Sound+Color: Daniel Kragh Jacobsen Interview
It's safe to say that music lives in far more places than just your ears or the speakers in your car. With the help of directors and photographers, music is able to come to technicolor life and given a whole new batch of fresh air to breathe. We've been itching to figure out how it all happens- it's a little bit of mystery in the most magical sense. Luckily for us the people who make it all happen are just as excited to talk about their process as we are to listen.
If you've ever gone down that rabbit hole of music videos online, you've most likely come across one or more of Danish director Daniel Kragh Jacobsen's humanistic and breathtaking work. Clear, poignant, and drawing on the strains of being young, Jacobsen's music videos stare audiences directly in the heart, challenging what beauty is and what it most definitely can be. With an eye for the power of subtle glances, Jacobsen creates narratives that are relatable on that basic human level. Using a little bit of dark humor and leaning on the complications of falling in love, he's attracted artists from Quadron and Rhye to Washed Out's Ernest Greene.
How did you first get involved with directing?
I come from a family of directors-my dad directs documentaries, my mom directs theater and my uncle directs fiction films. When I was a kid, I used to hang out at my mom's theater. My dad directed a television drama back then, too, so I would sometimes fake being sick so I could hang out with him on set. It was a way for me and my dad to have something to talk about, you know? Men aren't always the best at speaking with kids, but film was something we had in common. When I was 17 I joined this youth-talent program that the Danish production company Zentropa founded. That's the year I directed my first short film.
What's something unexpected you've learned about your craft since you've started?
I've learned so much over the years- I guess a good way to put it is something a teacher taught me in film school. He'd overheard an English director, Stephen Frears, say, "You learn how to make every film while doing it." I think that's so true and why I find directing constantly exciting.
Who is a constant source of inspiration in your work/life?
Living is a source of inspiration for me. I try and tell stories that I know, which makes reinterpreting personal experiences my "safe zone." I'm always afraid that this sounds too self indulgent, but it's the truth. Other than that I look to at other films and still images while I write [for inspiration].
Are there any artists you've wanted to direct or collaborate with recently?
I have many actors that I dream of working with— I absolutely adore actors and what they're able to do. [Acting] is pretty much a mystery to me. There're several musicians that I'd love to collaborate with—Unkle is one of them, and the Danish band Julias Moon is another. There are several composers who I really would love to work with one day, too, my favorite being Jon Brion.
Have there been any memorable responses to your work?
Just that anyone has seen my work or has asked to work with me is memorable. I've been wanting to do this for many years- there's a small break to do it full time now and I've been pinching myself many times a week because of it!
How much inspiration do you draw from the songs you create videos? Do you have to love a song to direct a video for it?
I don't know if I have to love a song, but I've never gone into a project disliking a song. I tried to be as open to the artists story wit. I always feel that the song and story somehow naturally morph. That's the magic of music videos. But I'm not sure if this would happen if I didn't listen to the song methodically before writing the video.
Your videos often end on an optimistic, if melancholic note, what is it about an honest or flawed happy ending that you find compelling?
It's funny because the ending mostly comes last when I write. But it's just that all the pieces in the story need to add up [first], and when they do they often come out a bit melancholic when I write. I think I'm more attracted to these endings because they're closer to real life.
A large chunk of your video for Washed Out's "All I Know" is from the perspective of a teenager holding a camera. In what way was this important to you for conceptualizing the story?
It was important because that's what puts us [viewers] in the main characters point of view. It was also a reaction to many of my peers using High-8 and DV-Cam as a style in their videos, but they didn't have meaning behind their reasoning and it was about looking cool. For me, story comes before style. I wanted to show how I felt [when] those two elements came together.
Many of your stories are about youth, rebellion, and the passion/hope of that time period. Were you a rebellious teen? Can you share any stories from that time that informed your life/work?
I think I was a mixture as a teen. I changed school's quite a lot, and I was just a confused kid. I was never especially rebellious, I was much more introverted and shy. I remember most of my teen years just being in love with girls who I couldn't get. In high school I became more vocal and loud. That's one of the reasons I love portraying stories about youth. It's such a fucked up period [in life], and you are so many people all at once. You simply have no idea who you really are.
Where do the narratives for your music videos come from? Are they inspired by the music or does the narrative develop independently?
I believe it's a mix of both. A good example of this is that (like most directors) I've written many stories that've never been made. Sometimes I try and use these old ideas for new songs, but this hasn't worked so far. I've found that a song needs a fresh idea and story every time.
Both Rhye videos address the regrets and reflections of youth – is this something you intentionally set out to explore?
No, it honestly wasn't. The first video, "The Fall," was inspired by a very separate feeling then the second video I did for them, "Open." For "The Fall" I had just come out of a relationship where I had been looking at how the grass was greener on the other side which added a really personal element to the story. For "Open" I was much more interested in beauty. I was intrigued by filming something visually outstanding. I feel I learnt a bit of a lesson on that video. You always learn more on films you aren't as happy about. But, no we did a collaboration with Rhye where we set out to do three music videos that panned out into a story, yet the overall themes were never fully discussed.
If you could live in the setting from one of our music videos, which one would it be?
I must be honest and tell you that I wouldn't want to live in any of the worlds I've created. The universes that I'm the proudest to have built are the ones that I have a very personal attachment too, and so it would almost be like going back to a place I've emotionally left behind.
The more playful videos, like with Quadron, would possibly be where I'd live if I had to, but I'm not sure I could handle constantly dancing around with Coco. My body just isn't in shape enough for that right now!
What characteristics do you look for when casting for a video such as "Open"?
I pay attention to the dynamics the two actors- it's important to do that every time you cast a couple. I was casting in a way I never had before. I need to fall in love with my actors in order to know I've chosen the right ones. This is an intellectual love much more than anything else. At the end of the day I always use the rule: when you fall in love you know who to pick.
Rhye "The Fall"
What was the collaboration process like between you and Ernest Greene (Washed Out) when coming up with the concept for the "All I Know" video?
Ernest was very gracious and open during the whole process. We've never met and I'm not even sure we have exchanged a personal emails. He simply described what type of video he saw fit for "All I Know." It was then that I sat down and explained that I wanted the film to feel like a short film, and that the track would be interrupted during the video which he was completely up for. Once the video was edited, he had very few, but great notes to make about it. Overall it was a great and seamless process- very different than when you are really good friends with the band or artist. But that, too, is very special and great in other ways.