Video Chats: Isaac Ravishankara on 'Stubborn Love' by The Lumineers
Posted by Doug Klinger on February 18, 2013 in Interviews
Working with a five year old can be difficult, especially in a role that requires a range of emotions and a story to be told almost exclusively through facial expressions. That's why when working with five year old Talula Paulson, star of "Stubborn Love" by The Lumineers, director Isaac Ravishankara used some unique tactics to get a wonderful performance out of Talula. We talked to Isaac about those techniques, which include screaming out the window, a road map, and Kevin Hayden.
Doug: Youve known the band and youve been friends with them for a while now. Was there still a bidding process for this video?
Isaac: Yeah, it was interesting. It came to me through Danielle at Doomsday. I pitched on it that way. One of the things that Ive learned through working with 3OH!3, and just by knowing these guys, its one thing to be friends with the band, but especially with bands that are operating on a bigger level, at a certain point its not just you and them making it. Even if you go into the process as friends, I think theres a lot to be said for working on a project on a more professional level. That was something that I know they band has not necessarily had the best experience with in the past. So when I talked to Wes [Schultz] about it forever ago, it was like, "Hey, if we ever do this, lets just make sure we do it the right way." So we tried to keep it through proper channels and doing everything through the process as much as possible. Which especially, towards the back end of the video, I think is really important. When it comes to everyone seeing it, and everyone having notes, and everyone being on the same page, I think it always really helps to kind of have everyone involved. It came to me that way and then I ended up just writing a treatment, without actually even telling them that I was going to submit it because I know it got sent back to a bunch of people to pitch on. Then the band actually ended up not really necessarily feeling like they were on the same page with me on the first idea. At that point, we started talking about the concept that would turn into this one.
Doug: Where did that idea come from?
Isaac: The idea actually started with my friend Stelth Ulvang who plays in the band, but isnt one of the core three. Hes the one that plays piano, accordion, and some other things, he also does backup vocals. Ive known him actually much longer than Ive known the band. He had this idea that he had started thinking about - it wasnt exactly this idea, but its where it started. It starts with how kids - kids with dogs mostly - kind of see the world in this different way than adults do. He talked about how he used to work at a coffee shop, and some kid came up and was really interested and looking at what hes doing. And the idea that - for kids at least - "keep your head up" could mean not just be strong and carry on, but could also mean keep your eyes open and keep looking around at the world. Dont just put your head down and move forward like we tend to do as adults. It was about being curious about the world around you.
Stelth and I spent a lot of time talking about the idea, I think Wes was in Pairs at the time. We got on a few video phone calls and he and I talked about the concept to Wes and the way to incorporate that into this concept that Stelth and I had been developing. I think the combination of those two conversations was where the large idea came from, where to me the video has both meanings at once. A lot of it is this idea of being curious about the world and having a kids perspective and keeping your head up, meaning paying attention to the world thats going on around you. At the same time its bookmarked for the mom - it definitely is this other meaning of keep going, be strong, and hold true, and youre going to end up finding another place. So the video is a lot about the intersection of those two emotions.
Doug: And what about when it came to the casting? Talula Paulson, who plays the young girl in the backseat, Im curious where you found her, because she is kind of spectacular.
Isaac: She is amazing. I personally really feel uncomfortable about the child acting industry in Los Angeles. I think its just my personality more than me feeling like this inherent injustice or anything. Its an inherent need because theres always stories that people want to tell that have kids as part of the stories. When you have kids in front of the camera, theyre technically actors. But just the idea of auditioning kids for a music video to me seemed terrifying. Ive seen so many kids who get stuck as actors and its really hard to discern whether theyre doing it of their own volition or if theyre doing it because their parents are saying that they should. Its not necessarily about whether theyre happy or not. I think a lot of them probably are happy enough doing it at the time. Im just very wary of the whole kid actor thing. So from the get go it was something where I was really looking to avoid doing a traditional casting and working through that. I would much rather work with someone who I knew, or could get to know, or feel comfortable with.
