We should take any image seriously. No matter where it comes from. An image is a sign with content, with causes and consequences. Behind each image there is a moral manifestation. I like explaining images and having them explained. Although maybe this isn’t the best way to reach the goal of this text…
Facing a questionnaire that tries to disembowel the creative process can be a minefield. Us that have studied Communication tend to want to put objects inside a box, classifying them, giving them names and leave them ready to be exhibited and easily consumed by the media.
But with certain creators that are not so used to overanalysing their own work it’s easier to start talking about other people’s films and how they work than about their own stuff. Some creative people are able to describe even the tiniest detail of their oeuvre, but there are also artists who are alien to vanity and only let themselves be carried away by the process. And that isn’t a pose to appear more mysterious before public opinion, it’s real lack of time to reflect on what makes an infinite process non-communicable or, on the other hand, so easy that explaining it is considered silly for the person having to do the explanations. This is the case of Leo Berne and Charles Brigand, two of the four members of the Megaforce collective, based in Paris (the other two, Raphaël Rodriguez and Clément Gallet, excused themselves because they were out of own, shooting). They’re more interested in talking about a short-film they saw yesterday or about a novel than about how they undertake their daily work.
To be honest, I’d say I didn’t even need to ask. I’ve seen them more than once locked up in their cubicle/office at the Iconoclast headquarters in Paris. The four of them on a table with their computers throwing ideas at each other that bounce on the glass walls until they become something solid, then splitting up and each going to different tables of the producing studio to work in twos or one by one. Almost every afternoon… What happens is that this organic and interiorised process must be so natural for them as breathing. Clément and Charles know each other since they were eleven, the rest met at Design school. Enough years to be able to think as an only creature with four heads. Maybe the heterodox nature of each of Megaforce’s projects has something to do with those different four heads.
I guess presenting Megaforce now inside the music video and advertisement industries would be repeating a story that has been written many times. A group of friends that get together to create a Naive New Beaters video towards 2008 and which since then hasn’t stopped dropping ideas in the shape of audiovisual bombs for Dizzee Rascal, Rihanna, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Is Tropical, Madonna or Tame Impala. Always crazy, delirious ideas, formally exciting and with an unusual internal force. And between music video and music video, exquisite ad campaigns with creative peaks such as the one for Orange in 2010, another glorious one for Volvo trucks this year, and lately in the thorny field of perfume ads with Yves Saint Laurent and Dior. If they’re not among the five best European directors of our time, may the Earth open up now and let us be swallowed by Hell.
What better defines them is a capacity to make each piece very different from its precedent one, always technically impeccable and at the same time with a je-ne-sais-quoi that makes them instantly recognizable. Their projects, though, can be counted on the fingers of both hands, and not because they don’t feel tempted to do more, it’s just that they’re very selective with their work. About their music videos, Berne says that “when we undertake a project we have to be 90% sure that we can do what we want to do and that the project is interesting because we can’t take the risk of trying something and not being sure it’s going to work”. And he goes on: “We don’t do many pitchings, to be honest. Because for us a music video is a big investment and sometimes there isn’t enough money to produce it. So we only do it once or twice a year. It’s not very frequent for us. I’d love being able to do more, but it’s a lot of work the way we approach them”. Brigand adds: “It’s somewhat cool, but with budgets such as Rihanna’s video, Bitch Better Have My Money, you’re not free to do whatever you want. So you tell yourself, ‘OK, I’m not getting a lot of money and it’s a pain to give birth to this’. On the other hand, there are videos such as Is Tropical’s The Greeks and Dancing Anymore, where we can do whatever we want but are too complicated to produce.”
