David Allain, Award Winning Limelight Film Awards
East London based David Allain is the music video director best known for the Ting Tings’ hit ‘That’s Not My Name’, but a writer as well as a director, he more recently moved more towards narrative work. David’s short film ‘Will You Marry Me’ just won the Limelight Film Awards. It was produced by renowned photographer Rankin, with whom David works as a producer. Creative Mapping had an in-depth chat with David about filmmaking… and finding inspiration in his hometown of London.
“Rankin was executive producer ad he worked with Jess Gormley and I by suggesting a lot of ideas for casting, possible locations, and general ideas." David Allain
ABOUT DAVID ALLAIN
CM: Where are you from?
I’m originally from London’s far east. Grew up around Walthamstow and then Chingford, which is pretty much where London meets Essex.
CM: What inspires you most in London?
New people with good stories. I find people are probably the best source of inspiration – and there are loads of unique folk around town. I’m not sure if London has just one creative scene as such. There’s so much going on, it’s obviously concentrated in some areas, but there are nuggets of amazing art, music, and performances to be found all over.
CM: What did you study and where?
I went up to Sheffield for a year to do a film-related degree but got a bit bored so I returned to London and got back to work. Several years later I took up a part-time Masters in Screenwriting at Royal Holloway University – I got a lot from that experience and graduated over the summer.
CM: Where do you work from?
At present, I work predominantly up in Kentish Town at Rankin’s studio. But a lot of my writing is done at home – it’s not unusual for me to lock myself away for a couple of days.
CM: What does directing mean to you?
Everyone’s obviously got their own idea about this, but for me it’s probably about having an idea and then working with a bunch of people to realize what you’ve got in mind. So it’s a lot of listening to other people’s suggestions, figuring out what will work, and then working with those people to make it great.
CM: Is writing a natural progression from directing? Did you study it?
Writing for me came first. I was writing really long stories when I was very young – like 7 or 8. I loved it. Then as I grew up I saw film as an incredible storytelling medium, and was taken by the idea of creating stories visually. So directing made sense.
CM: How do they both relate?
I see my writing very separately from my directing. I feel that my writing says a lot about what I’m observing around me or about myself. Directing I love, and I don’t think I’ve experienced anything so addictive and satisfying as having written an idea and then having everything necessary to shoot it come together. But then there’s other stuff that I direct, and I enjoy having the chance to shoot some great visual things, but that’s a bit more like the fun part. Writing is often cathartic, like I’m purging something or figuring stuff out. It’s a lot more personal whereas directing is usually only done as part of a team.
CM: Do you edit your own work?
I have done in the past but I prefer not to. I think it’s really important to work with people who are dedicated to their field. So there’s a lot I get from collaborating with editors – they help me find a fresh perspective on my work.
CM: How do you start writing, ie; with your short “Will You Marry Me”
I usually have an idea knocking around for a while then if it stays with me I’ll eventually give in and put pen to paper.
CM: What inspired the story?
‘Will You Marry Me?’ was inspired by two things. The first was a radio show competition that went horribly wrong for the contestant – I stumbled across it online one day and immediately sent a link to a bunch of my mates. It was hilarious but also completely cringe-worthy. The second inspiration was observations on the dynamic between guys and girls at certain points in their lives. Guys often get caught up in what they think is a good idea with their mates and don’t always think about the consequences (I know I’m guilty of this), and girls… well, life’s not so simple that you can always choose who you fall in love with.
CM: How do you record your ideas?
Writing in notebooks. Stickies on my laptop. Notes in my mobile phone. Even if I’m out with my friends I try to jot down a quick note if something strikes me, otherwise I often forget.
CM: Do you use visuals straight away via story boards or pictures books to enable the development of the story?
For music videos definitely – your treatment needs to convey what you’re going for visually. But when I’m writing a script I focus on the writing and the story, and I don’t often begin gathering any kind of visuals until the story’s pretty straight and it's been through at least a couple of drafts.
CM: Did you have actors in mind as soon as you started writing?
No. Casting is part of the fun I start having when I begin thinking about the project as a director. That’s usually only once I’ve got a script to a strong enough point that I think it’s ready to move toward production. Getting too excited about cast when your story isn’t even working doesn’t make sense to me – strikes me as premature.
CM: What were the roles of Rankin and Jess on this project?
