Documenting the surf and skate communities around the world, Riley Blakeway began his directing career as a one-man-band, shoot-from-the-hip kind of filmmaker, but these days he says that he’s a ‘glutton for prep’. As he’s moved into commercials, he’s found deep satisfaction in devising and planning his striking visuals – though he’s still at home in the wild and unpredictable ocean.
With award-nominated music videos for the likes of Cherry Glazerr under his belt, as well as commercials for Nike and Samsung, he’s a young director who is starting to gain serious traction. Four months ago, he joined Airbag, the gong-winning Australian production company.
“I was first attracted to the level of work that Airbag deliver and their reputation as a company,” says Riley about the move. “Once I met with the team, I knew it was a great fit for me because we all get along on a personal level, not just as colleagues. I could also see that my work has a unique position on the roster. Since joining, it’s been super collaborative and supportive and I just feel like everyone on the team is a problem solver. That’s very important to me. I like to feel like I’m a part of something special.”
And Riley is an interesting addition to the roster, bringing a unique perspective that comes from a childhood split between Sydney and California. Though Riley says the unpredictable experience was ‘disruptive’, it left him with pockets of friends around the world. He connected with other kids through a love of surfing and skateboarding, eventually leading him to pick up a camera and capture those communities.
But that skate connection isn’t all he gleaned. “I think more than anything my upbringing gave me an open mind and an understanding of how big the world is outside of my own little high school bubble in Australia. It gave me a sense of scope and influenced me to realise that I didn’t have to follow the nine-to-five steady job formula. On a deeper level, I attribute the unpredictability of my life at home for shaping my emotional sensitivity. That’s what I take most pride in as a writer and as a director,” he says.
The creativity of the skater and surfer cultures is well-known – and Riley is one of hundreds of artists and creators to bubble over from funbox to filmmaking. He reckons there’s a good reason that these subcultures have produced so many artists. “Both are unconventional sports that have so many possibilities. It’s an outlet just like any creative craft. Both encourage you to think about things differently in your approach, but they also teach lessons in perseverance. This is equally, if not more important than creative ability.”
A case in point is Riley’s friend Dylan Rieder
, a skater, artist and model who left a massive impression on him. Dylan sadly passed away in 2016; Riley speaks movingly about the impact Dylan had on his own creativity. “My friend Dylan Rieder is someone that I always admired, both on and off a skateboard. He was larger than life in my eyes as a young man. I feel extremely blessed to have been able to capture some of his meaningful time spent on this planet and get to know him.”
Riley’s first foray into the world of film was picking up a VHS camcorder to capture his friends dicking about, and playing the footage back for them. These days, Riley has swapped the ol’ camcorder for a look that’s raw, rich, and real. On a personal level, he’s a sucker for film – although admirably pragmatic about the format’s drawbacks too.
“I have always been attracted to the look of shooting on film. There’s a feeling and a richness that I don’t think can be emulated. Not for me personally. Visuals are extremely important to my work, so I won’t say it’s an afterthought,” he muses. “But I think it’s horses for courses and each idea should be assessed based on how best to spend the money to do the story justice. For example, if shooting on film means sacrificing a crucial post element, I make the decision, so the core idea does not suffer.”
In fact, it’s not just format that Riley considers carefully. These days, research and planning are as much a joy as running around on a shoot. It’s something that makes him comfortable in the world of commercials and branded content – and, no doubt, a comforting director to be around. “I think I’ve just gotten a whole lot better at the production process through writing and working on commercials,” he says, looking back at his earlier experiments. “When I was younger, I didn’t really have a grasp on production. I did everything myself and would run around and just make things happen as best I could. Now the projects are a lot more refined and a lot more encompassing, they require all the hard yards before I get on set. I really do enjoy this process, and I think that’s why I feel at home making ads. I’m a glutton for the prep!”
As Riley has evolved as a director, it’s not just his technical know-how and patience that have evolved. He’s also delved ever deeper into the emotional side of storytelling, particularly over the past year. It’s not just about the stories and feelings and personal thoughts he wants to share and explore; he wants to make a meaningful connection with the viewer.
“Last year I took a very inward approach to my personal filmmaking, and I think it was the first time I really exposed myself and some of the more vulnerable stories that I carry with me. I’ve always worked very much based on tone and feeling. Now I’m pouring more of myself out into the world through my writing, and it’s extremely hard but incredibly cathartic,” he explains. “The feeling when somebody reaches out and says that they really relate to a personal film I’ve made or that they cried is quite surreal for me. Pouring out your soul and connecting with people in the process is really special. Outside of that, I’ve been really attracted to satire and subversive ideas within the music videos that I’ve been writing.”
Music videos, like the recent ‘Joan, I’m Disappearing’ for Melbourne band City Calm Down, encapsulate that more personal approach. But that doesn’t stop Riley from having a real conceptual edge too. His Cherry Glazerr promo, ‘Told You I’d Be with the Guys’ sees the band slowly crowded out by an army of men clad in maroon polo shirts and chinos. These seemingly benign interlopers are an exploration of the way men ‘take up space’ in both the world and in creative fields. It’s a visual metaphor for male entitlement as they non-maliciously start to obstruct the band to the point of suffocation. It’s a strikingly perceptive and self-reflecting idea for a male director.
Now settled in at Airbag, Riley is on the hunt for projects that allow him to explore emotions and ideas. And, for a director who cut his teeth immersed in some truly creative communities, he’s also on the hunt for great collaborators.
“Foremost, I look for the emotion that I can relate to within the story. Whatever that emotion is - a feeling to tap into, or a way to express an idea creatively or in an unexpected way. I love cinematic spots with storytelling and a strong creative direction. A good group of people to collaborate with is always fun too.”