justin anderson – not another dream sequence
At last, at last. After an epic ping pong interview months in the making, here it is. Painter – turned video artist turned – precocious fashion film director Justin Anderson.
He has a bum fetish, just like everyone else.
BIKE by Justin Anderson, for Armani Jeans. Still by René Habermacher.
Antoine Asseraf: What is the last thing that stimulated you ?
Justin Anderson: On Friday night – I watched a film by Jean Pierre Melville – ARMY OF SHADOWS.
It had a big effect on me. It is brutal but very paired down without any melodrama. None of the actors either particularly young or good looking, the direction is tight and the subject really tough. It is about the French resistance to German occupation – it is about death, betrayal and torture.
The film was gripping was absolutely masterful. What I love is that I discovered this film because I loved the way Alain Delon looked in LE FLIC in his raincoat – which then led me to such a film. I feel very lucky to live in a time in which it is so easy to discover these kinds of gems and I love the fluid way you can to move from one to the other.
So, which would you say are you main influences in film-making – classic films such as the ones you just mentioned, or more experimental fare ?
All kinds of image making influence me particularly fine art – which is how I trained. I would say the paintings of Fontana, Morandi, Barnett Newman, Stella, Ryman, the sculptures of Brancusi, Donald Judd artist like Walter de Maria. Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman were particular influence to me. These have all impacted on my filmmaking as much or more so than other film makers because that is what I studied for years. I suppose my taste currently in film making are as you say classics. I was hugely influenced by Buñuel when I was introduced to it as a 14 year old boy by a very good art teacher at school – he knew exactly how to stimulate a 14 year old boy.
Currently I working my way through the classic European film makers of the last century, Bergman, Antonioni, Chabrol, Renoir and recently Melville. Having not studied film I feel like I have a lot to catch up on.
UNTITLED VIDEO STILL by Justin Anderson. Courtesy of Gerwerbe Karl Marx Gallery, Berlin.
So how did you transition from fine art – painting if I’m correct – to video ?
I started working in video quite along time ago whilst still studying at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. The work was structuralist and minimal – I chewed gum live on television for 5 minutes, made a video in NYC where I drew the lines of a huge tennis court across midtown Manhattan and the dove them with a camera attached to the roof of a car. The video camera was moved through space like making a drawing – instead of leaving a marking on the space you were recording what is there.
I made a video of a guy dressed in protective sports gear standing against a wall and shouting “Just do it” in German whilst I served tennis balls at him as hard as I could. It was quite violent (our friendship ended soon after!).
At the time I was making very large paintings of the lines on parts of sports courts- it all seemed to flow from one to another- the video camera was just another from of mark making. The videos had virtually no editing and certainly no close ups or variants in the shots.
Was it a long time between the time you started working with video and your first commercial video job?
Also it’s interesting that you had no editing at first because it seems that now it’s one of your strengths…
No I was very lucky – I came back to London from Amsterdam and a friend hooked me up with a guy who worked in an ad agency (called BBH, I had never heard of it) to help cut my videos into some kind of showreel. He was very kind and we spent the night sitting in a little room that smelt of boys and pizza. The next day he called me up and asked me if I would like to make something for Levi’s. I started editing straight away on this job – I have always felt that editing is quite like painting – it is question of throwing on image on top of another, sometimes very gently other times not gently at all.
And after that did you continue making videos in a fine-art context ?
I did but less so – the focus was less and less on the art context. The gallery thing became less important – I drifted away from the art world. I made some shorts showed in experimental film nights, Raindance festival, that kind of thing. When I look at some of my peers from art school like Martin Creed or Michael Raedecker, I feel very pleased that some people carried on in that context and made a real success of it but I drifted away from the career artist and what that means in terms of the art world.
I think my approach to editing is somewhat unschooled and a bit brutal – I don’t really think of it as knowledge, sometimes I feel like I am hitting the timeline with a big stick. But I think it probably affects my relationship with a DOP because as editor and director I sit either side of the DOP in the process and it is like being two people.
MORANTE DE LA PUEBLA by Justin Anderson. Courtesy of Photographers' Gallery, London.
Do you ever do the filming yourself, without a DoP ?
I certainly have done – my framing is quite specific, I shoot stills and know a little about lighting. However I would always prefer to use a DOP – filmmaking is so much about team work and I would rather have a good team.
Art direction is a job I found most difficult to delegate- my idea is very specific and haven’t yet figure out how to explain it instead of just doing it myself. I hope in time that will come and I will be able to work with people who bring unexpected and interesting things that I could never think of.
