I recently had the pleasure of sitting down face-to-face with Kamell Allaway, the director of the video for Oyster Kids’ “Creepy.” This video truly feels like either a suppressed memory or atmospheric dream of my own, and I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way when they watch it. It opens with a figure wrapping a full bandage over his or her face and continues into prom dates on leashes in a hazy visual geography reminiscent of 80’s high school films, but as if they are underwater, or taking place somewhere where this world’s rules don’t apply.
It was such a joy to discuss with Kamell the process of making the video and also music videos in the context of one another.
ZAE (MIP): First I wanted to ask you how you got involved with Oyster Kids and how you ended up doing this video?
KA: I got involved with them because of a friend’s band, Max and the Moon – guys I grew up with – one of the members of Oyster Kids produced songs for Max and the Moon and he had known I’d worked with them and liked the videos I’d done for them and it was just kind of like a random call where he had reached out to me and at the time they weren’t even Oyster Kids yet. They were working on two separate projects and then had asked if I’d listened to any of the songs and see if any of them spoke to me.
Honestly, I liked the majority of their songs, but “Creepy” was the one that I think they were most interested in moving forward with and I liked it, so we just started brainstorming. It really was sort of like a passion project for them and me. It’s something that they obviously wanted to do to promote their new band –“Creepy” was the first song that they ever put out there. The song got a lot of attention, which was nice. So that’s how it kind of started and then it just evolved from there, us doing treatments and going back and forth on ideas and stuff like that.
ZAE (MIP): What were some of the first images you saw when you heard the song?
Something that was playfully dark, that had maybe a bit of humor to it but it was also atmospheric and nostalgic.
KA: Man, I’m trying to remember. It was more like textures than a particular image – which was I think inspired by a lot of 80’s movies – a lot of smoke and kind of like a dark house and something that I knew wasn’t going to be scary, but something that was playfully dark, that had maybe a bit of humor to it but it was also atmospheric and nostalgic.
The first treatment I wrote was much bigger than what we ended up shooting. It was based around these people with the bandage faces but it was like a whole city, like a whole town filled with them, like as if this location, this was an accepted normal thing where everybody kind of walked on leashes and it was more about personas. Everyone on a leash was submitting to some kind of clique or persona and we were trying to tackle all kinds of different personas, like being a family man or being a nerd or being a goth person. You know: images. And I think we all generally liked it, but once reality set in in terms of what we could afford and the time, we realized it was just way too ambitious so we essentially took one of the elements in the bigger treatment and made it the whole video, which was the prom kids.
We wanted to create a forced reality – something that felt like they were hiding something.
I think when it came down to it, a few of us, including John the DP and the band, were like which storyline of the big treatments interested us most? And it was achievable. Cause we just pulled together resources to do it. That house is my parents’ house and actually what’s even funnier is my sister is the girl bandage person and the prom guy and girl are her two close friends. We shot for just one day, and they had had their prom Saturday night, stayed over at my sister’s, and then we filmed them Sunday, the day after their prom. Jeremy, the guy, that was his actual prom suit. So, it was fun. I don’t know how I actually got three 17-year-old kids to commit to doing something after their prom.
ZAE (MIP): Right! So that brings me to, I was wondering how you cast the actors and specifically how you decided on the smiles for the prom couple?
KA: We wanted to create a forced reality – something that felt like they were hiding something. Again, it’s the theme of facade, like they were forcibly submitting to these images, these personas, like “I’m the prom kid”, “I’m the prom girl,” since the tone of the video was to be a bit eerie. We tried a few different versions where it was flat, like non-emotional, non-present and that felt sort of weird like they were just sort of depressed the whole time.
ZAE (MIP): What do you mean you tried a few?
KA: Like … we put them in front of the camera and were like, “Ok what would happen if you were to make this face or this face?” We tried a smile where they weren’t showing teeth and ultimately it was the one where Jeremy was – I think he does a few different ones – but especially once he does the smile, it was just… it looked so eerie but also feels like he’s forcing it. Because again, we wanted to create a forced image of these characters, and the smile just kind of goes along with it. Actually, a lot of people told me afterwards it reminded them of “Black Hole Sun,” which I was so stoked about.