Charles says that, “sometimes we’re not happy with what we end up finding at the brainstorming phase or simply we’re not inspired that day. Maybe we have some ideas but they don’t work with the song… And sometimes we get the same with adverts. We think there are projects we should do but we’re not happy with the ideas. Or maybe we find something very funny for an ad but it doesn’t go well with the brand or it’s not a concept that will work in advertisement”. Do you get the impression they’re a pernickety bunch? And we’re only just started…
I ask them what compels them to create, a question taken from a Film Comment questionnaire to Pasolini at the time of Il Vangelo secondo Mateo to start an interview. Where the Italian director revealed the secret of alchemy, they’re simply prosaic. They go down to the working table, where everything starts. “It starts with us four talking about the project”. Staring the wheel towards reality. Everything is what we could deem a manufacturing process, and Charles insists on the importance of a key concept when it comes to approaching a music video: “Listening to the song, thinking and finding a feeling. A key feeling that takes the four of us to thinking whether we can do something with that. It’s simply the vibe that music gives you.” And he goes on about their method: “We see lots of films, spend time on the Internet, talk to our friends. There’s a moment in which a topic comes to mind and most of the time you don’t know where it comes from. It’s in the back of your head and you start talking about it, you end up finding its origin, but then you don’t want to copy it so you start thinking a lot about how it’s articulated when it comes to photography, to art direction. It’s not a particular technique and it can take a lot of time. Sometimes it might amount to nothing. And you never know how long it’s going to take.”
THE DEVIL, PROBABLY
In any canonization process there’s a Devil’s advocate. And in this interview I’ll take the role myself, partly because I don’t know them that much, and also because I’m interested in questioning music videos as an industry. So with admiration and weirdness I ask them the following:
- You might be the best making videos of any genre inside the industry nowadays. You seem to inhabit a creative bubble. Every time you present a new project I expect a Megaforce film and not the usual music video at the service of the song. Why do you think a lot of the times we don’t care so much about the song behind a Megaforce video?
LEO: I think I know what you mean. Sometimes it’s true. It can be a pity when a director doesn’t care too much about the song he’s working with, but we try to make the best music video even if it isn’t what the song needs…
- I don’t mean it’s something bad…
LEO: I don’t know what to say. A lot of the time we choose a song we like. A track with a feeling behind we can respect. Today we see many videos in which you can tell that the director is a bit frustrated because he doesn’t like the song but he’s done a good video and then he’s ashamed that the video has that song on top. We’ve been lucky to work with good songs that have allowed us to build good stories that work. For example, for Is Tropical’s The Greeks there’s something in the song that sounded like a western and we thought it would go along well with the battlefield of those armed kids even if it doesn’t coincide with the title of the song of the lyrics. Somehow we need to be linked to the song even if we’re not so close to the lyrics, but to the general feeling the song provokes.
- Can you give me another example?
LEO: On Brodinski’s video for Can’t Help Myself, we could choose among several of the album’s songs. Obviously, we didn’t follow the lyrics; we chose it for the way it was built. There’s a crescendo, a kind of storytelling in the song. That way we can build a narrative video on top of that structure, even if we don’t respect the track’s mood, which is closer to hip hop. We decided to opt for an opposite universe with that tunnel, the family, and the black sphere. But we’re still inside the song. With Rihanna it was a bit complicated because she wanted a narrative video and we thought that with that song it would be too complicated doing something narrative due to the beat. So we placed the narrative elements at the beginning and at the end. The result is a less narrative video, but we were always faithful to the beat and the feeling of the song.
After Leo’s defence of the way in which they create videos for songs with the Megaforce stamp, Charles goes back to their working process: “We’re old friends and we’re always asking ourselves the same questions, about life, about how we live. And there are always recurrent things, like when we talk about repetitive patterns. Or the way in which we interact with the world. I think these are things that pop up naturally. We don’t plan to talk about this or that; it’s more a feeling that overcomes us while we’re working. Sometimes you can look back and psychoanalyse yourself once it’s over, but we don’t really plan things out that much. We try not to think too much about how we do things, you know? For the Is Tropical videos we know we have to be careful with certain things about our direction style, but we really want the audience to get lost inside the video and interpret it their own way. It’s more interesting letting people think for themselves than continually giving them answers. The latter creates an evil power that dominates the world (he laughs)”.
- Talking about letting people think. The video for Brodinski’s Can’t Help Myself is brutally cryptic, not exactly transparent. But I’d say it hides beauty.
CHARLES: I think that’s what gives strength to a music video. Look, in a video there’s no time to present characters and develop them; we need people to interpret, to judge, so we need to let ideas open for them to close in the viewer’s head: we let them use their imagination. When you see a video like that, you appropriate it; you link it to your own feelings. That’s something we did with our video for Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Sacrilege. At the beginning you have a certain perception of the characters, but as the video moves forward your feelings about the characters change. The story is simple and there are no value judgements about what’s good or bad. She fucks everyone, but you can’t argue with the characters about their motivations. We don’t like being moral, but giving people something to talk about. And the same works for our Is Tropical videos.
