Meet Brett de Vos: Director and Mr Frank Collaborator
Heavily tattooed and perennially top-knotted, South African-born film director Brett de Vos cuts an inimitable swathe through his adopted home of Amsterdam. Known for his punchy commercial style and more experimental narrative projects, Brett is a long-term Mr.Frank collaborator, directing some of our most notable work
So who better to kickstart our new feature on our favourite directors? Brett sat down this week with Mr.Frank to discuss the ins-and-outs of filmmaking.
Q>What was your childhood dream? Did you always want to be a director?
[laughing] I can’t remember anything from my childhood! I was really into BMX-ing, that’s all I wanted to do. The reason that it appealed to me was that it was outside of the structure of what you should do. I didn’t enjoy school, I didn’t like that sort of structure or routine. I think BMX-ing gave me a sense of what expression was.
I didn’t grow up in a very artistic family, I wasn’t surrounded by art or music … I grew up in fucking South Africa. But BMX was a form of expression, everyone that rode had their own style and there were no rules. I was always so scared in school about there being a yes and a no answer. I was always like “what about that little grey space in between?” I very rarely see things as yes or no, so I was always terrified of giving an answer. With BMX, you could do something crazy, and no one’s going to judge you.
Q>Do you remember the first film you ever made?
I would say the first film I ever made would be… and I didn’t really make them… I used to take BMX videos and make my own edits. I’d be like, “I don’t like the music” or “I just want to see Chris Doyle’s part, I don’t want to have that other shit intercut between it”. So I started cutting together my own BMX film – but not from footage that I’d shot.
Q>How would you summarise day-to-day life as a director in Amsterdam?
That’s the thing about being a director, if you looked at my life from an outside perspective, you’d probably think it looks pretty chilled and relaxed. But everything I do relates back to film. I’m constantly analysing and fitting things into a framework of how I can use it as an expression. So my personal ethos, my spirituality, kind of feels like working on my identity as a director. Because being a director isn’t about how well you understand the camera, it’s really about your voice, and what you have to say.
I’m quite structured… but my structure is very loose. It’s very much like the films I like to make: there’s structure, but there’s also room for growth. I always go for a walk, because I think being close to nature is important. So I don’t like sitting at a desk and doing things, but I’ll go out for a walk and let my mind wonder, and I’ll make lots of voice notes.
What I don’t like to do is to watch a lot of content – I don’t like to be bombarded with a lot of commercials or TV . If I’m watching something, I’m specifically watching it, watching with a purpose. I don’t just turn on the television, or go and surf YouTube or Vimeo. I’ll be looking for a specific thing, or have heard of a certain film, then I’ll sit down and watch it.
Q>How do you see the interplay between storytelling and aesthetics in film?
I think storytelling always comes first. That’s where your principles should be derived from – what is your content? What are you saying? What are you showing? And then the rest of the treatment should always be based on principles which are set up to support that. So, aesthetics are incredibly important … but also sound is hugely important. I think a lot of people, when you say you work in film, they always think like ‘ok, it’s a visual medium’, but 50% or more of it is audio and the sound usually gives you your emotional arc. In terms of the visual language, there’s only so far it can take you emotionally. The emotional background is always performance and music.
I was actually listening to jazz – I’ve always hated jazz, it sounds gross – but I had this jazz musician stay with me, and he was telling me how all modern music is basically these little snippets that repeat and repeat… that’s what we’ve become used to and we’re comfortable with. But jazz is more like telling a story with music, and yeah, sometimes there are some uncomfortable bits, but that’s the arc it’s taking you on. It becomes more of a conversation, so when you see a jazz show there’s an improvisational quality to it, it’ll never be replicated again. With film there should be the same interplay, it should always be evolving. I think the most important part of any storytelling, or any type of art, is the process behind it. One thing forms another and it takes on a new identity – it becomes much better than anything you could ever theorise it to be.
Q>On set you’re quite relaxed – do you also try to ‘let things happen’?