Jess Gormley produced the film with me. We work very closely producing a bunch of projects together. Rankin was Executive Producer and he worked with Jess and I by suggesting a lot of ideas for casting, possible locations, and general ideas. Having shot so, so much, he’s full of insights on numerous levels, so it was amazing working on something that he oversaw. He funded the film and we shot a lot of the film in his studio.
CM: David Allain, is your approach to directing a music video the same as directing a feature film?
I haven't directed a feature film yet, but I know my approach with that would be incredibly different from when I direct music videos. On short films I try to spend a good amount of time with the actors, talking about their characters and their own life experiences. And rehearsing. Meeting with crew to give the film a look, a feel... Everything is done in a more organic way than with a music video. On promos there's lot of other things you have to keep in mind, like the fact that you're making a product, and you're being commissioned rather than just expressing yourself.
The Tings Tings- Thats Not My Name by David Allain
CM: How does a project start? Story boards? Sketch books? Picture and sound libraries? Do you discuss the script in depth with the screenwriter?
A combination of all of those things. Except visuals on time sheets. I don’t really draw storyboards for my films because I like there to be an element of looseness in how we approach the shoot, and so far my films haven’t been so visually technical that we need storyboards to all understand what we’re shooting. But I draw floor-plans and work out with the DOP and 1st AD how we’re going to approach a scene’s angles economically. I’ve drawn a lot of storyboards for my music videos in the past – not for all of them, but sometimes because it really helps the shoot, or the editor, or because the commissioner wants to know what I have in mind.
CM: How important is it to work with the right producer?
It’s imperative. Without a strong producer that you have a good relationship with, the film will suffer.
CM: What are your main creative inspirations/references?
Those are forever changing and it’s very dependent on the project. But I just try to be open to experiences and try to see as much (film, TV, art, theatre, comedy etc.) and read as much as I can.
CM: What are your favourite equipment to shoot with and to edit from?
I’ve shot on numerous formats (35mm, HD, DV), and it’s very important to just choose the right format for that project – the one that will encourage the overall feel and look that you want to convey. Editing wise, it’s up to the editor – they usually use Final Cut or Avid. I cut on Final Cut but only little things and not often.
CM: How do you develop an idea without getting lost in the details?
I’m a big believer in treatments and ironing out all of the fundamental problems at that level. And once that’s done I get onto the fun part of writing dialogue etc. But even when I go back to do another draft I’ll often do another treatment because there will be significant changes that will have repercussions through the story and so should be made to work in a simple treatment before adding the complications of nice dialogue, which people often use to dress up holes in their stories. That goes for features, but depending on the length of a short script, I might use the same approach or I might just write it. I didn’t write much at all in the way of notes or a treatment for ‘Will You Marry Me?’ – but it was only 9 pages long.
CM: Are you given specific briefs for music videos?
Sometimes an artist / label know exactly what they want, and other times the brief is wide open with only a budget and delivery date to work from.
CM: Do you have a say in the artistic direction, location, style etc…or is it imposed by the music companies/agencies?
Yes, leading the discussions on all of those areas is a big part of it but sometimes there are specific things that it’s important to keep in mind – like a look that the artist is wanting to maintain across all of their marketing material, or a location that a friend of a friend is lending to the project.
CM: Does the artist have a say?
Yes, totally. Making these things is just an ongoing dialogue between all relevant parties from when they say they like your treatment right up until the video is delivered.
CM: How did you work on Ting Tings 'That's not my name'?
That video came up really last minute and we turned it around really quickly with a very limited budget. They’d shot a previous version of the video but felt it didn’t work so, with their release date looming, decided to bite the bullet and shoot another version, which is where I came in. I think from when I pitched on it to when it was delivered was under 10 days – which is fast. The band came with some styling ideas that suited their marketing material (a lot of red, blue, and white at the time). I designed the set – which was very simple and also reflected the look of the band’s marketing material. I think I did a very loose storyboard for that project.
CM: Was the process similar for V.V Brown? Were those both big budgets?
No, this was very different. Both had quite small budgets of £10k (The Ting Tings) and £15k (V.V. Brown). But for ‘Crying Blood’ we had weeks of prep, there was a long post-production period, because the video was shot against green screen and also includes various styles of animation, and I drew storyboards for every shot – I think about 65 storyboards, and somehow we got every shot in one day.
CM: Is chemistry important between the Director and the artists/actors?
