Featured Filmmakers: WE ARE COWBOYS

We were blown away by so many of the video submissions in our M83 project, but one particular video caught our attention, going on to sell for $5,000 in the Video Store before winning Music Video of The Year in the 2013 Genero Awards.

To find out what it takes to win a Genero Award, we caught up with Rich Paris Wilson and Tommy Nagle, the guys behind WE ARE COWBOYS, to have a chat about all things filmmaking, and putting together that brilliant video.

Tell us a bit about yourselves! How did WE ARE COWBOYS come to be?

WE ARE COWBOYSTOMMY: Long story short, Rich and I met five or so years ago ​when I had just moved to London. I applied for a job at a ‘company’ where Rich was working, and we bonded over a mutual dislike of how said ‘company’ was run. Fast forward a few years, after that ‘company’ had inevitably died, we thought it’d be a good idea to marry our skills into a directing partnership, creatively named (wait for it) Nagle/Wilson. Genius, I know.

We’ve had hiatuses (hiatii?) since, periods where each of us do our own thing, but recently we decided to emerge from the cocoon that was Nagle/Wilson as the fresh faced butterfly that is WE ARE COWBOYS, which sounded cooler and sexier and less like an accountancy firm. The name is a sort of rallying cry which we’d utter when we weren’t sure about whether we could do something or not – “Why can’t we do it? WE ARE COWBOYS!”

So many young filmmakers begin with a little DSLR and their laptop. Have you gone through a lot of growth in terms of equipment, production techniques, that kind of thing? How has that experience been?

RICH: Even though I’m still (just about) in my 20’s, I started out with a bulky consumer camera that I’d have to plug into my VHS machine to edit. I’ve used various different cameras since then, but the DSLRs have certainly changed things for the better. I have a 5D Mark III which I use for my photography too, but we tend to shoot music videos on the best camera we can afford at the time, whether it be the Red Epic like we’ve been using recently, or the Black Magic which is pretty nifty.

I think in general it’s exciting to see the playing field level up with the professionals. I teach filmmaking too, and I see 14/15 year olds with DSLRs doing incredible things. When it comes to technology, every generation ends up envying the next generation, I think.

Your video for M83’s ‘Intro’ was a finalist and Staff Pick before being sold in the Video Store and winning ‘Music Video Of The Year’ in the 2013 Genero Awards. Where did the idea come from, and how long did it take to shoot?

RICH: So Tommy came to me with the concept of organ harvesting. He wouldn’t stop talking about it, and to this day I have no idea why. He liked the idea of an organ database, much like a stock market, and that comfortably fed into our desire to make a sci-fi. It seemed an interesting starting point, so I set about writing the first draft of the story.

The narrative was born out of our limitations, really. We knew we could only afford one set, so we focused it all around one room and one character. I think the best film of all time is Groundhog Day (and I’ll gladly debate that with anybody), and the idea of repetition seemed like the most economical way of making use of our location. Like a lot of stories, it just kind of wrote itself once we had our themes and our character, and then we just got a bit playful as we started to layer things on top. Music videos are obviously an overtly visual medium, so we wanted to do some bold and ambitious things which we knew would make the piece more exciting to watch.

We shot the interiors in a day, and then shot the exterior stuff over the course of a couple of afternoons. The shooting process was actually pretty quick – it was the special FX which took a long, long time.

​TOMMY: The main reason that the​ effects​ took so long was that we had no concrete end point.​ We initially wanted to make the video for another Genero project, but we missed the deadline for that, and so the video was sort of in the wilderness for a while. I’d tinker with a few shots every now and then, but it felt a little aimless. Then one day the Genero newsletter e-mail came through, we listened to the tracks, and thought that the M83’s ‘Intro’ worked remarkably well. It was instrumental, epic, and crucially was long enough that we could tell our story. So once we decided to edit for that, it was full speed ahead.

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What directing advice do you have for working with actors and talent to accomplish what you’ve set out to do?

