Director Ian Pons Jewell has been on our radar since his brilliant video 'LaLaLa' dominated our screens back in 2013. A master of surreal, narrative-focussed films, with a quirkily comedic twist, he’s managed to create some beautifully creative collaborations in recent years, always bringing a uniquely dark style of visual storytelling to his projects.
After an incredible run over the past year with musicians such as Paolo Nutini, Vince Staples, NAO and Valentino Khan, we wanted to hear more about what it takes to craft such powerful narratives within music videos and the short form genre. With a vision that is both distinct and daring, his ability to hold the viewer’s attention firmly until the end despite such strange and dream-like settings intrigued us.
Being suckers for good storytelling above all else, we decided to sit down with the director and hear more about making a mark as a narrative director in such a competitive industry and where this leads to next.
You’re known for your narrative-focussed music videos in particular, is this something you gravitate towards as a director?
I love the fact that you can create a whole world with film. I'm not interested in the aesthetics as much as I am the "trip". Film has the ability to take an audience on a journey like no other art form. This is what a story does, the power of narrative is that it can immerse you completely, to the point you forget your own reality for those few minutes or couple of hours. It also gives motivation to the aesthetic for me. When unsure how to cover a certain scene, I think about the story and characters and this gives rise to a solution. The same goes for all the other departments. It's also why I love to work with narrative minded people. For example the stylist I've always worked with, Ameena Kara Callender, is totally story and character driven. All the ideas we throw around are about who the character is, the actual superficial look of them is more of an after thought. So narrative-focussed music videos are all I know.
How do you go about developing your treatments, do you have a particular process?
Various ways really. The ideal is the purest method, of just listening to the music, closing my eyes, and allowing images to form. Half the time I can listen to the track and fully form the film in my mind and it's then a case of putting it down on paper. It then changes in different ways over the course of pre production with the casting, styling, location, etc... More often than before though, I'll work from ideas I've stacked up that fit the track I've got. They always get reworked a fair bit though, so they become something new from what they were. I've also worked more recently with Dobi Manolova, having co-written Nao - Bad Blood and Paolo Nutini - One Day with her. When not co-writing she's often creatively developing the ideas I've written too.
Do you find your ideas come fully formed for each piece or do they change a lot (and do you have to compromise a lot) by the end?
For the most part yes, fully formed. You then have changes as mentioned once you start pre production and the different departments start working away on their parts. For example, the Kwes - Rollerblades video was planned as a black space but with some edges. We looked and looked, and in the end found an amazing location which is the one you see in the video. It had all these metal pillars in the area creating a strange sort of industrial forest. It added a lot to the video and changed the way we moved the camera, and also the way the rollerskater moved around in the space. In general I try not to compromise at all, I don't like to in music videos, that's something I do in commercials.
Do you generally have creative control or would the artist have a lot of say in the end product?
In general, I've had a lot of creative trust from all the artists I've worked with. But I think this is due to the sorts of music videos I make. They are narrative, surreal, with a very particular tone. They're almost self protected ideas from the script stage when you write the kinds of scripts that I do. But if you write a performance video where the artist is central to the idea, it's natural I think that they would have a lot of say. They're the ones in front of camera the whole time, it's all about them, so they'll want to check the shots you use too. I tend to not have the artist feature in the video, and if they do, not to a large extent or in a way that makes them a character within the story.
Speaking of your video Bad Blood for NAO, can you tell us why there are branches coming out of people’s mouths and who the naked girl is?
The first image that came to mind was this growth of flowers, bursting out of people eyes and mouths to the beat, then going back in. It wasn't possible in the time to do this as it would have been some heavy VFX work, so I thought more on it and had the idea to use branches instead, it looked more graphic and I liked the darker tone it brought too. The girl is a being that is born and dies in a day, she brings about a strange kind of peace to the lost characters she passes, re-connecting them to something more than themselves.
Between us, what are your favourite projects you’ve worked on and why?
I think without a doubt it would be Naughty Boy - La La La. It was such a special project. The way the it came to happen, the production process, and the reception was just something else. I met the boy, Franco Mirando, on a different shoot. After filming briefly with him I knew I had to cast him in something else, make a short film with him perhaps. I then came across a Chau Chau dog, and I then imagined Franco walking this dog, and it was a Eureka moment. That image was a really special one, and I realised it could be a Bolivian version of The Wizard Of Oz. It was the next day that I was then sent the La La La track, and I then remembered the Wizard Of Oz idea, and played it out in my mind as I listened to the track, and by the end of the day had that script written.
I think it was also rare how bold the commissioners Sam Seager and James Hackett were to give the green light to a project like that too. Then the whole thing had to start shooting 7 days later. During the pre production we had so many lucky moments, strange coincidences. For example, the Cusillo character, the dancing traffic policeman. I was searching for a tall actor, who could dance ballet, as I wanted a very feminine grace to his walk and dance. I couldn't find anyone for it, and then Paola Vargas just walked into the production office's garden, as it had a sign outside saying "casting today". He thought he'd try his luck and asked me if I was looking for actors, I said sorry but unless you have Ballet experience, there wouldn't be a role. He then said he trained in Ballet in New York for 2 years! It was insane. One hour later after coming up with a traffic cop dance, he did an audition, and was absolutely perfect.
Then the shoot itself was quite grueling but equally exciting. It was over the course of 5 days, starting in La Paz, and then journeying outward, eventually to Potosi. We travelled in a big bus, and it was like a magical adventure. I got to work with this new crew in Bolivia, but also my usual crew from London such as the DP Doug Walshe who was incredible. It was also the start of my constant collaboration with the amazing Ameena Kara Callender, who flew all the way out to Bolivia to join us. I'll never forget that shoot! Then of course the reception was just insane, it went viral, but most importantly it was loved within Bolivia too
We loved your latest video, for Valentino Khan! Where did your idea for it come from and why the very Japanese setting?
Listening to the music, I just imagined things getting "low". It was quite literal, the idea, connected to the lyrics and music. I then formed an idea around this, about a guy's post clubbing hell. I've always wanted to make a film about a horrific come down, so it's been a long time coming! The reason it was shot in Japan, is because my good friend Yukihiro Shoda, a great director from Tokyo, invited me to Japan to co-direct a commercial with him. We shot in LA, but then edited in Tokyo. Whilst there he introduced me to his crew and friends, one being the producer Satoshi Takahashi who also became a great friend. So I then set the video in Tokyo, as we have also set up a production company there called NION. So it was a perfect opportunity to shoot a music video there under this new set up. I feel very honoured to be invited to join NION, it will represent Yukihiro Shoda, Mackenzie Sheppard and Kosai Sekine. The producers will be Satoshi Takahashi and Ai Yamamoto, with Moriya Takayuki as our president. It's very new, we've not even sorted a logo design yet!
The editing, VFX and gif-esque action gives the video a lot of its energy and a very surreal twist. Do you have the post side of things in mind as you’re planning and shooting?
Yes in general they are quite tightly planned, but more in terms of certain beats. I'll know exactly where some scenes will start and end, sometimes exactly when a shot needs to start and end. But more often than not, they are like pillars in the timing that my wonderful editor Gaia Borretti will then work between doing her magic.
What’s next for you now? Do you have any exciting projects coming up?
Yes, a really exciting commercial project with FRIEND. I can't say too much about it, but it'll be out soon.