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Leo Leigh on The Smile's Free In The Knowledge: "People freaking out on LSD is a terrifying spectacle."

Leo Leigh on The Smile's Free In The Knowledge: "People freaking out on LSD is a terrifying spectacle."

David Knight - 19th May 2022

Strange goings-on in a bleak, wintry English field, featuring scenes that, frankly, some viewers may find distressing. That's Leo Leigh's memorable music video directing debut for The Smile. So we asked Leo about how it all happened. On-set photography by Ned Botwood.

 

Whether it's his darkly comedic short films such as Mother, or his eye-opening documentaries for Vice like Beautiful Liverpool, Leo Leigh has spent the last few years digging deeper into the strange truth of the English psyche. Now with his video for Free In The Knowledge, from Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood's new side project The Smile, the director - who is now signed to Somesuch - sets his focus upon something darker: a full English psychological breakdown.

In his striking debut as a music video director, Leigh introduces us to a ragtag group of characters - hippies, basically, without the positive connotations of counter-culture philosophy, but with much of the negative connotations of cult-like control and self-damaging and neglectful behaviour. And it focusses upon two of the characters going through tough experiences: a couple of very bad trips.

Working with producer Maddy Perkins, DoP Olan Collardy and editor Dave Davis, Leigh has created a rare drama, particularly in a music video, casting a pitiless gaze upon human frailty. And as he explains below, this was the result of an ongoing creative process that included a moment of inspiration while editing the video, sparked by comments from Thom Yorke.

Thom's been involved in making amazing music videos... he knows what works.

DK: You haven’t made a music video before (as far as I know) so how did you connect with The Smile on this project?

LL: It’s weird. I’ve been up for so many music videos over the years, but never managed to get one past the keeper. In the pitching stage on this video, a huge amount of thanks has to go to Maëva Demurger at Somesuch. It’s not always just about a good idea, but how the person sells it to the label. 

I’ve always been more into the darker, weirder ideas for videos. And so most of the time, in the past, I’m guessing the label got a bit scared of my ideas. Either that, or they just straight up thought my ideas were shit.

Above: The cast of The Smile's Safe In The Knowledge video

Did you have a conversation with Thom Yorke, or a brief to work from (or both), before you submitted your idea for the video?

I did have a chat with Thom Yorke, but it was after I submitted my idea. I got a real sense that, even though he has a hand in what the video is, he also respects the director’s ideas and lets them get on with it.

It was actually a really good chat. The guy's been involved in making amazing music videos since the early ‘90s, so he knows what works. Even though the idea was mine, it obviously has to serve the music that the band have written. So it's important to listen to his thoughts and what he thinks about the approach.

Footage of bad acid trips worked perfectly with the track.

What led you to interpret the melodic folk-rock of Free In The Knowledge in such an uncompromising fashion?

I’ve been fascinated with people freaking out on LSD for quite a while. It’s a terrifying spectacle. I’ve been the audience and the participant a few times - and it’s hell. There’s this moment in the Maysles Brothers' documentary Gimme Shelter from 1970, where this Hell’s Angels member is having a tough old time on acid. As the Maysles Brothers tend to do, they hold the shot on him as The [Rolling] Stones try their best to play amongst the mayhem. It’s always stuck with me, and so I’ve been trying to get it into something for a while.

Above: Leo Leigh (left) with DoP Olan Collardy on the video shoot for Safe In The Knowledge

I had about half a day to come up with an idea, so I listened to the track about fifty times. I have a load of footage from the ‘60s that I’ve been collecting for some time. I then cut the track to the footage and sent it to the band. I deliberately avoided using any of the hippie, free love bullshit, and focused on the darker, more “lost” feeling of what some of that time was about. The bad acid trips, and the lost faces in a crowd. It worked perfectly with the track.

I suppose the track is loosely about what we all went through in the pandemic. At least that's what I got from it. So to see people coming together at that time – with some hope of forthcoming change – kind of made sense to me. It was also key that for me that we avoided any kind of sentimentality too.

