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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes with… Natasha Khan

B-Reel Films, 1 year, 10 months ago

The creative force behind Bat for Lashes on joining B-Reel Films, the power of myth and why filmmakers are modern day wizards

5 Minutes with… Natasha Khan

The news that Natasha Khan was joining forces with B-Reel Films as a director was greeted by the LBB editorial team with much excitement. Perhaps better known under her pseudonym Bat For Lashes, Natasha is an artist known for her fantastical songs and deeply thematic albums – songs like ‘Daniel’, ‘Laura’ and ‘What’s a Girl to Do?’, that build up intricate characters and worlds through the medium of music. But it turns out, one of Natasha’s first loves is filmmaking – something that may not surprise fans of the richly imagined visuals that accompany her music. A chance encounter with B-Reel Films’ Margo Mars – through Free the Bid instigator Alma Har’el – has drawn Natasha to the world of commercials and content. If you want to get an idea of her cinematic style, check out her beauties like the music video ‘Garden Heart’ and the short film ‘I Do’.

LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Natasha as she researches her feature film project in California...

LBB> How did you hook up with B-Reel Films? And what was it about Margo and the team there that clicked for you?

NK> I actually met them through Alma Har’el. She’s obviously a force of amazing female energy and she invited me to her LoveTrue premiere at London Film Festival. I was very excited to go and see the film; we met and hit it off really well and she introduced me to Margo. Alma and I have a connection through our features agent Roxana at Independent Talent, who helped me with getting funding for my short film. She’s been a good sounding board for me and she loves Margo. It was a family of lovely women. 

Margo and I met up a few times and had some nice, creative chats, and Alma speaks very highly of her too. I felt like that would be a good home for me moving into more commercial work.

LBB> Have you got an idea about what sort of projects you’d like to work on or are you quite open minded about what work comes your way?

NK> I think I have my own themes and interests that I’d like to reel in. There are a lot of things I’m passionate about and obsessions that I’d like to weave in. I’ve put together a few treatments and ideas and paintings, and Margo and I have had a good chat about that. I quite like the idea of working on something I’d never think of doing, but being able to turn it into my own world. 

I love dance, I have choreographed dance pieces in the past and am very much a fan of Wayne McGregor, Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch and Martha Graham. That connection between music and dance really speaks to me.

I like the simplicity of an idea, I like to approach a creative with soul & depth. I love the idea of hearing stories from older generations, the wisdom they hold, I really feel that is lacking today! 

I also admire pieces like the ‘Urban Riders’ film from last year. Mythical, beautiful, meaningful but grounded in gritty reality. I love the combination of real people and their extraordinary stories... the documentary style voice over and everything about how this looks and feels. I would love a project like this, with interesting stories to tell and people to interview. THIS EXCITES ME!.

LBB> When I first heard the news that you were joining B-Reel Films as a director I was surprised as I didn’t know you directed. But then I thought about it, and with your music you’re very visual as an artist, you do a lot of world building around your tours and albums, developing characters and aesthetics, so it makes perfect sense!

NK> With all of the videos I’ve ever done, I’ve always been very involved with all the treatments. With the Dougal Wilson one (What’s a Girl to Do?), I sent him the brief and that included all the images of the kids riding through the sky from ET. There was the hooded gang, the full moon, the pine trees and references to Donnie Darko. I was doing a lot of painting at the time of people with animal heads, and I sent him all of that stuff, and he came back with a treatment that was amazing. 

I actually studied film at university. I did music with visual art and film – that was my Bachelor’s degree. I haven’t kept it a secret, exactly, it’s just that the music has taken up more of the limelight. My degree show was two short films. I did a light box installation of about 30 light boxes and a black and white animation, triptych slide pieces with a film in the middle, plasticine animation… all sorts. I really explored the visual side more than music to be honest. I almost enjoyed the film part of it over the music.

LBB> As someone who knows more about the filmmaking process than the creative process behind making music, I’m curious to know just how different these experiences are?

NK> It’s interesting, having done this for ten years, I think you really learn a lot about the creative process and how uncanny it is in how it travels across dimensions and art forms. There’s definitely a process that I’ve developed in myself and I think it applies to everything I do. With an album, I’ll write an album and over the process of a year or so, I’ll gather performances with producers and go out on a mountain for a bit, I’ll get my friend Dan to programme some beats or I’ll sit at home working on string arrangements. It’s almost like doing a painting. You spend a lot of time layering up washes of colour over each other and eventually you’ll see it taking form, then you can scrape bits away and refine that sculpture of sound.

