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Joe Connor on Hikaru Utada's Bad Mode: 'I had a feeling of someone caught in limbo.'

Joe Connor on Hikaru Utada's Bad Mode: 'I had a feeling of someone caught in limbo.'

Promonews - 11th Feb 2022

We spoke to Joe Connor about how he came to work with Japanese superstar Hikaru Utada, how they bonded over their shared love of the works of Carl Jung - and why he flooded the music video shoot for Bad Mode.

Joe Connor has worked with numerous big artists - The Rolling Stones, Rag 'N Bone Man, Biffy Clyro, Mumford & Sons, to name a few. But it still came as something as a surprise that Connor's latest video is for a Japanese pop legend.

Hikaru Utada certainly has that status, the American-Japanese singer-songwriter being a huge star in Japan since the Nineties. But she indeed turned to Connor to help launch her latest album Bad Mode with the video for the album's title track. The result is a sumptuous performance video with a surprising twist.   

In one of several performance set-ups, a reflective Hikaru contemplates a new love affair while she sits waiting in a taxi rank - which is then flooded, and transformed into a pool, seemingly when the fishtank in the office overflows.

With cinematography by Alex Jamin, and production design by Luke Moran-Morris, the look of the video is as glamourous as befits an artist of this stature. But Moran-Morris's production design is also ingenious: he built the main set on stilts above an underwater tank, then lowered the set into the water tank at a studio in Basildon during the shoot.

So we spoke to Joe Connor about the project, and how he ended up in Essex with a Japanese pop queen... 

How did the project start? Were you surprised to be asked to write a treatment for a top Japanese artist?

This particular project came about in a very strange and unusual way. I was contacted almost out of the blue by a representative for Hikaru who wanted to know more about my process, how I work with an artist. We struck up a really good relationship and before you know it, half of Tokyo was flying out to an underwater tank in Basildon.

Even though I hadn't worked with Hikaru before I knew she had worked with Rina [Yang, the DoP] and I'd actually randomly recommended a friend of mine to Rina, to be a lighting designer of Hikaru's tour a few years ago. So there were some strange connections. It must be fate. 

I wrote the idea thinking the room was purgatory - an inner space where the main character is stuck.

How did you come up with your idea? And how does it relate to the song, Bad Mode? What sort of references did you include in your treatment?

This is the first time I've written an idea for a track without knowing the meaning of the lyrics. I'm a lyric-focused director, not in the sense of replicating the exact meaning, but in looking behind them and finding the emotional state of the artist writing them. It was almost impossible to do that process on this, as the translation into English doesn't quite work. There are Japanese slang terms that are only really understood by those that know.

That being said, I got a very deep feeling of someone caught in limbo, held in a space unable to move or progress forward. That feeling formed the basis of the idea; waiting for a taxi that never comes, and waiting so long the room floods. I wrote the idea thinking the room was purgatory - an inner space where the main character is stuck.

When I pitched it to Hikaru I thought she'd laugh me out the room. But it turns out we both have the same Jung books on our respective bedside table. Once you know someone is a fan of Jung you can move ideas into a dream space without fear that it'll be too 'out there'.

Hikaru is an amazingly perceptive person and we resonated really well. My interpretation of the track captured how she felt when she was writing it, and once we had that understanding it all just fell into place. 

I had a lot of chats with Hikaru but they were more focussed around how the video needed to feel, rather then specifics regarding looks or filming style. I knew I wanted to push this video and be a bit looser with the operation then I'm used too.

I love focussed and composed photography but it felt like this one was crying out for Dutch framing, handheld camerawork, and a bit more looseness. It was unusual territory for me but my DoP Alex Jamin, brought so much to the party that it kept me from wanting to nail everything down. It was a very free and alive project in that sense.

Luke Moran Morris... really brought some A-grade execution to this project.

Where (and when) did you shoot the video? Flooding a set is always going to be a tricky business - how did you achieve it?

I knew I wanted to build the set on a water tank. I've shot at Basildon for The Maccabees and more recently with Biffy Clyro, so I know the limitations of that facility. Writing ideas for specfifc locations is always helpful - it allows me to know what I can achieve and still surprise people with a bit of a creative twist.

I must say that working out the set, how to build it on stilts, how to light it, how to lower it was all down to the genius of Luke Moran Morris and his team. He really brought some A-grade execution to this project.  

We then shot the dry section of the video before lunch, then lowered the set over lunch and while we were shooting the other set-ups (they were partly in there to give me that buffer while the set was sunk, allowing me to keep shooting without losing time) and then once the set was submerged we shot the second half of the video.

The main challenge was containing the potential for chaos. A project like this can easily spiral as water starts to flood the set. So my main consideration was keeping the focus, keeping it fun and getting what we needed in the time we had. 

• Joe Connor is based at Rogue Films, and represented by Alexa Haywood at Free Agent UK for music videosMore work here.

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Promonews - 11th Feb 2022


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