Yes, it really helps a project. It doesn’t always happen – there’s more chance it will on a film than a music video, because the director can choose the actors in his film but won’t always know how well they’ll get on with a band or musician until the shoot.
CM: Would you say you have a particular style?
I don’t direct music videos often anymore, I’ve moved more toward narrative filmmaking. Back when I did promos, I used the opportunity to try out lots of different styles and techniques – it was great as a training ground and to also figure out what I enjoyed and what interested me less.
CM: What do you think of the music in London/ the UK?
London’s great because there’s so much music on offer. I go to gigs pretty often. What I listen to depends heavily on what I’m working on at that exact moment. When I’m writing treatments and need to get my brain ticking over I’ll often listen to something energetic like Modeselektor, but when I’m writing a script I’ll listen to music that reflects the tone of that world.
CM: Where do you party in London?
Wherever they'll let me dance.
CM: Tell us about your earlier work as an Art Director?
I did a little work as a Creative or Art Director on a few commercials as I moved away from music videos, co-wrote a graphic novel, and began my screenwriting masters. This was dotted around other projects and then led toward the narrative projects I’ve been doing for the last eighteen months. I worked with some directors, coming up with ideas and putting pitches together with them for some big commercials. I also did a little work with a couple of companies in Paris called Moonwalk and Fred & Farid. I then started doing some creative with Rankin, but that quickly led to working on the narrative films.
CM: Tell us about the creative process involved in directing a short film?
As a director working on someone else’s script you look for ways to get the most out of the story not just visually but also through the actors’ performances. I talk with the writer at length and looked for ways to generally cut unnecessary bits and to make it tighter.
CM: How difficult is it to convey your vision as a director to so many people?
Not very. You just have to be clear and sometimes patient. So if they’re having a hard time imagining something, then I find visual references (images and clips) are useful, and if I still can’t find the right thing to convey my point then I might draw a picture. But usually I’m surrounded by fairly like-minded people so we tend to understand where each of us is coming from.
CM: Do you work closely with the producer, the actors and the screenwriter?
On ‘Sweat’ I’d worked loosely on the project with the writer and producers for a very long time. I came onto the project as a director after a long period of just helping them and not even thinking I would direct it. On WYMM? I produced it with Jess and yes, we are constantly bouncing ideas back and forth.
CM: Tell us about your collaboration with Rankin on 'Will you marry me'?
I was producing a short film with Jess that Rankin directed called ‘Rachael’, written by Irvine Welsh, and we were talking a lot about making more short films – not necessarily for Rankin to direct. We got a bunch of scripts in and found a couple we liked but weren’t quite ready to shoot, so I gave Rankin WYMM? to read and he said that he really liked it and that he would (very generously) be up for financing it. It was amazing and the whole thing about us starting to make shorts had been quite unexpected in itself.
CM: Do visions ever clash?
When you have people with strong creative ideas you’re always going to have instances where someone would approach it differently from someone else. But all ideas are valid and should be heard out. Then you work out together which you’re all most happy to go with.
CM: What tools do you use to convey your vision?
Notes. Scripts. Treatments with images. Mood boards and mood films.
Storyboards. Animatics which I draw and edit together sometimes. Music.
CM: Do you get very involved with lighting and sound?
I'm pretty hands on and worked at least a little in most departments before I focused on production and then directing, so I'm very aware of what is happening on set. I don't think it's like I get involved so much as I just try to make very clear to the DOP and Sound Recordist what I'm aiming for, so then I know if they're getting there or if I need to elaborate on what I'd described.
CM: When do you know a short film is finished? Are you ever satisfied with the end product?
I’m not one for looking back at my work and continuously tweaking. I much prefer to move on. There are always going to be things that you’d like to have done differently, but discovering that is all part of the fun of making films. Or anything really. I’m usually very satisfied, but it’s not to say there won’t be things that will mark some growth or progress in the next film I make. Everyone’s always learning and the only way to learn about making films is to actually just do it.
CM: What are the biggest challenges you've encountered in the directing?
When you’re directing something you’re always working against a limited budget and a limited timeframe to shoot within. If you’re unclear about what you want then you’ll quickly begin wasting both. So it’s more just about making sure you stay on top of that. But the biggest thing I think I’ve learned about from making these recent shorts is diplomacy, which I picked up more from producing.