After that Levi’s experience, did you do anything fashion related before House of Flora, which (correct me if I’m wrong) was your first fashion film ?
I did quite a lot of work for Levi’s in the end and also some work for Ferragamo – at one point I almost convinced them to let me shoot their catwalk show in 16mm film – they were convinced by the idea – my pitch was that all catwalk shows were shot in exactly the same way and we could make something really fantastic that would stand out. The reason they didn’t end up doing it was because they didn’t know what they would do the following season. At the time they had Ray Charles playing live at the show so I don’t think budget was the problem, it might have just been too early for the fashion film.
Why fashion ?
On a personal level I have always loved fashion – as a very small child I spayed my building blocks silver and cellotaped to the bottoms of my shoes to make them into platforms. As a filmaker I love the opportunity fashion allows – its extremity, its humour, its craft and formalism, its sensuality and irreverence and its absolute and unashamed pursuit of beauty.
I think we are in a very lucky time, to be filmakers at the birth of such a thing.
My ambition is to push it as far as I can whilst (just) staying on the right side of pretentious!
LEVIS' RED TAB / LOS ANGELES by Justin Anderson for Levis'. Agency BBH.
So actually you had done quite a few fashion – related things before House of Flora – why do you think the pace has picked up since that film which was what, 2008 ?
Many things. Clearly a large part of it technology driven – the ability to stream quality moving image and therefore websites becoming like moving magazines. Cheaper cameras and editing equipment has meant the entry level is much lower rather film making being the preserve of the super big budgets. The price of catwalk shows though I am not sure it will ever replace these and because it’s fashion… It is a thing, it is fashionable and a fantastic way to show clothes, accessories shoes etc etc.
It is really the perfect medium- the real surprise is why it has taken so long. They are a few beautiful older ones the YSL films in Marrakech and obviously an innovator like Hussien Chalayan has been at it for quite some time but for the most it is as you know just a few years old. What will be interesting is how all these megabites of fashion content flying around will effect the industry – it is becoming the new MTV…. maybe the next generation will be talking about Chalayan instead of Jay-Z?
I think Lady Gaga is on to something – her fashion is a lot more interesting than the music. The same argument could be said of Madonna but I think the music and the fashion went closer hand in hand.
I agree that right now, music videos are probably the best things to compare to fashion film to better understand them.
For example music videos started as just recordings of live performances, just as fashion film started as recordings of fashion shows, and in both cases we don’t expect the live event to go anywhere soon…
Fashion film is in its infancy right now so i think it’s exciting because it could still go in a lot of different directions, there are very few imposed rules. But do you have any rules you impose on yourself when you make a (fashion) film ?
I agree there are very few rules and that is fantastic but the lack of structure can cause it’s own set of possible problems. My personal fear is that my work would be pretentious or boring, so that is probably my self-imposed rule. The lack of structure makes it much too easy to fall into this trap and the line between interesting/strange and dull/ pretentious can be very thin. Sometimes I use humour to try and keep things moving in the right direction – this I think comes right out of the Bunuelian tradition.
Dadaists and Surrealists used humour to subvert the establishment after the horrors of the first World War – that’s me being pretentious!
LEVIS' RED TAB / LOS ANGELES by Justin Anderson for Levis'. Agency BBH.
Certainly there seems to be a lot of less than exciting fashion films out there – why do think that is ?
Do you think with fashion film we’ll see a return of humour in fashion ?
I think there are just a lot of fashion films out there and whether they are exciting or not I am not sure – what I do know is that I would gladly never sit though another dream sequence.
As for humour I think there is a lot of it and has always been there. Giles deacon a designer I would love to work with has a lot of humour – Marc Jacobs LV show was hilarious in a really fantastic way.
Hookers, chambermaids, wives and mistresses in luxury clothes in a hotel.
BIKE by Justin Anderson, for Armani Jeans. The Stimuleye project.
Regarding humour I’ve noticed indeed that you are often quite cheeky – both figuratively and literally… let’s be frank now, do you have a bum fetish ?
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to have a quick look if they see a great arse walking down the street. I count everyone man/ woman/ gay/ straight/ bi. I think I am just exploring that with the camera frame in which there is nowhere to hide from that fact that you are staring at somebody’s butt! However I don’t want to be stuck with one part of the body though… There is lots more to explore.
So do you think fashion films are going to need to be more careful about plot devices or narrative — are we going to see fashion film scriptwriters ?
