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Your Shot: How Ian Pons Jewell Melted the World


The veteran director on working with James Massiah on his new promo, street casting serendipity and having a reputation for being sweat-obsessed

Your Shot: How Ian Pons Jewell Melted the World

With mind-bending recent work for Beardyman as well as James Massiah dropping within the same week, it’s been a busy time to be Ian Pons Jewell. 

The director’s latest work with the South London poet, for his track ‘Natural Born Killers (Ride for me)’, is hypnotic, showcasing a world moments from extinction as the sun expands and engulfs the last vestiges of humanity. But far from grief and sadness, the Landia-produced film is weirdly uplifting with characters experiencing a ‘dopamine rush’ in those final moments before the end. And that’s before one of the characters dissolve into an egg-like substance.

To (almost) make sense of it all, LBB’s Adam Bennett caught up with Ian.

LBB> What attracted you to work with James Massiah? Was this idea for the film something you had prior to hearing the song?

Ian> All of this is due to my boy Jon Rust, owner of [the record label] Levels and an old mate I've known since my starting days in videos. Last year we were hanging out and he told me about this record he's putting out with James. I said I could help finding him a director for the video. He played me the track sat outside Elephant and Castle Wetherspoons and that was that. It's one of those tracks that as a music video director you can't unhear, the type you just have an existential need to create the visual universe for. To make something for someone like James is the dream, he's one of a kind.

The idea itself is a pure reaction to the music. I listen, then see the video in my mind. I remember on the first listen I could already see these hot, sweaty people gasping for air in heat, a half-naked man walking with a suitcase, but all with this kind of ecstasy-like high. As I listened to the track more times, the world solidified and got more detailed in terms of the journey of the character. It's one of the purest videos I've made, in terms of the video being a direct subconscious reaction to the music. In the way my videos for Sevdaliza, Nao and some others are. So yeah, no references or previous ideas were put to it.

LBB> Melting is something that comes up quite a lot in your work (Bryan Cranston’s eye in the Ford ad, the black substance at the start of the Nike spot), is there something that draws you to the concept on film?

Ian> I can't say there is. Not consciously at least. But I was asked a question about how I adapt human bodies recently. I had never realised or made any connection to it, but I definitely have various pieces in which there's out-of-reality adaption of the human body. But, there's no conscious reasoning. With music videos, especially, I just shoot what I see in my mind when I hear the music.

LBB> At the end of the film, a character melts down to look like an egg, which was cracked at the start of the film. Is that intentional or coincidence?

Ian> Intentional. Nice that you noticed it. This was actually Mike Skrgatic's idea (Time Based Arts owner). When we were talking about the character melting, he said how it could mirror the egg at the start. So we rolled with that and were originally even trying to have him egg-like in texture. There's an old WIP of him frying like an egg, bubbling and vibrating as if on a hot plate, but it was a bit much. It had to be beautiful, as absurd as it is. I liked the idea due to how hard it is to get right, it could have easily gone too comedic, or too horrific, so it was about keeping it on the knife edge.’

LBB> Is there a broader message with regards to the climate emergency that you were aiming to achieve?

Ian> None at all. It's not meant to be a comment on climate change. I knew of course it could be seen as this, but it's really about imagining the moment the sun will expand and engulf Earth. It's not for another 7.5 billion years... but it's coming. It's imagining that moment, now. So we used real NASA footage of the sun, then manipulated it to show the sun's surface rising in frame, so it's not actually got anything to do with climate change. Man-made climate change is Earth based, it won't speed up the sun's expanse which is what the video is about.

LBB> What was the casting process like for this video, and what were you trying to achieve with it?

Ian> I had worked with some of the cast before. Carla Rincon Velit, the girl lying on the bed, is an incredible actress who was in my Michelob spot. Then there's also Matias Viera, he's the guy in Michelob running across the cars like a gorilla. But mostly it was just amazing casting sessions with Casting Saigon in Buenos Aires. The casting was focused a lot on finding people who could do the specific movement we worked on with the amazing choreographer Charlie Mayhew. I imagined all the people dying in this heat, but as they are, they get this dopamine rush as if they're coming up on pills. This was the atmosphere we needed to nail.

We also street-cast which turned up some incredible people. When waiting at the petrol station for the location manager, I saw this guy at the till who I couldn't stop staring at. It's the guy at the start and end of the video, he's called Ruben. He has this beautiful face with strong brows and moved like a dancer when he walked through the shop. So I asked him if he would be up for coming to casting and he said yes. He was going to just be a smaller character, but it grew into much more with him. Then another person we asked was Sergio, he's in the fruit shop watching the guys in the freezer. Both Ruben and Sergio have this pure and innocent energy that just draws you in. There's some others too who were street cast like the guy walking into the football stadium, and they all nailed their performances. I hope to go back and work with all of them again on something else.

LBB> Where did you shoot, and what made that the right location to tell this story? What kind of location did you have in mind when you planned the narrative?

Ian> We shot in Buenos Aires for a few reasons. I knew I couldn't do it in London due to budget and weather, but also wanted it to feel unfamiliar, whilst still keeping a London feel. Another reason is the cast. There's superb acting talent there - having just done Michelob, I knew I could use a lot of the movement artists I'd worked with before. Also, Argentinians have a strong European heritage, so you can cast a real diverse set of looks that isn't unlike the sorts of faces you would see in London. 

As for the location specifics, I needed somewhere that would give me a strong frame. The guy in the centre, with some structures left and right, so that the sun would be framed in the middle. I wanted it to feel religious in some way. So when I saw that estate, I was blown away. It was beyond what I imagined I could find. I couldn't have designed something better. We then worked with it and added the tower scene. Before, it was meant to be someone looking from a window. The tower also happened to have a crucifix on it, further adding to that religious element, by total coincidence.