So, when I’ve done a film, I’ve enjoyed the collaborative process and other people bringing things in. People really get on board and I feel like we all have a really similar vision and often other people will surprise me with things I wouldn’t have thought of. I love that too.

What I found difficult at first was doing things so quickly. I worked on the script for a short film for a year and a half. For me, that’s sort of like working on the lyrics – making sure there’s depth to them, that there’s a narrative arc and mixing up the speeds, all of that was like writing lyrics. And then I had four days to film it. Blimey! It’s fast and you only get two or three goes with each scene. I thought it was amazing that I managed to do it – it was a great challenge and very different to what I’m used to.

I think in terms of commercial work, I’m really excited to be challenged to push these amazing ideas through the eye of the needle in a day. 

As for the feature film I’m working on at the moment, I’m spending time out in the desert, filming locations, shooting in a guerrilla style, on the fly and in secret, before anyone else is involved. 

LBB> When you make an album that’s got very strong themes or characters, you can use music videos to shed a different light on some of the songs, but with the album The Bride, you explored it with the short film, ‘I Do’ (which was part of the anthology 'Madly'). Why did you end up doing that?

NK> The narrative was such a central feature, and then I made the musical version of that. I wrote all of the song titles as the names of chapters in a story and then filled them in with songs. That was a very different approach for me. 

It was an interesting process because it was like divvying up the album in incremental slices that covered the emotional texture and atmospheric feelings of The Bride character. It was almost like writing a musical novella. Alongside that I’ve been writing a novella, fleshing the chapters out as prose. I’ve been doing drawings and paintings of the bride and strange mono-printed images of her on mountains, next to a car on fire, and the widow. 

Cowboy Films, who I ended up working with on the short film, asked me if I wanted to do a feature. To make a film, they said that it’s wise to have a short film under your belt, and often people touch on thematically similar ideas in their short and the feature they want to make.

I decided to take some of that bridal theme for the short film, but it’s really quite different. It’s about a daughter-father relationship. I chose to write the script about something that was linked thematically but really had a different story.  

LBB> What I really enjoyed about the film and also the music video ‘Garden’s Heart’, was that there was a magical element to it but it was never overpowering or super whimsical. It was quite grounded and delicately handled.

NK> It’s funny because in the musical side of what I do, I love the fantastical and there’s a bit of that in my music videos. I thought that would happen in my films, but thinking back to my early degree show it was quite similar. It was about a very normal girl. There were two films side-by-side. One was of what she saw in her normal everyday life and it was quite gritty, normal, mundane. The other film that was running beside it was exactly the same film but all these visions were coming to her in the same location.

I think that’s always been something quite precious to me. To me the world is this matrix of illusion and perception – it’s elastic and malleable, especially at the moment. There are a lot of layers. I almost look at life as a series of signs and symbols, and I see a lot of mythology in the day-to-day. I’ve just been studying an expert in storytelling and mythology, Dr. Martin Shaw, and he’s been telling me all these stories about women who shapeshift into animals and all these old Inuit and Romany gypsy tales. When I left university, I did a course on short story writing that focused on myths and folklore. One of my favourites was Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. It’s about a man turning into a cockroach and it’s a metaphor for illness. At first everyone feels sorry for him because he’s turning into a cockroach, and gradually they become disgusted with him. It’s full of interesting ideas about how to present the magic and weirdness and uncanniness of the story of our lives. 

To me, music is an invisible form and it hits you at a very emotional and vibrational level. With visual media, you can draw your audience into a world that feels very real and normal. When you do start to drop in elements of fantasy and myth, if you do it delicately, you can capture these emotional places.

Filmmakers I love tend to do that, and sometimes push it to a really surreal place. If everything is fantastical and beautiful and wacky and crazy, then nothing is beautiful. But if you show how normal life can be strange, I think that people really get that!

LBB> It’s interesting, too, how some of these symbols and myths are so cross-cultural. Whether that’s the transformational thing – in Scotland, there’s the story of the Selkie, which is a young woman who turns into a seal…

NK>… that’s funny because one of the first treatments I sent to Margo was a take on that Selkie tradition, but doing it in my own way. 

