projects. She then worked with a local assistant to show her the markets to find the right clothes. There was then Sy Turnbull, another DOP, who came out to shoot Cloud Control along with Serena Noorani, producer. They all make up our crew Studio Murmur, so it was very much a co-production between us, and the Bolivian companies. All the post is done in the UK, including our grades being done by Luke Morrison at The Mill.
We shot on the Alexa with prime lenses for Naughty Boy, then the other three were shot on a Red MX with “awful” stills lenses. The wide lens which we used for the vast majority of the videos was very rickety indeed. But it’s all about lighting and framing anyway. Not ideal, but they did the job.
The videos had probably the same spacing between them of a month give or take, we never went into production on a video during the post production of the previous one. But they were quite close together.
There was a guy who looked like a back from the dead version of Christopher Walken.
How did you go about casting for the videos?
Landshapes was cast with the actual wrestlers who are part of the association, we were so lucky to have found Mirian, the protagonist. She has this beautiful look that really draws you into her world. We then got the other wrestlers in the video by shooting when everything actually occurred. In this way, it is documentary, but with a planned structure of when we would see these documented scenes. The training scene was simply shot when they were training, the fight was shot during an actual fight, which was quite nerve-racking.
The other videos were a mix of different methods. People I had met, actors the producers knew, friends, friends of friends. Franco and Nayeli are the children of Foqus’ Exec Producer’s “empleada”. The lady who comes to clean and cook at his house. She is very much part of his family, so was happy to bring them along to the casting. The Seekae video had a casting change at the last minute. The tall scarier looking guy who doesn’t speak is a great friend of mine in La Paz, but that part was originally meant to be someone I had met in Copacabana. I went there on a break with some friends and we took mescaline, powdered San Pedro cactus. It was a weird and hilarious trip with us ending up in a tropical themed restaurant, which inside had various film like characters. There was a guy who looked like a back from the dead version of Christopher Walken, another who had some sort of deformity that during my trip made me think his face was liquid, melting and reforming, then another guy looked just like John Connor in Terminator 2. I was desperate to get his contact details but felt far too paranoid to do so. We then passed him by two more times randomly on the street. The next day also, three more times, it was like he was being pushed to me the entire trip. Finally at the end I had one last drink at the bar, annoyed I never got the bottle to ask him, and there he was, walking by. So I finally got his details and he was meant to be in the Seekae video, but alas, he cancelled the day before!
Your latest short film Angels is currently playing festivals, what can you tell us about it and when can people expect to see it online?
Angels is a goodbye film. An ode to Elephant and Castle and The Bank from our crew, Studio Murmur. “The Bank” was our nickname for the old Natwest building that we lived and worked out of for 5 years. It was ridiculously cheap and the space was huge, but pretty dirty. It wasn’t just the offices of Natwest, but also had vaults. It would store cash and gold, so it had these crazy vaults in the basement with thick metal doors. When we finally got told we had to leave, it was terribly sad. I wanted to make one last film, but, dedicate it to the place and Elephant and Castle. So the film itself follows the story of an old man who works for Mr Castille, the fictional owner of the Elephant and Castle shopping mall and bowling alley. We see him in a changed world, one that he is nervous of as he passes on his role to his replacement, showing him the ropes of his new role as Mr Castille’s right hand man. It’s quite obscene in its nature, almost farcical, but treated very seriously.
I am not sure when it’ll go online, but I imagine it would do so in the next 6 months, at the latest.
What are you working on next?
I just got back from Brazil, directing the new video for this amazing trio called Pearls Negras. I’m now in pre production for the debut video for Grades which I’m extremely excited about, as it’s stepping into a new style we haven’t really done in music video yet. Then I’m also confirmed for the debut video of Untold, working in collaboration with Morgan Beringer, Studio Murmur’s go-to VFX don. I then have other pitches I’m waiting on, or writing. I’m back in London which is really exciting, with an eye to go back to Bolivia to skip the UK Winter!