So that was the goal, to find someone who I could like work with beforehand. We would get to hang out and learn to be friends with each other and have a much more intimate relationship so that it wouldnt feel like a job and it wouldnt feel forced. It would feel really natural. Its really special being able to have Talula in it because shes amazing. I had actually never met her or her parents before, but her parents are good friends of a lot of other people who I know. Like Danielle, she was who actually recommended that I meet up with her parents and with Talula and have that be an audition of sorts. But also Tara, who runs the program Hola that OMG has partnered with a few times, is really good friends with Talula and with her parents. Danielle was just like, Oh I know the perfect girl. And we met up and she was amazing and we hung out. We had two other little practice hang out sessions before the first day of shooting. It was a two day shoot, and between the two days, because of scheduling and the way it worked out, we actually had a week off. Largely that was because we had this large fundraiser for OMG that I had to plan and oversee. So we shot day one, and then we had a week where we werent shooting, so Talula and I spent some more time getting to know each other and practicing and rehearsing. I guess for her that's the wrong word, it's all about just feeling comfortable around each other. She actually came to the OMG fundraiser which was really special, her and her friend. Shes really excited about being able to do the OMG camp as soon as shes old enough. Im really excited to get to know her. Shes just a magical human being.
Doug: So what is the process like when you are directing her? Im sure its not standard actor/director relationship. What are you doing and saying to her to get those emotions, and looks, and performances out of her?
Isaac: Its interesting because in some ways it was and some ways it wasnt. From the get go, the inherent narrative in the video was always going to be based on a core emotion, and an emotional transformation that was built into it from the beginning, but there was no specific shot list of how we were going to get there. A lot of it was very exploratory, and was from the beginning. Sort of like, "Hey, were going to be shooting a lot for two days, and we know where were starting and where were ending, and we just want to make sure that we go through those things." All of the little vignettes of things that we passed, those were all planned and those were very much part of a tangible road map, like "Here are the emotions that shes going through and here is the change thats happening in life as outwardly manifested by things that they drive by." But that wasnt for her. Her acting and responding to that was a large part just me and her working together on different looks, and like experimenting, talking about things that she would be thinking about.
It was something that her parents and I talked about going into it too. Just how much of what the story is actually about should we discuss with her that she would actually understand, and how we would represent it in other ways. It was a compromise. She didnt go into it knowing full on what the video is about. Shes very much knew that this person is supposed to be her mom and this person is supposed to be her dad, and shes going with her mom, and that shes sad about going. But it was never something that we felt comfortable having her realize from the get go that her parents were getting divorced, or breaking up, or never getting back together again - or that thats even a thing. Her parents are very happily married and it wasnt something that we were really going to have her try to internalize as a five year old. Its trying to get to those emotional beats in a roundabout way.
Doug: I didnt imagine you wanting to introduce the concept of divorce to a child just for the purposes of a music video. That doesnt seem like your style.
Isaac: Its definitely not my style, but I also think to some degree it would have been counter productive. Shes not an actress, she doesn't need to fully take on whats happening. I think a lot of what comes across in the video is how genuine her emotions are, in a way that an actress isnt able to really do. I thought about approaching it very similarly as this video I did for this band Okkervil River about two years ago. Theres this emotional process that I want to go through over the course of the video, but not a straight way to get there. But that video was working with two people that were in their twenties. It was the same idea, there was not this fixed narrative that we were going do, and that way you find these emotional moments that feel very true because its not trying to nail this certain beat. Its just trying to be in these different head spaces that we know are working for something. I do think that even if, somehow, she was this seasoned five year old actress, or if she was an adult actress that happens to look like a five year old, I still think we would have gone into the video the same way. Giving these little thought experiments, like, "Lets think about this, or watch this, or right now were being really happy and its fun." I think part of it is the combination of directing and editing that you try to nail in a roundabout way.
