Video Chats: Malia James on 'Demon Dance' by Surfer Blood

Posted by Doug Klinger on May 23, 2013 in Interviews

Staff Post

Malia James

With all of the compromises that usually have to be made to get a music video finished, sometimes a director just needs to put their foot down. Director Malia James did that when finding a location for the video for "Demon Dance" by Surfer Blood, a dark but funny video that in addition to requiring two great performances by it’s actors, relied significantly on a convincing location. We talked to Malia about the video, balancing her time directing and playing in the band Dum Dum Girls, and what happens when you and your friend find out you're writing treatments for the same song. (Photos by Eliseo Romero)

Doug: You mentioned to me that you started photography first, before you started getting into playing music. Is there a place that you see yourself most comfortable, or do you like it all at this point?

Malia: That's one of the two questions that I always get asked. Each of them serves a different part of my interests. At this point, I don’t want to give up any of them. I don’t want to stop touring yet. I think that may end soon though because I’ve been touring since I was 18 and it’s harder emotionally and physically when you’re older. I still love it. I love playing. Taking photos and directing taps into a similar place aesthetically, but a very different place as far as how you’re telling a story. With photographs you have one shot to say something, and then for a video - or now I’m starting to work on a script - you have more time to tell a story. I love them all equally.

Doug: You said there are two questions you always get. What’s the second?

Malia: "How do you do it all?"

Doug: How do you do it all?

Malia: I have no social life, but that’s OK because I absolutely love what I do. That to me is play time. It makes it very difficult to have romantic relationships, but whimsical romance happens once in a while, and then I go back to work. That gets old too. I have some of the best friends I could ask for, but I never get to see them.

Malia James

Doug: Getting into the Surfer Blood video, how did you get involved in that project?

Malia: When I used to interview bands, Surfer Blood was one that I genuinely enjoyed talking to. When I was sent the Surfer Blood track to write for, I was immediately excited at the prospect of working with them. The track was great and then when that vision came to mind, I really, really wanted it. I’m very picky about what I write on. I get sent a lot of really terrible songs with big budgets, but I’m selective of who I work with. I think it’s important to curate your body of work as an artist. Unfortunately, that usually means long days and over-working and under-paying my crew for a good song.

Doug: This video is pretty hilarious. Is humor something that you look to explore a lot in your work? Or is that something that's fresh for this project?

Malia: I think you could say it’s fresh. I feel like most of my work comes off as pretty dark, even my humor comes off as dark. Clearly the Surfer Blood video is funny, but it’s darkly humorous. My friend once referred to me as the happiest sad person he knows, because I’m genuinely super content with life, but I’m drawn to darkness. I would like to start showing more of my sense of humor in my work because lightheartedness and sarcasm are such a big part of my personality. I don’t want to be too serious. My new favorite director is Derek Cianfrance, who directed Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. He’s my favorite current, hot new director. He is doing what I would want to do if I wanted to stay in that space creatively. I’d say all my favorite films are of that same tone even. But I think I want to lighten up as I get older, if anything to put more joy into the world.

Malia James

Doug: The narrative itself has got a punch line at the end, but there’s a lot of humor in the performance vignettes in the shop windows. What were each of those inspired by?

Malia: I’m very drawn to aesthetics and art direction. I’ve done art department before. I though, "OK, what would look interesting aesthetically in a store window, and what’s going to create an iconic image in these windows?" I thought, "Why not twist that at the end and have this very sinister element that you would never see in a window display." I thought it matched the shift musically at the end of the song and it’s a slight jab at the falseness of advertising - only ever presenting an unattainable and hyperreal life.

Doug: What was the collaboration with Surfer Blood like? Were they involved with coming up with some of the ideas, or was it mainly on you?

Malia: I've been really, really lucky. With every project I've ever done, I've been given I would say 95% to 98% creative control in what I shoot. The edit is often where I find it’s a balancing act between what everyone wants. From what I've heard, they unanimously agreed on my treatment. They were so lovely to work with. JP was a champ from the first shot through to the last, never complaining or losing his focus on set, which is incredible considering what a grueling day it was.

Malia James

Doug: That's good because his part requires a good performance to portray a silly, confidence-lacking guy like that. So did you write that character not knowing if he was going to be able to pull it off?

Malia: I knew that he could naturally be that character from our interaction in the interview that we did, because I think part of what's endearing about JP is his slight awkwardness. I just thought all I have to do is get him to turn that up and adapt it to this character, but I didn't know he would be as good as he was in the nuances of it - a lot of which didn't actually make it into the video which is usually the case. A lot of the best narrative performance substance didn't survive the edit. A music video often has to be performance-based, where I had intended it to be more focused on the narrative.