ZAE (MIP): Tell me a little about the video for “Black Hole Sun”.
KA: So I used to watch Beevis and Butthead a lot when I was a kid and that video for “Black Hole Sun” would come on all the time and it would creep me out cause it was a bright, sunny – it was a bunch of people out in the sun, it was very vivid, and they were on the beach or like eating ice cream, like very happy scenarios but they all had these creepy, big smiles and big eyes and stuff and I completely forgot about it, but when people brought it up once we put it out the comments were like ‘Oh, Black Hole Sun vibes.” And I looked back and I was like, damn it does kind of seem reminiscent of “Black Hole Sun,” so I don’t know if that was in my subconscious somewhere or if it was just a coincidence. I think it was just a coincidence.
ZAE (MIP): That’s really interesting.
I’m interested in this collective fabric of existing work and the way that the people viewing the pieces of this fabric, so to speak, can think that those pieces speak to one another. How audiences can make these connections that the makers of the videos did not even intend.
How do you think that music videos communicate with one another in this space between where they’re released and then people have seen them and then are making their own music videos? You mentioned the subconscious, but maybe there’s some sort of web of inspiration…
I don’t know if there’s a question in there.
KA: Well, maybe you’re answering it. I think that’s one of the more beautiful things about film in general but the thing with music videos is that they’re a bit more abstract and acceptably abstract – not all of them – but I like, if I made “Creepy” into a short film, I think it would be less digestible for people. I think they would just write it off as weird. Whereas putting it in a music video form people just kind of accept it more like “Oh, it’s a music video. Music videos do that.”
Through music videos people are digesting a lot more subtext.
So I think through music videos people are digesting a lot more subtext and abstract elements of art and not rejecting it was much. It’s kind of one of the more interesting things about music videos now, since so many people make them and so many people see them and it is great, cause like with the “Black Hole Sun” thing that was a video that was not online when it came out, it was just on MTV, but because of the way things are now, all those old videos exist within the same realm as the new videos, so people who didn’t see them back then still come across them and discover them and treat them as if they just came out today. There’s almost a universal quality amongst all of them.
ZAE (MIP): Interesting… a sort of temporal communicability made possible by online platforms so that the ground is of leveled for them to speak to each other.
You talked a little about having these textures in mind for “Creepy,” and one of the first things that struck me was the texture of the color palette and the smoke. I think that because you created that rich texture it speaks to the larger version you had before, and I’m still able to pick up on all the things you talked about. How did you work with your cinematographer on producing that?
Nostalgia and cinematography and storytelling that’s otherworldly
Nostalgia and cinematography and storytelling that’s otherworldly
KA: Jonathan Pope was the cinematographer and I’ve worked with him quite a bit and the thing that’s nice about working with him is that we have a kind of a vocabulary and a shorthand with each other. Sometimes there aren’t a lot of discussions but I feel like he just gets a lot of what I’m interested in, so a lot of our conversations ultimately aren’t about the specifics, but more about the context or the subtext of the video or the project. And I’ll occasionally mention stuff, like ‘I feel like there’s gotta be a lot of smoke in this and a lot of like, teal,’ but ultimately he’s the creative genius that executes all that. I used to shoot a lot, so I like to be very involved in the cinematography. The visual aspect of films is close to my heart, but I also respect his talents and his position. So, in this case we talked a lot about the inspirations and pulled up certain paintings. I looked at a lot of Magritte’s work.
ZAE (MIP): That was one of my questions, whether his “The Lovers II” was a direct influence.