Like when shes screaming out the window at the end, its not this process that we discussed with her like, Oh, at this point youre feeling the wind in your hair and letting it out and opening up because you feel like you need to let that negative energy out of your system and be happy about things. It was me really excitedly rolling down my window in the front and being like, Hey Talula, lets do this and well yell at the moon together! because we just saw that the moon had just come up. Or when she smiles at her mom at the end and gives her that knowing, head-shaking smile, its actually me reaching back and sneakily, without her watching, pinching her knee and her making a face at me like, Hey, I caught you. Its trying to get one method of emotion to visually translate to another.
Doug: What was the process behind shooting in the car?
Isaac: I know it doesnt seem like its a crazy complicated shoot, its basically just three shots of a girl in a car. And the truth is that its not complicated - and thats the point. Kevin Hayden shot it. We shot it on a RED Epic, and one of the things that Kevin and I started doing tests for right away was ways to shoot this video without taking a million years and having a crazy car rig and a gazillion lights. Because thats A.) going to just ruin how much time we have to actually shoot with a five year old girl, and B.) going to totally ruin her ability to have any natural sense at all. Shooting cars is crazy and people dont really realize how weird it is to shoot in cars. If you ever go into a car with your iPhone or with any sort camera, and try to shoot someone inside of the car and see whats happening on the outside of the car at the same time, you realize thats very impossible.
What Kevin ended up bringing to the table is, if we shoot with an Epic, the actual camera itself runs very small, and what he realized is Epics now can do this thing called HDR mode, where they basically are shooting twice as many frames per second at two different exposures, and you can kind of combine the two. We ended up shooting the video at 120fps. The whole thing is shot like five times slow-mo, essentially because every other frame is exposing for outside of the car, and then inside of the car, which allowed us to basically shoot it with one little fluorescent light bulb that we had off half the time. One of the things Im really proud of in this video is how Kevin realized that this thing existed. This was the first time Id ever even heard of doing this, the HDR mode on the Epic. I really think that none of how good the video looks would have happened if we had to have the car on a trailer, or have all these lights set up or any of that. He really figured out a way that we could just have it feel like it was me and Kevin and Talula, and one of her parents was always driving - unless it was when we were seeing the mom. It was just the four of us in the car, and then theres all this stuff happening outside of it, but you didnt feel any of that when you were in the car. The car felt like this very safe space and its all very natural. I think thats why the video works more than anything else.
Doug: That would help with any actor, probably, to not have a giant car rig and have to be pulled by a trailer, but especially a five-year-old who youre trying to get these reactions out of through these more natural, roundabout means. That is really unique and seems like the only way it would have worked.
Isaac: Totally. And to me it was this really wonderful thing that Kevin brought to the table, because I think there is a big push, especially in a lot of music videos, to move away from preferring the big cinematic feel and having stuff that feels more natural and relies on natural light and handheld cameras. I think a big part of that is because there is a premium on performance videos. Having to do a bunch of setups like you would do on a film, and get all these lights and rigs together - theres no budget for it and you sacrifice performance. It was really nice to shoot something that looks so great, but was shot in a way that still feels totally natural. Ive done a bunch of car shoots over the last six or seven years, mostly not as a director, and I tend to avoid going to shoots with cars because of that same problem. It really blew my mind when he brought that to the table and we went out and did some tests and we were like, Oh wait, this is the best thing in the world.
Doug: You mentioned that these individual vignettes were mostly planned, what was the process behind putting those together and getting them shot?
Isaac: I actually drew a map out, mostly for Jesse for my AD, and for all of us as we were discussing the actual path that I imagined them taking. It is different than the order that we shot it in, but it just helps place each of these vignettes that we were going to be passing. The idea is that she would have to confront different things that have to do with her situation. Its just figuring out these different emotional beats for her to pass. The idea was always to have those as anchors, and maybe have some others that feel more natural by just shooting them by just essentially shooting her in the car looking out the window passing by certain things. There were a few more serendipitous ones that werent planned, but because of the possibility of getting rights to show other people, and just in general being able to have control over the things we were passing, and the lighting and everything like that, we just very quickly realized that we had to plan all the things we were passing or it wasnt going to happen. We quickly figured that out, and figured out that we had to shoot for a few days. There was no way we were would be able to shoot it in one day. I guess then obviously one thing that we passed that doesnt necessarily directly tie into the other thematic vignettes, but definitely ties into the core base concept of being a little kid and seeing the world in that way, was passing the band. Having them placed in the video was really important to me.
