It's not ideal trying to launch your directing career during a pandemic, but that is what Maxim Kelly has managed with notable success in the past few months. And teaming up with editor Charlie …
Behind The Video: Joao Retorta & Joel Spencer on their 'post-lockdown' video for Prospa
As with many other projects in the past few months, the video for Prospa's Ecstasy (Over & Over) began before lockdown started, and then became caught up in the Covid-19 crisis.
Then things changed again, and the video for Ecstasy became one of the first productions to take place when the strict conditions of lockdown eased. It gave director Joao Retorta and Joel Spencer and their crew, including DoP Harry Wheeler and art director Bon Walsh, a massive challenge of conducting a shoot in a hitherto unique situation. They became, as Spencer says, guinea-pigs to a new way of working.
We spoke to director Retorta and Spencer about their experience making the video for Ecstasy, to discover how they coped - and what they learned.
How did the project start? And did the ideas for the video evolve during the period of its making, due to changing regulations around the lockdown?
Joao: This was actually the second idea that I wrote for this track. The project was first sent to me earlier in the year, before the lockdown and just like any other music video. I received a brief from Marco Grey and Polydor via OB and Bullion, submitted an idea, a completely different one that was set in a very distant ‘world’ to this one, and then the pandemic took over Europe.
Fast forward a couple months, I was sent a new brief for the track. Right in the middle of the lockdown and adjusted to the reality and limitations of the time. So I wrote this idea with that in mind, initially as a direct portrait of what was going on and knowing that it would potentially have to be shot remotely via Zoom.
Apart from shot-listing, everything changed. Everything.
Joel: As Joao had worked with the Prospa guys before on Prayer he was approached as they were confident he would be able to do the track justice even with the limitations involved.
Joao: However, as things gradually started to change and new regulations were put in place, the idea also evolved. Its core remained the same - it was always my intention to create a video about time and space and using your mind to escape your physical limitations - but as the prospect of a ‘proper’ live action shoot started to become a reality I wanted to divert it away from being set in 2020 and the pandemic lockdown. Instead, I wanted to create something a little bit more timeless, that was informed by the times, yes, but that wasn’t too attached to it.Above: a page from Joao Retorta's treatment for Prospa's Ecstasy (Over & Over)
Prayer gave me the confidence to suggest things that weren’t necessarily asked for.
Joel: The core creative didn’t change much but as the deadline moved and new APA guidelines were published, we realised we would be able to have a proper shoot, even if on a much smaller scale. This meant we could evolve the project through our location, the equipment we were using, art dept and overall production value.
Having made the video for Prayer last year, Joao, have you established a close collaboration with Prospa in developing visual ideas?
Joao: I think it might have established a relationship of trust more than anything. I think we’re all very happy with Prayer, which maybe gave me the confidence to suggest things that weren’t necessarily asked for. Like this video, for example. It wasn’t fully on-brief, but they trusted me and still allowed me to do it. I guess you can call it close collaboration in that sense. We never sat together and bounced ideas back and forth. But I’m down!
The video feels nostalgic yet contemporary at the same time. Was that part of the thinking when you came up with this idea? What inspirations did you have in terms of the aesthetic?
Joao: Yes, 100%. Like I said earlier, I wanted to make a video that was informed by the times, but that wasn’t too attached to it. I wanted to make something more universal and timeless. Something about boredom and using your mind to escape your environment, which can/does happen anywhere at any time. So it was important to me that it didn’t feel too contemporary nor too nostalgic either, and that it lived somewhere in between. It also goes well with how I see Prospa’s music. Their sound is modern, yet filled with nostalgia.
One film that kept coming back was Wong Kar Wai’s Hong Kong classic Chungking Express. I’d say that was my main reference. I love everything Wong Kar Wai, especially this film. I love how informal yet completely thought-out and stylised it looks and feels.
Chungking Express was my main reference... I love how informal yet thought-out and stylised it looks and feels.
What were the most important considerations when it came to casting? Were your couple were already in lockdown together?
Joao: Yes, right from the start we knew that we had to cast a couple who were in lockdown together. That was the only way to erase the social distancing rule between the cast. As you can imagine that limited our options considerably, but Hannah Ashby Ward at Lane Casting did an awesome job!
Joel: A challenge that this brought was that many of our initial age pool had gone back to home towns and parents’ houses, reducing the amount of potential options. With that said working with Hannah at Lane Casting we were never worried about this element of the film. She had recently cast Joao’s Diesel film with Hypebeast, which had a similar brief and once we received the first set of auditions Frankie [Girling] and Jack [Adamson] stood out and we were sold almost immediately.Above: Joao Retorta (right) and 1st AD Luke Goodrich on set of the Ecstasy video
To be honest, I found it extremely challenging to deal with mentally.
What inspired the use of a voiceover/narration as opposed to the characters talking directly to each other?
Joao: I covered most of the dialogue from a master on the day with the characters talking to each other. But I knew I wanted to add an extra layer to it, so I covered the singles without anyone talking and as slow creeping shots. I wanted to make it feel more ethereal and cerebral, fitting with what they are talking about.
