Joe Wheatley on Billie Marten's 'Drop Cherries' film: "I wanted to challenge Billie, to show her ability as a performer."
David Knight - 3rd May 2023
Having made three regular music videos together for her last album, it was time for singer-songwriter Billie Marten and director Joe Wheatley to mix things up - and get authentic - for the new one.
The result is Drop Cherries - The Film, which features Marten, and accompanying musicians, performing four songs from the just-released album of the same name. What makes this 15 minute film of live music such a special experience is a combination of factors.
Firstly, there are the outstanding performances of the songs, including impressive sound quality, achieved within a remarkable setting: a fabulous 1970s Hollywood-style house that happens to be located in the English East Midlands. But on top of that, is the fact it was genuinely captured in a single take.
Starting with Marten's solo performance of Willow in the master bedroom; she moves to join string musicians around the house's indoor pool to play Devil Swim; before joining Will Taylor and Nicolas Hill (of the band Flyte) and singer Clara Mann for Acid Tooth. Then finally the largest number of musicians come together in the split-level lounge area of the house to play I Can't Get My Head Around You. And this was all achieved in one shot, captured by Wheatley with the help of DoP Ben Marshall.
We spoke to Joe Wheatley to tell us how they managed to do this, at a time of the year with virtually the least available daylight hours - and why. BTS photography by Rhys Herbert.
The album... demonstrates Billie’s prowess as a songwriter but not as a performer. It was our opportunity to showcase that.
PROMONEWS: What was the motivation behind making a four-song live film for Billie Marten's new album?
JOE WHEATLEY: I had a budget to deliver four music videos across the album campaign. It’s very involved when you make that commitment to deliver all the videos for the album - it’s easy to make a batch of mediocre videos once you’ve divided the funds. Billie and I wanted to consider ways of using our time and the resources available in a more interesting way.
Furthermore the album sonically and the way it was recorded with a plethora of talented musicians felt like it deserved to be approached differently. The album is very relaxed, it feels authentic and demonstrates Billie’s prowess as a songwriter but not as a performer – this was our opportunity to showcase that.
Above: Joe Wheatley (centre, with camera) and Billie Marten (right) on the shoot day.
How did you come up with the idea of shooting four songs in four different situations, all in a single shot?
One-takers can be trite. A close friend of mine has said on multiple occasions ‘but who is it for?’ Is it just the director showboating? Or the cinematographer? Does the audience even notice or appreciate it or the work that has gone into it? All valid questions.
In this instance I wanted to challenge Billie to demonstrate her ability as a performer. We could have done four individual tracks, sandwiched them together in an edit and perhaps snuck a few overdubs in here and there. The way we built it meant that Billie had to segue through four different vibes with different musicians and tunings whilst holding it all together. My guiding principle was ’the coolest rehearsal that would never happen’.
My guiding principle [for this film] was ’the coolest rehearsal that would never happen’.
How did you convince Billie that it was doable, and a good idea?
I think from us working together on the last album [Flora Fauna] there’s a solid level of trust and friendship. Billie playing music with friends in a house is a far easier pitch than ‘what if you drive around central London in a tank?'
How did you find your amazing location?
The location belongs to a friend of mine, which is just minutes from where I grew up in Nottinghamshire. It’s probably one of the finest examples of mid-century modern housing in the UK. I wanted to shoot something there for ages but never really felt like I had something worth it. We recce’d it for Liquid Love - a track on her last album - but it didn’t feel right.
It’s not a ’new’ location. It’s been used a lot for fashion shoots and the occasional music video, but I was keen to do something new with it. So we essentially turned the whole house into a recording studio.
Above: Joe Wheatley (right) with DoP Ben Marshall by the pool at the location in Nottinghamshire, "one of the finest examples of mid-century modern housing in the UK."
What preparation did you do for the shoot? Was there much rehearsal time - for the performance and also the camera moves?
In terms of the filmmaking, Ben Marshall [the DoP] and I had a lot of conversations about routes and journeys in the house. What each space could offer. We even got the original drawings of the house to help because it’s a bit of a maze.
On the day we endeavoured to turn over around 12 and get a take in daylight. Then a take at 3 at dusk (it was January 9th) and a final take at night. The reality was, of course, different with both the camera and audio prep taking much longer.
The musicians kind of jammed all day and just noodled but never actually performed a whole track or all of them together until we shot. Billie advised me to never tell them we were going for a take and just tell them everything is a rehearsal in order to keep everyone natural.
Essentially we turned the whole house into a recording studio.
What was the key in getting the live sound right?
Billie managed to persuade Dom Monks, who produced and engineered the album, to also engineer the film. Sound isn’t something I had any control over and I feel blessed that he was up for it. He has an impressive CV and I don’t think we could have had anyone more right for the job.
Dom brought all kinds of equipment I didn’t understand. But I do know he was mixing 24 channels across the whole film and it wasn’t easy. He hadn’t done a recce of the house but as soon as he walked into the swimming pool he said ’the strings are going in here’, and it wasn’t up for debate! We had a monitor mix to camera on the day and it already sounded amazing.
How many takes did you manage to get, and which is this one? Was it a difficult choice?
We shot 3.5 takes. During one of them a musician placed a guitar or maybe a double bass somewhere that wasn’t part of the plan and Ben walked into it. The take we actually used was the first take, which was at around 3pm and the light was going.
I was happy with all of the takes and would have put any of them out. Billie however bounced around all of them and at one stage nearly canned the film. She loved the filmmaking but just wasn’t confident in her performance, but grew to love it.
Above: Joe Wheatley watches a take on Drop Cherries - The Film.
Were there any happy accidents? Do you have a favourite moment or moments in the film?
There is a moment where Billie can’t open a curtain but one of the musicians, Will, moves at the same time to kind of hide it. It’s real and I like it.
• Joe Wheatley is represented for music videos by OB Management. More work here.
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