Warren Du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones on making UNKLE's The Lost Highway: "If we won the Euro Millions, we'd be funding more things like this."
David Knight - 26th Sept 2019
They are leading fashion photographers, creating uniquely crafted images that have graced magazine covers around the world for the past two decades, worked with leading brands from Issey Mikajke to Mercedez Benz, and featured in exhibitions and installations. Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones are renowned for their masterpieces of what the latter has described as ‘fantasy versus precision’, where the lines between photography and visual effects are blurred – a style that extends to their film work.
In film, they have collaborated with Bjork, Massive Attack, UNKLE, and others. Now for their latest moving image project with James Lavelle of UNKLE, Du Preez and Thornton Jones have been branching out into new territory, investigating the potential of the music video medium, and pushing their own boundaries as filmmakers.
It almost goes without saying that their new film for UNKLE, The Lost Highway, is a beautifully crafted work. This is always what Warren and Nick do. But it is also different in adding a cinematic dimension that has taken their craft to a new level, in collaboration with top features cinematographer Henry Braham.
The film is not a video for one track, but features several stems of music, and other elements - in particular the spoken-word contributions by actor Brian Cox - from the UNKLE album. This has become the soundtrack for the film's subject - the painfully arduous, solitary training of a female Samurai, alone in a forest. She is played by Chinese dancer Maya Jilan Dong, and her mesmerizing performance, choreographed by Farooq Chaudhry, is the focal point of the piece.
Furthermore The Lost Highway has been part of an ambitious rollout for the UNKLE album, starting with its premiere at the IMAX on London's Southbank - the largest cinema in London - and has been part of the groundbreaking UNKLE exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London since then. That's where we caught up with Warren and Nick last month, to discuss this project, and their distinctive view of filmmaking...
So how did the process of making Lost Highway get started?
Warren: Prior to filming the process went on for about a year and a half, of James wanting to make something that kind of was more than just a music video. Because we have a creative dialogue and we're good friends - we meet up regularly just to talk about stuff – there was a passion and direction to kind of go into something that was a longer format. Break out the conventions of the traditional music video.
That may suggest we were using it as a stepping stone into more narrative-based stuff. But not really. I think it's more just the concept of challenging ourselves with certain aspects of that. You're going: break your legs, break your format, challenge the perception of that format.
We're always working in a studio, so we thought we should take ourselves out of the studio
Nick: When we started a year and a half ago, it was very different. You go with the journey of how James is seeing the album as well.
Warren: James always wanted to embody the album - before we even discussed the key narrative behind it, what we actually were doing. But we were also thinking; well, we're always working in a studio, so we should take ourselves out of the studio.
So it became the story of the Rōnin, the female samurai. Is that a representation of James Lavelle – or yourselves?
Warren: The album is really about James being on a journey. There are metaphors and analogies attached it it. He's better off explaining that. But there are roots in popular culture. And then, we had the idea of a Rōnin. There are the comic book fantasies, the crossover into popular culture which also reflects where James is, more than just music.
Nick: There's a mystical side of it which is very us. There's a beauty side, which is very us. There's a darkness, which is very us… and James has allowed us over the years to tap into all of those things - and vice versa for him. His music it can be destructive or it can be the best ballad ever.
Is working with James Lavelle quite a fluid thing, and therefore somewhat unpredictable?
Warren: It’s as if you’re ultimately a curator as much as a creator. I think we’re probably one of the first really, to pioneer those collaborations. Especially on Psyence Fiction, which just went stratospheric in that sense. It's testament that our collaboration has been long-standing. So he functions in that collaborative sense, where he'll guide or he'll nod or he'll be inclusive or non-inclusive. Sometimes, he will stand in a corner and say nothing. And other times he'll be quite opinionated about things. That's just how creative handshake works.
So how did you develop the idea of the warrior being female?
Nick: We're going right back to the beginning now, this idea of the masterless warrior. When he was younger James had done martial arts, and was slightly obsessed by it. He always wanted to do something that was all about the idea of the kata. This sense of ritual.
Within martial arts, a kata is series of moves that you perform on your own with an imaginary opponent or opponents.
Warren: Think of it like Thai Chi. Just a series of physical moves that are kind of part of a self-meditative performance.
James did martial arts when he was younger... he always wanted to do something that was all about the ritual of the kata.
