At the Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington, North Carolina, I saw my favorite music video of 2014: “Call Me” by the immensely soulful St.Paul & the Broken Bones.
What impressed me so much wasn’t just the band’s sound and style, but the production design, cinematography and unique vision of director Jen West in the “Call Me” video. It’s a very simple concept, executed cost-effectively by West and her producing partner, James Martin.
Shot in Birmingham, Alabama, the video is a visual battle of the sexes, with a single living room split down the middle—on the left, the band in various states of manly repose (card games, whiskey), fronted by lead singer Paul Janeway in a concentrated display of angst (and dancing); on the right, a female dancer moves around her apartment, flirting with the idea of picking up her telephone. Production designer Andrea West Richardson’s eye-popping retro fixings provide a fitting backdrop to the energy of the music and the players.
I sat down with the director/producer duo in November to discuss directing musicians and making a high-quality music video on a low-quality budget.
Andy Young, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Where did the premise come from? Was it made with the band in mind?
James Martin (JM): I think in the beginning the band sent us a few songs, and we were brainstorming loosely. When we found out that “Call Me” would be their first single, we tried to come up with an idea that worked with it.
Jen West (JW): As well as ideas we could shoot in one day.
JM: Initially I came up with the weirdness of a single wide shot in one location. We knew we wanted to have dancing to complement Paul Janeway’s style, and we discovered that a dancer from So You Think You Can Dance, Janelle Issis, was from Birmingham.
MM: When I first saw the video I was convinced you had shot in two separate locations, and then meshed them together in post. But you built that split-screen set. [Watch a timelapse of the set being built.]
JW: That was the hardest part—finding that warehouse we could build a set and shoot in. We put out a call on Facebook and got builders who fit the design aesthetic and knew the budget we had. We had a very small stipend for building materials from the band.
JM: It was a very, very quick turnaround, from the band liking our concept to getting the shoot ready. We had a small window of time where a month out we secured the building, three weeks out the construction company built that set—which, based on my weird math, we made too big.
JW: I actually think it ended up being the perfect size. you had to come so far forward with the furniture, so then that 17-foot wall becomes shorter and shorter.
MM: What’s the directing process when it comes to choreography when you’re working with a band and a professional dancer? Was that all on-the-fly or mapped out?
JW: It was actually very structured; we gave Janelle the dimensions of that space and she wrote her own choreography. We worked with her on framing, but after being on a live TV show she already knew how to do those things. The band hadn’t really done a music video quite like this before. Paul’s [presence] felt kind of small on the first take, and we told him to be as big as he is onstage because it’d play really well. After that he was spot on.
The hardest thing was matching lip-syncing. We initially wanted it to be one long take, but the choreography, plus matching how he sings on the track, [made that impossible]. He got it towards the end, but we didn’t have one perfect long-take.
JM: I think intercutting helped us spotlight the band and the dancer more. It still felt like a single action.
JW: Something we had to keep in mind was that the band was used to performing, but not really this kind of performing where they’re being captured on a camera with all these people staring at them instead without the energy of the audience. That said, the idea worked so well because each of the band members has their own personalities.
MM: This was your first music video. What was the editing process like?
JW: We watched the footage and knew we couldn’t do the one wide take, but the editing process kind of magically flowed together. All the cutaway pieces were good.
JM: And we owe that to our DP, Tyler Jones. He captured all these inserts and we could see right away this would work. Our editor, James Roberson, knew how to composite, color it and put it all together, so it didn’t take long to edit.
MM: Did the band or management have any notes?
JW: They were really happy with it! They took a big risk on us because we’d never done a music video, even though we’d done some shorts. They liked our concept and didn’t have anything to lose since the band was in town anyways. Worst-case scenario was they’d say that they didn’t like it and scrap it.
JM: It was a great experience. The band had such a crazy tour schedule and for them to come to set and be so positive… We did a lot of pre-production but everything just ran very smoothly.
MM: Last-minute advice for people gearing up to make their first music video?
JM: It may seem difficult to produce it, but bring in the right people who are excited. The hope is that you can collaborate more in the future where there will be higher budgets and more angles. There’s actually a blessing to having a small budget, and letting the budget go to the physical components and look of the video. We probably had about 40 people on set that day. Everyone was working for free—which we don’t like to ask people to do, but everybody loved that band. If the crew knows you’re not making any money off this either, it makes it way more of collaboration rather than a business transaction. You’re not in it for the money; you want to make this story and support this band and get your work recognized.
JW: Picking the right band is key. We’re big music enthusiasts and you have to match the filmmaker to the band, and we found a band that wasn’t quite huge—but was going to be—and we lined up perfectly with them. We wanted to support a band from our region, which generated our crew’s enthusiasm. Keep your senses out for bands like that. MM
Photographs by Liesa Cole.