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making music video history with daniel askill

Chatting to the talented director about creating some of the most viewed films in the world and life beyond.

by Briony Wright
|
13 February 2015, 1:05am

Daniel Askill is the co-director (along with Sia) behind two of the most watched, loved and loathed music videos of the past year. Working with Sia on the clips for her soaring hits 'Chandelier' and its follow up 'Elastic Heart', the films have been viewed an epic 523 million and 114 million times respectively and have ignited wide-ranging discourse revealing an abundance of opinion. They are utterly watchable, entertaining and ultimately polarising films, which have themselves become cultural landmarks.

Working between Sydney and New York, Daniel has made short fashion films, video installations, commercials as well as a stunning short-narrative film called We Have Decided Not To Die, which has played at film festivals around the world. His work is distinctive and technically impressive with a tendency towards grand gestures, all also hallmarks of his company Collider, the creative agency he founded over a decade ago.

In perhaps the clearest sign that his work is having an impact on the world, Daniel was approached by Sir Paul McCartney to direct one of his recent music videos. Evidently, the only way is up. 

You worked Sia, who also co-produced these clips, and the dancer Maddie Ziegler on both 'Chandelier' and 'Elastic Heart', how was that?
Well we shot them back-to-back in LA last year. We actually shot three videos and there was some discussion as to which would be released as the second video. We decided on 'Elastic Heart' and there is one more to come.

Oh right, so we can expect a third in the series?
Yeah we had this idea of doing a trilogy, so there will be one more video to round out the series. I don't think anyone's officially announced what that's going to be yet though.

Do the three make up a particular narrative?
Well sort of thematically and conceptually but they don't tell a literal story per se.

I remember we spoke when you were filming Chandelier. Did you have an idea at that stage that it was going to break the Internet like it did?
No, not at all to be honest, I mean maybe Sia did but I couldn't have imagined at that time. That said, the first day we watched Maddie do the full choreography without a break, I think Sia and I actually shed a tear - suddenly it became clear that there was something special going on.

It's a really powerful combination and a standout example of a piece of content going instantly viral. What's happened since? Has life changed in any way?
Yeah I mean it was amazing to be part of something that really became sort of part of the conversation. I think one of the biggest personal compliments was having an email exchange with a friend of mine from the band Pheonix. Somehow the video came up when we were chatting and he was like, 'Oh my god, you directed that video? I had no idea'. He told me that his wife's dad had sent them the link to the video saying how amazing he thought it was. I quickly did the maths - his wife is Sofia Coppola and her dad is Francis Ford Coppola! This was before Jim Carey had done it on Saturday Night Live and all of that type of thing so that was quite a magical moment for me and I know that Sia certainly had many similar experiences where her idols responded to it. It is quite amazing to be part of something that spreads its wings out that far.

Music videos are quite unique in that you rarely know who's directed them, they don't finish with credits for instance. I feel like you're making the kind of film clips that have people asking though, which is great. Who would you like to work with that you haven't yet?
That's a good question, I've recently had an amazing experience working with Paul McCartney, which was magical to me because I have always been such a huge fan. It was amazing just to be with him - to collaborate and just have a conversation.

That's amazing, how did that come about?
It was fairly standard, the record label contacted me and I sent some ideas but didn't hear anything for a couple of months. Then, actually the day we were on the 'Elastic Heart' shoot I listened to the message from a missed call and it said something like, 'Hello Daniel, it's Paul McCartney, I just wanted to have a chat with you about this video I'd like to make'. It was a project he was very passionate about so it really became about the dialogue with him.

And it's been released?
Yes, it's called 'Hope For the Future'. Paul was very passionate about a song he'd written for a big video game called Destiny and he had a very specific idea for the video where he really wanted to be a hologram inside the world, inside this video game. It was very much me working to realize this idea he was very passionate about.

I've just watched it, it's epic! It must be interesting working with someone who essentially has the means to have total creative freedom within a project. I imagine that would be liberating but also quite petrifying without the usual limitations.
Yeah, absolutely, I mean it was actually just inspiring. Paul was on a full-on stadium tour at the time but would call me with these ideas of how the music video should evolve. It was mind-blowing and inspiring.

That's so great. I'm particularly interested in music videos because it feels like the music industry is changing so much and in many instances experiencing difficulties, yet music videos feel somewhat protected.
Yeah, ten years ago I might have said it was at the tail end because the 90s MTV scene was essentially the heyday of music videos - there was loads of money involved and really interesting work was being made. At one point it did feel like it was kind of dying, but speaking today it feels like it's just at the beginning of a really interesting time which is obviously driven by the internet.

Who else would you point to as doing interesting work?
A friend of mine called Chris Milk, who's actually done some stuff with Vice, has done a lot of interesting work in videos. He just released a whole new virtual reality kind of platform. In the past he's worked with Johnny Cash, Beck, and Arcade Fire, people like him are pushing it in a more interesting direction. It's the beginning of what feels like a big renaissance.

Music videos were such an important part of growing up for our generation - they were much more slow-burn and you'd watch the same clip repeatedly over years - so many of them were beautiful little moments that people everywhere could see and share in the meaning of. We experience them differently now but I still think they're important cultural messengers.
It's true, the turnover is particularly fast now but I was very lucky to work on something with Sia that seems to have lasted longer than 15 seconds.

What are some of your favourite music videos of all time?
Well I love anything by Chris Cunningham or Jonathan Glazer. My first music video experiences were Michael Jackson's, they were total events.

True, the world would stop. And what's next, are you working on a feature length?
Yeah, there are a few feature projects that I have in the early stages of development. Sia's actually written a script with a friend of hers that we're talking about trying to direct together and I have another project which I'm just starting to show to actors. I've also got a little shoot in London for Alexander McQueen after that - it's shaping up to be an exciting year.

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Text Briony Wright