Director Wendy Morgan’s distinctive style has featured in commercials, music videos and more recently, a narrative TV series. There’s dancing. Lots. And brown people. But most importantly, Wendy isn’t appropriating culture for commerce. Wendy is celebrating culture in a way that is instructive, and ought to be considered closely as the creative community discusses diversity and the need for fresh, authentic art. We spoke with Wendy to hear more about her career and process, and learned a little about how directors get started and stay honest about their inspiration and motivation.
Interview by John Belitsky
John: How the hell have you pieced together a career the way you have? When I go online and look at your work this is my story of Wendy: she started in 2000 shooting music videos in Canada, then fast forward and she’s shooting more music videos and the world loves her and now she’s shooting commercials and getting into narrative. It all seems very linear, but I know the reality is messier than that. So how did it all start?
Wendy: Well I went to McGill university in Montreal and studied art history, which has been very helpful for my work. I get a lot of kids who email me sometimes saying “I love your work, what’s your advice for me?” and I try to tell them that I think they should study something that gives them some different way of looking at the world, or some creative space to work off of. If you just study film, film technique, and movies, then you’re going to be the same as every other wannabe filmmaker out there. Another example is I’m not on Twitter or Instagram, and feel like I should be and get back on at least one of them; but I came to this weird conclusion where I realised I don’t want to look at the same stuff everyone else is looking at, I don’t want to write the same video treatment everyone else is writing.
J: Yeah I feel the same way! I feel like creativity is so colluded at this point since everybody is really ingesting the same content, and so the outputs are necessarily so similar. We’re becoming more conservative and more similar across the board in so many different ways. It’s disconcerting when we’re all the same, it’s like ‘what’s happening?’
W: Yeah exactly, I’m glad I studied art history because I use it a lot to inform what I’m doing and inspire me in a unique way. Anyway after that I started working in film and I was a PA, I was a coordinator. I did that for maybe 2-3 years and then I got in touch with these kids in Vancouver who were getting some heat called Swollen Members, I don’t know if you’ve seen them they’re kind of hilarious.
J: No I haven’t.
W: They were these Vancouver underground mid-90s early 2000s rappers. I convinced one of them to do a video for him because I was obsessed with music videos. I didn’t really have a clear image of wanting to be a director, I didn’t grow up saying ‘oh I need to be a director’, but I loved videos. In Canada there is a funding body that helps Canadians create Canadian content called Video Effect, and I started applying for those and started making music videos. I was pretty much trying to be like Hype Williams. I was making these rap videos with cars and hot girls (laughs). The truth is some of them were terrible, but one of them was actually pretty good, on a TV rap video level. The third video I made got all this attention in Canada, and then the fourth I made won a bunch of awards. Looking back now it’s kind of corny, but it had its good sides. I won a bunch of awards very early on in my career for really poppy rap videos in Canada, it was very random. So I had the lucky thing of when I started directing I didn’t have to stop. I continued directing and that’s been my career ever since. I took a break at one point, but it wasn’t really even a break I just went to work for MTV to shoot some commercials to form a commercial reel.
J: Do you select the artist’s you work with on music videos or do they find you?
W: Well I started doing the rap videos and more poppy videos and very quickly I was like you know what, this isn’t actually what I want to do. I don’t want to do these glossy sort of poppy videos. So I started doing a lot of indie-rock type videos, but the truth is, that didn’t really feel right either. What I was good at was writing treatments, I used to even work as a ghost writer sometimes for other directors. In 2008 I got a check to for a Gnarls Barkley video and wrote “Going on” and we went to Jamaica and shot it. Based on that video I got to know Janelle Monáe and her people approached me. If you look at it I haven’t done that many videos in the last few years because I say no to a lot of stuff, and sometimes write stuff and don’t get it. So that would be how I got those jobs, mostly from the Gnarls Barkley video, I now have this name for dance videos.
J: Yeah what’s your relationship with dance? One thing that immediately strikes me is that you’ve got a lot brown people dancing in your videos, despite being white [laughs].
W: [Laughs] It’s just what I like, that makes it sound shallow but I love soul music and hip hop music, and I love dance. Once I started getting into the world of dance and started working with dancers I met all these really amazing people. And if you look at what’s out there if you’re lucky you get to be the back-up dancer for whoever. Maybe it’s like…
J: Missy Elliot or something.
W: Yeah someone like that, and you might be able to find yourself in a wide-shot. I wanted to make dance videos that didn’t include the artist pretty much. And it terms of the casting and why I have all these videos that just have black people, it’s just me being honest to what inspires me. I could’ve just as well made the Gnarls Barkley video and shot it in LA and had a multicultural cast, but that was written to take place in Africa so it was like I’m just going to be honest to the inspiration I’ve got for it. Even though I’m white and everything, it’s the same thing with the Janelle Monáe video. They said ‘Do you want to cast any white people’ and I was like ‘No not really, we’re doing this kind of African American celebration and you guys have this very unique scene and I don’t want to just start trying to be politically correct, I just want to do what feels true.’
J: The reason why I thought you were a black woman before I knew you weren’t was because you didn’t appropriate any of this, you kind of celebrated it, you framed it.
W: Yeah I hope so, I don’t ever want to come across like I’m trying to appropriate or own anything, I want to celebrate it. And I want to show people things they maybe haven’t seen before or haven’t seen enough of.
J: Yeah I didn’t realise how little some of the world has seen of what growing up in New York for me is so standard. When I met my wife and she came to my neighbourhood in Bed-Stuy she said, ‘So this is what, a black neighbourhood?’ And I was like, ‘I never even thought of it, I guess so yeah.’ And she was like ‘Yeah there aren’t really black neighborhoods in Spain’. I was shocked when I actually thought about how little diversity there really is in most parts of the world.
