The last days of disco, the classic end-of-night brief encounter, the wondrous effects of inebriation on self-confidence, and a big helping of good old song and dance. We spoke to Dawn Shadforth about her gritty, surreal, triumphant celebration of British nightlife and dancefloor chemistry, for Hurts' Lights – a video to stand up with the best by a director who has been making great British pop videos for nearly two decades...
PROMO: How did the idea take shape? We know that Theo takes the process of making videos for Hurts's music very seriously. Was it something that you pitched to the band having been sent Lights, or developed with Theo?
Dawn Shadforth: Theo contacted me and sent me the track. He wanted dance in this video, he’d spoken to Paul Roberts (the choreographer) about it – we had all worked on the Wonderful Life video. Theo, Paul and I met up and discussed tone and dance styles and exchanged a ton of references. Then they waited for me to come up with the treatment. Theo didn't have a specific idea for it so it was pretty open. It took me a while.
I like that Hurts' lyrics often suggest a backstory, and the music is very cinematic and emotive. I really loved the lushness of the track and the idea of dance was perfect for it. But one of the things that hooked me about the song was the lyrics. I kept trying not to be literal I couldn't steer away from them. The verses are really unusual, and I liked the switch between melancholy and then the choruses which are more euphoric and romantic.
"I don't think the idea was what Theo was expecting – I wasn't sure he would go for it."
My impulse was to do something that had some honesty and emotionally matched the lyrics and the narrative came from my interpretation of them. I don't think the idea was really what Theo was expecting and I wasn't sure he would go for it, as it was quite a different prospect to anything he had done before. He had to dance, but on top of that give quite a challenging acting performance. After I’d written the treatment we developed it collaboratively.
There's a fantastic element to it, but there is also a real ‘we’ve all been there’ aspect as well. Was this the story was based (in some way) on personal experience?
Ha ha! Well it's been a while, but yes I guess to an extent. Haven’t we all been there? It wasn’t really based on a specific personal experience but definitely informed by many experiences. But mainly on a feeling I got from the song. And just very simply it's a romance. The idea was to make something that felt down to earth and a bit gritty but also atmospheric.
Actually when I was trying to come up with a treatment I was also making a short film, and I re-watched 8 1/2 for that, and was thinking a lot about the idea of making a film that is fantastical but at the same time very exposing and honest, and ultimately transcendent. So I also wanted to carry on in that vein.
Did you nail down the story and then work on the elements you considered most important to make it work – namely, choreography, costumes and casting? And how long did it take to rehearse the dance moves?
Yes, that was the way it went - story first. After writing the treatment the process was completely collaborative. For instance Theo came up with the matador/bull theme which worked perfectly and added another layer to the concept. And it meant we could play on that idea in the choreography, the casting and the rest of the styling too.
"Having Robbie Ryan operate camera is like having another dancer on set."
After we had decided on that direction we brought in Alex Noble who I felt was the perfect costume designer to take on this idea because he custom makes very special pieces. There are various hunter/hunted, predator/prey, victor/victim ideas woven through the rest of the costume, all of which was created by Alex. The choreography was developed with Theo and Callum Powell, who has previously worked a lot with Paul Roberts. We obviously played with the idea of the matador/bull along with various other references.
A lot of the supporting cast came from the NYT through my friend Rosie Kellet who is a young playwright and actor. She plays the female matador/antagonist. She also scripted the dialogue for me. The male bull/antagonist was played by our choreographer Callum Powell. So it was one of those kind of family affairs where everyone was mucking in.
It looks amazing, of course – when did you get Robbie Ryan on board for the shoot?
Of course I love working with Robbie. He’s always my first choice - I asked him as soon as I knew the job was going ahead. I know he likes a bit of crazy dancing so I was hopeful if he was free he would do this one. He is the only DP who could understand how to channel both Sid Vicious and Fred Astaire operating camera. Having him operate camera is like having another dancer on set.
And who’s your fantastic leading lady?
Lucy Martin. She is a real star and I think she nailed the character, we were very lucky to get her on board. She was fantastic.
Where did you shoot the video and how long did it take? What were the big challenges while you were shooting?
Two days. I can't really remember, we had a few hiccups on the day but generally the shoot was a blast. Really fun.
"There's definitely a lot more to Theo than he has perhaps shown in previous videos. He’s charming and funny...he thinks like a filmmaker too."
And how difficult was it for Theo to give such a revelatory performance? Do you feel this is more the real Theo than the more reserved character we’ve seen in most of his previous videos?
Yes, as far as I know this is more the real Theo. There definitely a lot more to him than he has perhaps shown in previous videos. He’s very charming and funny. I felt it would be fun to surprise people and not just with the dancing. I think his performance is really brave and I loved that he was up for taking it to a place that might even be seen as unlikable - not like a pop star should be in a video, more like an actor in a film. I think he is a natural actor.
Somehow the energy and passion in the video suggests that this project has been a labour of love. Is that a fair description?
Yes definitely. I really appreciated them asking me directly to be involved, and the freedom to take some time and have the project develop organically. The fact they were really invested in the project and very committed to doing it a certain way, then of course I could only match that commitment. I love making music videos but I also I find the prospect daunting, they take a massive amount of time and energy, so it has to be worth it creatively.
This was genuinely collaborative and Theo thinks like a filmmaker too so it was a great experience working with him again. The fact he was making brave choices was inspiring. So the whole thing was an absolute treat. A chance to make a music video properly, so yes I absolutely went for it. Thank you Hurts :)