There’s a word that is very much used in music videos and ads. It annoys me because it implies that both are minor formats. The word is “cinematic”. Said by a creative or a producer it sounds like “I want it to look like a movie” or “I want the camera to move.” Or they might simply use it as content to fill in the space in a brief. But I also get the impression that it means something different depending on who uses it. However, I think it still has possibilities of redemption as a concept, even if to me it implies a kind of industrial discrimination.
- What does “cinematic” mean to you?
LEO: It’s fucking difficult to say. I don’t even know how to answer this question. I guess you use it or not depending on the need of every project. To me, there are songs that give you a “cinematic” vibe. For example, the one of the first Naive New Beaters video we did. The song was easy and fun and it went along very well with that kind of homemade material we devised with home special effects and cheap cameras. Having more money isn’t going to help you make something more “cinematic”. Should we have had more dosh we would have still made it that way because it’s what the song needed. We would have done the same. In the Yeah Yeah Yeahs video, the music was a good starting point to do something more cinematographic and narrative, so we shot it that way. For Is Tropical’s The Greeks, although there are elements of the western in the song’s arrangements, we thought it needed a cheap digital camera that was closer to a game experience, a child’s experience. We wanted to set ourselves apart from a “cinematic” feeling.
- I guess you’ve responded what it means to you: “cinematic” is the distance between documentation and reality…
LEO: I guess so (He laughs)…
- I’ve always thought that your way of approaching the structures of videos and their time fragmentation had a lot to do with the work of Alain Robbe-Grilllet. Fragmentation, repetition, mental geographies…
LEO: We don’t know him. We’ll check him out! I’ve just finished a novel by Rodrigo Fresán called Mantra. The story takes place in alphabetical order. All the chapters are ordered thus. It’s cool! It’s only a trick. It’s having a linear story and adding a more exciting point of view. Like in Kill Bill or Pulp Fiction. Especially with short formats, it’s a way of turning things upside down and showing them in a more efficient way.
- Like the repetitions in your video for Tame Impala’s Solitude is a Bliss?
LEO: We devised the structure according to the form of the song. The first idea was a guy in the midst of a crowd, feeling bad, stressed out, with a strong feeling of agoraphobia. And we thought that he should do the same during the chorus, crossing a crowd. We only followed the guy’s trip. We weren’t looking to make a film and placing the song on it, but shooting a short-film that followed the song’s cadence. So since the song is repetitive and it repeats the structure verse-chorus again and again we used that to build it.
CHARLES: In music videos you have four minutes. You can’t develop characters. You need to be narratively efficient.
THE MOST DIFFICULT THING TO DO
- It’s funny to think what makes directors suffer in their work. What do they consider more difficult to shoot? I personally hate parties and crowds, and I don’t know why I can’t stop proposing them in treatments. What’s the most complicated thing to shoot for you, animals, kids, packshots?
CHARLES: Apple adverts in fact. Those in which everybody’s happy and you read the script and you think about American Psycho because it reminds you of it. When in advertisement you have to do a video about life and normality it must always be like this: having kids, a good job, dancing. It makes me feel a bit weird, to tell you the truth.
LEO: Ads are not the same as when we do music videos. They’re always about what you have to do to live better and how you want to live. And it’s very complicated. For us is tough saying yes to advertisements because I don’t want people to be like that, I don’t people WANTING to be like that, I don’t want people wanting those objects that I sincerely don’t give a toss about. And it’s complicated because you can end up being cynical. Thinking that way and still selling that stuff. So we have to choose projects in which we find something interesting, because if you want to direct something properly you need to believe in the project. You can’t lie and say, “It’s OK” but think to yourself, it’s shit, because people will end up noticing. It isn’t even an ethical question, but of consideration towards the industry.
- I guess in fiction it’s easier to believe what you’re doing. Are you considering taking this step?
LEO: Yes, that’s our next step. But it’s a long and tough one. You need ads to pay the bills. And ads take time, although they give you the money to be able to create fiction. It’s fucking difficult to find the time and the concentration necessary to focus on a story, finding the right narrative that is not too expensive for producers to want to follow you down the same path.
