The Republik director reveals how his passions for graffiti, hip-hop and ‘90s basketball gear feed into his constantly expanding body of work
Magnús Leifsson is known as one of his native Iceland’s most active music video makers. Now part of the Republik roster, his interest in film began in his youth, when he became so fascinated by the graffiti that he and his friends made that he picked up photography in order to document it all.
Magnús went on to study for a Graphic Design degree at Iceland Academy of the Arts and to this day cites his visual design and street art experience as a heavy influence on his filmmaking.
Since those early days, Magnús’ filmmaking skills, street culture knowledge and industry connections have grown massively. He has accrued a unique personal insight and access to both Iceland’s filmmaking and music scenes. As a result, the prolific Nordic filmmaker has repeatedly been chosen to helm music video projects for major Icelandic hip-hop artists such as Úlfur Úlfur and Emmsjé Gauti.
LBB’s Jason Caines managed to grab Magnús for a chat in between his very stacked shooting schedule to discuss graphic design and street art, his collaborations with Icelandic rappers and how he overcomes the challenges of being one of his country’s most demanded directors.
LBB> What were you like as a boy in Iceland?
Magnús Leifsson > Growing up in Iceland was pretty relaxed and easy going. I was really into drawing and basketball and most of my favourite childhood memories are linked to these two things.
LBB> How did you get into graphic design?
ML> When I was a teenager I became interested in graffiti, which became my passion for many years. That led to an interest in typography and, further on, photography since I was always documenting my work. Graffiti is actually a nice starting point for future visual studies since you develop a skill set in composition, colours and visual thinking. I graduated as a graphic designer from Iceland Academy of the Arts in 2007 and feel that those studies have been a good base for filmmaking.
LBB> With that foundation, how did you make your start in moving image and then eventually get into advertising?
ML> I'd directed and produced quite a few music videos when I got a call from an Icelandic production company called Republik about joining their roster of directors. We actually got the first commercial I pitched on and after that things started rolling. I can honestly say I was quite lucky how smoothly my transition into the advertising scene was.
LBB> How long have you been at Republik and what have you been up to there recently?
ML> I’ve been working as a commercial director there since early 2013 and we've done numerous commercials and music videos together. Recently we also got funding from the Icelandic Film Fund for a short movie that I'm directing, which will be filmed in June 2018.
LBB> Your impressive rate of output makes you one of Iceland’s most active music directors. What has been your favourite music video project to direct so far?
ML> It’s quite hard to choose because I have so many fun memories from all of them. I really liked the work I did for Of Monsters and Men because it was on a bigger scale than I'd done at that time.
Right now my recent work for the Icelandic rapper Emmsjé Gauti is my favourite because the whole process of making it was so hilarious. The concept of the video was a homage to Dressmann commercials. Dressmann is a men’s clothing company that has been running these generic commercials with hunky guys from all ages, walking together in slow motion. The whole process of casting for the video and calling these guys and pitching this silly idea was just such a funny and absurd mission. Everybody we called was up for it and thought the concept was fun, and the whole shoot had a really nice vibe to it.
LBB> You've got ongoing collaborations with hip-hop artists Úlfur Úlfur and Emmsjé Gauti. How did those relationships start?
ML> I got to know these guys through some mutual friends in the music scene. I really like to do work that’s packed with different visual elements and I think rap music is extra fun to apply those aesthetics to because of the diversity in their lyrics. Hip-hop music has been the most dominant genre in the Icelandic music scene over the recent years and it’s been super fun to work with these guys. Both these artists have great ambitions for the visual side of their music. When Úlfur Úlfur for example came out with their newest album in 2017, we released three music videos the same day.
LBB> You’ve shot work for major brands like Subway and Síminn telecommunications. What are the main challenges of your role as a director on those sorts of projects?
ML> My main challenge is making sure the client and the agency are happy, but at the same time maintaining a strong vision regarding the execution and the outcome of the project. I always prepare and plan everything in detail before we start shooting so I can make sure everybody is on board. Then the shoot itself and the post-production become less stressful and it’s more like a focused execution.
LBB> Are there any Nordic brands or ad-makers that inspire you to create?
ML> It’s pretty amazing to see how much good stuff is coming from the Nordic countries. I’m constantly researching new things, not only in the advertising scene but also whe
rever I can draw inspiration, whether it's music, fine art or '80s furniture. Still, it’s crazy how often it happens that when I start digging deeper into a random project I like, I find out it has a Nordic director or a Nordic DOP.
LBB> What are you into outside of filmmaking and advertising?
ML> I’m quite a basketball fanatic. The NBA blew up in Iceland in the early ’90s and I’ve been obsessed ever since. I’m driving my girlfriend a bit crazy because I collect retro jerseys, action figures and all kinds of vintage basketball stuff. In my music videos you can quite often spot some ‘90s NBA throwback gear from my collection.
LBB> Do you have any advice for younger, budding directors?
ML> Make projects happen. Don’t wait for people to reach out to you. If the perfect project isn’t coming your way, then reach out to the people you want to work with a