Because it doesn’t seem music videos ever developed that – and yet saying that I can’t remember a video since Thriller that has used the dream sequence…
We should be careful about taking the music video analogy too literally as most songs already have a story attached – I think as fashion films grow there will inevitable be developments but not necessarily plot as such but an idea always goes along way. Weirdly at the moment some of the most interesting work I think is still coming from a fairly traditional ad campaign idea WE ARE ANIMALS, by Wrangler – the idea is strong so you can throw somebody out of a window- set fire to them- stick them in a swamp, it all seems to work pretty well.
But I feel like something like this is very “advertising”, concept-driven. For print at least, fashion (and high fashion especially) has tried to stay away from such concepts (with the notable exception of Diesel of course), as if ideas were the enemy of beauty, trying to stay in purely visual moods… you don’t think they can sustain that with film ?
In print the editorial story has provided a great frame work for ideas. I am thinking about the “nunhead” story for POP a few years ago and Klein’s Vogue Italia rehab shoot that certainly stick out. A film can certainly be sustained on purely strong visual moods but I count those as ideas too. What I am not sure is enough is a beautiful girl or guy – beautiful clothes and beautiful lighting.
DRESS NUMBER ONE by Justin Anderson, for House Of Flora. Part of SHOWstudio Futuretense series.
Let’s move on to the first film of yours which I saw, The House of Flora film which was part of SHOWstudio’s Future Tense series.
The first House of Flora project came about through chance, friendship and sublet. I was subletting part of a studio for painting which was where House of Flora was. They were drilling plastic, designing dresses whilst I was making abstract paintings- I didn’t want to share a studio with another painter I thought it would be more interesting to converse across another discipline.
Alex Fury at Showstudio had asked HOF to submit a film so the project evolved from a conversation that went something like. “Do you want to make a film?” ” Yes.”
This film was called Dress No 1 and was something of a success. It was shot with natural light- the sun shone all day and the shoot was one of those one where everything goes just right. Luck I think.
The next season we decided to make Dress number 2 and I started to try different things with lighting and using two locations. We shot half in an office of an Architect Will Alsop- in fact the stationary cupboard and half in the printing workshop at Middlesex University. I also started to work very closely with music and sound design. I work with the same guy and have done so since dress No 1- Pete Diggens- the process is often hard and sometimes even torturous- (for him not me), because describing sound can be very difficult but I think some of the best results have come form some very hard tough work. The collaboration element here is very important for me – going forward my wish is build relationships with DOP’s, Art directors etc in the same way.
DRESS NUMBER TWO - LETTERHEAD by Justin Anderson, for House Of Flora.
I remember being impressed by Dress Number 2 – Dress 1 was striking in its framing, editing and sound, but Dress Number 2 had an intensity to it, maybe due to the image quality ?? Anyway, then you had a big success with Chore, which was launched on Vogue UK…
Chore was a very important step for me – we shot it with what I would call a full size crew – about 25 people and this makes everything entirety different. Much slower but also more precise and considered – the slowness means that you cannot shoot as much but it also allows you time to work with the shapes- which is something I really like. We shot on 16mm in two days and I made sure I had a large female element to the crew. I didn’t want the film to feel like a whole load of boys perving at a girl’s butt, It was very important to be girl sexy not just some cheap male fantasy.
Also the subject Lingerie is full of cliché- so I was very determined to try and approach this subject in an original way. I all wanted to be sexy but not seedy so I have to tread a very careful line between perversion and perversion. Humour was an important element to keeping this film light on it’s feet whilst indulging the long very obvious butt shots!
When Chore launched it moved very fast- almost crashing the vogue site, got to 48,000 hits on you tube very quickly before someone in the US decided it was too hot.. And has now had over 1 million hits – which I great for a film that was never seeded. I am however not naive enough to think that this is just because of my filmmaking genius!
CHORE by Justin Anderson, for Damaris.
I thought you did a brilliant job of taking the lingerie genre, turning it on its head, while still giving the audience what they came for… I thought also the humour was well managed, because it sex and humour can be a very strange mix — how do you feel about Benny Hill by the way ?
When I first left Art School I worked for an artist who had a studio in Teddington – just outside London. Benny Hill lived just around the corner and we always used to joke that we might see him walking down the street with a string of Sausages on the way back from the butcher followed by a pack of Dachshunds. Of course we never saw him but the image was always there.
I do love humour and maybe there is something of the Bunuelian in Benny Hill too.
A POEM FOR A, by Justin Anderson, part of ASVOFF Light Series.
But then, soon after Chore, is when I approached you with the Light Series brief, for which you did “A Poem For A” – a completely different universe. How did the idea of the poem come about ?
War played its part.
