Director Nigel Dick Discusses Writing A Successful Music Video Treatment. A veteran of more than 240 music videos, 18 documentaries and feature films.
Director Nigel Dick Discusses Writing A Successful Music Video Treatment. A veteran of more than 240 music videos, 18 documentaries and feature films, two MTV awards, 2 Billboard awards, three MVPA awards, one Brit award and a Cable Ace award. His videos have earned 20 additional MTV award nominations, along with a Grammy. He shares his experience on writing a successful music video treatment.
Interview With Director Nigel Dick
MVW: Can you break down the process of how to write a treatment?
ND: I think the truth of it is that for everybody, the process of writing is different. People work in different ways. Certainly for myself, I’ve learned different techniques over the years. Every morning you get up and look at the blank wall, and you play a record and you have to come up with an idea, so what works for you one week won’t work for you another week.
Sometimes you’re just lucky and you have a pure piece of inspiration. And then after a while, when you’re working on a regular basis, that endless font of inspiration dries up. You have to find techniques and methods of stocking inspiration. I think it’s like anything creative; whether you’re a painter or a songwriter or whatever it is, or a journalist or a novelist. Initially you’re just wandering around one day and you have this great idea, but then you suddenly find yourself having to do it for a living, and it reaches a whole new level.
So I have learned over the years a whole bunch of techniques to sort of come up with ideas. One is, what I pretty much always do, is I break the song down. I make sure I have the lyrics, I type out the lyrics, I put in all the bars breaks, I figure out how long it is, how long the verses and chorus are, so I actually have some kind of structure. I break the song up into its various acts, if you like, the same way if you’re analyzing a screenplay you figure it has three acts, or if you’re analyzing a symphony and you’re trying to write about it, you realize it has three movements. So with a song, when I’m breaking it down to write a treatment, I figure it’s got two verses, three choruses, a middle eight, and a sixteen-bar solo or something. And that gives me an idea of what I need to fill in the holes.
And also, for myself, a thing that I find useful, is that it helps to try describe and visually to the audience how the song is broken down. So you’re not just having somebody standing in front of a wall just singing the whole song. You’re actually helping them to have some kind of journey however simple or elementary it may be, it’s actually reflecting the structure of the music, whichI think is quite important, well, it is for me anyway. And then from there there’s a whole number of gags that I use. Sometimes I just start flipping through magazines, and perhaps I’ll find one picture that inspires me. I mean, like when I did the Believe video for Cher two years ago, I was pitching ideas to her and we weren’t getting anywhere, so I went round to her house with about 50 pictures I’d ripped out of magazines and I said to her, “Which of these pictures inspires you?” And she picked a picture of two girls in a disco and she said, “That feels like what this video should look like. I feel there should be a story around that.” And so I was able to come up with a story based on two girls going out to a club for the night and then an just idea grew from it. And actually the video bears no relation to the picture anymore, but I was able to use that picture as sort of a bouncing point for the way the girls looked, what they were going to do, the way it would start. You know, you could look at the picture now and it wouldn’t relate to the video, but it was very inspiring.
Perhaps I’m driving around in my car and I’ll see a billboard for something and I go, “Ooh, that’s it…” A number of years ago trying to write a treatment for a band called To Die For, and I spent a week trying to come up with an idea and then I saw an image for some chewing gum or something. There was somebody bungee jumping and I went, “Ooh, that’s the idea right there!” And you know it was written in 10 minutes.
It’s really useful when an artist has an idea and they say, “I want to something like this.” Though from some perspectives the idea may suck, big time, but the fact that the artist has some kind of vision, however misplaced it may be, it gives you a sort of direction to start in, even if it’s a way of saying, “Well I’m definitely not going to go down that road…” The minute you start closing avenues off, it starts revealing avenues you can go down.
An analogy that I would use is that when I was trained to be an architect, we would always complain to our tutor that when we were given buildings to design they would send us off into the city where we lived and they would show us a piece of land and say, “You’ve got to build a hospital on this piece of land, bearing in mind that you can’t build more than three stories high and that that oak tree has to stay there.” And we would always complain because we would say, “That doesn’t allow us a situation where we can give full reign to our creative juices. If you give us a square plot of land without planning restrictions, we’ll come up with a much better building.” And he said, “Well, frankly I disagree. There’s two big reasons why: Firstly life isn’t like that. You’ll never get a perfectly flat piece of land with no planning restrictions. And secondly, if you do have a piece of land like that, chances are you’ll come up with the most boring building you’ve ever built.” So the restrictions give you that.
[Often it will go like this:] “I need to have my video shot next Thursday at this airport because I’m on the way between A and C and you’ve got to shoot me at point B.” Initially it may seem to be a restriction but eventually it can become a source of some inspiration for you. So you have to allow that to be useful to you.
