Video Chats: Ben Fee and Pete Lee on 'Delicate Cycle' by The Uncluded

Posted by Doug Klinger on May 14, 2013 in Interviews

Staff Post

Ben Fee Pete Lee

The Uncluded, the genre-crossing duo comprised of Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson, has been on a music video tear recently, already releasing four videos off of their debut album Hokey Fright, which was released last week. Likely our favorite video from the album so far, “Delicate Cycle” directed by Ben Fee and Pete Lee, features The Uncluded along side a cast of over 80 different cast members – both people and animals. We talked to Ben and Pete about collaborating with The Uncluded, shooting with a cafeteria full of kids, and practical washing machine effects.

Doug: How did you guys get involved with the project?

Ben: Pete and I serendipitously booked each a couple of videos on the West Coast, shooting around a general vicinity of the end of February into March. We decided we’d spread them out and conquer them all together because we just enjoy working together. We always bring really great people together. This was the first of that chunk of videos and it was no exception. Actually, some of my proudest moments were watching crews that I’ve worked with, meet crews that Pete has worked with, and just getting along really well. That’s just the intro to a huge cast of characters - of animals, and children, and elderly, and funny guys, and really eccentric, beautiful, brilliant artists. 

Pete: Aesop Rock had been mentioning to me that he’s doing a side project with Kimya Dawson. I had no idea what that meant. He introduced me to her, and her and I started bonding and being friends. As soon as my first video came out, "ZZZ Top," there has been talks about doing something with her. She always want to do a Kung fu movie where she joins a Zumba class and kicks ass on all them Zumba bitches, and in talking about that idea is how the discussion for this video started. In fact, the first I met her in person, she showed me the pictures of these animals of Ramen Noodle, and of London, and of Lil’ Bub.

Ben: London is the two-legged pit bull with the wheels.

Pete: Right, and Ramen is a two-legged poodle, and Lil’ Bub is a cat. She wanted to work with these animals. I had no idea what it might entail, but I was excited by the idea. More importantly, I was excited by her excitement. Just how much real love she has for these animals. Not us looking at them and having a cute overload, she has actual love for them and really wants to know what they’re about. She really takes her time to talk to the pet owners and the pet photographers. It’s profound and it’s adorable.

Ben Fee Pete Lee

Photo by Pete Lee

Doug: So that’s where the concept of this video originated, with these awesome animals with awesome names?

Pete: The first time I heard this song I was in the car and I just had it on repeat. I wrote them and said, "I want to do this one. I want to do this one." It was all really compacted because Aesop is touring, and I was dealing with my father’s heart surgery on the East Coast. It was really crazy but we just sat down and looked at a few ideas. Eventually, the idea I pitched in was based on the fact that I just saw the Up Right Citizen’s Brigade live show in New York called ASSSSCAT, where somebody tells a story and then they just have a series of nine or ten sketches that are loosely based on that story. That was how we came up with everything. In the song there was mentions of dismemberment, mentions of laundry, and a lunch lady, and of being a kid. So we just thought of different scenarios that would encompass different images and different lyrical ideas.

Doug: When it came to the casting and assembling of those elements that you pulled from the lyrics, where did you get everyone and everything?

Ben: Kimya.

Pete: It’s all Kimya. I would try to be cool and be all music video directorly and act like I know somebody. Then Kimya always just kills it with somebody else. They made a very funny and a very stern warning to me to right from the beginning. They said, "We don't want you to go out casting 'good-looking people' for this." They wanted authentic characters. I referred to something as glamorous in the treamtent and right away Kimya and Aesop Rock both said, "That’s not what The Uncluded is about."