CHARLES: In fact, this has been a good year. We have done a lot of ads, so we have a bit of money and can think a bit about it.
- What would be your way of approaching fiction, comedy, thriller…? I only mention things you have already touched in your previous works.
LEO: All the music videos we’ve shot are different from each other. Maybe because we’re a collective, and we respect each member’s way of doing things. So it’s difficult to say what genre we would start with. We’ve always worked with briefings.
CHARLE: A crossover of genres would be quite interesting.
LEO: I think we’re all interested in sci-fi. But we also love comedies.
CHARLES: We all love the way in which Tarantino crosses genres. He can do something high-class but with hints of humour, gore, politics… With or without humour. We don’t think in genres, just in what we really like.
- Indeed, many voices can be heard in your work. Dancing Anymore (Is Tropical) could be a John Hughes film, a videogame, virtual reality, porn. All sorts of things within the same device.
LEO: A script suggests a genre, but we might approach it a different way. Look at Twin Peaks, for instance. It’s a thriller, it’s noir… But it’s presented as a sitcom! It’s the best idea in the world. I think it’s interesting to take the story and then defining the tone after a good interpretation of it. In Twin Peaks there’s a very dark story, but it always shows the funny side of the characters. For the moment, we need to formulate something. We need to be together, the four of us. We’re always divided taking care of different projects.
CHARLES: Just because we’re four and we share ideas all the time it doesn’t mean we work together all the time. If we were doing a series, it might be different, but we still don’t know how to do it.
- I personally love the video for Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money, for its technical qualities and its over the top content. It could have ended up being pure show, something full of clichés. But it’s something more. When you do videos such as this one, so big, with stars such as Rihanna or Madonna, who have become their own brands, are you afraid of losing your own voice in the process? What do you do stay behind the project’s steering wheel?
LEO: Rihanna’s video was a process completely different from advertisements, although Rihanna is a product and at the end of the day it’s like a huge ad. The different thing is that the production is much more disastrous than with an ad because there’s no PPM (Pre Production Meeting) where you agree to things.
CHARLES: It’s funny. You write something and then someone speaking on her behalf sends you corrections and then you realise she never even read what you had written. At least with ads they read you and they really support you or disagree with you. The day before the shot we did an animatic with the whole storyboard and we wonder whether she ever saw it because then she asked for things that were already included in the animatic!
LEO: We tried to find a middle ground between reality and what’s desirable. Between what she wanted and what we wanted. We couldn’t do a personal video, that’s obvious. Everything has to do with diplomacy: she says something and although you might think the opposite you need to say, ‘ok, we’ll do it like that, but why don’t we try this too?’ And this with the tiniest of details, even! It’s a way of keeping positive thinking; there must be a way of doing this that we like. Otherwise you end up arguing. She has very good ideas, sometimes. Although the first impression might be “fuck, I’m not shooting this like that for a million dollars, it’s not going to work,” you need to say yes. Having this attitude helps finding solutions, agreements that will satisfy you too. You can never say no. If you do then things end up in a dead end due to lack of communication and you finally have to do what you didn’t like in the first place anyway with no other solution.
- Let’s change the subject. How do new narratives affect you? Videogames, interactivity…
LEO: Our generation has been influenced by Japan in many aspects. Due to videogames, anime, manga, and subconsciously you always end up making references to it. It’s part of our visual universe. In general, we’re no longer influenced by American films.
CHARLES: We’re the Internet generation.
LEO: Even when we were kids we loved Japanese stuff. We’re influenced by its culture, especially me, I think. I’ve always been attracted by foreign cultures that are more exotic than French culture. I think when I was a teenager I tried to avoid French culture like the plague! Although I like Le Grand Bleu and Godard, I think they’ve never been my main influence.
- Just out of curiosity, do you know the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul?
LEO: I’ve only seen Cemeteries of Splendour. And I was fascinated by the way in which he puts you in that dream-like state without using any special effects in particular. It’s all suggestion. I had the impression of being hypnotised. No camera tricks, nothing more than the characters talking about dream-like stuff. He manages to make an active spectator out of you because your imagination does the rest. There are two characters walking in the park and one of the girls says they’re in a big palace. And they keep on walking through the park and talk about the structure of the palace, the corridors, a torch… But you’re doing the recreation work…