Sometimes I just sit… Something I’ve been doing a lot recently is I just start playing the song over and over again, and I sit at my computer and I just mentally dribble. I just start typing any piece of drivel that comes into my head and then suddenly something will come out. I read in a book about creative writing that when you wake up in the morning, the first thing you should do before you make a cup of coffee or anything is sit down and write for an hour and just write everything inside your brain and just get rid of that and then you can truly start creatively writing because you’ve dispelled all the crap inside your brain. So in the same way, though if I’m writing for an hour I usually give up and go and do something else for a while, I sit down and just sort of… mental diarrhea if you like, until something useable comes out. And very often I have parts of an idea, I just have an image… you just have one little idea, and then as you’re writing it out you get this wonderful resolution and you think, “Aha! You know, that’s gonna make it really come together in the end.”
Like in… though it didn’t come out the way I wanted it to because the band changed the ending, but, in the last Fuel video I did, I just suddenly thought… I was looking at the lyrics and I thought, “It would be great if Brett was talking to a shrink,” and of course he’s talking about a girl so you know the usual thing is that a guy is talking about a girl he’s having a scene with, and then I thought, “It would be great if we could create the impression that Brett was talking about a woman who was part of his own psyche.” And I think that in the version which nobody ever got to see it was much more successful about the fact that you understood that he was talking about somebody who was in his own head.
MVW: What about the actual formatting of the treatment? Are there any ticks of the trade that you can talk about?
ND: There are no tricks of the trade; it’s all bullsh.. . Hopefully you have a vision in your mind’s eye of what it looks like, and that’s why you’re employed, because you have a vision and you’re going to create a look for it. But the truth is that one’s vision comes in the process of finding the location and getting the clothes… It’s such a collaborative process. It’s not like making a movie where you get months to plan it and you have chances to design costumes. You know you have to pull it together in three or four days so you have to take what K-Mart has got, or what you can beg from Hugo Boss or Prada or whatever it is.
So, basically when you write the treatment you tell lies about how lead singer is going to look fantastic…
When you’re talking to the people in the beginning… they say, “The problem that we’ve had with this band so far is that we’ve sold some great videos, we’ve sold lots of records, but what we need to do now is to establish them as a rock band.” So when you write the treatment, you write it as, “Make them to look like a rock band.” You tell people what they want to hear. I mean apart from massaging their ego and their self- interest to get yourself a job, more hopefully in the way you’re writing the treatment you’re saying, “I understand what it is you want to get from this video and believe me, I’m going to deliver it. People want to hear what they want to hear, and when you’re a marketing man, a manager, a lead singer, a guitar player or whoever you are, you have a vision for your group that you’re keeping going no matter who the director is, and so you want to hear that the artist is going to look great. Nobody is going to buy a treatment where you say, “Well, actually, the band is going to look like sh.. but it’s going to be a brilliant video.” Nobody’s going to buy into that.
MVW: Do you stick to a certain format with the treatments that you write?
ND: I do, but I know other people who write treatments who are notoriously vague about some things. About 5 percent of the time I’m too busy and I have to get somebody else to write a treatment for me and sometimes I’ll read the treatment and I haven’t the faintest clue as to what is going on. I mean, they want to charge a fortune and they send me a page and it’s like, “What the f… is going on in this treatment? I haven’t got the faintest clue what is going on? And maybe I’ve given them the germ of an idea and in frustration I take three really interesting creative lines that they’ve put in there and then I just sit down and I do the work myself and I flesh it out. I mean it personally astonishes me sometimes the treatments which I’ve seen that other people have got work on .
MVW: Do you find that sometimes the actual written treatment is kind of like a résumé in that until you actually meet with the commissioner and tell them exactly what you want to do, that’s where its sold?
ND: Unfortunately it’s not that sophisticated a process. The A&R guy or the chief of marketing comes down from their office and says, “We need to make a video for the next single, it has to be at MTV in four weeks, I’m gonna spend 300,000 bucks, get me some treatments by Friday.” And they ring up their favorite people or the usual suspects or whatever it is and I’m sitting here working away and the phone rings and my company says to me, “We’ve got some music for you, we’re sending it over, we need a treatment by tomorrow morning.” And you’re writing along with 10 other people. And so you’re into an essay writing contest. You write it for free of course, you drop everything else you’re doing, you cancel the date you had that night, whatever it is, and you write the treatment and send it in and if you’re lucky they ring you back and they say, “We really liked your idea but there’s a couple of things we’d like to change.” And you change them and then you get the gig and then you go off and shoot it.
MVW: How much do your videos vary from the treatment?
ND: In my case I would say that 90 percent of the time the video is frighteningly like the treatment. Chances are that if it’s different it’s because somebody on the label side has asked me to change things on the day, or the sun didn’t shine and it rained and we had to go inside, or some practical consideration got in the way. But I feel that I’ve sold somebody a bill of goods and once they’ve decided to buy it — and believe me that’s buying it with an enormous amount of money — it’s my business and my responsibility to deliver that. Should they then see it and not like it, then that’s a problem, and unfortunately that occasionally happens, but I take my job very seriously and I feel that if you come to me and you give me a quarter of a million dollars, and you want me to build you a house which is meant to provide you with shelter and comfort and give you a beautiful view of the lake at the bottom of your plot of land, then that’s what you want. You don’t want a helicopter pad. Whatever I want in my life, you could give two f…s. You need a house you can live in, and it’s my duty to supply that. And again to go to my architectural training, there was a phrase I was taught which is, “Your job as an architect is to give the client not what he wants, but what he needs and didn’t know that he wanted.
