DN last caught up with Director Jesse Leaman for his Guy Pearce starring short Lorne, in which we conversed about the film’s intense, single-day shoot that captured the story of one man’s isolation. Leaman returns to Directors Notes’ pages today with an equally ambitious film in the form of After Life, a music video for Melbourne-based singer/songwriter Sam Phay. The video, similarly to Lorne, follows an individual traversing a nightmarish reality. This time however he does so through the medium of dance. This gives After Life an eerie yet poetic quality which made it a film we just had to share. DN is delighted to feature After Life below accompanied by a conversation with Leaman about the process of creating a music video with next-to-nothing and making it feel as vivid and ambitious as possible.
How closely did you work with Sam Phay when initially conceiving the idea for the video?
So initially, Sam Phay came up to me and told me he had this new song he would release in the next two weeks. I was keen to listen, and I blew it out of proportion as soon as I heard it.
We did not have the benefit of budget. We just had the passion for making something beautiful.
The goal was to do a simple and artistic clip of Sam singing the song… But with every listen, I got further and further into the world of the song. We called up Wada Alexander Kuan, who features as the dancer, and before we even told him the concept, he was on board. We had collaborated on another video for Sam previously. This, at its heart, was a collaboration between Sam, Wada, Carl Allison, the director of photography, and myself. We did not have the benefit of budget. We just had the passion for making something beautiful.
How involved were you with the choreography? Did you have much say in the creative motivation behind Wada’s movement?
Sam, Wada and I got together for a choreography session. Now, I am no choreographer, let alone a dancer, but Sam and I sat in the back of my Ford Fairmont, Wada in front, and we explored these movements. This motif of the fingers was discovered at that moment.
One aspect of the video that struck me was the use of space. Wada goes from the liminal space of a car into something more fixed and concrete in the form of the house. Was it important for you to show a switch in these locations?
During the panic of pre-production, I knew we would be in the car for the first half, but I needed something to represent our protagonist being thrown deeper and deeper into an almost nightmare state. I needed to close him into a more haunting space. I came across an old Malt House through a friend of mine, and in this location was this gorgeous car, much more beautiful than my Fairmont, and this old house that hadn’t seen an inch of love in years. It was perfect.
What did Sam shoot on to obtain the distinct look of After Life?
Gear-wise, we shot on the ARRI ALEXA Mini LF with Zeiss Cp3s.
What was the process like creating the driving scenes through a travel simulation with projectors?
We were working on a super low-budget collaboration, so we took a chance on the concept actually working. We didn’t get to have pre-tests. Carl had drawn out and discussed with Sean McGlynn, the gaffer, how they would tackle it. We set aside about two hours to get it right, it took some finessing and going a little over the schedule, but it worked. Essentially we had projectors sitting on the roof or tied to apple crates on top of c stands just far enough so we could get our shot. During this process, Wada and I tried to perfect some of the movements.
How do you see the relationship between the music video and the song itself? Are you focusing more on reflecting the sonic nature of the song with certain visuals or is it more about tapping into the narrative Sam is telling?
When Sam sent me the song I listened to it repeatedly just over and over, and let my mind explore different areas, spaces, and emotions. Then when we sat down he mentioned what the song meant to him, this idea that if the relationship ends, he’ll just be around anyway. I took that as a prompt to think how after we fall out of love so much of your memories and spirit lay in those moments of love and hurt. They linger in the places you once called home or a favourite bar even. We played with those themes and had Wada’s character stuck in this metaphorical space. It progressed to the idea of being stuck in that headspace. Stuck in a negative headspace, you fall deeper into it, fighting yourself. So I would say the music took over some of the meaning of the original song and allowed us to play around.
How do you find the transition from narrative shorts to music videos, is there much difference in your creative approach?
I would say the hardest thing I’ve found in the process of music videos is not having that dialogue to play with. I love words, but I love letting people sit in moments. The eyes tell so much, and one of my favourite parts is when you keep rolling without talent knowing; sometimes these are the best bits.
I needed something to represent our protagonist being thrown deeper and deeper into an almost nightmare state.
I don’t work on too many things at the same time, I am very passionate about every project so in that way, I do give both narrative and music videos the same respect. Guy told a journalist when working on Lorne that the character deserves as much time as a feature to develop because its still your reputation on the line. And I feel that with my craft, I’m trying to get better every time with what resources I have. I just want to create beautiful artworks that mean something to me selfishly. Then it will connect with a small few or many others.
How do you feel your filmmaking has evolved since we spoke to you for Lorne back in 2018?
Since making Lorne I have been writing many scripts and working on music videos as a way to kind of test out ideas and themes I want to explore. A lot of the time, it comes back to similar themes I am obsessed with; Love, death, and what happens after we die. Which were all big themes in Lorne. I would say I learned an incredible amount working with Guy Pearce on what actors need, small prompts, and minor keywords that they will then perceive and create an entire world with for their performance.
I have found my confidence as a director and what keeps me returning to the beautiful, stressful process. And it’s because I love the process itself. A thought from your head can be manifested and made into a tangible thing that people can then interpret and take into their life. It might be subconscious, but if you make people move or feel, that is something special.
What will you be working on next?
Currently, Taylor Adams (Writer of Lorne with me) and I are working on a feature script that has been in the works for the past few years. But it gets better with every re-write. Painfully it takes time, but I am so excited to share what makes me tick. In the meantime, I will keep making as many gorgeous passion projects and short films to appease my need to create as possible.