Last year, a music video was released showing a then-little-known chanteuse swaying her hips, bouncing her curly mop of dark hair and popping jazz vocals from her lips, as a tiered shelf of toy dolls went up in flames behind her. The music video—which intercut this scene against a slick, storybook romance of a prepubescent girl bending over backwards to please her mannequin-esque new husband in a surreal timewarp—would go on to be featured on such international sites as PerezHilton.com, and win the affection of Frodo himself, Elijah Wood, who tweeted his praise a year after the video hit YouTube.
“I will admit, that was a little bit cool,” says Guy Franklin, who directed Kimbra‘s adored video clip for the track Settle Down. “I have a bit of a soft spot for Settle Down, just because it was the first clip I’d ever been a part of, and it still seems to get a really positive response.”
“A really positive response” is putting it lightly—the video’s been viewed over three million times so far and set the Melbourne-based director on a collaborative journey with New Zealand-born, Los Angeles-based Kimbra that would see him helm her subsequent two music videos and leave everyone wanting to know more about the director who, until recently, had very little presence online.
Franklin, who spends his time away from directing as a tennis coach (“I’m not yet a full time writer/director—one day soon, I hope), initially directed his interests towards writing, and only after connecting it to film did he envisage himself working in a more visual medium.
“I was never a boy with a camera in his hand, or someone with an overt interest in visuals—if I had a pencil and a piece of paper I was usually quite content. Though it may sound odd, it never really occurred to me that films existed in a written form. I started studying films more closely towards the end of high school. I specifically remember seeing the “written by” credit in American Beauty, and I had the very immediate realization that writing for film was something I wanted to do.”
His break came in the form of a coincidence; Franklin and his friend and cinematographer Edward Goldner were “searching for some potential artists to contact,” while Kimbra—who was then in the middle of recording the track Wandering Limbs from her 2011 debut record ‘Vows’ with Franklin’s cousin Sam Lawrence—was on the hunt for a director who could pair her sound with fitting visuals.
“Sam suggested that I might be someone worth talking to. The next morning I received a text message from Kimbra—which was obviously a very odd feeling considering we had just been listening to her MySpace tunes. Our collaborative relationship has definitely grown to become something quite special to me. When we first met I was 21, and just out of university. I had made two short dramatic films, and had only just started to entertain the idea of working on music videos. Kimbra must have been 19 and, though we were relatively young, we definitely connected from out mutual need to express ourselves honestly which, I’d say, is how we’ve been able to maintain a strong working relationship.”
The extremely varying visual styles and narratives of Franklin’s music videos arrive, not from outside inspiration, but from his muse and creative partner. He cites the layered and complex nature of Kimbra’s songwriting to be the root of each video’s narrative direction—from Settle Down‘s ironic deconstruction of the concept of marrying and starting a family as the only way for a woman to be happy, through Cameo Lover‘s celebratory search for love, to Good Intent’s complex noir take on a starlet’s split personality.
“In terms of our process, I will usually begin by getting as much information, from Kimbra, in relation to the meaning behind her lyrics—I like dissecting an artist’s mind to ensure I understand their creative decisions.”
On the motivation behind the saturated and caustic Settle Down video, Guy told us, “I felt it important to depict the two very different points of view that are implicit within the song; on one hand there is Kimbra’s point of view, a narrator who is cynical of the presumed fulfilment that might be associated with ‘settling down’ and, on the other, there is the point of view of someone who genuinely believes (and, perhaps, quite desperately believes) that their happiness depends upon a marriage and the raising of a family. I thought that if I could capture both of these perspectives successfully, then a unique structure would eventually surface.
“In coming up with an interesting way of depicting this second point of view, I thought a young girl would be perfect. Though the tradition of ‘settling down’ is typically discussed in the context of adults, I feel like it’s a tradition that we come to learn, like many social conventions, at very young age. There was something powerful about using a young character, as our immediate assumption is that a child is innocent, and therefore more malleable to the rules they come to learn and observe – whether these lessons are overt or subtle, children are obviously very receptive to both. So, I suppose, in using the image of a child I wanted to pose the question, in quite a genuine way, “what kind of values do we want to instil in young children?” and, if one of these values is to ‘settle down’, perhaps there is a need for this tradition to be decoded in a more modern manner.”