Ben: Everyone in the video is really authentic and wonderful, and that was a prevailing theme - that you want real authentic people. If anyone is fortunate enough to get to know Kimya, which they should try in their lifetime because she’s a rare gem of a person. You would see people walking around near our sets and know, “That’s Kimya’s friend.” You could just tell. They’d come, and they’d hang out, and they are really humble and wonderful people. They were really fun to shoot. There’s one scene in particular where there’s a couple of picnic tables lined up, and the guy in the white suit, Alex, who is also a friend of Kimya’s, is running through all their food. All the people there are pretty much all Kimya’s friends that just came out and dedicated an afternoon to helping out and be the people in the video.

Pete: Some of them came down pretty far. Some of them drove all the way down from Olympia, Washington.

Ben: To Portland, Oregon probably a four hour commute at least.

Pete: Then they waited in the cold all day and it was raining in portions. But, they would do anything you ask them to do. Easiest crowd to direct.

Ben Fee Pete Lee

Photo by Pete Lee

Doug: I read that you guys had about 80 or so cast members, including the animals. What percentage of them were her friends?

Pete: 85 to 90%.

Ben: I was going to say 80% probably. When we were in Portland, it was really nice to be back there. Portland was my home for years. Some of my best friends still live there and they came out. They donated time, faces, talent. Like I said earlier, it’s just really fun seeing people that I’ve loved to work with meet new people and work so well together. Our producer/production designer, Margo Rust, gathered tons of extras and tons of dogs. The dogs were awesome. Carly, our animal wrangler/second unit director, she was so good. She knew exactly how to treat the animals, how to talk to them, how to acclimate the animals. It was really cool because I’ve never shot with more than a couple animals ever, and they usually know each other, but we had a dozen dogs at least that didn’t know each other. She had an introduction period where she would kind of quarantine a couple of dogs and then introduce them and rotate dogs out. All of a sudden the group of dogs was a really happy group of dogs that wouldn’t have been otherwise. She could read the group dynamics within the animals. That was pretty magical to watch.

Doug: How was it working with all those kids in the classroom?

Pete: It’s hard to cast a whole group of kids, especally seven, eight, and nine year olds who were not professional actors and who don’t have a stake in acting. Kimya just hit up some connections, and I used to work with kids in this part of San Francisco called the Tenderloin. We just pooled some of our kids together. In the beginning, we were very unambitious. We wanted maybe five or six kids because the kitchen that we’re working at serves 25,000 pounds of chicken a week to the under privileged population in San Francisco. It’s very much a round the clock working kitchen, and we only had three hours there. But the list of kids just kept ballooning, and we see these photos and then these really excited comments from Kimya’s friend, Becky, who is sort of a local liaison. Every kid was adorable and every kid made us think, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I can see that kid sitting on the corner of the cafeteria.” As a result, we accepted them all. Next thing I know, it was an actual cafeteria full of kids - but still with only three hours. On that day, it was really military. We showed up an hour ahead, and Ben, and Drew - our DP - and the crew just went at it. They navigated this huge building, which was a little bit of a maze. I had about half an hour on my end to prep the kids and had to use every single tool that I ever learned in working with kids. Luckily, these kids were super sharp and really excited. I have this mantra with them too. It’s hard to get 30 kids, plus parents, plus crew, to all turn their heads at you at a drop of a dime. So to get their attention, I would say, “Don’t hate on us!” And then all the kids would have to say, “We’re fabulous!” Which meant it’s time to take direction from me and get excited to do this. 

Ben Fee Pete Lee

Photo by Rick Marr

Doug: How did they respond to the lunch lady?

Pete: The lunch lady, Nomy, was exactly as we imagined. She’s the person that we directed the least in this whole shoot. She was just so natural. When we sent her the treatment, she got it. The room was so small that we couldn’t rehearse the late part so I didn’t know what Ben or Drew wanted. I didn’t know what the cafeteria looked like at the time, so we just rehearsed all the classroom aspect of it. We basically had it all the way up to where she takes off her leg.

Doug: You didn’t tell the kids that she was going to remove her leg?

