In a short space of time we here at DN have become fascinated with the collaborative partnership between Director Ian Roderick Gray and Musician On Man as the pair are crafting a distinct visual universe in which their music videos reside. Having spoke to them for the body horror-inspired Worse Than It Seems and the On Man-directed psychological romance United, the pieces of a wider puzzle are increasingly coming into focus. These are surreal videos fundamentally about existential human issues. Their latest collaboration Survive This continues in that vein, exploring a couple who’re facing the end of a life-threatening disease which manifests itself as a spiky, almost folk horror-esque appendage sprouting from the chest. It’s another brilliant and heartbreaking piece which DN was delighted to learn more about from Gray, who walks us through his ongoing partnership with On Man, the love story at the heart of their video, and the challenge of creating their unearthly VFX.
You’ve really established a strong creative relationship with On Man at this point. Do you find that you fall into certain rhythms now when collaborating?
This is my third collaboration with On Man and by this time we had developed a very good understanding of the other person’s sensibilities. So when he asked me to direct the music video for Survive This, we were able to build upon the lessons learned over the course of our previous collaborations to create something that I believe is the most refined and mature and better suited for this music video/film hybrid that we’ve been exploring.
How was the process of generating ideas for Survive This in particular? What jumped out to you after listening to the song?
When he first played me the song I was overwhelmed. It was so incredibly raw and powerful and genuinely emotionally evocative. I definitely felt a heavy responsibility to create a visual that would do justice to the haunting music.
The idea was to make something intimate, stripped back and beautiful because at its core the story was about love, respect and dignity.
We bounced around some ideas for a little while but we couldn’t quite find a concept that seemed to fit. I knew that I wanted to do something that was much more intimate this time and less grandiose. I stumbled upon an article about a strange phenomenon that had occurred in France and specifically about assisted suicide amongst elderly couples. One particular story focused on a couple in which the wife had a deteriorative and terminal condition and had convinced her partner to help her die with dignity and on her own terms, despite the fact that the husband would almost certainly be arrested and prosecuted for this act. They agreed to spend their last weekend together doing the things that they loved, from watching their favourite film to eating their favourite meal, until finally they were both at peace with the reality of their situation. The story was so moving to me and seemed to touch upon all of the same themes as the song. I read the article several times whilst listening to the music and that became the inspiration for the narrative of our music video.
When you pitched it to On Man were there any changes he wanted to make or was it a case of letting you run with the idea?
I pitched it to On Man and he loved the idea, but he also wanted to make sure we were being deeply sensitive and respectful to what is a very challenging subject. The idea was to make something intimate, stripped back and beautiful because at its core the story was about love, respect and dignity. The key was to ensure that this never felt sensationalised or exploitative and we also had to be very careful about avoiding any cheesy tropes. We immediately began writing the script together and after several drafts, we had something that we felt was strong.
We decided to make the central character’s condition something ambiguous, otherworldly and abstract. This would hopefully allow the audience to assign their own interpretation to the condition, creating a deeper resonance with the plight of the protagonist. To one person it might be cancer, to another Multiple Sclerosis. This also allowed us to maintain the element of surrealism that has become such a significant element of the On Man aesthetic.
Much like the third eye from our previous music video Worse Than It Seems, we knew that the approach adopted for the illness would be pivotal to the success of the film. In essence, the illness was a character, every bit as important to the story as our two lead performers. The illness needed to be visceral and tangible, and it needed to feel both alive and painful. Being a Type 1 diabetic myself, I know what it’s like to live with a condition and especially a condition that can, on occasion, feel like it’s consuming your entire body. When you live with a condition, you are always vulnerable and you are reminded of this daily. It was extremely important to me to try and capture and convey that feeling.
And how did you find the challenge of realising this condition practically?
We had worked with the brilliant prosthetic makeup artist Suzi Battersby on both of our previous videos and we knew that she would be perfect for this. Suzi understood the assignment immediately and began creating designs that were inspired by things like cordyceps and the rare bone condition fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva. Her idea was to show that this condition may have begun as something subtle, like a rash on the lower abdomen but had since grown into something that had ravaged this man’s body, climbing up his torso and now onto his face. The idea was to begin the story with the protagonist’s realisation that the condition has spread further and there is no reversing it. The key was to make it clear that the affliction was growing out of the protagonist’s body and that this was an organic element. I think Suzi did an extraordinary job.
It’s not every day as an actor that you get to work with such interesting practical effects. What was it like working with Tim Bentick and Christopher Fairbank on set?
I had been lucky enough to work with both Tim Bentinck and Christopher Fairbank prior to this film and I knew how amazing they were. After writing both of them letters outlining my intentions, as Chris doesn’t have an email account, we were thrilled when they both agreed to be in it. What I didn’t know was that they are extremely close friends and this proved to be an instrumental component to the success of the film. It was essential that our characters felt intimate, natural and relaxed with one another. Their relationship needed to feel real and the friendship shared by the actors in real life really helped with this.
The key was to make it clear that the affliction was growing out of the protagonist’s body and that this was an organic element.
Since there was no dialogue, so much of the story and emotion had to be conveyed through their performances. We had a good amount of preparation to discuss their relationship and we were lucky enough to have rehearsal time to work through the script, the staging and the narrative beats. I truly believe that the actor should have as much freedom as possible to follow their instincts and not be restricted by marks or cues and so our Director of Photography Pablo Rojo also attended the rehearsals to observe and make notes. After that process was complete, we began to create a shot list around their movements and actions and it meant that their performances were never compromised. Pablo is a DoP that really understands actors and story and every camera decision made was first and foremost about storytelling and characters. He also has amazing instincts for when to move the camera and when stillness is required and that is certainly something that was important for this production.
And what led you to the decision of shooting the film in a monochrome palette?
Despite some initial reticence, we decided to shoot the film in monochrome because ultimately mortality is a black and white subject and it just felt right for the themes of the film. We were nervous about it as we really wanted to avoid coming across as pretentious and let’s face it, there’s nothing more obnoxious than a filmmaker trying to seem important! But the moment we saw Tim and Chris’ faces lit and captured in black and white, we knew that we had made the correct decision. This decision was only solidified after the amazing colourist Jonny Tully put his stamp on the film.
How do you view Survive This as a piece of work amongst your ever-growing portfolio?
Survive This is probably my favourite piece of work and despite being a deeply personal and challenging project, it remains one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever been involved with.
What does the future currently look like for you?
I’m shooting three commercials over the next month, an exciting new music video that will hopefully also blur the lines between short film and music video and then the idea is to transition back into long form filmmaking and specifically drama, with a couple of very exciting projects in the early stages of development.