A young child faces a strange presence in the aftermath of his father’s death. Years later, after he has grown up to become an adult, that presence returns once more in the form of a liquid spectral doppelgänger. Director Alex Cook’s music video/short film hybrid Undertow thematically and narratively captures the dark yet warming essence of Son Lux’s singular music and is grounded by an impressive central performance from Jongman Kim, who carries the emotional and psychological weight of the protagonist’s unsettling history into each scene. DN caught up with Cook to talk through his continuing fruitful collaboration with Son Lux, covering everything from the creation of the graceful VFX work, the inclination to capture the murky uncertainty of contemporary life in his screenplay, and the challenge of managing production when a key crew member had to be replaced at the eleventh hour.
The film has such an ethereal yet warming quality to it, which feels in line with Son Lux and their music. How did you set out to create that?
Son Lux has such an incredible sound that’s haunting and comforting at the same time, and from the beginning, we wanted to tow that line in the video. I wrote the concept as a response to the past few years when the future felt murky and uncertain at times. Things in my life were shifting faster than I felt able to process, and it felt like I was sinking into new depths.
I wrote the concept as a response to the past few years when the future felt murky and uncertain at times.
As we grow from childhood, those moments and memories can linger, festering in hidden places. The loss of a loved one, a heartbreak, a missed opportunity, a regretful choice, whatever it is. Often the most difficult and important battles are the ones that go unseen beneath the surface. It takes courage to face life’s indifference. But if we look around in the darkness, we can see there are lights around us that create shape and bring direction, even in the murky undertow. That was the initial creative starting point.
One of the key visual elements is the flowing liquid that the protagonist encounters, could you walk us through the development of the effects to create that?
Leading up to the shoot, VFX Artist Nick Chamberlain and I did some preliminary work on designing the look of the liquid, so we had an idea during the shoot of what our specific shots with the material would be and how it would interact with the character. Nick is an incredibly talented VFX artist and a great collaborator; and from the beginning, we wanted the liquid to carry the same sense of danger and possibility that the song has.
It’s obviously a film built on the performance of your main actor too and his reaction to everything he’s facing. What was it about Jongman Kim that made you think he’d be perfect for it?
From our earliest scouts, Producer Reef Oldberg went above and beyond in pushing the project forward, creatively and logistically. Casting and locations are always the most important pieces of the puzzle. During the casting process, we connected with the lead, Jongman Kim, and it immediately clicked. Jongman is a great collaborator and brought a nuanced performance and interior life to a character with no dialogue.
You mentioned locations there, where were you shooting and how long were you out there for?
We shot for three days just outside LA and had a bit of a rocky start on the first day. Unfortunately, our original DP, Sam Davis, tested positive for Covid right before the shoot. We were super fortunate to get Drew Bienemann, a fantastic DP we had worked with before. Huge shout out to Drew for jumping into a less-than-ideal situation with less than 24 hours notice and not missing a beat. He adapted to the situation, and the whole crew rolled with the circumstances. Everyone was a joy to work with, and besides the start on the first day, the shoot as a whole went smoothly.
Often the most difficult and important battles are the ones that go unseen beneath the surface.
Was post equally smooth given the depth of VFX work that was required?
Post took a few months due to the amount of VFX work we had along with editing and color correction. I put together a rough cut as soon as I could to give Nick as much time as possible. As the last renders were coming in, Sam Gilling colored the film and helped pull everything together.
We wanted the liquid to carry the same sense of danger and possibility that the song has.
Undertow came online recently and there’s been a great response to it already, how does it feel to have it out there in the world for people to see?
I’m incredibly grateful to Nick, Reef, and the whole cast and crew for pouring their talent and passion into this. Thanks to Michael Kauffman and Hannah Houser for helping facilitate everything, and to Ryan, Rafiq, and Ian of Son Lux for their collaboration and creative inspiration.
Watching your other work, there’s such an eclectic yet clear and distinct visual style to your approach, what do you draw on for visual inspiration? Are there certain filmmakers you’re inspired by or artists from other art forms you look to?
Appreciate the kind words. I’m always looking at films and photography for inspiration, and I think it varies from project to project on what I might specifically draw from. It’s easier than ever to find inspiration or pull references, and I have folders of images from different films, photographers, paintings, etc. too many to mention. But I think the most important thing to hone in on is the feeling that you want to share, and then as best as possible try to communicate that visually. I’m also working with other talented crew members, and the emotional feeling we want to create is always the most important conversation, then from that specific references might come up.
Can you tell us anything about what you’ll be developing next?
At the moment I’m finishing up another music video project and then hoping to find time to do a personal film.