Nick: He took it to; 'wouldn't it be great to see a Samurai perform a kata, or a series of kata - done by Warren and Nick!' Our reaction was: Yeah, that's inspiring, but we need to look further. So we sat on that for a good month and a half, really delved into it, to come out at the other end and go: we really need to transform that character.
That's when we had one of those sort of universe-provides moments, where we were working with a choreographer, dancer friend of ours [Farooq Chaudhry], and his manager came down to see us on a shoot. We started talking about this performnce that we'd seen, this incredible female Chinese dancer [Maya Jilan Dong], at Sadler's Wells. And he said: 'I'm now her manager.'
Then we went away, between ourselves went 'wouldn't it be interesting to spin it on it's head and this masterless warrior was actually female, and that female was Maya.' And they were, 'of course it's not going to happen, she's in China. That was a one-off. He got her over to do this performance.' But we reached out, and it became a conversation. We talked to James about it, that bit fell into place. A lot of things fell into place which shouldn't have fallen into place.
We went away and thought: 'wouldn't it be interesting to spin it on it's head and this masterless warrior was actually female, and that female was Maya'.
Warren: We're connected with the choreographer Farooq Chaudhry, and I just hit him between the eyes and said: 'Could we get her over?' And he was like, 'Yeah, let's do it.' He was very excited by the fact that we were involved.
Farooq basically set up the dance company with Akram Khan. But he's developed in these other performers. So, he's taken on Dickson MBI, as one of his other artists and then Maya too. He is a wonderful man. He is half-Pakistani and half-English has this incredible irreverence about how he sees things. I'm quite amazed actually, how he sees the industry as being really banal and conventional. Through his demographic make-up or who he is as a character, I find it quite interesting.
Nick: He's super down-to-earth. He's quite a humble guy, for what he has achieved. You can have a laugh with him, has great sense of humour. But he also has an incredible eye.
Warren: We put a schedule in place. We did a week of rehearsals. He was very hands-on on the shoot. We allowed Maya to also have quite a big inclusive voice too, because when we saw her at Sadler's Wells she was pretty phenomenal and then you kind of realize that this is a very unique individual.
We did a week of rehearsals. Farooq [above left, with James Lavelle] was very hands-on on the shoot.
What’s the story about Maya Jilan Dong. She’s not really a well-known dancer yet is she?
Warren: No, she's about to blow up. When Farooq brought her over to London it was her first solo performance.
Nick: The narrative goes, he was in China working with her dance troop and said one day to the leader "Who's that girl?" And he's like "She's a nobody. She does things wrong" and was like "She's fucking amazing."
Warren: Farooq's attracted to things that are unconventional. He is not just a player who, and there a lot of those choreographers who are very successful, but they don't seem to break convention. It's an arena that doesn't really like too much breaking of convention, because there's quite a lot of nostalgia and classicism associated to dance. But he's definitely one of the ones pushing it and, I think, open to new experiences within contemporary dance. He's really keen for her to do the film, so that she could understand performance in film and realize how different that is to performance on a stage.
Nick: She's on another plane. We could be sitting around now, but she'd be speaking on a very internal, sort of spiritual, universal level that everyone understands. We see these things visually. Me and Warren talk about myths and these imaginative places and we talk about them and we try and create them, she was completely there as well. We put some bones on the floor, she'd start and she'd pick it up with her toenails and clack them, because she wanted to clack things.
Me and Warren talk about myths and these imaginative places - Maya was completely there as well.
Tell us about the shoot – where did you shoot the video? It looks like Japan. Very Kurosawa…
Warren: We shot at Black Forest in Pinewood. We shot for two days – and only in available light.
It’s all about the lenses, and the atmospherics we put into the environment. Industrial scale smoke machines that we use to populate the environment. Atmospherics can really transform somewhere. We also shot her at 60 frames, takes the edge off reality. The emotion is so fluid. A lot of the performance is that, and sometimes at 120.
A big step forward for us was working with Henry [Braham, the DoP]. He has such dexterity in what he does. He comes from BIG Film.
Nick: He’d just done the new Maleficent film. (W: So he was already in that world) And he was prepping for Suicide Squad 2. We just caught him at the right time, and we instantly clicked. An amazing man - very gentle, very precise.
