On the heels of the first nationally televised debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the polarization of our country’s political direction has finally reached a fever pitch. Will we go the way of the nation’s first female president; a politician with hopes of bolstering our modern democracy in the moments just beyond Obama’s tenure? Or will we succumb to the darkest corners of human imagination; capitalism itself devoid of all soul and squeezed into a Hong Kong tailored suit?
It’s with lint in our pockets and a sparkle in our eyes that we march toward November’s election. Only time will tell where we’re heading and if we’ll make it at all. Luckily, there are artists, activists, filmmakers and citizens across the globe who have taken up our rigorous national discourse, hoping perhaps to shake the sleep from our eyes as we inch astoundingly close to the edge of remarkable precipice.
Once such figure is Sam Pilling, a director whose work is reverberating widely at a defining moment in time. Sam comes fresh off the release of DJ Shadow and Run The Jewels breakout collaborative single, “Nobody Speak.”
The video itself unravels in perfect speed, a thrashing brawl strewn out gorgeously in high-definition.
The timely subject matter coupled with blockbuster-level production has cemented the release as one of 2016’s most viable and viral music videos; highlighting two perfectly juxtaposed politicians as their futile approach to bureaucracy descends into chaos.
In the process, the piece fuels ongoing commentary that’s perfectly emblematic of our modern day stalemate and the blood that boils just beneath the skin.
“I THINK THIS VIDEO CAME AT A TIME WHERE PEOPLE ARE FEELING FAIRLY DESPONDENT AND DISLOCATED FROM THEIR POLITICAL LEADERS.” – SAM PILLING
Now, with both the first presidential debate and the release of DJ Shadow’s full length album, The Mountain Will Fall squarely behind us, we’ve finally found the perfect moment to catch our breath and take stock of it all.
Can you tell me a bit about how you got your start and your involvement with Pulse Films?
After graduating university, I began working at Pulse as a Visual Researcher: finding images, laying out treatments and writing ideas for other directors. I did that for 9 months while trying to direct my own things on the side. Then, after making one particular low budget video, the owner of the company Thomas Benski signed me as a director.
I did a couple of really low budget music videos for grime artist MC P-Money and a producer/DJ called SBTRKT. Amazingly the daughter of Usher’s manager saw my SBTRKT video online and showed it to her mum, who showed it to Usher, who really liked it. Before I knew what was happening I was in Atlanta making a music video for Usher!
You’ve directed music videos for major artists ranging from Usher to Major Lazer and The Weeknd. What first attracts you to an artist and where do you begin when working on a new project?
For me, the track is the most important thing. Regardless of musical genre or style, if I dig the track, then that makes me want to write an idea for it and get involved in the project.
When you work on a music video you are going to end up listening to the track hundreds of times, so you need to at least start off liking it!
Sometimes, certain lyrics in a track will spark ideas, or sometimes the mood of the track or the sounds of particular instruments or sections will influence me.
I find that the best ideas come when I have a genuine emotional response to a track.
What did you think when you first heard “Nobody Speak”?
When the guys at Pulse sent me the “Nobody Speak” track I was actually in Canada scouting, right in the middle of another project. I had no time to think properly but immediately loved the track.
I listened to it on repeat whilst we drove to a location in the wilds of the Yukon, and jotted down my initial ideas. One of which was this.
I quickly put it into a one-page, top-line treatment and we sent it over to the guys at Mass Appeal.
If I’m honest, despite Run The Jewel’s outwardly political standpoint, I thought they probably wouldn’t go for it, but we quickly heard that Shadow and RTJ’s camps both loved the idea. Next was the tricky bit in working out how we were actually going to make the video happen and do justice to the banging track.
The escalation of violence within the video is smooth and deliberate. What drove the creative direction and how did El-P & Killer Mike’s respective verses impact the production?
When I listened to the track I couldn’t help but think how awesomely ridiculous Mike and El’s lyrics were and how the track almost subverted the typical ‘rap battle’ as each rapper tried to verbally outdo the other with more and more disgusting and preposterous insults.
I got thinking about real-life scenarios where people battle verbally and probably due to the “Trump f*cks his youngest” line, I thought “wouldn’t it be hilarious to have two political leaders facing off in a heated debate using these awesome lyrics?!”
The concept grew and built from there. However, despite the ridiculousness of the situation, I was adamant that the performances should be played completely straight, with the humor coming from the set-up, rather than hammy, over the top acting.
The opening few verses of the track acted as a great ‘back and forth’ structure for the two political leaders to argue against each other.
Killer Mike’s “get the f*ck outta here” line followed directly by Shadows instrumental middle section of the track felt like the perfect place for the verbal insults to end and the physical violence to begin!
Any surprises on-set? What was it like managing that many people with so many moving parts?
There are always surprises on set and this shoot was no different! But for the main part working with the actors and stunt actors was an absolute pleasure.
Both our leads; Igor and Ian really understood the tone of the video and the downplayed performances and humor that were required for the individual roles. They also got the subtle differences in each of the two politician’s characters and how their relationship shifts as the video plays out.
However, the lip-sync was definitely an issue. We had a rehearsal day where I worked closely with Ian and Igor. The hardest part was trying to get the lyrics to come naturally to the actors, so they could focus on the actual performance and acting required.
The rehearsals went well but on the actual shoot day, with a lot of timing pressure it was incredibly difficult for Igor to get the lip-sync right. It’s hard enough for an English speaking person to recite Run The Jewel’s complex lyrics, let alone for an actor from the Ukraine, with English as a third language!
The larger action and stunt moments all played out fairly painlessly. Everyone knew what he or she was doing and what their specific role was and despite the mayhem we were capturing in-camera, it was all very controlled and orderly. This was mainly due to the rehearsal day we’d spent working with the stunt coordinator Illia and the 14 lead and stunt actors.
However, the old adage about never working with animals definitely rang true. As soon as the animals turned up, things got a whole load more complicated and this obviously slowed the production down a fair bit!
The video has definitely caused a buzz since its release. Is there a takeaway you think viewers are receiving from the video?
I think everything that has been happening politically over the last few months, both in the UK and the US is not only fairly hard to ignore, but is also completely ridiculous, and I think this video came at a time where people are feeling fairly despondent and dislocated from their political leaders.
The general public are really starting to question politician’s motives and actions and the cleaner at the end of the video has sparked some conversations online with viewers saying it is making a political statement that the hard-working general public have to pick up the pieces after the politicians have had their fun and games.
Will the video become increasingly relevant as we inch closer to November’s US Presidential Election? Foreshadowing perhaps?
I think the video will continue to remain relevant in the coming months as the election race really heats up…