The editing is such a crucial part of the video, in the way it changes in intensity to reflect the music, but also the state of mind of the characters. Was this a strong element of the original idea or something that evolved in post-production?
Joao: A bit of both. The track has a very defined structure with very clear changes, and the structure of the video was made with that in mind from the start. But it was brought to life by Brendan Jenkins during the offline. We had a fun time over Zoom cutting it. Big up Brendan!Above: DoP Harry Wheeler (bottom and mirror) with cast member Jack Adamson
I wanted to create something a little bit more timeless than being completely attached to the lockdown.
From a production point of view, what were the main challenges? And how did they change during the course of the production process?
Joel: I would say the main challenge we had was our location. We wanted a residential space that looked live in and fitted with Joao’s aesthetic. The issue was the insurers wouldn’t cover us going into a lived-in residence meaning we had to use a location that wasn’t occupied by tenants. This doesn’t sound too difficult but when you factor in a lower end art department budget and the fact that all of the prop houses were closed we had to get smart.
Luckily, we found the Master Shipwrights House in Deptford which was separated between occupied residences in one part of the building and a location house at the other. This meant that it worked from an insurance perspective, and we also had plenty of furniture options and props to play with that made our art director Bon’s life a lot easier. On top of that Bon worked her magic bringing in several specific pieces that elevated what was already there.Above: Focus puller Phil Heron on set at Master Shipwright's House, Deptford
I had some of my favourite crew who were happy to get stuck in and be shooting again!
Other than that, we were under strict instruction to try and keep crew to a minimum, so each department struggled having less numbers that usual. Luckily for me (but not in the grand scheme of things) with the lack of work out there I had first choice of some of my favourite crew who were happy to get stuck in and also be shooting again!
Presumably the shoot happened as we were lifting out of lockdown, so what did you learn from that experience?
Joao: Yes, it did. We shot Ecstasy in the last week of May and as the UK started lifting out of the lockdown.
Joel: We were one of if not the first full-scale promos after the restrictions had lifted slightly, so were very much the guinea pigs. From a production perspective there was a lot of learning on the job, dealing with new regulations and rules that I usually wouldn’t need to consider. I think this was echoed across all departments with everybody familiarising themselves with the APA guidelines as much as possible and making sure they were adhering whilst performing their particular role.
There are a lot of things to learn from it. It was a completely different experience.
Joao: If things remain the same, which I believe they will for a while, there are a lot of things to learn from it. It was a completely different experience. Apart from shot listing, everything changed. Everything. There’s a lot of getting used to be done.
But more than anything, I think this project was testament to the importance of working with people that you know, like and trust. Working with such heavy restrictions on set and prep you really need to trust the people around you. All the love to the crew.
What were the biggest issues of post-lockdown shooting? What help did you have, and what would you do differently in your next lockdown shoot – if anything?
Joel: I think the limitations and added stresses that the lockdown measures put on the crew would definitely be up there. Music videos can be challenging at the best of times, but trying to pull focus in a tier 2 PPE, on 16mm and during one of the hottest days of the year (shout out, Phil).Above: Medic Jack Shepard and runner Dexter Holloway
Working with such heavy restrictions on set and prep you really need to trust the people around you.
Joao: To be really honest, I found it extremely challenging to deal with mentally. I was quite ill with a pneumonia earlier in the year and that made me become really paranoid about Covid. I barely left my house prior to the shoot. So having to direct a video, with very little time on camera, whilst being paranoid about the virus wasn’t a fun thing at all. I washed my hands probably around 200 times. I’d say that mental barrier was the biggest issue for myself personally.
We had a very big help from everyone in the crew. Especially Harry Wheeler and Bon Walsh. They really put the time during prep to develop the look of the video together with myself. Big love and thanks to them. Also Luke Goodrich, our 1st AD. But everyone really. Everyone worked hard under new and strange conditions.
Joel: I tried to do my best to make sure everybody felt safe and I would like to think they did and in turn the crew fully supported myself and Joao in capturing what I now think had definitely been worth it!
• Joao Retorta is with Bullion Productions in the UK, and represented for music videos by OB Management.
Featured in this interview
Alex Takacs, aka Young Replicant, has long been recognised as a master of enigmatic narrative. In music videos for the likes of Alt-J, Flying Lotus, Purity Ring and others he creates worlds …
Shan Phearon's appreciation of the power of popular cinema has influenced his music video work for the likes of One Acen. and Ocean Wisdom. Now he has fused one of the most popular film genres with …
James (aka Ja) Humby is onto something with his live performance series Molten Jets. In outings for the likes of Horsey, Ross From Friends and King Krule he established the distinct …
Souvid Datta presents Episode 2 of the Silent Spaces series, following last month's Messengers.
George Moore brings the retro vibes in his animated promo for David Guez.
Photographer Lillie Eiger directs her debut music video for Phoebe Green's IDK.
A deserted South London plays host to Wyldest vocalist Zoe Mead's sleepwalking, in Mark Van …
Having completed his debut feature, the fantasy-thriller UNDERGODS, released later this …
Samy Mosher directs an apocalyptic vision of a near-future Earth, in the first of two videos for …