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The Story So Far: Elliott Gonzo

The Story So Far: Elliott Gonzo

David Knight - 2nd Feb 2023

2022 turned out to be a big year for Elliott Gonzo, with his video for Meduza nominated at the UKMVAs. So it was high time to find out more about how the KODE director has developed his distinctive, all-action style. Welcome to Gonzo-world.

 

In the past couple of years Elliott Gonzo has established a reputation for delivering compelling, action-packed stories in pop promos in a variety of music genres. Sometimes brutal, sometimes trippy, sometimes funny... the results invariably make compelling viewing.

Last year his video EDM titan Meduza were recognised with nominations at the UKMVAs, the latest in a number of honours he has garnered for his storytelling skills in different types of projects - short films, docs, content pieces and music videos - for clients including Sony, Polydor, Tate Modern, Red Bull, Nowness, Dazed, NICCE, Ciroc and Redbull.

Elliott, 32, hails originally from Bath and grew up in London and Surrey. Perhaps not surprisingly, he did not start out as a Gonzo. But due to his obsession with Hunter S Thompson, author of Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas and the godfather of ‘gonzo journalism’ - “and the fact I was experimenting with my brain, I guess,” he adds - he gained his alternative surname during his time at art school in Bournemouth, and it stuck.

His journey in filmmaking also began at Bournemouth, initially as a production designer, before he decided his vision was better served by becoming a director himself. "“Even from a young age, I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of making my imagination or dreams come to life,” he says.

Towards the end of last year we talked to Elliott about his career to date, and find out much more about the viscerally powerful work that came before those videos last year that garnered nominations at the UKMVAs.

I was obsessed with creating alternate realities, hyper realism, magical realism...

Sour Milk/Yeast

"I studied production design at AUB Arts University Bournemouth, and I was obsessed with creating alternate realities, hyperrealism, magical realism, and stuff like that.

I was experimenting with my creative process at uni for different ways to come up with new ideas mostly through psychedelics and lucid dreaming while also studying hyperrealism for my dissertation, a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins. 

I was always coming up with little ideas for shorts and pitching them to directors on the course. Some would get picked up and made but they would always come out a bit wrong or totally shit, the creative vision would have been destroyed by the director making it. So, at the end of Uni, because I had all these mates that were filmmakers, I decided to gather the troops and make my first short film.

It’s called Sour Milk. A twisted dark comedy set in an awful world of tattooed killer Milkmen and skinhead Postman. There this gruesome war between the milkmen and the postmen and jimmy , who wants out of the gang and decides to bet his milk floats in the poker game. Without realising Jimmy’s world is quickly turns upside down.

No-one is sympathetic in Sour Milk. The men are disgusting, and the women are disgusting. Viv Albertine, formerly in The Slits, saw it at the LSFF, and complained after the screening that it was a sexist piece of male wank. She said that I must be a disgusting human being for having made it. But it’s the characters in the film who are sexist and horrible. By creating this hyperreal world and exaggerated characters I am forcing the viewer to be confronted with the sexist pigs of society, the characters may seem fictional but there are a lot of people in this world that are really like this.

Sour Milk then led to the sequel – the second part of a trilogy – called Yeast funded through a Kickstarter. It's a grotesque tale about a struggling baker within a hellish bakery who unexpectedly bakes himself a Frankenstein’s monster made of dough and yeast, which takes over his life. Yeast’s underling themes touch on real life issues of drug addition in single-parent relationships, lonliness, neglect and self sabotage.

Tight (ish)

"After making Sour Milk, I went to India for a year or so. I brought a camera with me and I slowly turned into a DoP. I filmed a load of stuff in India, particularly focussing on Indian bodybuilding and bodybuilders - a fascinating world.

Tight(ish) is a short experimental doc, made with the footage I shot, which was featured on Nowness. The idea is to make a full-length feature film about Indian bodybuilders, called Tight - which I'm still working on."