I wanted the audience to feel like they were watching a bigger story in that four minutes.

What we see in the final piece suggests a broader narrative, and we’re probably seeing the aftermath of a (possibly catastrophic) prior event. What led you to focus on this approach? Was this always your intention?

To a certain extent, there was always meant to be a wider, bigger feeling to the world. In other words, I wanted the audience to feel like they were watching a bigger story in that four minutes. Our first cut had a lot more of the group in a longer, more drawn-out way. After talking with Thom Yorke, he felt some of the images didn't sit well with his music. He’s so close to that track. It’s super personal to him.

Above: Michael Morrissey (left) with makeup artist Natasha Lawes

I was on another job when his notes came through. I got on the tube over to Trim [Editing] in Whitechapel to start making some edit changes. On the ride, I started thinking about those two performances and how they could potentially be the main focus of the entire video.

The beauty of finding that new idea was that we had all this other really rich footage, and cutting to it in such a subliminal way made it feel like a legitimate memory. The last stage of writing any film or music video is in the edit.

Can you give an insight in how you managed to draw out these extraordinary performances from the actors? What sort of preparation did they need to experience before being able to produce such raw emotion on camera?

Paul Hilton, who’s stood under the tree, is a phenomenal actor. I’d just worked with him on a film, and knew he would deliver the goods. Unlike the last time we worked together, where we rehearsed for six weeks, we didn't do any rehearsals. We just talked a lot about that raw darkness that comes out when you’re totally lost on a bad trip.

Above: Paraic Morrissey giving his remarkable 'bad trip' performance

On the day of filming, it was important for him to have his own space, and so I let him wander off to get into that mindset. I didn't actually play the track when we were filming. Instead, I only played very dark, fucked-up stuff from the 1960s. We lined the shot up, and he just went for it.

I played The Pretty Things really loud... and [Paraic] just lost his shit.

The other main performer is Paraic Morrissey, one half of the directing duo CC Wade (Paraic and Michael Morrissey). Paraic is the character at the beginning being held down, and his brother Michael is the strange character sitting under a tree with the sunlight shining behind him. Paraic’s not an actor and hasn’t really done much acting apart from in CC Wade’s music videos. I’m not sure why, but I just knew they would be good for this.

I asked Paraic to get into a very dark place. He sat under a tree for about half an hour or maybe longer before we shot. I didn't ask what he was thinking about, but he had definitely worked himself up into a dark frame of mind. I played Well Of Destiny by The Pretty Things really fucking loud on playback, and he just lost his shit.

Above: The cast and crew prepare for the burning effigy scene

We eventually see glimpses of a tumultuous ceremony conducted by the cult leader. What were your particular cinematic references for the film?

We didn't look at any fictional films. We only looked at documentary footage from the time.

When and where did you shoot the video? What were the biggest challenges on the shoot day?

It was shot on a farm somewhere in Kent. To be honest, it wasn't that difficult to shoot. Maddy Perkins, who produced the video, did such a good job that we didn't have much to worry about.

The last stage of writing any film or music video is in the edit.

The final video is so powerful and uncompromising. It’s an undeniably hard watch to witness such convincing displays of suffering. Was the final piece the result of overcoming objections along the way, during the editing process?

As I've previously said, for me, all films (and in this case, a music video) are made in the edit. What we discovered was that focusing on those two main performances made the entire experience quite enjoyable and interesting.

Above: On-set photographer Ned Botwood's double-exposure of the effigy scene with Olan Collardy (centre) and Leo Leigh filming. "I wound my camera a little too enthusiastically when they set fire to the effigy, and something went wrong," says Ned of his double exposed nighttime shots. "I suppose they accidentally capture the spirit of the time."

Has the experience of making the video been enjoyable, a bit of a culture shock – or both?

Because of how normal, encouraging and supportive Thom Yorke and [video commissioner] Scott Wright at XL were during the making of this, it didn't feel like a culture shock. Just lots of fun.

• Leo Leigh is represented by Somesuch for music videos and commercials in the UK. Watch more of his work here.

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