Photo: Clara with Kasey and Smiley, who feature in the film
A native of Sweden, RSA Films’ director Clara Tägtström has found herself about as far away from that culture and environment as one can get with the filming of her upcoming untitled documentary feature. The film is set in Slab City, the community of squatters, artists, snowbirds and migrants in the Sonoran desert nearly 200 miles southeast of Los Angeles (which you can read more about here). Slab City is a place known for its lawlessness - Clara herself describes it as the real Nomadland - and is the last resort for some and in many ways a microcosm for the challenges of the times. Her documentary explores the time between childhood and adolescence for one young girl growing up there.
Clara’s penchant for storytelling took root while working at MTV Scandinavia, doing everything from directing in-house promos, creative directing, and producing still photography shoots. She joined Ridley Scott’s RSA Films for commercials recently after meeting John Payne, RSA’s MD for Asia and China, and director Jake Scott, while she was in Barcelona shooting a Nike campaign. After next meeting with RSA global MD Kai-Lu Hsiung she was convinced that the production company powerhouse was the perfect combination of industry expertise and a family-like culture to help grow her career in commercials.
Clara spoke to us about how being a Swedish national lost in the desert marked the start of her first documentary feature, how her visceral short films and commercials have avoided the formulaic, and how she’s angling to be advertising’s go-to female car director.
LBB> Are you officially an Angelino?
Clara> Yes. However I was stuck in Sweden for nine months last year because of the pandemic. We were in the final stretch with our upcoming documentary and everything got postponed. I got back to LA in November of last year.
LBB> How long have you been working on your feature documentary?
Clara> Five years. I started out and I focused my attention on this girl named Kasey. At the time, she was seven. Now she’s 13. It was this coming-of-age story of her living off grid, leading her parents’ free lifestyle, and in many ways excluded from society. The only connection she sort of had to society was school because she goes to public school. And then Covid happened.
LBB> How did you discover the subjects of your film?
Clara> It was completely by accident. I was working for MTV in Los Angeles and I read in the LA Times about a man named Leonard Knight who passed away. They talked about this rainbow-coloured monument he created in the desert, Salvation Mountain. I had the weekend off, I had a rental car, and I just drove out there.
I saw this beautiful landmark and there were no people there, no tourists, no nothing. When I left to head back to LA, my car’s old-school GPS took me back into the desert instead of out onto the main road. It was night-time and I didn’t know where I was. It goes pitch black out there. I ended up at an outdoor venue, run by generators, people dancing on a stage… and I thought, ‘What is this?’ I had to stop to ask for directions to get back. I met this man named Builder Bill who said, ‘This is Slab City. This is the range. Welcome! You’re welcome to stay here. We’ll help you find your way back to LA when you’re ready.’
I ended up staying there for a couple hours. I went back to LA and googled Slab City and went on YouTube. It mostly showed people filming from their cars… a very specific way of portraying this poor community. This was not at all my experience out there. I went back out and met with Builder Bill again, and I saw this young kid named Zack, who ended up in my Nowness portrait. I started shooting with Zack. I said, “Are you up for this, being on camera? Just take me through your day.” I had no experience doing anything documentary-wise. I was probably more in his face than I should have been. We just hung out. And then he introduced me to his dad. And then his dad’s new family, which included Kasey, who’s now my main character. Everything kind of unfolded from this.
Slab City is as far as you can get from Scandinavia. What really caught my eye with Kasey, who at the time was seven years old, was how free she was. The desert was her playground and she was not on her laptop or her phone all the time. Her family was just trying to live a quote/unquote normal life, in a place lacking the preconditions for that. Kasey is 13 now, which comes with all things that go with being that age.
LBB> It’s interesting having seen the film Nomadland and now chatting with you about your documentary. Have comparisons been made?
Clara> I had a meeting recently and we were saying the exact same thing. Nomadland features Quartzsite which is considered to be the ‘luxury’ off grid experience. Slab City is on the other side of the Chocolate Mountains. For a lot of the people who come to Slab City, it's a very last resort. Sweden tops international lists ranking social welfare and social progress; you pay high taxes, but you have free healthcare, high school, college, all of that. Coming to the US, you realise that there’s none of that.
LBB> Who are you working with on the documentary?
Clara> I did it all by myself for three-and-a-half years. That was my film school. I learned how to file for grants. I took it to the Swedish Film Institute, had this little snippet of film to show them and this idea. They supported us early on. I also received the European Media Grant, support from the Swedish Arts and Grants committee and The Malik Bendjelloul Memorial Fund (Searching for Sugarman). I was the producer, the director, I talked to the border patrol, all the people. You just learn to adapt and to read a room and be very present with the people you’re filming with.
From the very beginning, I had support from Steve Angello from Swedish House Mafia. Steve was the first person that believed in me and put some money into the project. He had a RED camera and he said, ‘Take the camera.’ Which is not the ideal documentary camera but at least it was a camera, so I shot everything on RED. During the summer it’s 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the desert and the fan keeps running. But then you look at the footage and it’s absolutely stunning. I changed some lenses, and things like that, but I committed to shooting the whole thing on RED and approached the documentary much like a commercial in the sense of ‘let's make this work’.
Kasey and friends
LBB> The Nowness portraits that feature subjects in the documentary - Zack and Phenom - are unsettling. Why do you think they have that effect on people?