I feel like DoPing and production design has helped me in my directing.

Joseph Salvat – Paper Moons

"Joseph gave me a brief which said: I wrote this in a miserable time when I was in Berlin. I thought: okay, you were miserable, you [possibly] took shit-tonne of Mandy or pills, whatever. You were going around the clubs and didn't really know what to do with yourself, and probably had things on your mind. This is just what I imagined was going on with him, because he said he was miserable. And so, I ran with that.

It's like this floaty, kind of dreamy, MDMA-riddled, sweaty mess of a video. And there's some beautiful bits, moments where he’s probably coming up or whatever, but then his thoughts are coming back and then eventually just leaves the club on his own and he's just walking back into a comedown.

It was nice because we got to shoot on 35mm, which is really beautiful. And I just got to test out what it’s like shooting in the club."

Athena Skates – Red Bull documentary

"A Journalist/Producer Alex King who I’d been working with on Tight told me he had a Finnish mate who's a photographer and he knew these ice rally car racers in Finland and was looking for a director to collab with. So we all went out there to film and a meet the community, eventually we found this girl who’s like the best female ice rally car racer in Finland. That became a self-funded doc called Taru. Off the back of that, RedBull’s commissioners reached out and asked if I wanted to do another doc. 

They just let us have the whole airport for something like 800 quid.

Alex lived in Athens and he was like, there is this really cool female roller-skating gang that he knew so I decided to go to Athens and make the doc on them, to tell their story. It felt like a kind of half-holiday, half-doc. 

It was really cool because Athens has a massive airport built for the Olympics, that closed down in 2001. We contacted them and they just let us rent the whole place for like, 800 quid. It was mental. It was so big that we didn't really know what to do with it. So, we got some really beautiful shots. Like super big wide shots of them skating around in really beautiful lighting all shot in the golden hour.  And then some drone shots and stuff. That was really good fun.

I also joint-DoPed that with a friend of mine, Evangelos Polychronopoulos - an amazing greek DOP. I just feel like DoPing and then doing production design, all that kind of stuff has helped me in my directing."

Le Junk – Level 3

""That was like me going back to my roots of the hyperreal Sour Milk, Yeast days. I wanted to reawaken this universe in a music video, and have characters that I can just be outrageous with.

Basically, the whole concept of it was a bare-knuckle boxing fighter, stuck in a boxing hell where he's constantly fighting, for eternity. After one fight there's another fight, and another and another. He has no time to rest in between and he was constantly getting paid money. But he has no way of spending any money, because he has to go to the next fight.

The artist is the fighter in the video. On the day we had to kind of teach him how to fight and then choreographed the whole thing. I choreographed every fight in the video because we didn’t have a fight coordinator. A lot of the fights in there were based on different fights in Fight Club, and a few other films.

But it was fun because that was a £300, £400 budget. I managed to convince a DoP that I really liked. It also happened during lockdown, but everyone wanted to do it because they were so bored. Everyone was just up for it.

It was cool because we managed to get some kind of scale in there, even though we had nothing. The makeup was incredible, and the production design was just a room in a warehouse and 50 hay bails to make the ring. But we were just clever with the shots in how we framed them. They would always drop off into darkness so that you didn't really know how big anything was and you rarely see the walls in any of the shots."

Nothing But Thieves – Impossible

We put Conor in full chainmail and then put him in a tank of water and made him sing...

"I love Harry Houdini. I'm half-Hungarian and supposedly really far down the line I might be related to him a little bit. I was looking into Harry Houdini and I thought it would be quite cool to just touch on some of his escape acts and try make them come alive in this because it's called Impossible, so it kind of made sense straight away.

So we almost fucking drowned Conor [Mason], the band's frontman! We put him in full chainmail and then we put him in a tank of water and made him sing his song underwater. And he was handcuffed, and his legs were chained. It was nuts because we had two scuba divers next to him and they were like feeding him air in between lines of songs. It was really tense."

