Work & Life Q&A: Jamie Whitby, Agile Films
Promonews - 8th Oct 2020
Things are looking up for Jamie Whitby. The 31 year old director's new short film Smoker's Delight, a surreal comic-drama starring Jordan Stephens to mark the 25th anniversary of the release of the classic Nightmares On Wax album of the same name, came out a few days ago - and has picked up a nomination at this year's UKMVAs.
This residen of Hackney in East London has largely built his profile in music videos with his visually conceptual work for the likes of Yellow Days, Colt3rane, Gengahr, Glass Animals and others, as a director at Agile Films.
With Smokers Delight revealing a new aspect of his directing skills, it seems like a very good time for Jamie to tell us some more about his Work, Life, and everything that makes him tick.
How long have you held your current position? What were you doing before this?
I’ve been making music videos for about two and a half years, with Agile Films for about half of that time. Before that I was part of a director duo, but we made commercials. So I’ve kind of done the whole thing backwards.
Channel 4 funded my first project - as long as I promised to stop sending them TVs.
What was your first job, or first significant break in the industry?
My first real break came via Random Acts. I spent weeks unsuccessfully nagging them to watch my taster tape and eventually got so fed up I mailed it to them on a video cassette tape contained inside an old CRT TV-VCR combi. The package weighed about 30 kilos, it cost a fortune to get in the post, and then got stuck in bomb screening at the Channel 4 building. When it finally found its way onto the desk of the commissioner they funded my project as long as I promised to stop sending them TVs. It all sort of took off from there.
Name one music video that inspired you that get involved in making music videos?
The one that sowed the seed was Chris Cunningham’s video for Bjork’s All Is Full Of Love. Then Fleur & Manu’s video for Gesaffelstein’s Hate Or Glory triggered the germination. Both masterpieces in world building and atmosphere, by directing outfits I wish were still active.
Name one project you’ve done that was significant as a learning experience – and why?
Out of respect for the people at the label who I have a lot of love for, this project will remain nameless. But there was one artist who saw the first cut of a video I made and straight up said they hated it. It really messed me up for a long time because I loved it and I was really happy with it. I started questioning everything I was doing. But eventually it was released in a form that was pretty loyal to the original, the response was positive, and I’ve subsequently seen briefs from artists including it as a reference. And that sort of love is all you can really ask for from a video.
I guess that taught me that while filmmaking should be an inherently emotional process you shouldn’t take things too personally. People have different tastes and all that really makes you unique as a director are your own gut instincts. You have to find a way to trust them.
While filmmaking should be an inherently emotional process, you shouldn’t take things too personally.
What are your favourite music video-related jobs of the past year or so - and why?
I just finished a narrative short, commissioned for the 25th anniversary of the Nightmares On Wax album Smokers Delight for Warp Records. That was a unicorn of a brief, and the whole crew who worked on it were just the loveliest, most talented people, purely in it for the love of making films. There wasn’t a single grumble over three consecutive night shoots.
That album is steeped in stoner culture so we had to track down this guy Marko (at Sugavision) who’s the Leonardo Da Vinci of fake weed props for the film & TV industry. It turned out he was a massive fan of Nightmares so he pulled out all the stops and made us a bespoke 4ft female with purple buds, along with custom purple kush.
Marko at Sugavision is the Leonardo Da Vinci of fake weed props... and a massive fan of Nightmares.
Then there was also working with Col3trane on the video for Rendezvous - just because that guy is insanely talented with an amazing energy and I loved spending time with him.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently in the process of adapting a novel into a TV mini-series with the development arm of Agile. But I will say no more for fear of jinxing things.
What kind of work would you like to be doing in future?
Uncompromising work that refuses to stoop to derivation or mediocrity.
What advice would you give someone entering your field?
My man George VDB aka Yellow Days has a stick-and-poke tattoo that says "be good". I initially interpreted that as “be kind to people”, but it could also mean “don’t be average”. Both are applicable here.
All that really makes you unique as a director are your own gut instincts. You have to trust them.
When you’re not working, what do you like to spend time doing?
I spend a lot of time telling people we should go fishing. But we never do, and I’ve still never been.
Tell us something that we don’t know about you...
My Dad was a documentary maker and one of his early films was called The Beyond Within, about the rise of LSD. While making it he stumbled upon a piece of archive footage that had been hidden away behind four or five locked doors and various 'DO NOT AIR' warnings at the BBC. It was of a standing MP taking mescaline on film, and it is absolutely hilarious [about 22 minutes in].
Where did you go on your last holiday (or vacation)?
I went camping in Dorset a few weeks ago and we accidentally pitched next to a tank firing range. Naturally that coincided with a schedule of night-time war exercises with live ammunition.
And where would you love to visit?
There’s a village called Harie in Japan where the canal forks off into every individual house. You drop your dishes in your own personal river and the carp do your washing up for you. I think that’s lovely.
What are your favourite currently-running TV shows?
I have such a backlog that it’s rare I watch anything current. I loved Adventure Time when it was on. Apart from that Police Squad is probably my favourite show ever.
What’s the best movie (or movies) you’ve seen recently?
Recent would probably be Waves, which editor Jack Williams put me onto. I can’t believe how little hype it had. It’s such a Hollywood-friendly story but for some reason it never seemed to really hit the mainstream.
In terms of older stuff I also recently watched The Colour of Pomegranates. It’s a Soviet film with some of the most extraordinary imagery I think I’ve ever seen on screen. Like The Holy Mountain good.
What are your favourite music videos by other people in the past year?
1) Zak Marx’s video for Monster Rally’s Adventure. It currently has 5.5k views on YouTube which is absolutely criminal. You can palpably feel the love that went into it - it does more world building than most films with twenty times the money. Such a good lesson in finding creative ways to overcome the challenges associated with low budgets (I particularly approve of their solution to not being able to afford a low-loader).
2) King Krule’s self-directed video for ‘(Don’t Let The Dragon) Draag On’. We need way more of these simple, intriguing, atmospheric pieces in the world I feel.
3) Hiro Murai’s latest video for FKA Twigs. Watching it I mostly found myself feeling incredibly irritated that an American had come along and made London feel so much better on camera than any of us natives.
Favourite music artists in the past year?
Dreamcastmoe just dropped my single of the year. Aside from that I have been listening to a lot of King Krule, Flatbush Zombies, and Yaeji.
Biden 2020... a sliver of light at the end of this sewage pipe of a year.
Best book you’ve read, and/or best exhibition you’ve seen recently?
Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark - it’s a non-fiction book exploring the future of AI. It’s also an accidental horror story, and should have all of us fearing for our jobs.
Over lockdown I also got very into David M Jester, who does these amazing paintings of naked men in swimming pools.
Favourite food and/or favourite restaurant(s)?
There’s a fast food chain I went to in Austin called Torchy’s Tacos. I think it’s only in Texas. I only managed to go once but I think about it all the time.
What’s your favourite political or charitable cause, and why?
Biden 2020, if only because it offers a sliver of light at the end of this sewage pipe of a year.
Best recent purchase (send photo, if poss)?
A carbon dioxide monitor for my desk. Multiple reputable studies have shown that breathing in an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 1000ppm leads to a 15% drop in cognitive function. That’s something that often happens just by being alone in a small room indoors. So yeah, keep those windows open.
Work & Life - balance/ imbalance out of five (1 for imbalance; 5 for balance)?
I find it kind of impossible to separate the two. Is that a 1 or a 5?
• Jamie Whitby is with Agile Films in London for music videos and commercials, and represented for music videos by OB Management
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Promonews - 8th Oct 2020