Video Chats: Ellen Frances on 'Cruel Summer' by Black Marble

Posted by Doug Klinger on November 8, 2012 in Interviews

Staff Post

Black Marble

If you were ever afraid as a child of what happens in your room after you fall asleep, we highly recommend the video for Black Marble's "Cruel Summer." Set as a play, the black and white video manages to pack a lot of mystery and narrative implication into just one shot. We talked to the director, Ellen Frances, about the process behind the video, working with label Hardly Art, the theatre where the video was shot, and when you have to ask your stylist to hide in a dresser.

Doug: How involved was the band in the concept and execution of the video?

Ellen: Generally when bands contact me they have a few examples of the type of style they are going for, or a very vague idea for a narrative - and I sort of take the reigns, write up the treatment and provide visual examples of what I think will work for the song. In this case it was the first time a band had approached me with a fully flushed out, typed up treatment. The label emailed me the treatment with the song, and even though that's not how I typically work, I really liked their music and wanted to know more. I ended up going out for drinks with Chris Stewart and he was just so about the concept. I could tell he had thought through the concept for the video extensively. The idea of these monsters coming on a UFO, bringing this little girl her mother, or what we assume is her mother, was symbolically charged for him. I really respected that. A lot of the abstract play on life after death walked this line between heavy and light-hearted which was a combination that interested me. Visually, in terms of sets and costumes etc., he put it all on me. I saw it as a great opportunity to get very creative, build things, wrap people in fabric -- and really, the low-budget DIY aspect of the video as an old fashioned stage play is what made me say yes to the job.

Ellen Frances

Doug: You mentioned you were contacted by the label Hardly Art, what was their involvement in the video?

Ellen: Hardly Art was awesome. They were on a tight schedule trying to get the video made in time to release it with the single and they did as much as they could to facilitate that happening for me. I still had to put in some late nights editing wise, but they stayed on the ball from their end. I knew Hardly Art based on the fact they are a sub-division of Sub Pop, a label I grew up obsessed with, but I was glad to actually become more acquainted with them, their artists and their music video line up... they have a lot of good stuff going on.

Doug: Considering this video is tied to the release of the band's debut LP A Different Arrangement, it's nice to hear the label didn't like force you to put the band performing somwhere in the video. 

Ellen: They didn't really feel the need to be in the video. I'm not sure how it would have worked with their treatment to shoot them anyway. There was some talk of them showing up at the shoot or helping build parts of the set, but because of the time crunch I ended up shooting without them. So many mainstream videos are just about the artist performing their song, and dont get me wrong, there are some amazing ones, but I think it's an interesting move for a band to treat their video more like an art piece and make the choice not to be in it. I feel like a lot of bands have been approaching me for videos lately that are more about video art and less about self promotion in terms of what you see on camera and that is really interesting to me. For Black Marble, the fact that so far they aren't really in any of their videos, it seems to give this sense of mystery that fits their music perfectly. To me it also makes a fan want to know more about them, go see them live etc... Seems artistically evolved or something.

Ellen Frances

Doug: What was behind the live production feel of the video?

Ellen: I immediately called James J. Williams III after I was contacted by Hardly Art. James is a regular in the fine art scene in lower Manhattan. Years ago we used to do multi-media shows together in galleries. He's also the director of Thorstein Foundation, a small production company which I've started using on most of my videos. I can always count on Jimmy to make things happen regardless of short deadlines etc... He built the set and aided in production logistics like rentals and contracts. Together we found this small theater in Greenwich Village called 13th Street Repertory Theater. The place is so old, it was perfect. One of the owners gave me this long explination of the theater's history when I went to drop off the contract, about how Tennessee Williams used to stage his lesser known plays there and frequently came to the theater. I love stories like that. New York is filled with so much history, so when you find a place that is filled with stories it just makes shooting at the location more interesting. For styling we worked with Jenni Hensler. I had worked with her on a music video I did for Ultra Records last year and she brought tons of amazing designer gowns and pieces from The Blonds and Vivianne Westwood to that shoot. For this video though, it was all about DIY, so I saw this as an exciting opportunity for she and I to just go crazy with some art supplies and fabric. I think it turned out great.

Ellen Frances

Doug: What kind of direction did you give the performers?

Ellen: The little girl we worked with was so patient and diligent, doing the scene over and over. Being on a set can get pretty boring, so I tried to keep her in the conversation loop and asked her a lot about school and her dance lessons. Working with kids takes a certain type of demeanor, one I don't think I had until I became a mother -- but now working with children feels quite natural to me. In terms of the other performers, I just gave them an overview with marks and shouted out actions from the back of the theater while I shot. Initially I had a lot of close ups that were lit from below, very Ed Wood / Vintage Sci-fi style, but those shots were cut by the band who really wanted the video to look as though you were in the theater watching a play. In video making that sometimes happens, but unless I'm really against an edit I can be pretty flexible... plus, Chris warned me in advance that he really, really wanted it all to be from one perspective, so I was prepared for those shots to be cut. What I think is sort of funny, and something no one would know, is that due to a PA being unable to arrive at the last minute, I had to ask Jenni Hensler, this great, amazing stylist who has had her work on performers in the Guggenheim and done tons of high-end fashion work, to be crouched inside of the dresser moving the drawers around... knowing that still makes me smile when I watch it.

black marble, cruel summer, ellen frances, video chats

Doug Klinger is the co-founder/content director of IMVDb and watches more music videos than anyone on earth. You can find him on twitter at @doug_klinger.

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