Aura – Dead Girl

"That was a journey. Aura lives in Antigua, but they said they needed a video where she was  front and center. I suggested a full animation, videogame style. I said  I could do it, no worries. Even though I’d never done animation before. They said ‘go ahead’. I went to a production company in Warsaw, Poland that made 2077 Cyberpunk, thinking ‘they can do the whole video’. And they came up with a budget four or five times the budget we had, which was £20K. 

So I asked my housemate Tom Abbosh, who’s a producer, to help me out. We ended up just freelancing out to some of the best 3D artists all around the world, working on this one video together. They loved the concept and were prepared to do it at a quarter of their regular rate. We had a character designer, a clothing designer, someone on building cities, and a Houdini expert that created the plant growing and fire shots. Every person was dotted around the world and we just pulled it together. 

The creative director Ben Dosage, lived in Bristol and knew how to just grab all these elements and put them all in into Unreal Engine. To animate the character we also had to get a MoCap done with an actress dancing and singing as if she was Au/Ra. that was fun. 

I had to make a full animatic storyboard down to the last detail as we had to know exactly what was going on in every shot to help the animators and mocap, and then we were able to make it. But, yeah, it was a completely different way of filmmaking.  So much more complicated than anything I'd ever done before."

Finn Askew – Adidas/Tokyo

"Finn liked my Salvat video, but for Adidas I wanted to make the video more raw - taking reference from one of my favorite directors Gaspar Noé. I love his grittiness and the use of POV in his work. 

The concept is based on Finn having a bad trip in a club and maybe OD’ing, getting picked up but paramedics, and eventually put into an ambulance. But in his head, he's trying to fight his way out of a snowstorm and then a SWAT team, to get through to the other side  - where he is confronted with a blinding light which represents a near-death experience.

Finn's team loved the video and came back, saying - can we do the sequel, for Tokyo? So I made something up, which wasn't really a sequel, its quite different.

"Tokyo starts with Finn sitting down in the headlights of a car - that’s the link from the last one – but then he gets kidnapped by these girls, who torture him a bit, then force him to play this punk gig. It's not really as deep as the first one, it's more about having a few more characters - we got to cast a girl gang for that one - and make it a bit grungier and punkier.

My girlfriend's sister Ellie Walker is an up-and-coming stylist with dark punky style, and her contribution just added to the elements of world building, trying to figure out what Finn’s world would be. That's my favourite part of the process, because I wouldn't say any of my films are really solidly set in reality. I think that's the funniest thing about working in film, isn't it? You can do whatever you want."

Wargasm – Drilldo

"I chatted to the band and they were like, yeah, we love to perform in some illegal underground Matrix-style club, and while we perform the club gets raided and shut down by the establishment. That was their brief. It was so much fun to make, but there was a lot to get done and we only had a one-day to shoot.

First of all, we had, 30 or 40 extras and they all had to look like they're a part of this world. I had Ellie come and style that again, and firstly, we had to make this world look sexy, Matrix-style. But then on top of that we had all the action scenes of all these military guys running in. These guys were just mates of the band and we had to make them look like they were military trained.

This is definitely back into my hyperreal roots of Sour Milk and Le Junk.

Obviously, I watched a lot of films and references before I did the shoot. So I knew exactly what I wanted, but I had to give specific directions in order to get them to actually look like military personnel. They did really well, which is great. And the main bad guy in it was played by Simon Cowell’s bodyguard! That was really fun working with him. He's a real-life big friendly giant.

We also had a fight coordinator, which was the first time I’d worked with one. It was really helpful. We shot some of the crowd stuff with Milky, the lead singer, and then I had to go off and do military stuff. While that was going off, the stunt coordinator was coordinating the main fight in the music video. So then when I got back, it was like pretty much there. Which was a lifesaver.