Doug: Why was that important to you to have them a part of the video?
Isaac: For two reasons. One, I think the video as a narrative would totally function and work as a story without them in it. I think the music is strong enough - and this song specifically is strong enough - to totally hold the video and really drive that. We talked a lot about maybe not having them in it, especially because it became this big logistical nightmare to find a time when they could be in it. We shot it right when they found out that they were going to be nominated for a Grammy and they were on tour all over the place and doing different TV things. Figuring out a time to be able to shoot them was a little insane. It was on the table from the beginning that maybe they just shouldnt be in it. Obviously the record label wants to have the band in the music video from a marketing standpoint. Especially with The Lumineers, people dont really know what they look like in the same way that people know what Rihanna looks like. To a certain degree theyre a pop band, and people want to see them. Theyre good-looking people and its fun to watch them play music. I think that there was always that tension that was built in to the process in shooting a video like this because it really isnt the easiest thing to work with for a second single for a band thats had this one huge song. I give Wes specifically - but really the whole band - a ton of credit for saying, Hey, we want to be something like this. We want to do something that we really believe in, that isnt just having us playing our instruments and stomping and clapping again. Weve done it. I think thats really a testament to them as artists, and feeling that everything that they put it is part of something bigger than just selling records. So that was the discussion from the get go. There was a natural place that I thought of from the start of them being one of the things that she passes, without it being a forced thing of bands and narrative intercut - and without taking away from her in any way. Then having them in it, I feel like really gives the video a sense of authorship, which is really important, not for it being an artistic narrative project, but for it being a music video for this band and for their fans. To be say, Hey, this isnt something that we signed off on and let happen, its something that we were actively a part of and actively supported the whole way through. We made sure that we were in LA when they were shooting this scene so that we could be in it. To me, I think that thats really important for their fans to know that they believe in the video and what it is and were an active part of it. So that was half the idea.
The other half the idea is the idea that shes passing them and paying attention to them. Theres this story about this guy named Joshua Bow, who is this world-class violinist. I think the story actually won the Pulitzer Prize. This writer for the Washington Post did this off-the-cuff research experiment with Joshua Bow before he played this giant concert hall show in DC a few years ago. The show was sold out, tickets were hundreds of dollars. Everyone gets dressed up in their fancy dresses and their tuxedos and goes to the show. Hes one of the best violinists in the world. What they did was they dressed him in street clothes - Boston Red Sox hat and a jacket - and sent him down to play on the Metro with his case out to donate money if you want to. Just to watch if people have an appreciation for this music basically. He played the same songs he was going to be playing for a few hundred people for a few hundred dollars a ticket that night. What they found is, as people are going about their day, when theyre going doing to the subway, theyre going from A-to-B, theyre going to work, their heads are down, theyre not paying attention. And the only people who did pay attention were kids. Kids invariably would stop and would listen. They would notice more than with other street musicians because the idea is there is this a certain amount of quality in musicianship and you see that he really is amazing. I think kids more than anyone else are just not closed off to looking at the world around them. So I immediately thought of that before we ever even thought of having the band in there or not, as part of the initial discussion about what keeping your head up could mean.
When we talked about maybe having the band in it or not, to me it just seemed so natural that we would be able to complete that cycle of when theyre in it. Theyre playing, no one else is really watching them, everyone is walking by them, and she makes eye contact with them. Jeremiah from the band is the only person in the whole video who actually notices her - other than her mother and father obviously. To me it really completed the whole thing and tied together basically both those two ideas I was saying the video is about: keeping your head up and keeping strong, and keeping your head up and being curious and paying attention to the world. It was just this really wonderful opportunity to combine both of them.
isaac ravishankara, stubborn love, the lumineers, 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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