Then, most importantly, it was the support of Landia who I just joined a month before. They were absolutely incredible. They got behind the project and invested in it, along with Reset and Time Based Arts. Landia made the incredibly ambitious project a reality.

LBB> With regards to aesthetics, did you look to any other dystopian-style stories for inspiration?

Ian> We actually looked more at street photography than anything else. To get a real edge to things. But a lot of it is instinctual through the collaboration with the DOP Mauro Chiarello. He's a genius and his attention to detail on light, colour, texture, is incredible. We've worked together for a few years, almost back to back jobs and there's a base style we build from essentially. But yeah, Mauro is really key to the look of the piece, it's mind boggling how he creates what looks like paintings from very minimal lighting setups. What blew me away the most was the apartment scene with Carla, both when she's in bed and when she gets up at the doorway. He just rolled with the light that was available, then tweaking a few things here and there. Obviously, loads more thought went behind it than that, but he's working in a tiny little space with minimal crew and equipment and got the most incredible images.

LBB> On a practical level, how did you make everyone appear so sweaty? And from a directorial standpoint, how did you coax them all to feel this intense heat in their performances?

Ian> It's funny because the make up artists I work with regularly know me for being sweat-obsessed. I use sweat even in scenes that you wouldn't imagine it for. It's a way to subvert things a bit, in the commercial world I mean. But yeah, it's just great make up from Lucrecia [Fontana] and Magdalena [Wust]. Generally it's about a glycerin base, then water sprayed on top. If you just spray water it feels wet rather than sweaty. "More sweat" is one of the first things I learn to say in other languages when shooting abroad!

For the performance, Charlie our choreographer was key. She did research back in the UK first with assistance from Joss Carter and Emily Thomson-Smith and sent me these amazing videos. I wanted it to feel like they're rolling on MD but also dying from the heat at the same time. It was a really particular thing to nail, which she did tenfold. A lot of the tweaks we did on set was always bringing them back to breathing and keeping all the movements slow and heavy. Anything too fast and you lost it.

LBB> Besides the end of the world, is there a narrative within the story?

Ian> Quite a lot. It's one of the most synchronous pieces of work I've had, in terms of how things happened and played out. When I watch it, it's rich with detail of things that happened, things we put in on purpose, other stuff that was just strangely coincidental. Not that this all comes across - it doesn't need to either - but I think the energy of it does. When you join with another artist you're so eye-to-eye with and who has such a strong energy, things happen.

It sort of goes without saying, but it really grew and all this synchronicity stuff kept appearing, more than usual. When I got the track from Jon for example I had no idea about James' background. He was a Seventh-Day Adventist till he came out as atheist at 18. The other track is called "144,000", referring to the belief that 144,000 will be chosen by god once the world comes to an end. I'd visualised this final day on Earth idea purely from his music, so to then hang with James and hear about all this really blew my mind. It also reminded me about the importance of art, which sounds a bit cliche, but I'd been in this intense commercial run for a few years. It's been incredibly creative, but the base of it isn't the same. This video in particular is a pure base, there's not even a major label. It's just Jon putting me and James together, then making this uncompromised piece of work. In commercials, you look for the pockets and spaces you can push your creativity within. Sometimes it can be as big as writing up whole scenes but it can also be as limited to where you place the camera to an otherwise very locked down script.

LBB> What were the biggest challenges during production, and how did you overcome them?

Ian> Weather. Good light is something we always strive for as filmmakers, but I've never shot something in which the entire concept relies on it. That shit me up pretty badly. I was constantly checking the forecast. Production then made miracles with the budget and added an extra day, to give us breathing room. So we ended up shifting the shoot a tiny bit to fit the weather forecast, then bet on the final day being the best for sun. So all our exteriors were shot on the last day. Low and behold, the first two days had rain, cloud.... then we had our third day. Cloud. Totally overcast. I was spinning. But then we would get these little pockets so we just became this military operation shooting as soon as the sun came out for a few minutes, sometimes just going with one take. Then the clouds all blew away and it was glorious for the last two thirds of the final shoot day. It goes without saying that Mauro Chiarello, the DOP, smashed it out of the park.

The car was then a bit troublesome too. The actor we cast to drive it couldn't drive well, so we then switched to the owner who totally nailed it. Then, just as we got to the exterior shot of the car going past, the car broke down. So the amazing crew just pulled up their sleeves and took a big run up and pushed the car into shot and let it glide past with the engine off. I like to believe it's symbolic of me, James and Jon all still not having a driving license.

Then of course the VFX. But we had Thiago Dantas from Time Based Arts supervising and leading the project. We were constantly coming up with ideas on how to do the different shots. At one point we were looking at prosthetic, but then found workarounds. It was a constant process, one which he and the rest of the geniuses at TBA continued on after in post.

Movement direction should have been a challenge, but I had Charlie Mayhew on that and she's a genius. I first worked with her for my Michelob spot and was floored by her work. So it was such a perfect collaboration to repeat.

LBB> Any memorable moments?

Ian> The whole shoot had too many to mention. But wrapping was definitely a joyous occasion. It was also amazing to get to edit another music video with Gaia Borretti, who I've worked with for a decade now. Our first was in 2009, so it was amazing to hit 10 years for this one.

James Massiah's Natural Born Killers EP is out on September 19th.


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Categories: Short Films and Music Videos, Music video

Landia, Fri, 13 Sep 2019 15:40:13 GMT