Amsterdam-based director Lisette Donkersloot took longer than most to realise she had artistic talents. She thought she’d end up pursuing a more mathematical route through education. But as soon as she discovered art school she had a revelation. While studying art direction and styling at The Art Academy in Rotterdam, she realised that it was behind the camera monitor that she felt most at home.
Her love for filmmaking was enough to motivate her to teach herself the craft of directing, carving out an aesthetic that she’s still exploring. Caviar, who recently signed her up for representation in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK, described her approach as: “Confident, dramatic and ever-so-slightly surreal” – an approach she’s applied to create music videos for artists such as Mr Probz, Afrojack and Yellow Claw; and attention-grabbing commercials for Dr. Martens and the Flower Council of Holland.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Lisette.
LBB> What’s your earliest memory of filmmaking or your appreciation for it?
Lisette> I really consider myself to be a late bloomer. It took me quite some time to figure out there are actually people making films, that it’s a whole industry and that I could also become a filmmaker myself.
I wasn’t brought up with cinema at all. Neither my parents, siblings or early life friends were into film nor introduced me to it. Most of the classics I still haven’t seen (I know, shame on me) but there is just a huge archive I still have to catch up on.
As a kid I remember I watched horror films all by myself, because everyone else was too afraid to join. Plus there was no fun in watching horror with me as I would annoyingly analyse and spoil how fake the scene actually was. I got a kick from the fact it didn’t scare me. Really pathetic! But it wasn’t like I wanted to make horror films or play in one myself. So it wasn’t until I got into art school, where we had this project week focusing on fashion film in second year, that I realised that I had fallen in love with the medium. And even though I sucked, that was the moment I decided that film was the path I wanted to pursue.
LBB> And what were your first experiments like with a camera?
Lisette> Again with this, I was rather late. My first real experiments were at art school in Rotterdam where I studied art direction and styling. They sort of expected you to capture all of your ideas through photography as it was quite photography-oriented, but I am a really poor photographer. I just couldn’t get my ideas to fit in just one frame. I had a DSLR camera back then. The minute I realised it also had an HD filming option it all started to make sense. I started to visualise the assignments through short clips I’d later edit myself to weird, arty and experimental mini-films.
LBB> What motivated you to go to art school and what was the experience like?
Lisette> Well, I used to be this ‘BETA kid’ in high school. Really good at math. So in high school I assumed I’d go study mathematics or become an accountant or something. Then one day, one of my teachers said to me: ‘But you’re going to art school right, after exams?’ as she knew I drew a lot. I really had no clue what art school was about, let alone considering it. But my teacher did plant a seed there. I went to visit the art school and was immediately hooked. I chose art direction and styling as it was the most varied direction and I wanted to keep my options open. Looking back I would say my specific education didn’t really make sense. It was too generic. Too whatever. But the one thing I did learn lots about was myself. I actually formed my identity there.
Art school was great for becoming more opinionated, but bad for my tax declarations.
LBB> I’m curious about the culture of filmmaking in the Netherlands – is there something distinctly Dutch that affects the way you make your films?
Lisette> I got introduced to Dutch filmmaking culture quite late myself, so I feel like I can only speak for the last couple of years. But I think the cool thing that’s happening at the moment is that a lot of young talented filmmakers/creatives currently active in the local film landscape came from a DIY/autodidactic background, just like myself. Which results in a beautiful melting pot of approaches and diversity in visual outcomes and signatures.
I don’t have a schooled background in film whatsoever, which occasionally makes me insecure. But then I see awesome work coming out from a filmmaker who turns out to be totally self-made as well which is just great. I realise there’s no need to be insecure. There’s an open minded attitude towards (young) talent and our untraditional ways of doing it.
It is said that a real social culture is non existing in the Netherlands, because it’s too diverse and knows heritage from so many different places. But I think the rich collection of influences is exactly what makes it a culture, a unique one for that matter. I think you could say the same thing about the culture to filmmaking here.
