In his previous music video for Le Roi’s Lintu, Finnish director Sakari Lerkkanen converged the stories of a group of disparate outcasts into the hedonistic warehouse parties of his youth. Lerkkanen once again draws from a past spent living on the fringes, to deliver a deeply emotive tale of a couple’s fractious relationship for South London based singer/songwriter Shivum Sharma’s All These Years. DN invited Lerkkanen back to discuss noxious relationships and the challenges of installing dark narratives into the music video structure which demands complex human emotions be distilled solely down to onscreen actions.
The last time we spoke you said the key elements for you when working on a music video were “Style, rhythm, story and the visual relationship with the lyrics.” What did you pull from All These Years to guide the narrative and compositions of the music video?
Style, rhythm and story are again important parts in this one. While in the Le Roi film these elements feel more like a balance of each other, in this one, story was the part we worked the most with the Producer and artist, which makes the whole feel slightly different. I usually pitch my ideas with synopses as it gives more space for development of the screenplay. As nothing is locked and the text is shorter you can involve the artist more easily in the development process. Shivum had excellent ideas and feedback for the screenplay with the Producer and I was literally developing the whole plot up until one week before the shoot. Lyrics played an important part in describing the thoughts of the lead actress, like voice over in a film.
Of course we worked on style as well – but the visual direction seemed very clear to all of us. Together we were going to markets, junkyards, all kind of dodgy locations to search out as many gritty, colourful and strange things as possible to create strong world around the characters, but there were barely any references apart from photographers who had filmed people living next to junkyards, caravan communities or hard conditions. I was mainly doing the research work for this one by myself. Composition-wise we chose to film in a very small location – an original 50s caravan where we could barely fit in with lights and a small field surrounded by containers. This mainly pushed us to tight shots as we were filming handheld. I have to say, I was very excited by the challenge of using just medium shots and close-ups in a 4 minute music video, because for this kind of solution to work your story and characters have to be truly interesting. Rhythm-wise we knew mainly two things before the shoot: use of slow motion and pace of the scenes related to the tempo of track. Well, in the edit we figured out that the order had to be slightly changed as the song didn’t really build up the scenes how we’d thought. We had to take the track out for while and go back to our story – aim to explain it as clearly as possible. When the images without any music or sound started to feel right we moved the track back in. We just had to adjust few scenes to match the lyrics and work it out more dynamically and adjust the takes to the rhythm of the track.
Was the film a collaborative piece or were you given free reign once you’d been commissioned?
I had quite free hands. I trusted the artist and he trusted me along with his managers. I was initially afraid to lose the style and I felt that the story was maybe too hard for a music video – but Shivum agreed to take this direction and encouraged me to go even more hardcore with the elements I had. This kind of collaboration is something very unique and I felt it was a truly enjoyable creative process where we both could inspire and challenge each other. The thing we were bouncing around the most was the screenplay.
I felt that the story was maybe too hard for a music video.
The performances of your central couple speaks volumes of a life beyond what we see in the short. How did you work with them to build the characters and the volatile, yet tender, relationship that runs through the film?
Casting was long process for this one, I mainly sent the synopsis to candidates. I was still writing the screenplay versions and asking questions from the candidates – How would they behave in such a situation? How their characters would place their thoughts and feelings into action? I did this as I was running out of ideas myself. During the process I finally figured out how to write the final version of screenplay and I remember I went to meet the last candidate for the lead role of the girl. I asked the same questions considering the synopsis that I had asked the previous candidates and actress Lucy Roslyn told me her vision. She literally told me, without knowing it, what I had written in my latest screenplay version. She just had the synopsis on her hands. I was surprised! I had to go to another meeting and at the tube station we continued chatting – she was very nervous about the role – and when I stepped out from the tube I told her that she had the part. Hugo Nicolau the other actor was also the only one from the whole casting who we all considered for the role of the man. Both of them stood out amazingly and their characters and personalities were clearly the best match we had.
Afterwards we rehearsed once at the location and sent some ideas and references via email before the shoot. On set I just had to give them space to do their job. It didn’t feel like we had to really work out the characters as the both of them are very talented professionals and their personalities were similar to characters they were playing. I just told them what scene we were doing, how they had to move and then I gave them time to say when they were ready. For the extras we took a bunch of professional actors and the other half of the people were literally from the East London parties or from the street.
