A father shouts at his son in slow motion, his gesticulating heightened by fluid shots and curving shadows. The boy puts his fingers in his ears and mouths along to the verbal riff. So begins the acclaimed music video for Naughty Boy’s chart-topping track, La La La – which currently holds a cool 433 million views on YouTube. The visually striking and surreal interpretation of last year’s hit was directed by Ian Pons Jewell, a London-based director who drew his inspiration from the colourful streets of Bolivia. Jewell won a MOBO for his efforts, and has since been working on a number of other videos and short films - the most recent of which, Angels, was featured at this year’s London Short Film Festival.
Jewell’s work reveals a fascination with South American folklore and paganism, and also with the subconscious and the influence of dreams. In his newest video, for Paolo Nutini’s song One Day, Joanna Lumley stars as an Elizabeth Bathory-like stage performer. Lit with bordello-red filters and dotted with Giallo references, the video serves as a macabre counterpoint to Nutini’s smoothness. I talked to Ian about his latest video, his directorial career, and where he’s headed next.
Your latest video - ‘One Day’ for Paolo Nutini - features Joanna Lumley as a predatory diva dripping in jewels. How did the concept come about?
The idea came about very viscerally, as with most of my videos. I had never actually seen a photo of Paolo, so I didn't have any pre-conceived aesthetic in my mind and when I listened to the song I was thrown out of modern times and into an older world. The image of a beautiful older woman singing his lyrics to herself in a dressing room came to mind.
It's such a delicate moment when you first start to form the visual in this way, akin to treading that fine line of lucid dream where you can fall into the dream and lose your awareness, or wake up instead. I listened over and over until the idea formed of her killing a girl to become young, a deadly addiction necessary so she could face the crowd each night. I then wrote the script with my close friend and regular collaborator Dobi Manolova, who also does visual research for me on most of my pitches.
Then there is the heavy nod to the Giallo genre. My friend Tamas Jackics, one of the biggest film buffs I know, got me into those old Italian horrors by taking me to a screening one day. The assassin in the video is one of those classical killers, leather-gloved and never seen. But the twist on this classical character is that he is servile to Joanna's character. Usually in the films the killer is the top of the food chain, ruthless, mysterious, but always revealed at the end to be one of the characters we would never have expected him to be. So we designed the murder sequence to be within that genre, to keep it within his world. My incredible editor Gaia Borretti, who made a mood film [a video montage that conveys the tone of a pitch] when we pitched for the job, heavily influenced that sequence. I asked her to cut together different murder sequences from Giallo films. In the end, I went back to this mood film that she did in order to design the shot list, so it ended up heavily informing the shoot.
In the heyday of Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham, a lot of the greatest music videos were set to dance tracks - perhaps because they tend to be more open-ended in regard to what you can do with them. Do you think these genres allow more freedom as a director?
I don't think so: it depends on the artist regardless of the genre. That said, certain genres have certain tropes and most pop music producers wouldn't let Chris Cunningham have his way with their music. I think electronic music is severely lacking now in videos that capture what the music is all about. There's a very strong atmosphere that comes with certain electronic music that Cunningham captured incredibly well. But one of my favourite videos of all time is Fleur and Manu's video for Gesaffelstein – Persuit. It's a masterpiece, and very recent. It truly captures the very specific chemical hallucinatory worlds of MDMA and Ketamine, which go hand-in-hand with electronic music
The La La La video features a mostly Bolivian cast. Bolivia is the chosen location for several of your videos. What attracts you to the country?
It's all down to the first music video I made there for Landshapes – In Limbo. Luisa Gerstein, who is the singer, asked me to go there with her to film these wrestling Cholitas. After the shoot, I didn't want to leave, and what was meant to be a two week trip became 9 months and 3 more videos, including Naughty Boy – La La La. Creatively, it's rich with history and narrative. As an outsider, it's an overload of new images, faces, stories. But there's something particular about Bolivia for me. I didn't have this in Buenos Aires or Lima. Bolivia is now my “hogar”, I feel at home there. In England and the majority of the “West” we burnt our witches, hanged them, ran them out of town. In Bolivia, paganism simply mixed with Catholicism. So you still have an extremely strong sense of spirits, and witches that communicate with them. I think a lot of my work that I did before put a focus on the mythical side of our modern world that turns away from our roots in paganism and myth. To feel it all around me in Bolivia was like a dream.
A lot of your work has a distinct surrealist streak. What directors do you count among your influences?
There have been many influences but a big one was watching 2001: A Space Odyssey as a young child; I think I was 8. It really affected me, and has certainly had the most influence on how I see film. As a child, films are so incredibly powerful because your suspension of disbelief is at its absolute height.
Another strong early influence is when my mum took me to a Dali exhibition when I was 4. She assumed I'd look around and leave pretty quickly but I ended up staying in there all day and didn't want to go. His ability to capture dreams and otherworldly realities fascinated me. Surrealism has always been an influence since then. With directors there are many such as Paul Thomas Anderson, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman...
What’s the process in terms of developing ideas? Do you subscribe to an auteur-ist vision of creation, or do you take a looser, cooperative approach?
With music videos it's heavily reliant on the music, of course. I'll listen to it on walks, as I fall asleep, on the tube, on the bus, at my table, etc. Ideally the images, narrative and characters come directly from this, the reaction of my subconscious with the music. But more often now, I'll have a backlog of previous pitches that haven't been picked, or ideas that have come about outside of any music, which can be re-worked to the music I'm pitching on.
The videos we make don’t have a tightly planned structure before we shoot. So I don't work with a very heavy-handed “auteurist” approach. My crew are an invaluable part of the entire process, from conception to completion.
Lastly, can you tell us anything about your upcoming feature film, which is in pre-production?
Ha, well it's all very much a work in progress. I should probably delete the mention of it from my website! I'm now just focusing on pushing forward with music videos and short form stuff, but also commercials in order to give me some financial freedom. Then I can go off someplace with no Internet to sketch out the ideas for a feature! I'm easily distracted.