Australian two-piece Party Dozen have been storming our senses with their riotous music for five years now and their newest track Macca the Mutt featuring the beguiling Nick Cave is no different. After finding common ground during the recording of a live performance of the band at Sydney Opera House, they judiciously decided to work with VERSUS again for their latest music video. The creative directorial duo Tanya Babic and Jason Sukadana – who were last on our pages with their powerful promo for Genesis Owusu’s The Fall – eagerly embraced the anarchic spirit needed to bring the video to fruition and captured a uniquely Australian aesthetic by drawing upon films like Wake in Fright and Stone while working together seamlessly with band members Kirsty Tickle and Jonathan Boulet. Party Dozen perform in the video with all of the moxie and raw energy they give to their live performances – something I had the pleasure of witnessing twice in one day at Brighton’s The Great Escape last month – while conveying the theme which underpins their upcoming album The Real Work. We at DN were only too happy to catch up with VERSUS to chat about finding the ‘why’ of each vignette of this chaotic, diesel fuelled smash fest of a video and the novel way they chose to represent the presence of iconic Australian performer Nick Cave.
How did the relationship with Party Dozen continue from your first project with them?
After first working with Jono and Kirsty a couple of years ago on a live music video shot at the Sydney Opera House for their track Play the Truth we loved the experience of collaborating. Our taste and sensibilities really aligned so we all kept in touch, hoping to work together on something again down the line. When they reached out about this clip, the original track didn’t have the Nick feature on it. That came a little later down the line. Needless to say, it was a huge coup and gave us the extra impetus to throw absolutely everything at it. We are all huge Nick Cave fans.
The process was extremely collaborative from the get-go. We spent a great deal of time talking about the themes and tone of the clip. The band had a very clear idea of how they wanted to come across. It was really important to them that there was some levity to the images. In our original treatment we went a little too hard with the darkness and arty fartiness which we dialled right back to the sweet, irreverent spot that ultimately it landed in.
The measured video for Play the Truth feels pretty far removed from the chaotic world you created in Macca the Mutt.
The Play the Truth clip was a very different project so you’re right, the two films are worlds apart. Play the Truth was a live music video so we wanted to create something that could be captured in just a couple of performance takes. Our time with the band and on location was quite limited so we went for a simple yet striking approach. It was filmed during the height of COVID at the Sydney Opera House and we were the first crew they had in since the pandemic kicked off. So there were all sorts of crazy restrictions around what could and couldn’t be done. The most challenging of which was that no crew were allowed within 1.5 metres of the band at any time, to ensure there was no risk of transmission between band and crew which is what prompted us to build the approach around that circular dolly track.
Play the Truth was as much about the location as it was the band and song. The film was a Sydney Opera House commission so we wanted to ensure the theatre was a key visual element. Another reason the circular dolly worked, was because it allowed us to showcase the empty theatre. But at the end of the day it’s about responding to the song, and Play The Truth is a much more grinding, developing track which is why the idea of continuously circling and accelerating around the band worked well for it.
When it came to making the clip for Macca the Mutt we had more time and access to the band so we could build out a more involved approach. And we were able to work together in a traditional music video capacity without location caveats, etc.
We structured the film around key performative scenes. In some scenes, we pushed them really hard physically. In others, they were made to feel uncomfortable or challenged in other ways.
What particular themes did Party Dozen want you to concentrate on?
The band were very interested in thematically and physically exploring their instruments as tools and performance as a kind of manual labour, it was also really important to them that the film had a nonlinear narrative. The album is built around this idea of ’real work’ and the many iterations of manual labour in modern life. To them, it was really important that we touched on these themes but we didn’t force anything too hard. So we built individual vignettes and performance scenes, linking them thematically around these ideas of manual labour and laboriousness in general. We structured the film around key performative scenes. In some scenes, we pushed them really hard physically. In others, they were made to feel uncomfortable or challenged in other ways. Circle motifs, shot repetition and meaningless exercises like smashing an old wreck of a car, driving nowhere or searching for something that isn’t there also hint towards the cyclic and laborious nature of work. Or life. Whatever you wanna take from it.
You’ve spoken before about drawing inspiration from classic Aussie cinema of the 70s, were there any other sources you drew from for the project?
Obviously, Jono and Kirsty are cool as fuck, but they are also funny as fuck too. So everything they do looks rad but it also has tongue firmly planted in cheek. It’s kind of why we felt the 70s Aussie cinema aesthetic suited them so perfectly. It’s a look that is cool as shit but also a bit funny. So we really drew from the band in marrying the track with this aesthetic. We also just wanted to do something as uniquely Australian as them and Nick. It would have been easy to lean into a very Euro/American music video aesthetic with the locations we had on hand, but we really didn’t want to do that. It felt weird not to honour the spirit of the track and band.
When we first started talking about it the guys sent us a bit of a mood board which was full of stuff we loved, including some pretty obscure performance art stuff which was right up our alley, and not the kind of thing you normally receive in a band’s references. It also had the ‘Nick The Stripper’ clip in there, which in hindsight should have been the first clue to the feature. This was a great starting point to align on taste more than anything, and we progressed from there.
Was there a particular order you shot in and then how did you decide on the intercutting of the various vignettes to give the desired non-linear narrative whilst retaining the manual labour motif?