LBB> How did you end up developing your approach and aesthetic you like to work with? How would you describe it?
Lisette> I work very intuitively and optically. So I just very much respond to what I’m drawn to visually. Like most people do I guess. You could say my approach and aesthetic right now is still very much in development as I feel there’s so much more to explore and learn for me. Of course I’m drawn to a certain outspoken palette with blues and greens and I like to create stylised imagery with hints of sensuality and surrealism, but I wouldn’t be able to make a decisive description yet. Sorcha Shepherd (who runs Caviar London) recently told me my style - especially in the Dr. Martens film - didn’t necessarily look like it came from a female director. I considered that to be a huge compliment actually.
LBB> There's a lot of juxtaposition of beauty and deviousness in your films, for example the characters in your Yellow Claw and Mr Probz videos – what is it about these themes that appeal to you?
Lisette> That’s a really good question. I have to dig deep for that. I think there’s this dark part inside of me that is very fascinated by the gritty, the sober, the melancholic, the extreme/provocative and dystopian evil. Not that I support such (criminal) manifestations in real life, but most of those expressions I consider to be highly aesthetic. I think ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, one of my favourite shows, is a good example of that. Though the subject matter is horrible and heavy, I think these intense scenes are the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
Compared to that my characters in the Yellow Claw and Mr Probz videos are pretty much saints and I think I could (and often want to) take it much further. But to answer your question I think it just makes sense to me, almost feels natural to link those dark-minded characters or ideas to beauty. I hope that doesn’t sound too creepy.
LBB> We loved your Flower Council film – what was it about the idea that appealed to you? And how do you choose what commercial projects you want to work on?
Lisette> First of all thanks so much. The initial idea was to make a grand film about life starring flowers, as the brief said. I mean, what’s not to like? I had written several treatments before in which I had flowers involved, because flowers are awesome. But those weren’t granted or just didn’t happen. And then this Flower Council project came along and it got my blood pumping from the get-go. I knew I really had to win that pitch otherwise I would really HATE.MY.LIFE. as I knew there was massive potential in that film.
Again with this, I work intuitively. I think every director knows very quickly whether it’s a project he/she wants to work on. I think I’m quite good at saying no to commercial projects I don’t feel drawn to, but it’s still work. So I wish I could be even more picky sometimes, but I also like the challenge of making a project your own that didn’t feel like you in the first place.
LBB> What else are you working on right now or what are your big aims for the next year?
Lisette> Besides some commercial projects and pitches, I’m currently finishing up a short film I shot in Poland last May. It became a project very special and dear to me which also reveals more about that dark part inside of me that I mentioned earlier. So I hope to be able to release that one soon.
Talking big aims, I really hope on getting Obama to finally follow me back on Instagram. Other than that I aim to make a big commercial (fashion) film and music video this year for a brand/artist that’s on my wishlist. And popping at least three bottles of champagne with Caviar. I hardly drink so I only get those bottles out for celebratory occasions of grandeur.
LBB> Who are your filmmaking heroes and why?
Lisette> Charlie Kaufman, because I wish I had his mind. Andrej Tarkovski, because I wish I had his vision.
LBB> Outside of directing what inspires you?
Lisette> I feel like I’m not allowed to say ‘other people’s films’ for some reason here... I know it’s a horrid cliche answer, but I can get inspired by basically everything. An extremely ugly ceiling lamp on the Dutch Trains (everyone who’s Dutch knows there’s nothing intriguing about the train lamps) once had me come up with the shot in my Yellow Claw video in which you see footsteps walking inside the lamp. It’s not my favourite video, but definitely one of my favourite shots.
But besides public transport lighting I get inspired by my old roommate’s Tumblr page, anything from the hand of Apollonia St Clair
, plastic bags in the wind, museum visits, a lot of artists (Gregory Crewdson, Vanessa Beecroft, Alexander McQueen etc.), oriental supermarkets and Kanye West’s first five albums.