RICH: Be the most prepared person on set. Know everybody’s names, costumes (from the extra’s socks to the main character’s cowboy hat), motivations, and most importantly know what you want, even if you don’t know how to get it (that’s when you collaborate with people more talented than you).

TOMMY: Know that nothing you shoot will ever be exactly like the shot you had in your head, but that often something even better will happen as a result. So don’t be too precious or continually uncompromising​. I haven’t worked with actors that much, but from what I see on TV sets I’ve worked on, be clear, concise, and like Rich says, know what you want. People don’t respect dithering or faffing. You’re the captain of the ship, and if you can’t navigate accurately ​(or quickly plug the holes if you ​do ​accidentally crash into some rocks​) you’re gonna have a mutiny on your hands.

How important do you think collaboration is for the filmmaking process?

TOMMY: It depends. As a writer-director, you’ve got to have a singular vision. If you took everyone’s advice all the time, ​then ​your idea, which was something only you could shepherd into the world, would likely be diluted to the point that it’s barely yours any more. Which defeats the point of you making anything in the first place. You’re sharing part of yourself. So bearing that in mind, I think it’s important to learn when to back yourself and when to seek advice​;​ and also to ​grasp what will compromise and what will enhance your vision. ​

Of course film is a collaboration. I read once in Alexander Mackendrick’s ‘On Film-Making’ words to the effect that all the crew should feel as if they’ve had an influence on the film – it’s as much the gaffer/runner/spark/ insert-any-crew-member-here’s film as it is yours – but the most important thing is serving the story rather than your ego.

In terms of crew, it’s critical to surround yourself with people who you respect and trust​ (hopefully it’s a two-way thing)​ and ​unless you’re Robert Rodriguez, people who can do things you can’t do. If I buy a piece of art, a print to hang on my wall for example, it’ll be something I don’t think I could do myself. I don’t want to be looking at it and thinking that I ​could improve it. I want to look at a waistcoat that the costume designer has made​​, and think ​”I would never have thought of​ building upon my brief like that, but it’s brilliant and makes total sense for the ​character”.

RICH: Collaboration is the only way you’ll ever get better, so it’s integral. You just have to make sure you work with the right people.

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The video has some remarkable special effects. What can you share with us about the post production process?

RICH: Tommy really is the genius here, so I’ll let him take over…

TOMMY: That’s kind to say they’re remarkable. I wouldn’t say they are, most are actually quite simple, but I think the most important thing was that video benefitted from all the extra time that I could devote to it as a result of missing our first deadline. I’d say 80% of the video has effects work on it – hopefully stuff you wouldn’t spot, which is the best type of effects work in my opinion.

We’d storyboarded the first few scenes, but when it came round to shooting, time ​really caught up with us, and on the day I think ​we were more focused on getting the lighting, composition and performance right, rather than me also co-directing with my effects hat on. That and, due to financial constraints, the whole sci-fi prison cell set was built in my living room, which wasn’t ideal in terms of logistics. Consequently, there were many effects shots that were trickier than they should have been.

For example, we were so busy on the day that I didn’t give a second thought to what we’d see through the ‘cell’ windows, despite having done 3D skyscraper compositing tests beforehand. I think we put some gelled Dedo lights behind the windows to mimic a sort of neon glow, and our production designer, Katie MacGregor had stapled some foam matting stuff across the windows to imitate futuristic bars/shutters, which all looked great. But then when we reviewed the footage, I kicked myself for missing something so obvious, because I realised I couldn’t comp anything in without having to frame by frame rotoscope Thom (the actor), which is what I ended up doing. Ideally we would have nicely lit green screens behind the windows, so it would have been easy to composite in the outside environment, but we didn’t.

All the compositing was done in After Effects, with copious cribbing from (in my opinion) the master of AE tutorials, Andrew Kramer.

