Direct From Video: How Directing Music Videos Can Make You a Better Feature Moviemaker

When I was playing drums in the Swedish black metal band Bathory in the early 1980s, it took me a little while to realize that I was a better editor than I was ever going to be a drummer.

Playing music was always a struggle, but figuring out our band’s logo and image, coming up with cool names for ourselves, and having a visual take on the band was easy. A lot of my friends from that time continue making music, and I probably could’ve been that guy, struggling with my drums to this day—and that might’ve been a cool life, too. But for me, moviemaking took over.

Jonas Åkerlund helms the acclaimed music video for Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s “Telephone” in July 2017. Courtesy of Jonas Åkerlund

Telling Tales Out of School

When I first started out as a moviemaker, music videos didn’t exist. Growing up in Sweden, we didn’t have commercial television, and Swedish moviemaking was very much under government control. Ingmar Bergman was at the top, and he often influenced thinking about who should get the prestigious, state-sanctioned film education. But there were no schools teaching how to pull off the strong sound effects, super-wide shots, and effective editing schemes that today’s audiences are much more used to seeing.

I was lucky enough to be part of a group that was a little ahead of its time, so we didn’t really care about all that. In music videos, we saw a way that stories could be told in a short span of time. Oliver Stone had touched on it to some degree by that point, as his films mixed formats and went in and out of black-and-white and color. We would watch his films closely, along with the films of other directors we looked up to, to figure out their techniques. Still, you couldn’t really read or learn about such things in any formal manner, so we bought Super 8 cameras and started doing it ourselves.

Coming to America

One of the first films I made, a short called “The Hidden,” played some festivals and somehow ended up in Los Angeles, where it started to make an impression on people in the film industry. The film didn’t have any dialogue, and was more of an art project, but the way our crew shot, edited, and soundmixed it had people saying, “OK, that’s a different way to make films.” A couple of years later, I was hired to make a video for British electronic group The Prodigy’s song “Smack My Bitch Up,” and when it was released in 1997, our approach was still received as kind of taboo. Today, there’s dialogue in music videos and you can do whatever with the medium, but back then it was unheard of to re-edit music and add sound effects—to basically fuck up a song in order to make a good, four-minute little film out of it.

From that point on, in the late ’90s, I began working in America, and all of us making music videos at that time were encouraging one another to experiment with unexpected, obscene, and shocking ideas. The results ranged from my 14 minute music video for Metallica’s “Turn the Page,” which included dialogue and actors, to intense, two-minute performance pieces. When I made my debut feature Spun in 2002, I called upon the editing techniques I had developed as a music video director: Spun’s pace and presentation needed to be as close to the brain of a methamphetamine junkie as possible, so naturally, kinetic cuts and jolting sound effects strengthened the story.

Duking It Out: Åkerlund (R) and Lady Gaga hang on the set of her music video for “John Wayne.” Courtesy of Jonas Åkerlund

Being Your Own Client

It would seem that making a feature demands a bigger time commitment and a different approach to screenwriting and directing actors than making a music video. And yet, I’ve come to realize that working in both mediums requires the same level of commitment. The real difference between music video and feature moviemaking is this: With music videos, the people who hire you to make them are your clients, but with features, you’re your own client. Of course, no matter what project you undertake, chances are, you’re going to have somebody else who pays you, so there will always be that somebody to report back to. The fact remains: Your job when making a music video is to fulfill somebody else’s dream, but your job when making a feature is to fulfill your dream.

When New Becomes Normal

To make my new film Lords of Chaos—a horror-inflected thriller based on the true story of crimes committed by the members of the Norwegian black metal bands Mayhem and Burzum—fulfilling my dream didn’t require the kind of music video effects I used in Spun. An exception to this rule, however, is when the film goes into our main character  Euronymous’ (Rory Culkin) nightmares and flashbacks, during which he is haunted by visions of his late friend, Dead (Jack Kilmer).

