The Stink director tells LBB’s Alex Reeves about her fascination with darkness, self-taught skills and the meditative process that’s made her one of the most enthralling filmmakers on the scene
2019 saw Matilda Finn step up into a new league. Having signed to Stink in late 2018, last year she delivered a crop of filmmaking works that didn’t look like anything the industry was used to. Music videos for Bob Moses, Jay Rock and Apparat cemented her status as one of the most unique directors in the business, earning her a Best Director nomination at the UKMVAs. She also helmed an ad for disability charity Leonard Cheshire before gracing us with two more enthralling, characteristically dark films for Brodinski and Médecins du Monde, before the year drew to a close. And after all that, she says: “I still don’t feel like a director. I’m still learning.”
It’s not just modesty. More that Matilda has never wanted to narrow her creative talents into a single channel. “I’ve never seen myself as a director. I just make stuff,” she says. “I was a photographer and creative director before and then I’ve done loads of different things. I like doing the whole package.”
Matilda’s part of the new school of multidisciplinary creative people. “I come from doing everything myself, there’s a lot of kids like this now,” she says. For many years she was her own editor, sometimes even her own DOP. She has a history in photography so she loves shooting her own stills. And she loves using Instagram to get her work out there (“I’m a bit crazy with my feed”) and she finds people’s interactions with her films online intriguing. “I think the platforms are useful. I like how it digests. It makes it more interesting to make new things. I think if you’re not adaptable it could be really hard. If you dreamt of being a “classic" director, specifically, I would imagine it’s quite hard to adapt to what it is right now”
She never had specific dreams of directing, but she loved music videos and somehow stumbled into that world. Collaborating with her then partner, the duo made a promo for £200, shot it on green screen, and they spent “fucking forever” making it look good on After Effects. To her surprise, it blew up, earning millions of views and she got signed straight away.
She feels very lucky to have landed in this world by “accident”, rather than going to film school and grinding things out the old-fashioned way: “It was so good for my development. That was my version of going to film school. I was in it, with real budgets, producing myself, working for major labels, making pop videos for semi-famous people. It wasn’t the path I wanted to get stuck in, but what better learning experience than to just do it?” She’d rather keep this early work, from before her talents were polished, private. Thankfully for her she was working as part of a duo under a pseudonym at the time. “So I think it was the best thing ever, we all start somewhere” she concludes.
Fast forward to Matilda now, having to accept she’s kind of made it as a director, after her most prolific year. She’s still trying to figure out what her style of filmmaking is, though. “When I made my video for Apparat I sent it to somebody who told me it’s really great but it’s not what people expect from me. Thing is, I don’t know what to expect from me! I don’t know what my brain is going to give me next. That’s the danger. I don’t get to decide that. Other people do. I just make what I want to make. I couldn’t give a shit about having a ‘look’. I definitely love darker shit. There’s no doubt about it. But it doesn’t mean I can’t make other stuff.”
Superficially, her work is definitely on the gloomy side. Just scroll through the stills on her reel and you’ll see that there’s not a lot of lightness there. She says it’s accidental, but it’s also often misunderstood. “People think I want to make a horror film but I’m petrified by them. People assume that dark means scary. I just think it’s a duality. Lightness in society is kind of a facade. We want lightness, but it’s often painted in a way that’s not achievable, because we all have a darkness as people.”
Besides, darkness is cool. “A lot of stuff that’s good taste is dark,” she says. “Fincher, Kubrick, everyone that’s worth watching. And I’m fascinated by the psychology of that. As humans we’re very obsessed with the darkness, without being bad. We have the duality that we’re taught to repress and pretend it doesn’t exist, so we seek solace in things. If you have the time or the inclination to be existential, you tend to like darker stuff.”
Two of Matilda’s videos that illustrate this preference are her promos for Bipolar Sunshine and Brodinski, which she feels take place on the “same planet”. Both have a heavy gross-out, supernatural flavour. “It’s got some of the same elements in it. That’s how I think about my work sometimes. I feel like they’re all very human, but in parallel universes where [the supernatural] makes sense. Like dreams are parallel universes - when I get existential I think that.”
Considering her upbringing, which included watching Zulu and Fantasia on repeat as a child, it’s not a huge surprise that supernatural darkness abounds in her work. “My cultural references are very different to my peers,” she laughs. “Now I look back at it and think my parents had really good taste. They were just a bit weird compared to what was considered normal around me”
She maintains that those two films are crucial to her creative makeup. Fantasia is essentially a disturbing, supernatural music video for a collection of classical compositions (“It is scary, for sure. I even look at it now and think that shit’s dark”). And Zulu is, as she she puts it, “a great film... pretty hardcore for a child but I think it makes sense what my style is now.”