MVW: If you’re not an established name and you’re trying to become a director, is there anything you should do to make that step toward getting your treatment read?
ND: You have to rely on enthusiasm and luck. If there was a perfect way to write a treatment, as in: “This is going to get you a gig every time…” There is no perfect way. You can’t please all the people all the time. I think that much of our job is to try and give people what they want, but sometimes you have just have to go with an idea and say, F… it. I’m prepared to lose the job.” It’s a truism that to prepare to succeed, you have to be prepared to fail spectacularly. So sometimes though I’ve been given a brief to write on a job that I really, really want badly, you know, because I really want to work with that artist, or I haven’t worked for a while and I need to pay the rent of whatever it is, I will gamble quite heavily and come up with an idea that is quite unusual or extreme because I just think it’s a great idea and I need to get it out of my system. And I actually feel very happy about doing that, even though professionally it may be not the wisest thing to do, but I feel that by trying to second guess what the labels say they want and all the rest of it, inevitably you’ll fall between two stools and you’ll compromise both the job and whatever it is you’re trying to create.
And to direct you have to be a director… you can’t have eight people directing something. A camel is a horse designed by committee. And to get a pure thoroughbred, one person just has to say, “This is how it is going to look.” So to go back to your question about what a young director ought to do to write that perfect treatment, is they just have to embrace an idea and be prepared to fail. If you try to write the perfect treatment, which is trying to answer everything perfectly and do the best job and all the rest of it, inevitably you will somehow compromise what it is you see as your idea.
I think that in creative circles innocence is a wonderful thing. I mean, I look back at the work I did at the beginning of my career, when I didn’t know the faintest thing about video making, and I would just embark upon an idea completely innocent of the problems I was going to encounter and I would just go and do it. Nowadays I start thinking about an idea and I go, “Well, you can’t do that. You can’t do that. You can’t do that.”
A couple of years ago I was working in this company and they rang me up and they said, “There’s this band in Florida and they want to make a video for 50,000 bucks,” you know, and I hadn’t made a $50,000 video for a number of years and I said all right, you know, and I listened to the record and I thought it was really interesting and really new. And they said, “Can you speak to the lead singer?” And I said, sure, because he’s got this idea. So I rang him up and we had a chat on the phone and he said, “I want to do this video in my house and each member of the band is gonna be in a different room and there’s gonna be a guy outside mowing the lawn…” and all this kind of stuff and I’m going, “Well, hold on a minute you can’t do all that in a day,” because in my experience, because unfortunately of the place I’ve reached in my career, 20 trucks turn up and then everybody wants the band’s makeup artists and you’re into a two-day shoot and all this kind of stuff. Well, obviously the guy thought, Bollocks to this, I don’t like what this English guy is saying.” And he put the phone down and he went and did it himself. Well it was Fred Durst, for a Limp Bizkit video. I think there’s a tremendous lesson there. You know he just said, “Fine. F… it. He doesn’t like my idea, well, I do, so I’m gonna do it.” He had a vision and he went with it, and more power to him. I think young directors should do the same. Inevitably, eventually they will start banging their heads against trying to shoot a movie or a video somewhere and the practicalities of the trade get in the way. As I say, innocence is a wonderful thing. My biggest word of advice is don’t make it too short or too long.
MVW: When you were starting out, was there any style that you followed, or any books that you read, or did you just say, “Okay, I’m gonna just write the treatment, I know I have to have these elements in it,” and then you just started submitting them?
ND: Yeah, that’s what I did. To be completely honest I don’t read many other people’s treatments because in a way I feel it’s kind of unprofessional, I can’t really say why, which probably shows I’ve got my own head stuck up my ass, but, you know, I don’t need to be stealing Dave Meyers ideas… Everybody has their own process, and they need to preserve that and it’s none of my business how they do their work even if there is something I could learn from it potentially. I’ve just tried to learn a process that works for me and, you know, I’m still getting gigs. It appears to be working. Nobody’s telling me that it’s not working.
I mean, occasionally my rep will ring me up and go, “Nigel, the last five treatments you’ve written sucked. And you go, “Really?” And he goes, “Yup. I think they’re really bad.” And you put the phone down and you think, “Wanker. He didn’t get it.” And then about a week later you go, “Oh, I suppose he’s got a point. I’ve got to get excited about this again. And you go into a little room and you slap yourself around a bit and you get out the cat-o’-nine tails and you start whipping yourself or doing whatever it is you need to do and then you come back out and you attack it with a renewed vigor. I think the same is true for basketball players, politicians, writers, actors, you know, whatever it is. It’s easy doing it for a while, but doing it for a long while takes an enormous amount of energy so that you don’t get stale and so that you don’t become complacent. You know, one of the boring old blokes who goes, “Young whippersnapper! He doesn’t understand! In my day…” Especially in music videos. I can’t give a sh.. about that because the whole point of it is that it’s a new, expanding, constantly changing process. And you ignore that at your peril.