Born and raised in Texas, Malia left home at 18 to tour the world as a photographer before moving to London and pursuing a career as a musician. Before long, she was playing bass guitar in acclaimed bands such as Dum Dum Girls and Marnie Stern, as well as being filmed by Terrance Malick and Bret Easton Ellis, singing alongside Debbie Harry and Brian Eno, and performing on David Letterman.
Following this stint in the music industry, Malia transitioned into filmmaking, directing her first music video for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Since then, she has become a top choice amongst artists, directing music videos for Green Day, Halsey, Rita Ora, Troye Sivan, and many more. With a drive to also direct narrative feature films, Malia took the first major step in the right direction by crafting Blue Lips, a short film starring and featuring the music of Tove Lo.
Malia’s directing style favours believable, authentic moments, portraying visceral emotions through a love of beautiful lighting, bold colour, and compelling compositions. Her work often blends a relaxed atmosphere with a high attention to detail, and her roster of commercial clients includes Google, Captain Morgan, Adidas, Wrangler, Bose, and Truly.
Name: Malia James
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Repped by / in: Imposter / USA
Awards: Clio, Webby
LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?
Malia James> I look for scripts that offer an opportunity to capture real, authentic moments in a visually-striking, slightly hyperreal world. I get excited about scripts where I have an opportunity to do both. I’m a total cinephile, so I am especially excited to capture anything cinematic with a compelling narrative.
LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?
Malia> Sometimes I think I enjoy making treatments as much as I do directing. I’m very particular about every detail of the treatment as it’s the first step in showing my vision for what we’ll be making, especially the images I choose. While I generally have an idea of the visual I’ll create first, I begin brainstorming the approach and any additional ideas I have fresh off the call with the agency. Then, I assemble the images once I know the specific set ups I’m aiming to shoot.
LBB> If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with/don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?
Malia> I first focus on what the agency have pitched and how I feel I can best bring that to life. Then, I research the client’s history to get a sense of what they’ve made in the past and how they’re looking to update or maintain their image. In general, I also try to consume as many ads, films, and art books to be continuously inspired!
LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?
Malia> I started as a photographer, so creating the image of the ad is paramount and thus, my process with the DOP. I have a deep admiration for cinematography as an artform and skill, so I really enjoy exchanging references and generally nerding out on how we’ll establish the visual language. Curating every detail of the creative is important to me, so it’s hard to choose which collaboration is my favourite!
LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?
Malia> Ultimately, I’m working towards more narrative-focused work. I’m most drawn to projects where we can build a world with a striking aesthetic and capture authentic moments within that. I’m a sucker for anything involving love, romance, and desire. With a background in music, it’s always fun to work on projects where music or dance are an important part of the creative.
LBB> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?
Malia> I find people presume I’m quite serious, but am actually playful and lighthearted.
LBB> Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?
Malia> I haven’t worked with a cost consultant, but I do take cost into consideration while pitching and prepping because, ultimately, how the money is spent affects the final product.
LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?
Malia> Just before lunch on the first day of shooting a music video with a known pop star, she suddenly refused to make a performance video and demanded a narrative, even though the treatment was for performance and we had planned and prepared to only film performance setups. She allowed us two more takes of her singing and then insisted that we pivot for the remainder of the shoot. At lunch time, I wrote a narrative based on what we could shoot the remainder of that day and our pick up day shooting textures abroad. It remains one of my favourite videos I’ve made, but the panic on set that day was palpable.
LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?
Malia> I love the collaborative aspect of my job! I’m always keen to push for the best creative possible, but know that ultimately, myself and the agency are creating something for a client. A job well done is when we create something great and have an enjoyable time creating it. If the client is happy, I’m happy!
LBB> What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?
Malia> Assisting and inspiring young directors is important to me. I’ve mentored a few directors for extended periods of time, but have had a lot of young directors reach out via email looking for advice or feedback and I’m always happy to lend as much support as I can.
The efforts of Free the Bid (now Free the Work) have greatly affected the diversity of creators making work. I think it's important that brands seek a greater diversity in the storytellers. Storytelling is all about point of view and we’ll never suffer by having more diversity in perspectives.
LBB> How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time?
Malia> I think we’ve learned what’s possible in working remotely, but I am still a proponent of doing things in person. The habit I’ve picked up is allowing myself time to rest between jobs.