The brief was tough – because all film is about light. I started to think about making a dark film with cracks of light, that kind of white light you have creeping through when you try and keep a room cool a hot climate. I used a dress by Roksanda Ilincic which I really loved and cast a very beautiful black girl to also contrast the light colour of the fabric. The dress reminded me of 70’s YSL and then I stumbled on a poem that was written in Paris is 1974.
It was written by Harold Pinter about his then lover and subsequent wife Lady Antonia Fraser. I was never a huge fan of Harold Pinter really because I didn’t know him until I saw him give a speech in Hyde Park on an anti-Gulf war march. His speech was one of those great moments, he had so much fire and fury in his belly that it still burns for me.
‘The United States is a monster out of control. Unless we challenge it with absolute determination American barbarism will destroy the world. The country is run by a bunch of criminal lunatics, with Blair as their hired Christian thug…’
Since that moment I followed Pinters politics and then sadly his ‘progess’ with cancer. this Poem I saw read by a bunch of actors at a tribute to him after his death. I found it quite moving because it was a love Poem by a man who had be famed for being very caustic. Again the opposite. A tender moment from the firey old bastard.
That film had 2 elements which I particularly liked. First, as for Chore, the sound design seemed less music noise and more like “sculpted noise” which worked really well.
Then, I thought it was refreshing to have graphic and textual elements in film, to contrast with the image…
Sound is really important- I work very closely with a guy called Pete Diggens. His approach to sound is very close to the graphic textual elements you are talking about. We spend a lot of time using adjectives like scratchy, squelchy, sucking, rasping, empty, ticklish… Or… it sounds like something is happening next door … In fact often the real challenge is find the language to describe the sound.
As for the visual side – my challenge to myself is to push the image in a graphic way- the female form has such fantastic shapes it is great to be able to play with then in this way.
Moving on to the Armani trilogy, I think it’s kind of interesting actually how different facets of you work came across the 3 different films: in the Jeans film, we can see the “fantastic female shapes” you were just mentioning, in the EA7 sports film the graphic element is very strong, and in the Emporio film, it’s the sensuality… three very different ways of developing the theme of the Chase.
The Armani trilogy was an entirely new challenge. To begin with there were parameters set – two of the films had to be shot outside, we had to include at least five characters and the films had to work across quite different platforms- online and on massive store screens. The different clothing ranges were entirely different and for logistical constraints we had to use the same five models. Therefore I know I would have to give each film its own strong identity. The Jeans Bike film is probably the most tongue-in-cheek film of the three and was meant to be quite light hearted.
(As a footnote – I have just been reading some online comments about it and it has been posted by some fixed wheel bike forums. As we are all much more obsessed by negative criticism I have been reading some hilarious comments by bike forums who seem to take their mode of transport as well as themselves rather seriously. I still get a lot of comments about Chore also – most are very complimentary but occasionally I get negative, interestingly from men who take offence on behalf of womankind.)
GARDEN by Justin Anderson, for Emporio Armani. The Stimuleye project.
Most of these films involve models, but when shooting this trilogy in Athens, I could feel a slight difference in attitude coming from Theoharis Ionnidis, the male character in the Emporio film, who is an actor rather than model. Was it just me or did you notice that too ? How do you feel about models vs actors in the nascent genre of fashion film ?
Your question about models is quite pertinent as fashion film, in its infancy, is having to address this issue. When casting models – it can be a bit of pot luck. I have a lot of respect for models- I think it is a pretty tough job – they are often very young and have had no formal training – they have grown up knowing and being told they are beautiful (which created its own complications) and then have entered a job in which they spend most of the time being rejected after 3 minutes on how they look.
When we cast them – our primary criteria is do “they look right for the part” but have very little time to find out how they will be able to act on the day. During the Armani casting some of the models had a fabulous physique and looked amazing but when we asked them to run their gait was surprisingly uncoordinated and awkward. I think the point about Theoharis is that as an actor – he probably has had formal training- he is used to taking direction and above all he has stamina. Making films is tough- the more beautiful and effortless they look, the more tough they were to make. Standing in cocktail dress outside in the cold and making love to the camera is no picnic!
CHASE, by Justin Anderson, for EA7. The Stimuleye project.
Things are really moving forward for you these days, can you talk a bit more about that ? What are your current and upcoming projects ?
As for upcoming projects I have two very exciting projects I am currently working on that I am afraid at this time I am not allowed to mention. I have just teamed up with a new producer and working with a new production company Epoch London. This is an international company and with them I am hoping to move forward securing the kinds of budgets that have traditionally been handed out to stills campaigns to make some (hopefully) interesting and groundbreaking films.