In an unparalleled partnership between Ballantine’s and rapper RZA, with the help of the brilliant Alex Motlhabane and Lewis Levi (known as The Rest), the worlds of music, whisky and design collided to create an unforgettable experience that champions authenticity.
But, RZA’s accreditations don’t stop at just ‘rapper’ - he is a hip-hop legend, kung fu master, award-winning producer, filmmaker, chess champion, vegan extraordinaire and curator of ‘all things cool’, according to his partnering whisky brand. All in all, he lives and breathes the ‘Stay True’ lifestyle - the tagline of his ongoing promotional campaign with whisky brand Ballantine’s. Their shared DNA is rooted in legacy, history and good taste and runs through the various iterations of the campaign.
So, to celebrate those parallels, The Rest have taken RZA on a trip in the Scottish Highlands as the first part of a series of collaborations, aiming to show audiences what staying true really means. In the cinematic documentary narrated by RZA, the director duo takes viewers on his journey through Glenburgie Distillery, the home of Ballantine’s, and beyond, in order to understand the roots of the legacy brand and its strong connection to its geographical and cultural location. All of this results in a series of beautifully shot scenes of some incredible-looking glasses, fine whisky tasting, bagpipes, sheep, fog and RZA wisdom.
LBB’s Zoe Antonov spoke to Alex and Lewis about the preparations behind the production, the cinematic tinge of the documentary and their Scottish adventures.
LBB> Tell me about how the client approached you, and why were you the best collaborator for the job!
The Rest> We received the brief from Highsnobiety and we loved it because it focused on RZA - a rapper, musician and filmmaker from New York - and his experience of coming to the Scottish highlands to learn about the process of how Ballantine’s whiskey is made. It's all about the coming together of these two ‘unlikely’ worlds and how similar they can be. We had to pitch!
The film had to represent both the rawness and the sophistication of a hip hop legend. We were both raised by hip hop in a lot of ways, and it very much has informed our approach and sensibilities to our creative work. We’ve ended up producing rap videos ourselves, and have developed a style that's story focused, but also is a good intersection of all those qualities.
LBB> What was the ideation process like and how were you planning to let RZA's personality shine, while also putting the brand front and centre?
The Rest> Initially our idea was broader. We wanted to make a ‘Parts Unknown’ (Anthony Bourdain) and part Jacques Costeau hybrid film, but it led to remembering a featurette from Wes Anderson’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ featuring Bob Balaban. The static camera shots and the lines addressed to the viewer felt perfect, almost like he filmed it himself. It started to click from there.
So, our approach was actually to just keep things simple which was putting together a concise narrative and nice shots that captured the beauty of the place and doubled up as great staging for RZA. He's an experienced professional who was open and giving throughout the shoot. Once we briefed him he got it, and we just let him riff.
LBB> Tell me about your locations - what kind of scouting did you do, and why were they the best places to be?
The Rest> The client and the agency had some key moments they wanted to capture, specifically giving RZA a tour of the Glenburgie distillery, but we also went up there a couple weeks before to drive around and see if there were any other points of interest. Everywhere was stunning, honestly, but our favourite was a reindeer farm high up in the mountains. We had RZA playing on his MPC up there in the film.
LBB> How creatively involved was the brand throughout RZA's journey?
The Rest> They had a few things set up for him to experience, and set us up with a brand ambassador, Ethan Miln, who guided us through the distillery on our location scouting, which helped a lot in picking the most interesting and key spots, plus the information we would want to include.
LBB> What did you film the campaign on and why?
The Rest> We shot a mix of Kodak Vision3 16mm stock (500T and 250D) because of its ability to produce the beautiful but ‘gritty’ images we were hoping to get. The lenses we used were the Arri Zeiss ultra - 16 prime set, along with a Canon s16 and Cooke S16 zoom lenses. All shot on an Arri 416. We did catch one a couple of moments on Super 8 too.
LBB> What kind of genre would you describe the film as - it has some traits of documentary but it is way more aesthetically concentrated than one?
The Rest> We definitely wanted to blur those lines. It is a documentary, but at the end of the day, we know it's a whisky commercial. There's no need to shy away from that, and we wanted to tick both those boxes. We think part of the reason we were picked was for our music video sensibilities too.
LBB> How did you make sure to keep the film cinematic and which parts of it are key for that vision?
The Rest> We think being intentional in our approach to shooting was key for sure. We leaned into the limitations of the shoot. The locations helped and our shot choices made the best of it. We shot with mostly available light and a small crew to keep mobile and we were given control of how RZA’s tours of places would play out.
We had a few scripted bits with RZA, but also prepped with the guides and host beforehand to have some control over the blocking on screen.
Oh, and prep, prep, prep! We learnt a lot about the process of making whisky and the area on the location scout to help craft the narrative we ended up with. Our long time DOP, Pieter Snyman, came on it too, and we pretty much planned from then.
LBB> Did the crew get to try some of the whisky in the making?
The Rest> We did leave with some bottles at the end of the shoot, but it was really on the location scout that we got to do a lot of tasting!
LBB> How long did the entire process take to create the film - and what were the most challenging parts of the production process?
The Rest> It was a two day shoot in early spring of 2022, but we were there for 4-5 days. We spent just over a month from getting the job to our final offline cut. Other than always wishing we had more time and money to shoot more things, it was a pretty smooth process.
LBB> What about the most fun parts of the process?
The Rest> We loved the camaraderie of a small crew and enjoyed spending time with this lot. RZA was a pleasure to work with too. Shooting this film was also Alex’s first time to the Scottish highlands and that was a real highlight of the process. Taking the train there for the location scout and then driving up there from Northampton for the shoot with the photographer Chad Mclean was really memorable.