Now that a 12-frame insert is accepted as an important part of a cinematic story— whereas 30 years ago it would have been unthinkable—my take on this material can be considered to be more traditional. When my peers and I first started out, it was rare to see such jolty flashbacks in movies, but today you see a lot of it. As younger generations become open to those techniques, audiences, in turn, begin to register their effects very quickly.

Put in Your 10,000 Hours

I’ve rarely gone a day without being in production in many years, and that kind of consistency helps build confidence and knowledge. But it’s not like the process ever becomes routine. You always have to be on your toes, so you want to be wanted, to be busy, and to keep your brain working. I tried for a while to do just one job at a time, to see if I’d be any good at it, but it didn’t really work for me. I became lazy and I wasn’t as focused. When I’m in pre-production, postproduction, and shooting for different projects at the same time, that’s when I become sharp. I’m sure other directors would tell you differently, but that’s how I function.

I don’t know if it’s true, but they say you have to spend 10,000 hours to get really good at something. I spent my 10,000 hours in the edit room very early in my career. I see everything I do as preparation for the edit. When I write and do my meetings and shoot, it’s all preparation for my time in the edit room.

L to R: In Lords of Chaos, Jack Kilmer, Jonathan Barnwell, Rory Culkin, and Anthony De La Torre paint the town black as the members of the Norwegian black metal band Mayhem. Courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky

Building Character

When you work on a feature, your actors are usually trained to be on camera. The new generation of musicians doesn’t seem to mind it, but when I started making music videos, most artists hated being on camera; they wanted to perform live and on stage, not in a manufactured setting. There was also a huge debate in which some argued that musicians are performers but not actors, and therefore they shouldn’t be doing music videos. Luckily, Michael Jackson and Madonna changed that and made music videos part of the industry. Later, artists like Lady Gaga began to show up and they thought visually from day one.

When it came time to make Lords of Chaos, my experience as a music video director gave me a lot to build on, because there were so many characters in the film for whom I had formed a mental image of their identities. I gave Rory a guitar and a leather jacket a year before we started to shoot, and sent him a wig so he could get used to having long hair.

We shot Lords of Chaos in 18 days, so we didn’t have any chance to re-do a take or change our minds about key aspects of the production. There needed to be no question in our actors’ minds about who their characters were or how they would react to different situations. I didn’t realize the effect that that preparation had until we were done, when Rory didn’t want to cut his hair. Seeing that dedication is proof that, whether you’re an actor or a musician, committing to a character makes it hard to separate from that character.

Roots of All Evil: Black metal pioneer Euronymous (Culkin) finds solace in the dark forests of Norway in Lords of Chaos. Courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky

Train to Sustain

It sounds weird to say, but to me, Lords of Chaos is my first movie. During the year I made Spun, I also made about 25 music videos and commercials, and I built my career on saying “Yes” to projects, having fun with them, and trying to turn not-so interesting jobs into interesting jobs. With Lords of Chaos, I spent 10 years in development, and had 1,000 reasons why I shouldn’t do the movie and only one reason why I should: I believed in it. I also knew more about what I wanted from a project, and felt more ready for it than anything else I’d done. Being a moviemaker is a lot like being an athlete: The more you do it, the more you train, the better you get at it. I’ve made six movies now, but I couldn’t have made any of them if I hadn’t done all the other music video and commercial projects that have sustained my long career. In each new project lies a lesson in finding the seeds to make it bloom. MM

—As Told to Max Weinstein

Lords of Chaos opens in theaters February 8, 2019, courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky. Featured image: Burning Desire: Director Jonas Åkerlund stands in front of a burning church on the set of Lords of Chaos, his passion project that took 10 years to develop. Photograph by Peter Beste. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2019 issue.

1 Comment

  1. Tom Luca

    February 12, 2019 at 12:51 pm

    Great article. Love these, Thanks! Ridley Scott did something similar. But he was a Commercial Director that transitioned into Directing Motion Pictures with The Duellists in 1977 then with ALIEN in 1979. And the same goes for George A. Romero with the movie Night of the Living Dead I guess you can say.

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