As in Lintu, the group here appear to be people who exist outside of regular society, what is it that draws you back to ‘outsiders’ time and again?
Actually this music video is again very personal to me. I remember someone telling me that nobody lives like this for real or that just a very small number of people do. Well I was living a bit like this while I was working in Venice earlier in my career. I was directing commercials and documentaries for a Dutch company in Venice and they organised my living conditions in the middle of a campsite. I was sharing a caravan with three entertainers, actors and dancers – having just one day free a week for six months. It was crazy, going parties, sharing small a space with strange characters and working from early morning till late night, spending the whole time living in this small community of caravans. In that kind of community you sort of need to create your own world again to escape the reality – which reminds me a bit like living in a prison. There are many funny stories from that time, but to answer the question, I guess just the life. I just happened to share my life with those kinds of people.
Could you take us through your production set up for the shoot?
The most painful part of production was finding the location. East London was full of caravans just the month before the shoot, but the council cleared them all out from the streets so we had to hire one from Kent. That was a horrible process and I literally ran through all the possibilities around London. As we didn’t know the location during the early stage of production and we were still writing the screenplay, the storyboard played its part very late. After the storyboard was done I had too many shots and I had to cut two thirds of it – I still remember my Producer smiling at seeing me struggle to take out all the beautiful images. I had to choose the images which were really just driving the story forward. After the storyboard was done we photographed every single take at the location to get an idea of what really worked and what we could get rid of again. It was necessary to do this in such a small space – to understand how to make the illusion that these characters were sharing their own community in the middle of nowhere. The shoot itself took 10 hours and we shot everything using the Arri Amira as it has great dynamic range in colours and a practical design for handheld cinematography.
Experimenting with new filmmaking approaches on projects has been an important element for you in past. Last time it was a technique used by Vsevolod Meyerhold, what did you use to push yourself this time round?
There were so many parts on this one as well! For the storytelling and writing Franz Kafka is the one who inspired me the most. He writes really well about the psychological horror that happens in human minds, so I wanted to adapt part of that feeling into the film. The hard part in this film was that you had to translate the thoughts of the human beings into the action as I mentioned before. Also, making something which was so narratively driven fit the form of a music video was something new to me. You have to carefully follow the mood and story – both at the same time.
Making something which was so narratively driven fit the form of a music video was something new to me.
Projections, worms, a lightbulb, medium shots, many elements from the gritty styling to unusual locations were also visually completely new experiments and there are many similar scenes which we took out from the final version. Through all these elements the challenge was to make it all look realistic, to adapt these elements as a full story where people can relate. All of this took loads of practice, experiments and going through references. I like to do all these little things before the shoot to understand how it all works together. I bet that kind of humble attitude towards the work itself is necessary for complicated shoots like this where you have to produce good quality with complicated and multiple set ups in 10 hours. I think we had somewhere around 54 takes on that day and close to 10 different set ups. I was lucky to have good crew behind me.
How much did you have to experiment with the balance of ‘good times’ vs ‘bad times’ for the couple in the edit? How did you want the viewer to ultimately feel about their relationship?
I would not really say that there are good times in this music video as the story is very dark. It describes a desperate moment when the leads are trapped in the middle of a community living in a circle – impossible to escape – without hopes of a future. The characters love each other too much, but it all feels lighter in a music video when we show their love together in the night scenes.
The woman loves the man so much that she wants more and more from him – but there is nothing more. In the end, when she realises the truth you could imagine her saying something like: “I taught there would be so much more” before getting back into the caravan and continuing with her life as it is. This kind of horrifying desperation and hanging onto relationships happens in real life as well and I hope the audience can relate to that experience. Telling this story, I wanted to show people that this kind of circle doesn’t end until you are really ready to do something about it.
This kind of horrifying desperation and hanging onto relationships happens in real life as well and I hope the audience can relate to that experience.
What will we see from you next?
At the moment there are discussions for a few music videos and I am writing a few short films in the meantime which are at different stages and a few commercials should be on the todo list from late spring. I’m also awaiting the release of a new advertisement I directed before Christmas. There will for sure be more pushing of the visual boundaries, styles and crazier concepts, and hopefully also more development of messages. Probably even something with Super 8mm film. We’ll see what comes out first! 🙂