London-born Sophie Muller grew up on the Isle of Man, and studied film and television at the Royal College of Art, where her graduation piece, ‘In Excelsis Deo’ toured won the J. Walter Thompson prize for creativity and toured numerous film festivals. A childhood friend introduced her to management at Oil Factory, for whom she began producing videos like the Eurythmics’ ‘I Need a Man.’ She has since produced videos for artists ranging from Blur, The Cure, and Hole to Natalie Merchant and Sinead O’Connor. Her numerous awards include a Grammy for Annie Lennox’s ‘Diva,’ the MTV award for ‘Why,’ and other MVPA and Brit awards. This year, she was honored at the 2001 Creative & Design Awards in the UK and Director of the Year at the 10th Annual MVPA Awards for her work on the videos discussed here: Sade’s ‘By Your Side,’ No Doubt’s ‘Simple Kind of Life,’ and PJ Harvey’s ‘Good Fortune.’
Muller’s videos often have a rough, raw edge and a sense of spontaneity, along with an often-surreal use of color, juxtaposing bright, otherworldly primaries against monochromatic backgrounds. However, she eschews the concept of sticking with a ‘look,’ avoiding storyboards and always trying to come up with a fresh approach. About her process, she said to MVW that ‘I don’t do story boards, because if I do one, I can’t be bothered to do the video anymore–its like I have already done it. To me, making videos is really exciting and creative, but if I know what I am going to do, it’s not interesting to me. I like to go into it not quite knowing what is going to happen; then everything is fresh and exciting. Every musician you work with is different, and the way they look at themselves and their work is different. I look at that artist and think, ‘You’re different; what can I do with you that I have not done before?’
Sade comments on working with director Sophie Muller
MVW: What is it like working with Sophie Muller on a music video?
Sade: Sophie has immense faith in her judgement at the same time she’s open – she doesn’t have that kind of ego that closes down her vision. She finds things within your music that you have not seen and she capitalises on characteristics within me that I haven’t noticed. She has eagle eyes and she has integrity. I have enough faith in her to let her be pilot and that feels good.
MVW: Are you involved in the creative process when you are working on a video with Sophie?
Sade: Sophie won’t paint a picture from a photograph, if you look at her work you can see that. She involves me from the beginning. She looks for people who have an opinion, who believe in what they do. I don’t think it would be a challenge for her otherwise.
MVW: Do you enjoy making music videos?
Sade: It used to be hell for me because I don’t love the camera. I always saw it as my enemy not my friend and so I have always tended to shut down and hide but Sophie has gradually encouraged me to reveal a bit of myself so it’s not such a painful process for me anymore.
Interview with director Sophie Muller
Sade ‘By Your Side’
MVW: Sade is a very beautiful woman and natural in front of the camera, was there much direction involved with the performance of the video?
SM: It is a tricky one, in that she had not done anything in eight years—there had not even been a photograph taken of her. I think I was being protective the day we did it; I did not want to push her to do something incredibly difficult, but wanted to ease her back in. I proposed the direction as sort of being a journey. To me, it is like a metaphor of life. Because she has been away, yet has this amazing life and has come back to delivered this album. That was meant to be a metaphor, like the flower like she dropped by the roadside saying, ‘Here is my album.’ Then she made like she has gone through this strange journey, which is her life, but it is totally made into a beautiful, mysterious dream. The song was very uplifting in that way.
MVW: The color of the video is very vivid. Also I can’t forget the one shot, the close up portrait shot of her standing with the pale green light on her face.
SM: That is kind of Indian—that over-saturated imagery. The green face definitely was an Indian film reference. We looked at several Chinese films, Japanese masters and beautiful Indian films.
MVW: What was involved in creating that vivid look?
SM: Sade is an interesting artist. She is not a typical R& B or British artist, and I was trying to get her in this world where people think of her as if she is kind of mystical, not as a person you see in the street. I had a lot of discussion with our DP about how to create a world where you can believe that someone is going from point A to point B within it, but it is all fake. I wanted each bit to be different, and wanted to make it like reality, but more beautiful. It was meant to be like a forest, but a bit more peaceful than a real forest would be. The colors are a bit more extreme, and everything was done with the sense that we wanted it to look like reality, but better.
MVW: There is a scene where Sade is walking through the forest. There are rays of sunlight, and she walks through the rays, going from the color to shadow and from shadow to color. That was very stunning, visually.