Clara> I think the unease that you’re talking about is just that. It’s about tragic upbringings, like when Phenom was growing up in the ghetto and Zack, too, and both were very marginalised. When Zack got on the Greyhound bus to go to Slab City, he was just surviving. And with Phenom and the injury, that’s fixable if you have health insurance. He does not. If you feel uneasy, it’s pretty much spot on. It’s not a commercial. It’s their lives.
With both Phenom and Zack I saw these emotional, soft people. And I was really drawn to them. I was curious about them in so many ways and really enjoyed spending time filming with them. And I was privileged to have them open up so much. I felt like I was connecting with them both on camera and off camera.
LBB> How did your short film for National Geographic come about?
Clara> It started with a music video and continued with my curiosity for this controversial sport of horse racing. I recorded a couple of interviews with the jockey, Pers Anders Gråber, who is one of the top jockeys in Europe, and together with the very talented editor Andreas Arvidsson, we shaped the portrait.
LBB> Was capturing the horseracing footage for that short challenging?
Clara> It definitely was because I didn’t know that much about horse racing. I was out there one day before to do my recce at this huge track talking to the camera operators and the DP and setting everything up. You’re so systematic and technical in the way you go about it. So we decided, “OK, let’s do three laps.” And then I turned to the jockey and he said, “Are you guys talking about three laps? The horses are doing one. And then they’re out.” Turns out they’d get triggered by the camera and the camera car and go above and beyond with their speed, so you will not get more than one lap. We quickly realised we were going to have one lap to capture all of this. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. I’m happy today that we didn’t get the footage that we were initially planning for.
LBB> The Nike film with Alex Roca Campillo is powerful. How much time did you spend getting to know him?
Clara> It was a tricky one because Alex, who has cerebral palsy, only spoke sign language which he developed himself. It wasn’t like any other sign language, it was only a sign language that he, his girlfriend and his parents had figured out. So he spoke sign language to his girlfriend, who did not speak English, she spoke Catalan. She spoke to a translator who spoke to me. But in a weird way, we understood each other. We joked around and had a really good banter. We had the same kind of humour, kind of ironic. I sort of learned how to communicate with him.
What was challenging with the project was when I realised how little time you get. Nike wanted to show him running and training at the gym. I wanted to get close to him, see him getting ready in the morning, and get a shot with Alex at night. I wanted to see who he was outside of being the athlete. I connected with the girlfriend and his parents and got all the home videos. I think in that case it was a good thing that I pushed a little bit further and went with it. That’s the documentary side of me that was just taking over. On-camera time with him wasn’t more than five hours over four days.
LBB> Did you always know you wanted to direct? When did you start directing?
Clara> No, I didn’t know. I’m not one of those who’s held a camera in my hands since I was five years old. I went to advertising school. I was always like a creative little soul, but I was also into sports. When I was growing up I played golf on the national team. When I was 19, I just dropped everything and moved to the US doing an au pair kind of thing. I kind of fell in love with it, not with Florida where I ended up in Palm Springs of all places. Then I went back to Sweden and applied to advertising school. Advertising school led to a couple of jobs like the one at MTV. MTV approached me and asked if I wanted to do some in-house commercials so I did that. And then I started the journey with the documentary.
I consider myself to be very fearless almost to the point of, ‘Am I naive, or am I fearless?’ You have to have that discussion with yourself. I would definitely say it came to me with the documentary. It’s pretty recent that I’ve figured out what I wanted to do.
I love the set up that I have right now with commercials at RSA on the one hand - those are short, fast productions where you get to meet and collaborate with all these creative people. Then you have the documentary side where you’re so committed to the project for so long, you really have to believe in yourself and the project.
LBB> What are your biggest strengths as a filmmaker?
Clara> I would say that it is that fearlessness. You have to go with your gut, collaborate, trust your team. You have to try out things and be open to change like our horse racing shoot. I get so interested in whatever subject I’m working on. With the horse racing, hearing the mindset of the jockey, but also considering the horses. There are just so many levels to everything.
LBB> What kind of commercials projects do you want to do?
Clara> I would love to do car commercials. Two main reasons why I want to do car commercials: 1. Growing up in Sweden with Volvo commercials, which are very different from the landscape ‘show off’ kind of car commercials that you see so often. They have succeeded in bringing humanity to their car commercials which I love. 2. But also, being a female, I love love love driving. I’m out racing all the time. My boyfriend’s on the motorcycle, I’m in the sports car. I see it in a different way, not only do I appreciate the details of the car, but the force and nature as well. That’s where I can bridge that documentary experience that I have and add the humanity aspect to it. And also because it’s a big interest of mine.
LBB> What’s up next?
Clara> I am in the developing stages of a new documentary project, this one is even more lawless and wild than Slab City. It’s still taking shape, but I guess I am drawn to that environment.
LBB> Who or what inspires you?
Clara> I should be very honest. I think it is the people who I have committed a lot of time to working with. Even a girl like Kasey who is 13 years old and living off grid. She knows how to set up a solar panel. She knows how a generator works. I admire the people who I work with. It could be the DP standing in 125 degrees fahrenheit with heavy equipment.
It’s such a privilege to do what I do. I admire the people who are letting me be part of their lives because I’m very private myself.