Warren: We shot The Lost Highway on the RED Weapon – which was sort of developed by Henry. And he put it through its paces on the second Guardians of the Galaxy film. He just fell in love with it. The way he describes it as a big medium format stills camera. So it gets rid of all that stuff that ties you down. We did a lot of work on the stabliliser that he developed as well.
Nick: We shot this at 8K, and we finished it at 4K, so there’s a lot of juice in there. That’s why we could show it at the IMAX.
We shot The Lost Highway on the RED Weapon – a camera system that Henry [Braham] put it through its paces on the second Guardians of the Galaxy film.
Warren: One thing you should never underestimate about Henry, even though he shoot big features, with these rigs and cameras, what was really apparent was his command with his crew, and atmospherics was beyond second to none. He knew exactly how to climate, slow them down, how to pace it, how to match camera movement with performance. There’s a real art in that. Forget the lensing and everything else, there was everything that comes with that, that’s just second nature. He was astounding.
Who else were crucial in the making of The Lost Highway?
Warren: Two other people really important to mention in the film are Zowie [Broach] and Brian [Kirkby] who are Boudicca - they worked with us on the costume and character development, and were very involved from the beginning, and with the rehearsals and the move boards and the direction. Just true collaborators.
Zowie heads up the fashion department at the Royal College of Art and Brian currently designs for the Israeli military. Because, to keep the funding up for Boudicca as a couture label is just very hard. They are sort of the unsung heroes to a degree. She's phenomenal, Zowie, in terms of her energy, her mind and her tenacity. She's so cut from the same cloth, it's like again, another true collaborator.
That's the other thing that's really important - the core team, we've all known each other for many many years. I think Henry really felt that we were 'old school', a team of people who just put a lot in, which is quite rare in this day and age…
Nick: Joseph Bennett who helped in the art department. I know you can't see it, but there are things that you have to do and Joseph has worked on this for a while. He did all of Lee's [McQueen] shows when he was alive. He did Savage Beauty at the V&A, and the Metropolitan in New York. He did the Queen's fucking boat, do you believe! So Joe's got that level of fantasy versus precision. He works well with us.
We've set up a new production company - that's important for us. We need to take the money that's there and put it into creativity
You were given free rein to score the film with tracks from the album. Did you create the edit and then scored it to that?
Nick: We did it literally in tandem. We had to break our legs, fix them, break our legs, fix them... because a lot of the shots are three minutes long. We had to push ourselves to edit, to want of a better word.
Warren: James wasn’t prepared to score from the beginning again. So we took, and chose the tracks and sort of cut them up in the cutting room. But you need that.
Our editor, Steve Ackroyd, was very good at taking a track and dismantling it and reassembling it so that you can find the right timings for the edit. That was really important. If you don't have the ability to do that when you're editing, you're kind of imagining things and you're not really crafting into the split-second or the right part of a track.
Nick: I think editors are much deeper in the minutiae of the details sometimes with the sound. We were going "oh we want to see shot longer.", but he was going "but lads I can't do that, I can't stretch time or people are going to go bored there." You’re pushing and pulling, and then come back the next day, and you're going "Okay, I've accepted that now, because I've self-watched the cut five times and it’s actually brilliant."
We have that same thing with stills. We usually have twenty great shots and we can only use one, and it's fucking painful at first, because you're ripping bits away, leaving things behind.
What’s going to come out of this? Are you heading to more of these longform projects?
Nick: We want more of it. If we had the cash right now, we'd be, we are working on other stuff right now, but say we won the Euro Millions, it would literally be funding more things like this.
Warren: I think this will play into bigger things. Partly, just through the evolution cycle we are in. We've set up a new production company, Immortal, now with our producer Campbell Beaton. That's important for us. We need to take the money that is there and put it into creativity and not necessarily sink it into institutions that don't initially give back in the way that we need…
We’ve had Netflix sinking money into Thom Yorke’s Anima. Perhaps that’s as much to do with the Paul Thomas Anderson connection as to celebrate Thom Yorke’s album. Is there room for you in that scenario, coming from your different filmmaking and photography background?
Warren: That's the conversation we are trying to open up - where we can kind of be considered for slightly more avant garde, experimental-type projects. Hopefully those platforms exist, because they need to exist. Work that is almost too palatable or too easy on the eye doesn't necessarily inspire the world.
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David Knight - 26th Sept 2019