We agreed with our DP for the video, the excellent James Westbrook, that given the subject matter the grade should lend the video an 80’s sci-fi vibe. Probably before even one effects shot was completed, we exported a few frames as jpeg images and sent them over to James for him to have a go at grading. We always get sucked in to grading way way too early, as I imagine many film makers do. It’s hard to resist though, as it’s like peeking into your film’s future, and for a brief moment you can picture it as one glorious whole, and then you quickly realise how bloody hard it is to grade everything the same, quickly sink into a deep depression and eat a whole bag of Haribo to yourself. In the end, the grade was done with Magic Bullet Colorista II, which is a great tool for how relatively inexpensive it is. James also has a favourite ‘real film grain’ TIFF sequence which we laid over the top of everything to give it that extra filmic look.

Developing your own style is an important aspect of growing as a filmmaker. How would you describe your own style, and what films or directors have influenced you?

TOMMY: I can’t speak for Rich, but I don’t really feel like I’ve directed enough stuff to even have a ‘style’ as of yet. I hugely respect filmmakers like Danny Boyle, who mix it up with genre and tone on every film they do, and right now just want to experiment on each and every project. Perhaps in a few years there might be some definable traits that you could tie together and say those were my ‘style’, but in terms of WE ARE COWBOYS, we think it’s important to start to foster a sort of otherworldly, ethereal aesthetic that pervades all our stuff. We love the directing duo ‘Daniels’ – their stuff is so imaginative and left-field. Rich actually sent me the YouTube link to Lil Jon’s ‘Turn Down For What’, and I said I “thought it had Daniels all over it, but no, it wasn’t by them”, and then Rich corrected me and showed me that it was directed by them. What I’m getting at is that Daniels’ stuff is so unique that you can tell one of their videos a mile off, which is what we’d love to emulate.

RICH: I think the Daniels duo are a great model for us, because there’s 2 of them, and yet they always manage to have this cohesive and very recognisable vision. I think for us, we’re only really starting to get to the bottom of what kind of aesthetics we enjoy.

Also, I think I’m probably much more influenced by photographers and artists, than I am by directors. Dreams, children’s books and even – dare I say – Pinterest too. I think it’s important to approach these things from lots of different angles.

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Your video was a great example of a success story here at Genero.tv. What has your experience been, and what advice can you offer other filmmakers in the Genero community?

RICH: I think if you have the money in order to make something off your own back, then it’s a really good platform to get your work out there. I’ve made 4 videos for Genero over the past 3 years, and finished as a runner-up 3 times. It’s never been about winning – it’s about being able to pick a song that resonates and telling a personal story to go along with it. Hopefully that adds up to an interesting video that might enable you to get paid work elsewhere. It can be expensive, but this is what I want to do for a living, so it’s an investment just like anything else.

I’ve been in awe of a lot of videos on Genero, and sometimes that can intimidate you into thinking it’s not worth making something, but this video was shot 90% in one room with one actor, and at it’s biggest had a crew of 4 people for one day (on that note, major shoutout to long-time collaborator Riccardo Servini for being on set every second we made this, and for filling in as the dead guard we cloned some dozen times in post). You don’t need big budgets or to be part of a big production company to make interesting videos – you just need good, creative ideas and lots of hard work to bring it to life. And then of course the Genero Video Store has opened up more potential for you to earn some money back, which is something we have some good experience with.

What’s next on the horizon for WE ARE COWBOYS?

RICH: I just acquired some funding for a short film I’ll be making in the Autumn called ‘A Monster Called Charles‘. That’s going to be pretty exciting, as well as obviously unrelenting, painful and torturous – just like any filmmaking experience. It’s aiming to be a mixture between Gummo, Pan’s Labyrinth and Not Now Bernard. Tommy will likely be involved somehow, but we’ve always maintained we want to preserve and develop our own voices, so Tommy’s developing his own short too.

As far as WE ARE COWBOYS, we’re really eager to carry on making music videos and get signed to a label that can help us continue to do that. And we’re obviously very keen to make the step-up into commercials as soon as possible. And who knows, we may even make another video for Genero sooner than you think.

A huge thanks to Rich + Tommy for chatting to us! You can see more of their work at WEARECOWBOYS.com.