Another big part of her childhood was watching her brother playing games like Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VII and VIII. “I still watch the cutscenes,” she says. “I fucking love it. I’d make a Final Fantasy film.” That reminds her: The end shot of her video for Bicep - Aura
was unconsciously inspired by the opening scene of Final Fantasy VIII: “The feathers... I thought I’d seen it somewhere and I was ringing my brother asking, ‘what is the feathers falling?’ He said maybe it’s Final Fantasy [VIII
- a game made in 1999]. I saw it and I’m sorry but it looks so bad now. It’s amazing how my mind as a kid took that as this mystical, magical thing. I remember it being much better than it is.”
“I feel like all my work you can watch at face value and that’s fine, but it’s not ever the face-value meaning to me. It’s the bit that’s underneath. It’s usually about ego. Brodinski is about this really bolshy character. I feel like he is ego incarnate, and how ego on face value is a big broody thing, but give it oxygen and it just implodes.”
Matilda traces her fascination with the ego and a sense of identity to an experience years ago, when she became ill and had to seclude herself and take three years off from her directing career. At the time, it felt like a catastrophe. It was a tough time. I lost my sense of identity. But it solidified that my work is everything to me, my work is my identity” she says. “I’m very lucky that it happened. Now I think this is the biggest blessing that could have happened to me.”
When she recovered in summer 2016, she came back with a vengeance. The portfolio you can see online now has been built entirely since that return. “That was my rebirth,” she says. “I don’t want it to define who I am but at the same time it’s very hard to miss it out when I talk about how I got here.”
Those years of reflection have no doubt fed into Matilda finding the creative process that works for her, which is inherently reflective. Her writing process is often based on pure instinct. She has something akin to synaesthesia, where music instantly triggers imagery in her mind. “If someone sends me a track that I wouldn’t write on and isn’t my thing, I see it and that’s why I know I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to make that thing I’m seeing,” she says.
Her background as a photographer means her treatments are full of spot-on photographic references, and of course there’s the ever-present Zulu-Fantasia flavour, but she finds it hard to trace the raw materials of her ideas. “There's a bank of images but I don’t start there when I come up with an idea. But they are always an influence, without a doubt.” She doesn’t even watch as many films as she feels she should. “I do really admire the love for cinema. I love it, but I’m not a cinephile. I’m enjoying understanding my ideas myself. Everyone wants me to explain my ideas to them all the time, but I feel like an audience member too when I think of ideas.”
Daydreaming, she says, is the core of her creative process. “That’s the most important work that I do,” she says. “I think the way I work is a form of meditation. I’ve trained myself to get into a situation that other people are capable of doing, but when I got ill I was isolated for years, and when I was a kid I was also very alone. I had access to music, playing all the time, and images all around me. I've said this before to you guys, but id watch TV and films on mute whilst listening to my dad play music. It’s built into me this form of meditation that I can get into maybe more easily than other people can. But I think others can do it.”
She counts herself lucky that she can access this state. “That’s why I think a lot of artists are terrible at life because you constantly want to be in this state,” she says. “And that’s why artists drink or do drugs or travel. They just need to find that thing that worked for them that one time when they did that. I don’t drink or do drugs, but some artists that do, I feel like they do it because they hit a flow at some point in that state and they’re always trying to get back to it. Sometimes they do. But you can do it without anything. I do the same thing though, I’m just more boring and isolating,” she laughs. “The busier I am, the harder it is. That’s the irony. You finally get work as an artist and then that business can affect that flow”.
Maybe it’s this process of channelling something, rather than overthinking her narratives and purposefully weaving layers of meaning through them, that makes the way people react to Matilda’s filmmaking a bit differently. “I think it’s universal images that mean things. I’m communicating something without words,” she says. “I have a lot of quite intense reactions from people sometimes. Like there is a personal connection between what I have made and the message people get from it, I don’t get how it works, But that’s the fascination of art.”
It may seem like magical art, but Matilda’s also got technical skills that are evident in everything she makes. Watch her Jay Rock video or her promo for Apparat and ask yourself how she made those films. The mind boggles. But as impressive as what’s behind the curtain is, she’s reluctant to reveal it. “I’m not technical at all. Trust me,” she says. “I have made very technical shit. But it never comes from wanting to be technical, I just will learn to create the idea I have. For me whenever someone asks me how I made something I think it’s the most boring thing about my videos. I don’t give a shit how I made it. I just care about how you feel when you watch it. And I fear showing how it's made because you won’t feel anything if I do, the cloak will have lifted. And I like ‘showbiz’ in that way, keeping the magic alive.”
This is a key to understanding why Matilda Finn is such a unique talent. She gets why we have the impulse to dissect everything. “People want to know how it works, humans need to know the how and why to everything” she says. “But I’d love to be the first person to say ‘I don’t know’. I don’t have a game plan. I have no idea how I get the ideas. That’s also why I’m totally convinced that anyone could have them. In general, there’s some sort of mysticism in art. We don’t understand it, and do we have to?” Maybe that’s the point.