From Question Time to Streatham - Nathan James Tettey on directing Dave
David Knight - 26th Apr 2019
Producer, executive producer, director's rep, commissioner... Nathan James Tettey has held a few roles in the music video-making game. And now he's making a very decent fist of another, rather important job: directing.
Since late 2017, he has directed not less than six videos for one of the UK's biggest rappers, Dave. His videos have garnered hundreds of millions of YouTube views. They have been instrumental in bringing the South London rapper's powerful persona to the screen, undiluted and compelling. And after the huge successes of Question Time, No Words and Funky Friday, Tettey's directing output with Dave has accelerated in the first part of 2019, with the release of Dave's Black and Streatham and Headie One's 18 Hunna, featuring Dave.
So we caught up with Nathan James Tettey, to find out more about his new career, and how he's adjusting to life as a heavy-hitting video director. And not surprisingly we started with Question Time, the video that features Dave questioning our political leaders in a stark, darkened studio, that commands the viewer's attention. A riveting performance and a great directing debut.
Management asked if I could direct Question Time and I didn’t have any fears - until I put the phone down.
Rumour has it that you stepped in to direct the Question Time video at the last minute. What’s the real story?
NJT: That is the real story. We didn’t have anyone to direct. We had no other shoot date, so it was either then or never. Our original director had double-booked themselves on a job which shot abroad and had shot the last five or six videos for Dave, so it was a challenge trying to get anyone that could understand Dave the same way. That’s why management asked if I could do it, I suppose, simply because I get it the same way. Management asked if I could direct it and I didn’t initially have any fears - until I put the phone down.
I got lucky. I had a good producer who was as calm/crazy as I am, so we just got stuck into trying to make it happen and we pulled it off. Dave has good ideas, so for the most part you just need to work out which of his ideas are necessary to bring to life and what's missing. A couple of elements we made up on the day like shining the projector on him when he performed and the big walk out at the end.
We have to work out what we’re doing together and respect each other's opinions. It gets pretty personal.
What was your highlight from that experience of shooting the Question Time video?
I forgot that it was coming out at 19:00 and was heading to the cinema with a friend to watch Black Panther. My phone started going off with messages from people saying nice things about the video. Then the comments kicked. I think people liked that it was simple and you could easily take in a lot of information that was being shared, and his opinion was in line with what the general public was thinking about our political situation at the time.
You’ve produced a lot of videos, but had you directed anything before that?
A very very early music video that never saw the light of day but other than that not really. I was always messing around doing BTS bits or trying to make weird little docos for friends, but nothing so concise and pressured as a proper music video that had such a big message as Question Time.
Then came No Words. What was the biggest challenge in making that?
Shooting, editing, grading and posting all in the space of three days! A crazy timeframe, but fun nonetheless.
A big shout out to Stefan Yap on this. He’s not just a good DP, he’s a good man and will work out problems with you, helping to get directors through situations like this. He made sure I didn’t drop shooting in the garden - and he created a set out of a cupboard. Legend.
Same with Steph the producer, for getting such good crew at such short notice. Miracle worker. Chris the editor was and is a titan. Proper all-nighter edit. It was over as quickly as it started. Including getting the track and having a chat about it we got the whole thing done in abut six days. Mad.
Nathan (far left), Dave ( middle and friends -including Rajeev Sterling (second right) on the Black shoot
Were you a frustrated director all along?
Not really. I don’t think I ever wanted to actually direct videos during the time that I produced them. I loved working with directors and getting the ideas into a place that they’d be special and well recognised bits of work, but the mission was to help bring someone else’s vision to life.
I’ve always had opinions on projects when working on them but never felt frustrated during that process. I think I jumped in at this point because I simply didn’t have a choice for one, and it was with an artist that my skillset at the time could compliment.
Then came Funky Friday, which has been absolutely huge. Such an interesting use of locations to make a video distinctively different. What were the highlights (and lowlights) on that shoot?
The big lowlight was when it was all over. That was a fun shoot from start to finish which in a weird way I didn’t want to end.
Then in a way a highlight was getting an apology letter, once the track went to No. 1, from a location that had completely ghosted us during pre-production after we’d tried everything we could to convince them to work with us.
On Funky Friday the location we were trying to work with were not being straight with us
People can be funny when you work with a rapper. They have preconceived ideas of what it is you’ll be doing and what it means to be associated with rap music. Locations are more than entitled to have concerns about who they want to work with, that's their right. But all you can ask is for people to be straight with you, and the location we were trying to work with were not being straight with us, which meant we changed our shoot date to accommodate them, got conflicting answers on questions which was a headache.
We even went to the trouble of getting Dave to write a hand-written letter to the owner who didn’t read it until after the track came out. It went to number one and he got in touch then. Rude.
How does the partnership with Dave usually work in making the videos?
No different to anyone else I don’t think. I just ask him what he wants to convey and try and make that happen. He doesn’t sleep much, which means you don’t sleep much. He’s hands-on during the prep, which is cool but it means we can talk at 10am or at 1am about ideas.
He doesn’t sleep much, which means you don’t sleep much.
He happily gives a fair amount of freedom so he trusts a lot of the decisions that get made without him being consulted, but he does care a lot about his vision. So we have to talk a lot and work out a lot of what we’re doing together and respect each others opinions. It gets pretty personal. Pinning him down can become a bit of a game as he has real tunnel vision, so trying to organise the last few videos with an album being put together in the background has made the whole process a bit challenging.
We don’t really do treatments so that means a lot of images being sent over Whatsapp and ideas over text. We had a Word document for Question Time that was basically a shot list from me. No Words was a selection of images of me in the house with a description against each image of what would happen. Funky Friday was the first time I put something together as a treatment for him and the team to digest which explained an act 1, 2 and 3 of the video…
The 18 Hunna video is the one where Dave is the featured artist, and Headie One is the main guy. Is there a different dynamc at play?
The whole thing was a pleasure. Headie just let me get on with it and the only time he questioned or got nervous about anything was when the snakes came into play. The original plan was too have him with a huuuuuge python and he was going to have his top off but apparently he hadn’t been hitting the gym enough so he wore a shirt and kept it cool with the little snake. Making Dave disappear was cool as he didn’t know it was going to happen until I showed him in the edit.
Casting-wise we dragged everyone in on this one - friends, family, a couple of people from the office... Dave’s mum cooked.
Arguably the Black video is your most ambitious video to date, both in terms of the subject matter of the song, and also the fact you shot it in both Nigeria and London. What were the big challenges making it?
The whole experience, shooting in London and Nigeria was a vibe and really eye-opening. On the flipside, the speed was quite difficult to handle. We never really slept during the whole shoot.
This was the biggest bonding experience for us as a team. Nigeria was an experience in itself and it was great to take Dave back to his homeland and also help him and Edem, his best friend, try and make a video.
Casting-wise we dragged everyone in on this one - friends, family, a couple of people from the office... Dave’s mum cooked. My best friend was a runner on the shoot. My mum popped down for a second. It was fun and hard like most things worth doing I suppose. Big Chris was a titan again, we shot the final performances on Monday, and had the video out by Thursday.
Most recently, Streatham, you bring a bit of American muscle car action to South London. What were the standout moments?
Shooting the final shot, and shooting the drag car.
Listen to how we scream in the following video…
• Nathan James Tettey is based at Dirty Work @ Rattling Stick
*This has been a Promonews & Rattling Stick co-production, sponsored by Rattling Stick
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David Knight - 26th Apr 2019