This is definitely back to my hyperreal roots of Sour Milk and Le Junk – we had the same DOP as Le Junk, JP Garcia. Our styles marry really well and with most my videos, I also edited this one. I'd love to get someone else to edit - but I find it hard to explain what's going on in my head. So I just end up do it myself.

Meduza, James Carter ft Elley Duhé, Fast Boy ‘Bad Memories’

I’ve been chatting to the commissioner John Hassay for two years about doing something. John has said that the ideas have been great, but on the bigger budgets he works on, he has said ‘they don’t trust you to pull it off, because you haven’t worked at that level yet.’ Well, this was our breakthrough.

I've always wanted to play around with infrared film. I really loved that aesthetic, after seeing the photographer Richard Moss’s work. And then I really wanted to do a coming-of-age story of a gang who are fed up with their lives, who want to run away from home and start a new life.

It started off that it was going to be set in a nature reserve in Sweden – really beautiful. John  said – no, it needs to be crazier. And my girlfriend and I had been researching Vietnam – we’re going there on holiday there soon – so I thought, let's just see if they like Vietnam. I found all the images of this huge dragon in an abandoned water park, fiddled with it on Photoshop, made it all the green red – as if it was shot in infrared - and sent them the treatment. They loved it, so that was that.

I discovered the day before the shoot that the lead actor had never kissed a girl in his life.

The shoot was pretty crazy. Firstly, we all went to Glastonbury – and then left the day after it  ended: a 30 hour flight, three aeroplanes and a coach! But we were in good hands – a service  company out in Vietnam called 116 Pictures. They were just amazing. They did a massive location scout of the whole surrounding area, and then we had a two-day recce to properly figure out what was going on with the locations. That was when I saw this huge stone dragon, in the  middle of a lake in the middle of this tropical forest. It was an absolutely insane location – part of an  amusement park that a former Prime Minister had commissioned. So 116 had to have ‘a little chat’ with the government to get permission to shoot there.

I was adamant that we needed two days for the shoot but somehow we managed to do the whole thing in one day. It was a mad experience. So hot. Constantly sweating in 50-degree heat. And then also there's no wind because you're in the middle of the jungle, so you're just drenched in sweat.

None of the cast spoke English – we worked through translators – and we found out they were younger than I had expected. There’s a kissing scene and I discovered the day before the shoot that the lead actor had never kissed a girl in his life! I had to get the leads to practice before the shoot, to see if it was going to be too awkward. The guy was just shaking, but luckily we had time before the shoot to bond with the cast and eventally we managed to get our kiss!

What I got from Vietnam was that the external appearance of the country suggests there are no problems, everyone is happy. But the government is restrictive about freedom of expression. When I was chatting with kids out there, that's what they were saying - it seems great here, but we can't really do much, or at least anything cool. And chatting to people working in the film industry there, they were saying some amazing feature films didn’t get through the official censor, and won’t be seen. That fed into the music video in the end – the young people are running away, starting a new life, getting free of the shackles.

Enter Shikari ft Cody Frost – Bull

"The track is called Bull, and it’s a bull in a pie shop. I just really liked that, the sort of Cockney vibe of the eel pie-and-mash thing. And a bull in a china shop is too much of a cop-out, too easy. I thought I’d just make it a bit more creative.

So we brought on board a monster prosthetic artist Begoña Fernández Martín she managed to make a full-on Minotaur  in a week. it was really fun, the concept was about a Minotaur’s girlfriend braking up with him in this pie n mash shop – the girlfriend was played by the featured artist Cody Frost shes fed up with him because he’s a bit of an asshole, he ends up going absolutely mental in the shop. The Minotaur was a professional crump dancer. So he goes ‘crump mad’.

All the band are in it doing cameos. The lead singer Rou Reynolds is the waiter and he comes over and gives them their pies. The drummer and one of the guitarists, they’re making pies in the back. They get attacked by this bull.

The song is about toxic relationships, and trying to get out of them.

• Elliott Gonzo is based at KODE, and represented for music videos by Mouthpiece. Watch more of his work here.

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