In pre-production we created a previsualisation using reference images and little tests we shot. The track is an artwork itself, with loads of movement and some very key, epic moments. So the previs was essential to ensure we were going into the shoot with the right mix of big and small vignettes. In a lot of ways, we kind of did the edit in pre. But of course, there was loads of shaping up to do in post. One thing we were clear on was that we wanted to progress through performance scenes so there was always something new about to drop, rather than just mixing it up from the start.
With each vignette we asked ourselves, does this actually do a good job of saying what we want to say or just look cool?
The shoot order of vignettes was dictated more by location, kit, light. We didn’t shoot anything in order, we shot it in the way that made the most of each shoot day. We actually hired one of those portable lighting towers they use on construction sites and roadworks to help light the car wreckers after dark. It’s on the very edge of the city and pitch black at night. Shout out to our Gaffer Rich for reversing through a muddy, potholed, dirt road in darkness.
The clip was in pre-production for nearly 8 months. We had so many stops and starts with it. We had to move the shoot 4 times in total. The first three shoot holds were moved as a result of Covid 19 lockdowns and then cases skyrocketing. The last shift was as a result of our location being flooded during the Sydney floods at the start of 2022. Ultimately, we made sure we used the extra time and reassessed our approach with each shift. It made for a stronger and tighter clip in the end.
What changes were made from the initial idea through all of the unfortunate pauses you had during pre-production to the final concept we see?
Uggghhh those unfortunate pauses. They just kept on coming! But we made sure that with each delay we reassessed and interrogated each and every vignette. It meant we honed in on the ‘why’ of each scene quite thoroughly. With each vignette we asked ourselves, does this actually do a good job of saying what we want to say or just look cool?. In the end, each scene kind of had to do both or it was ditched or rewritten. So the creative evolved considerably from the very first shot list to the final one, four shoot holds later. Extra time is always a great thing, especially when you’re working on the sweat of an oily rag. Just a shame the world had to fall apart for us to have said extra time.
Apart from the lighting towers what was your gear set up for the shoot? Could you share more about the technicalities of capturing the grittiness which comes across in the film?
It was a two day shoot – one in a warehouse location and another in the car wreckers. Rig-wise, there wasn’t anything terribly complicated, other than rigging the camera to the truck for the driving shots. Otherwise, we had decided that we wanted everything to be either handheld or simply on sticks to make sure there wasn’t anything too slick in terms of camera movement and that we were playing into those cinematic references.
We still think it’s funny that of all things, we decided to present Nick Cave’s apparition as a roadwork sign.
To achieve that grittiness we had always wanted to shoot on 16mm, but it just wasn’t financially viable over two shoot days. So we decided to investigate the film-out process. In Australia there is only one guy who develops 16mm film, and then another who scans it. And if you want to do film-out, then it’s another guy who does the digital-to-film transfer to start. So that’s 3 people across 2 states that you’re sending reels between. We realised it would make way more sense to look overseas, and we landed on Colorlab in the States, who were super helpful in answering all our questions about the process, and faster than doing it locally.
We worked with our long-time collaborator and brilliant DP, Brad Jarrett on figuring out how best to approach shooting with the film-out process in mind. And after reading a bit about others’ experiences in the process we learned that we actually needed to get quite a sharp image to start with before going to film. So we shot on the Sony Venice to utilise the full frame sensor and were able to nab some Canon K-35 lenses to still give some of that vintage flavour – you can never go too crisp. In the end, it was probably a blessing not to be changing rolls of film in the middle of a dusty car wreckers surrounded by Brown snakes.
I guess the other notable piece of equipment was the Electronic Street Sign. We had to learn the back end of that to put our own stuff on there. We still think it’s funny that of all things, we decided to present Nick Cave’s apparition as a roadwork sign.
The clip was created with an extremely limited budget. We are lucky to have such a supportive and solid crew who came on board for the love of it. And we had our gear house generously offer kit at a drastically reduced cost. We had to be extremely clever with the art department and locations as well. We literally drove around for days scouting spots, pulling up and asking for favours until we finally got a yes from the wreckers. The guys had a good relationship with the owner of the warehouse we shot in. We sourced every single prop ourselves. We pulled a lot of favours for this one and did not scrimp on the love.
To what extent do you feel that the final video was shaped by the tight budget and other constraints you faced?
We find that all screen work is shaped somewhat by constraints. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing. No matter what you’re doing, you are going to face challenges. Whether it’s time, location, talent availability, weather, or money, there is always something to work with or around. We try and use these constraints as an impetus to be more creative. Finding clever workarounds can actually be quite thrilling. This project was definitely creatively shaped by the limited budget more than anything else. But if we had more money we aren’t sure we would have done anything differently. Except maybe we would have shot the whole thing on film instead of just film-out, and fed the crew more than just the leftover prop sandwiches. That second comment is absolutely a joke btw. Good catering trumps all else, even when you’re in a junkyard. Especially when you’re in a junkyard.
What are you guys working on next?
We are currently working on a spot for The Australian Ballet, as well as a really unique and exciting series of art films for a cultural institution in collaboration with a whole bunch of incredible Australian artists that we’ve curated ourselves. We also just wrapped a couple of shows where we creatively directed the incredible Gordi at Vivid Sydney festival, which was a new foray for us and something we’d love to do more of.