SM: Sade is very elegant and sensual. I was playing into those strengths rather than dealing with her as I did in the other video, which was more gritty and real. To me this came very naturally to her, and I did not have to direct her as much, because I had set her in an arena where she would be perfect. She is very understated, which is quite unusual in an artist. She does not do very much, but the little things she does say a lot.
MVW: What visual effects were involved to help create the mystical look of the forest?
SM: The forest was pretty much as is. We added a few fire flies, but that was about it. Everything else was actually built to look like that. The only visual effect is the huge field where she is walking; we build a little field and painted it all around her. It’s just old-fashioned painting. There was a little green screen, when she walks towards the city. Otherwise, there are not many special effects in the video.
MVW: The last question is about the end of the video. You mentioned before it was more of a metaphor with her standing in the middle of the forest.
SM: When she was making her album, Sade and I drove down to the studio and saw people standing in the median of the road selling flowers. As I looked at them, I thought it was so sad to be constantly rejected by these cars. No one gave them eye contact, because people did not want to be seen looking at them. We started talking about this idea, about flower sellers, and thought, ‘Well, it’s not such a bad job to be looking at beautiful flowers all day.’ Then had the idea of someone who has been away, and was just standing offering a flower to someone–would they take it if it was free? In the video, she gathers these things that are lifeless–twigs & flowers–and in the end she asks, ‘Does anyone want them?’ Of course, no one wanted to take them. The song has that emotion; I wanted to have emotion, but not someone crying or anything like that.
Gwen Stefani comments on working with director Sophie Muller
‘Sophie Muller is one of my most talented friends. She can and will only do projects that she is inspired by. She is driven by creativity and the love for what she does and as a result she never compromises. I consider her a true artist.’
‘I was a fan of Sophie’s work before I even imagined working with her. She has a very pronounced style and taste that drew me in. I think she has the gift of being able to bring out the artist’s personality, emotion and style. After working with her for the first time on our ‘Don’t Speak’ video, we became close friends and since then we have made seven videos together.’
‘Our ‘Simple Kind of Life’ video is one of my favorites and is the one closest to my heart. When I first wrote the song and I played it to her in my living room (she had been staying with me at the time), it was obvious that she would be the one to do the video. She loves to collaborate and is motivated and inspired by the creativity of the artists she works with. We both had the same goal of wanting to make something that could emotionally affect people when they saw it and we did everything together to try to make that happen. The images needed to reflect the the lyrics and emotion behind the song so to start we scouted locations in east L.A. together. We designed the wedding dress based on a John Galliano fashion show we both had seen and loved a few years back. The extensive amount of preparation put into the video is very important to Sophie and she loves to have meetings to discuss the project in order to make it great. On the set her direction is humble and simple but she knows what she wants and knows when she gets it. A woman in charge in the male-dominated world of filmmaking makes the whole experience that much more exciting.’
‘I think after all the inspiration that goes into the shoot, her true gift is in the editing. She has a way of making every cut have a reason and meaning. The videos have a life of their own and become better each time you watch them. I am always in shock the first time I see them and then after a few more times I am actually amazed. She has taught me a lot and I feel very lucky to have worked with her. With her images of us, she has brought people closer to No Doubt and I am truly grateful.’
Gwen Stefani – NO DOUBT
Interview with director Sophie Muller
MVW: I enjoyed the strong composition of this video. The opening scene, with Gwen & Tony holding each other–that in itself could have been a still picture.
SM: I worked with No Doubt a lot. We made about seven videos together, so I know them well. To me this song is an incredibly personal song; there are very few that reveal as much in their lyrics as she does in this song. So I had to do something that was relevant. I couldn’t just make a video about something else–I had to address what the song was about. The chorus is all about this desire to be married in sort of a weird dream-like thing, and I thought I would use a different band member with each verse.
I wanted three simple scenarios where she could perform. She is a brilliant performer, and when you have a great performer, you let them perform. You don’t try and swamp them with stuff. Instead of telling them what to do, I just let them do their thing. I put in props and asked if they want to ‘get on this table’ or ‘kick this light.’ Whatever happens, I let it happen naturally happens and I film it; nothing is storyboarded. In those three verses, I had no idea what was going to happen. I thought, ‘She will be able to pull this off, and we will figure it. When you do that, great things happen. Like the scene where she is with the drummer and they are looking at each other–I imagined that she would play into that scene: he might be the guy, and may be the father of the child.
MVW: What was your influence for the dream sequence?