Doug: You mentioned bidding against a good friend for this video, I wonder if you could tell that story of how you realized that.

Malia: A good friend and talented director, Sam Macon, came to town. He picked me up and as we're driving along, he put on the song and said "Have you heard of this band Surfer Blood?" I just started laughing, and he turns to me and says, "Oh no. We're bidding on the same job aren’t we?" I said, "Yeah, I really want it and I have a great idea." He was all, "I don't have an idea, what’s your idea?" I said "I'm not telling you. No way." So, we had a handshake that we would share our ideas once we had turned our treatments in, and whoever got the video would buy the other person dinner. He sent me his treatment and I really thought that they might choose his. The band later told me his was their second choice. But it happens that you bid against friends sometimes on jobs. I wouldn’t take it personally to lose to someone I know; I even felt more inspired by competing against someone I like so much. It was a playful competitive spirit.

Doug: The only way that you could not bid against your friends is to not have any music directors as friends.

Malia: Or any creative friends at all.

Malia James

Doug: We talked about the casting a little bit, but I'm curious about the casting of Cass Bugge, the female lead and what you were looking for in that character. She's spectacular - where did you find her?

Malia: I wrote the part for her. She is a friend of mine, and I knew she'd be good because she is beautiful, but isn’t afraid to let that get in the way of the joke. The way that she does comedy is kind of over the top without being slapstick. I had her in mind and luckily she agreed to do it in the end. There was always that risk that I would show her the script and she would say no. She was fantastic, and again, so many of her great performances didn't make it in the video. I wish we could have shown more of that. She had everyone on set dying laughing. I hadn’t originally planned for her character to be so animated, but it came out of the natural chemistry and worked better that way.

Doug: As far as the concept itself, what was the initial inspiration of it? Where did the concept come from?

Malia: I usually get ideas from what visions match the sound, less than what the lyrics reference. I normally don’t resonate with lyrics, even as a listener, until after I've already bonded with a song. The first video I ever did, the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club video for "Beat the Devils Tattoo," was very much based on the lyric content and I think it works for that video, but that was the last time that I did that. For this, you get the image of what goes on in the store after dark, or this idea of how someone creates a world of fantasy when they are alone in a space. I've always been fascinated with empty spaces. The whole idea of it being a store that is closed only came about from a budgetary standpoint, because we just didn't have the money to rent out a department store. When the project got green lit they said, "OK, you realize it costs the entire budget to shut down a store at night." We did go back to the drawing board a few times, but luckily we found a JC Penny that had just closed down. It had been there since the 50's and had only closed a few months prior, so no one had shot there yet. I don't think they even had any bids on leasing it, so they were very willing to work with us and were very generous.

Doug: I'm assuming that is almost impossible to come across a location that hasn't been shot in yet in LA.

Malia: Very much. There were a lot of problems in getting this video made, and that was one of them. The concept and the aesthetics were too expensive for what we had, but it all came together in the end.

Malia James

Doug: Beyond getting your crew to work for a very small amount of money, what are some of the other ways you were able to stretch that budget and make it work?

Malia: It was mostly people and finding the location that was key. We almost had to shoot in a thrift store, just a regular thrift store. If it had to be a thrift store, I really wanted St. Vincent's downtown. It was a great little place because it had different areas, and I thought that was what we really needed. They didn't want us to shoot there, but we had permission to go shoot at this other place. The production company said that's where we had to do it. I drive out there and it's just a room. It's a shitty room with paneled ceiling and stuff lying up against the wall. I got so anxious and thought, "We can't do it here, it's impossible." We had to have a conversation with the commissioner at Warner, Devin Sarno. You never want to have to ask for an extension. He was very cool, though. He was so supportive of me and the treatment from the start. He’s also had a long working relationship with my rep, Randi Wilens, so he trusted we would do it right. We said that we need more time, we need to find this location. Luckily, with a few more days we found the store. One of the main requirements of the director is knowing when to stick to your vision because you get told “no” a lot. I’m not one to enjoy being told “no.” The production company and the location scout says, "We can't afford to send them out again. You have to deal with this," and I say, "No, I'm not shooting in a room lined with clothes. I'm sorry, no. I will turn the video down." By holding out for that one more day, we found the perfect place. Then to save money, everyone worked for just a fraction of the usual rate. I didn't take a fee nor did Safe Camp, the production company. Everyone just really loved the idea and we genuinely had a good time making it. I had an incredibly lovely and talented crew - every single person was a perfect fit for the shoot. A friend told me the “rumor” from a few people on the crew was that they’d had a great time and I was lovely to work with. In a way, that’ the best compliment I could have gotten.

demon dance, malia james, surfer blood, 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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