We all have stories and they all come down to the fact that as human beings we need each other, we need to grieve, we need to go through cycles of birth, death and rebirth. A lot of the work that I’m interested in is about reminding us that we have these resources. There’s a lot of healing properties in our connection to nature and the landscape and animals, things that we’ve come a bit detached from. 

In ‘I Do’, the short film, the well-known ritual of marriage was a really interesting way to examine all of this stuff. She’s doing all these normal things, like going to the church in a car with the bridesmaids, but what came into her life was a deeply mythological representation of her relationship with her dad. In this modern day I’m trying to honour and explore and re-integrate the myth because I think it keeps us grounded and healthy.

I’m a storyteller. I’d love to make abstract things! The amount of times I’ve tried to paint something that’s just colour and shape – and I can’t do it! I have to put a character or a landscape or an object into it because I’m trying to tell a story. My dad was this great storyteller, and he was quite religious when we were growing up, so he would always tell these stories that were quite moral. I think that’s just in my bones. I feel a responsibility, it has to move you on. There’s a desire for growth and forward movement through storytelling. 

LBB> That obsession with character and story is interesting as it requires a lot of empathy, and empathy is an important skill in a director. It seems like filmmaking might be the ideal medium for your vein of creativity!

NK> In many ways, it’s a very generous medium because you’re giving the platform to the actors, to people who design the sets for you, it’s much more collaborative and they’re helping you to fulfil this vision through a lens. It’s a bit detached, compared with music where you’re singing your heart out. I think there’s a certain level of maturity that filmmakers need to have. For me, people like Stanley Kubrick who were doing it into their older years had life experience and wisdom. Filmmakers are like mystical wizards of our day and age. A sorcerer who comes down and shows everyone the way. That’s a big deal and you don’t want to waste it.

Like you say, it encompasses everything I love on so many levels.

LBB> I’m curious as well, over the years you’ve worked with other directors on your music videos, and I’d be interested to know what you feel you’ve learned from them?

NK> I’ve been very lucky as I’ve been able to work with people who are very calm and collaborative and steady – but with an element of risk taking and eccentricity and spontaneity. With Dougal, I felt very organised and safe and he created a very beautiful feeling on set. He was very methodical but he would throw things in.

I have experienced a few tyrannical people and I think it sets people on edge when that respect isn’t there.

I enjoy the collaboration. For example, with Noel Paul, who I did the ‘Laura’ and ‘All Your Gold’ videos, we sat together and went through all of our favourite films and spent a lot of time talking. I’ve been very lucky to have really open-minded, energetic, kind people.

I haven’t worked with so many big directors because I’ve always got such a strong idea that people say, ‘oh Natasha, just work with someone you like’, because I’m such a control freak.

LBB> And thinking about all the creative outlets you have, it sounds like you’re a compulsive creator! But on the flip side, when it comes to reading or watching films, I wondered what sort of thing you’re drawn to?

NK> You’re right, I am compulsively creative, but I often don’t think I am… and then I look back over the past year and realise, oh my God, I’ve made a film, done an album, created a dance piece…! It’s weird because it’s how I survive on this planet. I find being so sensitive very difficult, and the way I manage it is to make these things that help me understand it. 

As a result of being so passionate, I have these obsessions with different artists. At the moment I’m obsessed with the artist Helen Frankenthaler, and another woman called Hilma af Klint, who was a spiritualist painter. She believed that she was being visited by a particular spirit and she channelled these paintings, which are unbelievably beautiful and occultish. They’ve been inspiring the treatments I’m writing for Margo. I’ve got tons of favourite filmmakers and genres. I’m really into the road trip genre. I like clothes, I’m into architecture. While I’m out in California, I’m going to go and see the Eames House. It crosses all over! I love dance, I went to see Wayne MacGregor’s piece recently. As you can probably tell, I’m just really interested and curious all the time. My mum said that when I was little my teacher said, “If Natasha could come to the front and teach the class, I think she would!”

LBB> Well, thanks for your time. Really psyched to hear about the hook up with B-Reel Films. Between Alma, Margo and you, it’s an amazing group of creative women!

NK> I just think in terms of the reason that I want to do commercial work, I think there is room for female directors to bring some soul and magic into the commercial world. Working from the inside out is a smart thing to do. Making music or other things is very difficult because it’s a very particular brand of being, but with commercials you can reach a lot of people. I think it’s a really interesting place to be – and being under Margo’s wing is a very beautiful thing. 

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Genre: People , Strategy/Insight