“I suppose the biggest change, when comparing Settle Down with Cameo Lover is the significant difference in Kimbra’s point of view. Whilst the former highlighted a more satirical, and critical, tone, Cameo was all about a genuine openness—an unrelenting hope and optimism. We didn’t want to do Settle Down again. I think it was important to show audiences how varied Kimbra’s musical style was, giving everyone an insight into how varied ‘Vows’ was going to be.”
When it came time time to conceive his third video for Kimbra, the dark undertones in the track Good Intent led Franklin to the romance and choreography of West Side Story, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. The video’s narrative progression followed Kimbra’s character’s anxieties as she tried “to bring her conflicting voices to life.”
“We wanted to create a character that was oscillating between forgiveness and bitterness (dressed in white and red), with an in-between incarnation, Kimbra’s present self, dressed in black. Similarly with our leading man (played by Ashley Mckenzie) we wanted to depict a man who was moving (quite literally, throughout his alleyway dance) between his devotion to Kimbra’s character and this temptation down the red alleyway.”
The trilogy of videos Franklin has created for Kimbra are elaborate vignettes filled with precise choreography and tricky visual elements (burning plastic in Settle Down, confetti canons in Cameo Lover and extensive period costuming and set design in both Good Intent and Settle Down) that many novice directors—and even some with more experience—would try to steer clear of, but Franklin knew they were pivotal for communicating his star’s songs.
“I remember, very specifically, that Kimbra had said that, by the [Cameo Lover] clip’s end, it needed to feel “joyous”. I went away, with this in mind, and came up with a story structure that felt engaging to watch and would allow us to build, bit by bit, to this climactic outro. All I can really say now is thank goodness we used the confetti! I think everyone was a little bit nervous about how the confetti would show up on camera, so we were very hesitant to use it… but, every rehearsal we had, Kimbra would ask, “Have you organised those confetti guns?” She seems to have a sixth sense, that girl. Sally Addinsall (Cameo Lover’s production designer) sourced the perfect kind and, as they exploded, on that first confetti take, I think everyone realized how important that confetti was going to be in capturing this feeling of joy.
Similarly to how nervous I was leading up to the first Cameo confetti take, I remember how terrified I was when reaching the burning of the dolls for Settle Down. We really had no definitive idea as to how the dolls, and shelves, would react to the flames (we could only do a very small-scale test, in order to preserve all of our dolls for the actual shoot). We were warned that we might only get three takes with the fire. When the flames finally went up, we all quickly realized it was going to work…we ended up getting around ten takes and I remember that sense of relief so vividly.”
While Franklin’s trio of music videos for Kimbra have been his launching pad in what is sure to be a long a fruitful career as a director, they were also exercises in delving into the intricacies of the human condition—something he has always found himself interested in.
“As I’ve grown I’ve become more and more fascinated with people, their behavior and how completely unique and varied out experiences, as humans, can be. This interest, in the complexities of people, definitely drove me, quite quickly, into wanting to direct. Both roles allow me satisfy my two halves; writing, the more private internal side—and directing, my more social side that loves communicating, creatively, with a team.”
Franklin, who next year will complete a short film called Mr. Beautiful, which he has been working on writing for over a year, as well as releasing another music video and some fashion films, lists Animal Collective, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, Radiohead, Kanye West, M.I.A, Florence & The Machine and Bloc Party (“If they still exist”) as the artists with whom he dreams of one day forging collaborative relationships, just as he’s done with the ingenue he got his start working alongside.
“Working closely with someone who is really passionate about expressing themselves honestly has probably been the most valuable part of the process. In a weird way, I deliberately try not to be inspired by too many other elements as I feel like, providing the construction of the song is sufficiently layered (which, in Kimbra’s case, it always is) then there will be more than enough material, within the music, to begin coming up with a story. I try to ensure that my perspective is one that truthfully explores Kimbra’s.”