I think I do. Sometimes I look at directors and I’m like, “man, I wish I could have their eye for detail”. But when it comes to the meat and potatoes of directing, I think it’s good to be relaxed and to be improvisational in the approach. Especially, a lot of the stuff I shoot is working with non-actors, with real people… and it’s this hybrid between documentary and fiction, this weird space where I know the story that we’re telling and I know the players involved, but it’s within a documentary style. We set up all these structural devices, but there’s room for whatever to happen, as it naturally does. A lot of that is intentional, but a lot of it is just my personality, who I am as a person.
When you look at the commercial realm, I feel that a lot of things look the same and feel the same. And I understand it, because there’s a lot of money involved, and a lot of pressure involved … but that’s where things start to become stale. So I always like to take risks with my work, and sometimes it doesn’t pan out… sometimes it’s shit… but most of the time there’s this magic that comes through that you could never have scripted or thought of.
We went and shot Allure in Portugal, and I hadn’t met the cast, but as we shot I started to see the story unfolding. I’d give them little bits of direction here and there but mostly I just left them to do their thing, and then in the edit there was this whole story that I could craft, and all these beautiful, human moments. We shot for three days, and I could see by halfway through the first day how the story was starting to evolve, just naturally between the two leads. I don’t think we make enough space for that in the commercial world because people are too scared… I like to shoot quite a lot, and then have options to play with.
Q>What’s the biggest disaster that’s happened on set?
I think the best answer is, that there are no disasters in filmmaking. If you’re able to have an open mind and an open approach, then everything that happens naturally, you should be able to work out a way that it serves the end content. You’ve got to learn on the job. Of course, there have been miscalculations – so there have been technical things that have gone wrong. But if I could imagine the biggest disaster, it would probably be where I haven’t thought of something narratively, where it effects something structurally, or you’re missing a core element of the story.
Q>What is your best on set snack?
Well I’m very picky with what I eat; I’m vegan, and I’ve got food issues. It’s a close call actually – it depends on the day! If it’s a really long day and I’m not able to snack constantly, then I’d say it’s some kind of nut mix… with no raisins or anything, just pure nuts, because that’ll keep you going. But if I’m able to prepare in anyway, it would be some carrots… I was actually snacking on some carrots just now.
Q>You've directed several music videos. If you could choose to make a music video for your favourite musician, who would you choose and what would be the opening scene?
That is an incredibly difficult question... wow that’s so hard! I can choose anyone? I think just to break the mould of what is expected of a music video, I’d love to work instead with a composer that didn’t even have a song… but they had an audio idea and I had a visual idea, and we worked together to create something that was a hybrid of a music video and a short film. I think that’s what I’d really like to do, again it goes back to that jazzy interplay thing. So I’d probably choose someone that is a little bit more classically oriented.
I really like Max Richter and what he does. He understands narrative arcs and emotional arcs. But I’d have to hear his musical ideas before deciding what the opening scene would be. If I could put a visual idea out there to start it? I’d bring someone interesting in and film their face staring into camera for ten minutes, just to see what happens. I might tell them a little story, to get them thinking, but that’s what it would be. Probably completely dark, with the light coming on softly and making the face clearer and clearer so that we being to break down the emotional barrier between the camera and the person. And they start to reveal more and more of their soul through their eyes. I think that would be a good starting point for a musical story.
Q>And lastly, what’s your favourite movie?
My favourite? Oh my god. Well before I give my answer, what I consider to be a good film is something that makes you think. I consider a good film to be a good work of art, and it’s something that makes you think, and is relevant to you, that everyone can draw their own meaning from. So, I don’t like to have a solid ‘this is my favourite film’, because I feel like your favourite film should change as you change as a person, it should be ever-evolving. There are loads of great films - I love Tree of Life, I love 2001 - that really speak to me, but I think that right now, I’d say Arrival.
Again, it makes you think, but it’s specifically interesting at this point of humanity, where there’s all this political bullshit going on. I feel like people are ready for that next evolutionary step. I feel like we’re on the cusp of the next great leap in human evolution, and what Arrival does is tackle the subject of language, and it shows how fundamental it is to everything. To how we live, to how we perceive the world. So I think it’s really important at this moment that a film like that is made and seen so that people re-evaluate the very core principles that make their life
Genre: Dialogue , People