Fiction Films director on her retro-futuristic music video for Life is Better Blonde and her Lord of the Rings-fuelled passion for film craft
With a collection of short films, music videos and commercials under her belt, it’s safe to say Natalie Erika James has a broad range of expertise. Her influences come from far and wide, having grown up in Japan, China, Australia and even the US.
LBB’s Liam Smith caught up with her to find out about more about her and her unsettlingly cool music video for Life is Better Blonde.
LBB> Where did you grow up, and how did you get into filmmaking?
Natalie Erika James> I grew up moving around a lot – mostly around Japan and China, a few years in Australia, and a very short stint in the US. A little bit all over the shop, and it’s definitely influenced my work and the worlds I’m interested in.
I was obsessed with reading growing up, so I think I was always in love with stories. And it was probably those epic Lord of the Rings behind the scenes DVDs that got me interested in the craft behind the stories. So I’ve been making terrible films since I was 13, and not-so-terrible films about a decade later after film school.
LBB> You’ve worked on a bunch of film projects and music videos. Between the two, which do you prefer working on?
NEJ> I’ve always approached music videos like making short films, so I’d say the preference or enjoyment is more or less the same. I’ve been lucky enough to work with artists who’ve trusted me with their tracks and given me a lot of creative freedom.
The great thing about music videos is that you get to share them with the world pretty soon after completing them. Short films can take a while to be shown at festivals - a lot of us know the disappointment of pouring everything into a film and then having it sit on a shelf for months. Or years. It finds an audience eventually but the waiting process with festival hierarchies and timelines can be difficult.
LBB> You wrote and directed the short film Creswick. Can you tell us a bit about it? What was it like writing and directing?
NEJ> Creswick is a pretty personal exploration of aged dementia told through a horror lens, about having to confront your parents’ mortality and family roles beginning to shift as people age. I co-wrote the script with Christian White, and it was one of those rare scripts that came easily and was relatively painless to write. We actually won an award with the Australian Writers Guild for Best Short Form Screenplay last year, which was a wonderful thing for us. The shoot was self-funded, so my producer Emma Haarburger and I pulled it together with the help of an amazing crew, mostly close friends who all pitched in.
LBB> You’ve got some feature film projects in development. Can you tell us anything about those?
NEJ> Creswick was actually made as a ‘proof of concept’ for a feature project called RELIC. They basically share the same tone, themes and setting, but with a different narrative. For RELIC, I’m working with the amazing women at Carver Films (Snowtown, Partizan) and we’ve recently paired with NYC-based Nine Stories, which is run by Riva Marker and Jake Gyllenhaal.
LBB> You’ve also worked on a few commercial spots. Which of them has really stuck with you as something you’re proud of?
NEJ> I’m really proud of the spots we did with Townsquare for Sovereign Hill. The brief was to create a 30-second spot that could be mistaken for a film trailer set in 1850s gold-rush Australia. The shoot really had everything – animals, children, carriages, countless extras in historically accurate clothes, pyrotechnics, muskets, shooting down in the mines with no reception etc. It was just a really great and closely-worked collaboration between us, Townsquare, and the client.
LBB> Your music video for Life is Better Blonde is astounding - futuristic, retro, a little unsettling… can you tell us what inspired it?
NEJ> Thank you! Well firstly the track had such a Kid A, ‘alienated robot’ feel to it, so we knew we wanted to involve an android of some sort. My co-director Ben Morgan and I were getting really immersed in VR and AR experiences at festivals – games, short films, docos – and were really keen to do something in that space (As it turns out VR projects can be a hard sell, so we thought we’d at least create something about VR).
I was particularly interested in how the games we used to play as kids would translate to VR. Especially games like The Sims or even something like Diner Dash, where you’re really carrying out banal everyday tasks, but they somehow become completely engrossing in the game. The clip uses this kind of glitchy, video game logic to tell the story of one gamer who fulfils her desire for motherhood through a 1950s era ‘Nannybot’ game. It’s a bittersweet ending that is probably rooted in my own questions and fears about hyperreality and fantasy.
And we were probably watching too much Black Mirror at the time.
LBB> What made you decide to sign to Fiction?
NEJ> I signed with Fiction the first time I met the owners Jackie Fish and Jake Robb! I’d been DAing a few jobs for them remotely, and then they asked me to come in for a coffee. I thought it was a casual meet-and-greet, and it turned out to be an offer to join their roster.
The thing that still strikes me is how well regarded they are by crews – that’s directly correlated to how gracious and generous these two people are. Jake is an astounding director and his mentorship and advice over the last few years has been invaluable. I think I had a good sense of these things from that first meeting, so it was really a no-brainer.
LBB> What do you get up to besides directing?
NEJ> Film definitely takes up a lot of time! I’ve been travelling quite a bit recently, mostly for film festivals, but definitely taking the time to experience new things outside of the work. Comedy, drag shows, and boxing have been my recent out-of-work passions.