KA: Oh, yeah, yeah, well if I pulled up the treatment that Magritte painting was one of the main ones, like right on the front page. You know what — another thing, I was really inspired by Magritte, but I had just seen It Follows, and It Follows just spoke to my soul because I think I’m right now at least drawn to nostalgia and cinematography and storytelling that’s otherworldly, but not so much that it’s written off as fantasy. It seems familiar of our own reality but there’s just enough that throws it off, and I feel like It Follows accomplished that really well, where it just felt like I was in a dream the whole time. And I love that dreamscape, if you will, of creating that visually and with production design and even character, and I think that’s maybe what influenced the smiles and all that stuff. So when talking about all that stuff, it’s almost like we didn’t have to talk that much. Once we started talking about why we loved It Follows, why we’re drawn to that material, why we love surrealism, why Magritte inspires us, it just kind of was birthed from all of that.
ZAE (MIP): Very cool. So about that otherworldliness, did the uncanny ever came up for you? Sort of the idea of things seeming human but not being human?
KA: Yeah, yeah. We always treated those bandage characters as non-human. Originally there were people underneath the bandages, and we even shot the last shot all the way to where you see the eyes. Because in the original treatment it was almost like these people were repressed and by finally coming out of the shadows if you will and peeling back the bandage they’re finally stepping out of their comfort zone. But that got pulled back more and more through the treatments and then when we shot the little element that remained: the bandage and revealing the eyes. Even then we just felt like you know what I don’t think we should treat these as human, and that they’re something else. And so that in many ways was kind of like an afterthought, something that was finally addressed in post. I think my goal was, in creating disconnected people or like non-human figures, that it would get at something that’s human.
It’s funny, you invest and inject a lot into the work, but ultimately it’s like, you kinda just hope people enjoy the overwashing experience with the music and everything. It’s like … if we inject a lot of depth, we kind of dig deep with the project, there’s also this acceptance that we can’t really expect that people will view it that way.
That’s what you were saying and that’s what is so great about it and even going back to the other music video thing is that when I watch someone else’s work I feel like my interpretation is my own and that’s a beautiful thing about movies, I think why I’m also interested in films that are a little more restrained. And music videos are fun because you kind of get to be restrained without being branded as restrained. People accept it a bit more with music videos. Whereas if you do it with a feature or even a short it’s like it’s a different kind of digestion.
ZAE (MIP): Yeah, I think one of the cool things like you were saying about music videos communicating to us on a subconscious level is that as an audience we can go in and analyze what we see but we can also just let it wash over us with that feeling. Ok, so personally, do you find it more upsetting to look at someone with no face or to look at someone with a forced smile?
KA: I think maybe someone with a fake smile. Because with no face I still will start to project what’s underneath. And then have the choice of making it unsettling, whereas with a fake smile I wouldn’t mentally manipulate that as much. That’s someone who just seems dead inside.
ZAE (MIP): Good to know.
KA: It’s like a psychology test.
ZAE (MIP): Yeah, totally. I’ll tell you what type you are later. So I have to ask you, where did you find that football helmet phone?
KA: So Jamie Holt, who is the production designer, who is a really good friend of mine, she directs a lot as well, but she did this kind of as a favor for me, and she has a hookup at Warner Bros, so we went to Warner Bros and pulled a bunch of props. And I was so stoked when we found the helmet and the girl phone too, I was like “Oh, yeah, they’ll mirror each other!” So that wasn’t in the treatment at all. That’s what I love about filmmaking. I like writing but I also love the writing process of production. Just the inspiration that comes about by finding certain props and costumes and how that starts to change it for the better. Yeah, it’s like riding the wave. I am not really someone who’s so stuck to the script. Although it’s there for a reason. But I love the evolutionary process of filmmaking.
ZAE (MIP): Definitely. Kamell, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. Such an eerie, fantastic video that I loved sinking my teeth into, and such a fascinating conversation with you today as well. I look forward to seeing the video again at the festival.
KA: Yeah, thank you.
This interview is part of a series of discussions with music video filmmakers from the 2016 Newport Beach Film Festival Music Video Showcase. You can also check out our talk with the makers of Mutemath’s Monument video.