SM: I cannot remember where I got that, and it’s different from how I wanted it. I originally wanted to show her floating above a sea of orange juice. That is the only part of the video where she is on her own, where she has drifted off into this other world and she is floating above it. That is how I imagined it, but it became the way she performed it, with her standing up, less floating, and more sensual. I just adapted it and went with it. I am very unfixed when I do a video–I just go with the flow. Things change all the time–in my head and on the set. I usually react to what I see, rather than make the artists react to what I have written on a paper.
MVW: Did you have a general idea about the treatment?
SM: I had to be a bit more specific with this one, because of the cake scene. That is actually one of the special effects I did that worked. Gwen wanted a scene in which she is in this giant hall full of cakes that just goes on forever. It was a weird, nightmare kind of thing, with her in this world about her wedding and her cake, and she is trying to stop the band from destroying it. But how do you do a scene like that? Instead of making 500,000 wedding cakes, you make twenty and repeat them in post.
MVW: Is there a specific look that you try to achieve with your work?
SM: No. With every video I do, I always try to do something I have not done before. Most people can’t pin down what I do, because I don’t have ‘a look.’ It would bore me to death to create the same look over and over, and I need to go into it not knowing what will happen. Making videos is really exciting and creative, but if I always knew what I was going to do, it would no longer be interesting to me.
P. J. Harvey ‘Good Fortune’
Interview with director Sophie Muller
MVW: What were P.J. Harvey’s thoughts about what she wanted to accomplish with the music video?
SM: She had always worked with the same person in the past, so I was stunned that she called me wanting to work with me. I usually feed off [the artist’s] ideas, so I asked her what kind of feeling she was looking for. She said she wanted to have performance and motion, and in my head, I saw a moving shot of someone standing at a wall. They had sent me pictures she took in New York, and I thought they were great images—she looked glamorous, and it was shot at night. So I got the idea that she wants movement, performance and something really simple. Yet she did not want any story or anything like that, so I thought, ‘How do you bring this photo to life?’ I got in my head, you have a moving camera, moving lights, and moving sound; then she can go wherever she wants, do whatever she wants, and we can just film her. There was some discussion on the day we shot [about how many takes], and we though, ‘Let’s try and do it in one take.’ We ended up shooting six or seven.
MVW: It was certainly very spontaneous.
SM: I had no idea what she was going to do, and neither did she. We just let her walk up and down the street, and she was such a great performer!
MVW: There would be no way she would have been able to pull that off if she was not such a great performer.
SM: I knew she was an amazing performer from seeing her previous work. Sometimes if you do a really simple idea and don’t try messing with it, it turns out stronger. In a way it has an energy about it, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you don’t know exactly how she is going to behave. And it’s got a sort of fluidity to it–you could tell we were going with her. She was in control. Usually an artist is at the mercy of the camera crew—they have to be, to hit the lights and so on. But with this, she could do anything. If she wanted a close up, she could come up to the camera; if she wanted a wide shot, she could just move out or go faster, and the crew had to move around with her.
MVW: Have you every shot anything like this before, or would you say that someone influenced you with this type of style or look?
SM: I had an idea that this is what the Paparazzi crew would be like—you know, the hand held camera with the light mounted on it. But instead of us chasing her, we were with her, so it’s like being with in the street. It was a glamorous image, shot at night in the street, and she was dressed in this amazing dress and really high shoes that say, ‘Let’s make out,’ which in itself is quite a beguiling image.
MVW: Where was it shot?
SM: We shot in London. Everyone thought it was in New York because of her album cover, which shows Times Square. We took the idea of it, and somehow they blend together; we chose this town called Houxton, which does not look like London at all, so it gives the feeling that you are not quite sure where you are.
MVW: There are variations of brightness and colors. How did you plan that?
SM: We really did not plan it. We shot it in 16 mil reversal, not 35. I just wanted it to be more contrasting—to look like an old print, rather than negative. It is less sensitive, so you have to be much more precise with your exposure. With modern negative film, you can be three strokes over or under and still get a good image. With reversal, if you are not dead on you are out way over or under; if you get too near the light, you are really overexposed. [The camera man] kept saying, ‘You have to be 2 feet back. You are overexposing.’ That didn’t matter. I said, ‘Let her do whatever she wants.’ That way, we got something that did not just look like another well-lit, well-shot video. It had the style and look we were going for.
MVW: There were also different colors from the street light.
SM: We decided on the location and turned up just as it was getting dark. We knew that the key light would be the moving battery pack light, but we lit bits of the road, too. We knew she was going to walk from A to B and end up in the Kebab shop. We knew she was going to pass this one bit, so I made them put a red light there so she could walk through it. And there were other things, like at the beginning she is already lit by car headlights and the wall is red from the car’s brake lights.