Some people were born to do very practical things like solve mathematical equations or to put out fires and enforce the law. And then there are the others, the right brained folk. This is an on-going series of interviews with people who have chosen to spend their lives creating.
DAN SULLY is a UK-based music video director. He has become one of Europe’s most unique young voices creating promos for the likes of Elbow, Starsailor, and The Courteeners. His work recently earned top honors at the European Promax and World BDA Awards. He is represented by Flynn Productions.
Can you tell us a little about your filmmaking background. Did you have any sort of formal training?
I studied film at the University of Bournemouth, where I made a few shorts and one music video. I chose the course because it seemed to be heavy on the practical side of things - actually going out there and making stuff. I’m pretty skeptical about formal trainings in general. I only learnt about filmmaking by making films, and obviously still learn loads with every project I do. When I left Uni, I wanted to make films as soon as possible - I was really eager and impatient. I love music and at that time the only realistic avenue for getting any kind of budget as a young filmmaker was through record labels, so it seemed like the perfect kind of filmmaking for me to give a go. I emailed loads of labels, but eventually got a project by approaching an artist after a show. I made my first video for a record label at 21 and couldn’t believe it when it got played on MTV - that was for a UK hip hop artist called Jehst. That really spurred me on.
Are you drawn towards making visuals for particular kinds of music or acts?
Definitely. Music video directors always want to make music for their favourite bands, but it is sometimes more complicated than that. You may love an artist but may not be the best person to make them a video. I think every good director has a sensibility which can obviously match or mis-match the sensibility of an artist. I think you get the best videos when those sensibilities are in synch. I was lucky when I made the video for Howling Bells, as I consider their aesthetic to be similar to the kind of stuff I’m into. Whenever I write a treatment, I’m always trying to satisfy my own aesthetic tastes, so it can be an uphill struggle if the band’s aesthetic sensibilities rub me up the wrong way. But sometimes, if the track is right and it all clicks, I tend to drift off and have an idea of what I want to do pretty much straight away. I would love to make a video for Deftones or Interpol. But I think I’m pretty easy to please. As long as the music has some sort of cinematic or visceral edge, I’m happy.
How did you initially come to work with Simon Raymonde’s label, Bella Union Records?
This was a fluke if I am honest. A friend of mine, David who works at MTV (where I have also worked for the past 5 years) was in touch with Simon Raymonde who explained that he was trying to look for a director to take on a low budget video for Howling Bells. David put him in touch with me and it all went from there. I was in the right place at the right time. That was my bit of luck I suppose. Making videos for Bella Union was a real privilege for me. I really respect Simon and love the label. I was so happy to be able to go on and make four videos in total for them.
What are some of the biggest influences on your creative process?
The kind of film I enjoy watching is when you can tell that it’s a talented crew - a good director and DP just bowling around shooting beautiful images in great locations with great art direction and well chosen cast etc… I’m not as much into graphic or tricksy stuff, although I can appreciate that too. So, naturally I try to shoot the kind of videos that I like - rooted in strong art direction and good photography. I like taking an aesthetic and pushing it a little so that the film has its own identity - usually an extension of the art direction and sensibility of the band or artist. Some directors come from a graphics background, or a post background, or theatre or whatever - but I just locked myself away for years and watched films obsessively - so my first love is cinema and that has influenced what I like and how I approach videos I guess. Right now I love Roy Andersson and lots of Swedish directors actually, but recently I was also blown away by the film, The Beat That My Heart Skipped. I’d call that film a master-class in direction.
At what point did you start working with Flynn Productions and how has that changed the way you’ve been able to make videos?
Flynn got in contact after seeing the videos I did for Bella Union. At that point I was still unsigned. It was around June/July 2007. They were like ‘ok, we’ll give you a go’. It was incredibly exciting for me. I had been waiting for that moment for about five years, chugging away producing and directing low budget videos in my spare time whilst holding down a day job. Producing the videos myself around my day job was starting to turn my hair grey (literally!). I must mention that I did have some help in that time - people like Verity Wilcocks and Jules Powell stepped in and helped me when I needed it. But working with Flynn was exciting because it gave me that freedom to concentrate more of the creative side of things and I knew that Flynn was a good company. It seemed like it could be the beginnings of me starting a career making films professionally. The truth is that I started to make videos just as budgets have plummeted so it hasn’t been a walk in the park, but I am still positive for the future.
You’ve mentioned that budgets are falling. Yet in the last year, you’ve worked with some of the biggest acts on your reel, including Elbow and Starsailor. Perhaps you can take us through one of these projects. How did it come about? What was production like etc?
The Starsailor job was enjoyable because the idea came very automatically after listening to the track just a couple of times. Also, Carole the commissioner was very organized and gave me plenty of time to pre-produce and post produce the job. The only stressful aspect of it was the shoot, where I literally binned my shot-list after we started running over about four hours into the shoot. I pretty much busked the whole video from there on in, which was very stressful. But everyone involved in the shoot was great, including the band and it all came together in the edit.
Some directors are very hands on in the post process and even cut their own work. Can you tell us a little about your experience in this phase. Do you edit your own projects? How do you like the process to go? Is it a phase in which you like to discover or do you prefer to put the pieces together?
At this stage in my career I really love cutting my own videos. I tend to have a very exact idea of how each sequence in the video is going to be cut before I shoot the video, so a lot of the offline is just piecing those bits of the jigsaw back together. So far, I have cut all of my own videos apart from the video for Joe Lean and The Jing Jang Jong on which I worked really closely with Matt Nee at Flynn Post. That was a really positive experience and Matt did a great job. I recognize that there will come a time whereby, I will regularly collaborate with editors but at the moment I love that intense offline experience where you just shut yourself off in a small room for a few days and cut away until you’re happy.
If budgets are shrinking, it must be hard to sustain a living on just videos. Are you involved in commercials or any other creative discipline?
I think nine out of every ten directors making videos today are involved in some other creative discipline. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with that per se, and it’s not impossible to make a living from videos, but you would have to be making at least one 20k video every month in order to survive in London and that kind of work rate is pretty rare. I’ve balanced making videos with working for MTV; I produce a music show called Gonzo for MTV TWO and direct some multi-camera shows and live music for MTV too (for Duffy, Glasvegas, Primal Scream etc…). Commercial-wise, there have been a few initial rumblings about a few projects through Flynn and that is something I want to pursue.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a young director making videos in the UK?
Lack of time really… because whilst you try and establish yourself, you will always have to balance making videos with other work. But if you are passionate enough and hungry enough, then you will always make it work. I mean, I dedicate a lot of weekends and evenings to music videos at the moment, but I’m happy to keep grafting away for the time being. Also, low budgets mean that you have to be really creative in order to keep delivering fresh ideas.
What is your dream project to direct?
I would like to direct some raw, run-and-gun British features shot on film in London - on the streets that I see every day, featuring people like the people I know. I want to make a trilogy about Love, Work and Death… You know, nothing too big! I want to write the stories, workshop the scenes with actors and then take a small, tight crew and bowl around London shooting them. That would be my dream project right now.
Any advice or words of wisdom to other young filmmakers wanting to make video promos?
If you want to be a filmmaker just go out and make films. I know that sounds flippant, but it’s true. If you want to make videos, just go out there and shoot some music videos for anyone. Don’t worry if you don’t have any money - time is just as valuable.
View Dan Sully’s newest video for Starsailor’s single Tell Me It’s Not Over. See his other works here.