W: And I think as well for me I’m just interested in raw talent. I just look around for who’s killing it and that’s who I end up putting in the video. For example when we went to Jamaica, Jamaican dancehall dancing is one of my favorite types of dance so when we went it meant I was able to work with all these amazing dancers.
J: How do you cast these pieces? Do you do it by yourself or do you have a casting agent who’s like your right hand?
W: Oh yeah there’s a casting director. I mean it depends on the job, for Jamaica we had a casting director. I remember I wasn’t really feeling very well that day so I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as I should’ve, but now looking back at it’s still one of my favourite times ever. All of these dancehall crews came in and auditioned for us, we must’ve seen around 15. I can’t remember the exact number, but a whole bunch dancehall crews, and a bunch of girls on their own as well. We ended up combining two different crews, but the majority of those guys were all from this one crew called the Sashi Empire. They had this really weird kind of beautiful sexually ambiguous thing about them. They were also just not what I was expecting. I was expecting this really macho sort of experience. The dancers kind of live by their own rules, it’s interesting.
J: Do you dance at all?
W: Not really no [laughs]. I danced a little a bit when I was young but I wouldn’t really call it anything special. I just love dance. I’ve learned more as I go, but I feel like if you are a filmmaker and hire a choreographer but don’t know enough about dance to get what you want, you really have to go deep and connect with that choreographer and with those dancers and create thoughts that are made for the camera. You have to choreograph it in a certain way. Personally I try to create scenes where I’m not choreographing the steps necessarily, but more so the blocking and the leading. It’s something that has a narrative to it and tells a bit of a story with the dance, it’s not just a dance break. My videos are very different to that of a Britney Spears type music video where it’s cut to dance time and she’s in the front and the dancers are in the back. Even with the Tiggs Da Author video it was more of a performance video, but I at least try to give it a bit of narrative and structure. Like all my videos have a beginning, middle and end. I don’t choose performance scenes that can be inter-cut and wardrobe changes and stuff. They all have a bit of a linear thing to them.
J: Yeah for sure, I think that’s what I like about them. Your work is sort of a filmmaker’s-storyteller’s music video. Not a graphic designer’s music video with motion, you know?
W: Yeah! Well that’s what I try to do anyway, which is why I think I’m in that kind of cross in my career where there’s that odd time when I just get to do what I want with a really great song, but it doesn’t happen often. In general music videos are meant to push an artist and that isn’t really interesting to me and not really what I want to do. So I’m figuring out new ways to do what I enjoy in a new format.
J: Do you enjoy any of the commercial work, or is it all basically something that has to be done?
W: I do enjoy it, yeah. I mean a lot of it is total bullshit. But you’re working on a scale financially that is unusual for music videos, so you get to play with things you wouldn’t have access to for a music video. For example I’m prepping a commercial right now for a French furniture brand, and it has all these girls surfing and moving on this big tetris of sofas. It sounds kind of stupid, but the technical side of what we’re doing is interesting because we have to architect this huge system to move the furniture to make it look effortless and amazing. It’s kind of a bizarre place to be and I get to shoot in this very big location. It’ll be this really big spectacle which I find really fun.
J: Yeah that sounds amazing, I’d love to do something like that. I just like the idea that commercial projects murder the number one destroyer of production value, which is cost.
W: Music videos and commercials, everything has less money than before, but once in awhile you do have this situation where there’s lots of money which is great. For me though it’s just fun to work with people who are really good at their job.
J: What’s the last thing you saw that really inspired you and made you happy and made you want to keep doing this?
W: Well the Tiggs video was fun, but in reality it was a TV show I shot in Toronto recently because it was my first experience directing dramatic scenes and learning how to talk to varying types of actors to get the best results. I never studied directing and directing is this weird mysterious job that you can study but often become with no one telling you what to do. People are just like ‘Ok, go do your thing!’ and are all expecting magic. It’s just this strange universe of its own. After so many years of primarily directing music videos and commercials I was faced with new tasks. I was really learning a lot (during the TV show) and that was really inspiring.
J: So I guess if you’re doing commercial work and you’re doing music videos there’s not a technical aspect of the project that’s new and challenging because you’re used to using all the new toys and all the new lights and cameras. It feels like all of that was sort of handled and what was really new for you was the dynamic with the talent and figuring out how to pull their performance out, was that really all that was left?
W: Well, I think what I’m figuring out is that directing is really something that you can keep learning forever. You’re going to be faced with moments where you really doubt yourself and have to make tough decisions. It’s a really hard job. For instance we had so many problems with the Tiggs video you don’t see on that shoot just in terms of technical problems. We had a lot of problems that didn’t allow us to shoot, things kept breaking down and so on. On a music video you have one day to achieve that video, so all of a sudden you’re like ‘ok I need to do some crazy trouble shooting right now.’ I feel like the skills you need to be a good director are so vast because you have to be creative and have good taste and be a leader, but then you also need to really be calm in the storm and make big decisions when you know there’s so much money at stake every time you get behind a camera when shooting with big crews. Hopefully if I keep directing for the next forty years or something I’ll still feel the same way about it I do now, sort of humbled. It’s a tough job, some people are really really good and got to where they are for a reason, and it’s tough to get there, it’s a complicated job.
J: It’s sort of wonderful and terrifying, but I think anything that is wonderful is necessarily terrifying. That’s just my worldview on life though. I do really like things that are terrifying in some ways.
W: Oh yeah for sure, and I think some of my best work has happened while I feel like I’m completely failing. Sometimes on set if I feel terrible I’ll take a coffee break and sit their thinking about job offers because I’m having such a rough time [laughs], and that’s usually my best work. When it’s all easy breezy then there’s probably a problem.