Pete: It was two hours in. We had half an hour left of shooting when Ben says, “Did you tell the kids that was going to happen?” I said, “No, I’m just going do it.” Ben says, “I think you should tell the kids.” After doing a little mental calculation, I agreed. I said, “Don’t hate on us!” and the kids said they were fabulous. I asked the kids why they thought the lunch lady was limping. I said, "Did anyone notice? She had a prosthetic leg. Does anyone know what that means?” I was fully ready for some of the kids to heckle and to have to shoot it down. There’s this one boy just raised his hand and said, “She has a replacement leg.” That was better than I could explain. They were all on it, so I just said, “Yeah. At some points she’s going to replace her leg. Don’t look at the camera. Don’t look at me. Just react in that moment.” Then she does it, and they have this really beautiful moment.

Ben: Nomy was really cool afterwards, because the ids were curious about it. Some of the kids we’re vocal, but she accepted it. I did hear, “Oh my God,” or “Eww. “ She goes, “No, no, no. It’s actually not ‘eww’. It’s just my leg.” She was really gracious about it. She loved the way they reacted. She loved that they’re honest. I think every kid walked away with a new understanding. Everybody won that night.

Ben Fee Pete Lee

Photo by Pete Lee

Doug: How did you guys achieve that washing machine effect?

Ben: Practical.

Pete: We just took it apart. I have a pretty close relationship down in San Francisco with this beautiful antique shop called Viracocha. That place is magical. If you visit San Francisco you’ve got to check it out. It’s kind of a Miyazaki scenery. I just asked this one jolly guy Charlie if such a thing was possible. Next thing I know he already built it. He went out and looked for an abandoned washing machine, then took it apart himself and shot his own test. He was just so excited to be able to do this.

Doug: The last time I spoke to you guys, it was for an Aesop Rock solo video. Is it a different dynamic on set with him as part of The Uncluded?

Pete: Yes. It’s not just that he’s with Kimya, this time he had more involvement creatively. The last one, he really liked the treatment, and we just went at it. He was touring, so he could only stop by for the one day of shooting. For this one, he was around the whole time. He came up with some of our favorite moments with him yet. For example, the lonely dog aspect. We had the dogs first, and we’re trying to figure out what the dogs could do and how they would fit. He just had this brilliant idea that this two-legged dog is lonely because he’s watching all these other dogs going by. In the end he finds a little playmate, somebody who’s like him and they frolic. That was completely his idea. This time it just seemed he had more at stake because he is much more involved creatively from the very beginning.

Ben Fee Pete Lee

Photo by Jenny Calhoun

Doug: The Uncluded have some other videos but they're still a very fresh and new collaboration. Despite that, would you say they have a pretty clear vision of what they're about as a band?

Ben: It’s really interesting. When we were shooting on the first day, the first time they were to perform, we set the shot up outside of a house and positioned them a certain way. Then Kimya says, “Oh, whenever we perform for The Uncluded, I sit here and Aes stands next to me this on this side." I remember thinking that that’s a really interesting way to project clearly across all videos that it’s part of your dynamic and part of your thing. We repeated that throughout. That’s something that she brought up and she wanted to brand. They want to be very certain and clear that it is The Uncluded. It’s not Aesop Rock and it’s not Kimya Dawson. It’s really clear in their sound that they want to bring what they each have respectively to the table and then grow in a new direction from there. I always thought that Aesop was a really important dude for hip-hop, but even more after this. He is a really important person not only for hip-hop, but for music because he’s doing something so unique and so free of judgment. When he brings Kimya up on stage, he’s giving that audience a taste of something that they probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Because she’s associated with him, most of those people think, “Oh, then it’s probably cool and I should listen to her.” They’re breaking down doors and broadening horizons that way. Same goes for Kimya. Her audience might not necessarily listen to Aesop’s music, but then when they hear it, they’re like, “Oh, this is poetry. Just Kimya, it’s just on a different format.”

ben fee, delicate cycle, pete lee, the uncluded, 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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