guess what: you don’t have to go to film school to become a filmmaker
As we release a brand new interview with Sam Smith, we meet the director of Sam’s latest music videos, Luke Monaghan, to discover how he went from work experience at MTV to making award-winning videos and directing his first full-length feature.
Director Luke Monaghan started out making films with little knowledge or experience but with a healthy dose of passion and an innate understanding of how to tell a story beautifully and imaginatively. Cutting his teeth by helping out on the sets of music videos, within three years Luke was working with A$AP Rocky. Since then he's created shorts for everyone from Sam Smith to Disclosure, won an Emmy, directed the video of an Oscar-winning song and directed his first full-length film. Here's how Luke did it.
Build practical experience
"I always had a love for film and music videos, but coming from a family where nobody was in, or anywhere near, the industry, it never seemed a viable job until I was running around on sets, shooting musicians. To get a foot in, I did work experience at MTV when I was 18 and after for six months or so I was given a full-time job there. I met so many people and I learnt a lot, including how to operate a camera and edit. There were directors in the office who would direct music videos outside of work, so I ended up getting on sets and shooting behind-the-scenes videos for free. Film school is amazing, but I learnt a lot being on sets and seeing how it all worked practically.
When I left MTV and started directing music videos, my career moved forward really quickly. But the money didn't come in as quick. There's really no formula to making it as a filmmaker and figuring out all of the obstacles that come your way; you have to just trust your gut. I had to find a balance between doing less creatively satisfying jobs that paid well, so I could do music videos that paid little but would both push me creatively and generate massive exposure.
When I went to Detroit to shoot Disclosure's White Noise video, it was a huge opportunity for me. I was pushing myself with the storytelling and tone of that video, so I invested in it personally. I didn't get paid anything to make White Noise as the budget was so tight for what we were trying to make. A lot of times as a director if you're doing a music video that's a big opportunity, you'll put your fee into the budget so you can put that money into the production. It's a blow when you don't have a lot of cash, but ultimately you have to invest in yourself and your projects. I don't think that will ever stop being an option."
Be open to experience
"Learn to say yes to opportunities early on because you learn so much on every job you do. It's worth being out there shooting, even if it's not exactly what you want to do. You may work with a great DP, editor or producer that'll help you make your best work in the future."
Work with what or who is around you
"I grew up in west London, on the Worlds End Estate, which definitely influenced my work thanks to the different cultures, dramas and community spirit you get on a lot of estates. It gave me a lot to work with. But it took me until I was 18 or so to find like-minded people, who I met when I started working and getting out and about. My peers and friends were ambitious and liked similar things to me so I was around a lot of creative people in London -- too many to name. I also definitely drank myself into a gutter enough times to last a lifetime.
My career as a director changed from doing work with my peers into directing a documentary for Channel 4 on A$AP Rocky around his first album, Long. Live. A$AP. I was 21 and Rocky was the same age and we hit it off. Doing that doc was the most feedback I had gotten on anything I had made. I then directed two videos for Rocky, Purple Kisses and Angels. My career changed again when I directed Disclosure's White Noise, which is still a video that people talk to me about today. Directing a trilogy of successful, high profile videos gave me the confidence to push myself to make two short films -- Ezekiel and Baby Gangster."
Find a subject you love and make a film about it
"After making my short films I got the opportunity to direct HBO's State Of Play: Fighting Chance, which we won an Emmy for Best Short Sports Documentary. That led onto directing two episodes of a new series called Why We Fight; which comes out on Go90 on November 12. Directing longer form films gave me the platform to develop my short film Baby Gangster into a feature length documentary; I've been shooting it in between shooting other projects for almost three years. It's about Frederick James Staves, a reformed LA drug kingpin from the 1980s.
I've also got my first scripted feature film in development too. After making videos for Sam Smith's first album In The Lonely Hour I started getting sent a lot of feature film scripts. None of them were quite right and some were terrible. I realised you have to tell a story that's from you and that you totally believe in. So I set about finding something that I was comfortable being my first feature film. The movie I'm working on is a blend of those I'm influenced by, particularly anything humanistic and introspective. Movies like City of God, The Wrestler and Whiplash. The film is about one mans battle with his own sanity after his life is turned upside down by the murder of his son. It's set in late 90's London. It's a build on my music videos and short films – it's going to be intense and beautiful."
Be prepared to leave everything you know and everyone you love
"In 2013 I moved to Los Angeles. After growing up in London and living there my whole life I fancied testing myself to live somewhere completely different and I wanted to push my work forward. The main adjustment I had to make culturally was the lack of good Indian food. Change is good though. And my appreciation for Mexican food grew massively; incorporating Mexican foods into my life has been one of the biggest pleasures since moving to 'Murica."
Find your voice
"This takes time and your voice changes over time too. The stories you want to tell when you start might not be the stories you want to tell in one or five years time. And the way you tell them will definitely change. Through working, making mistakes and having successes you work out what your strengths are and that helps you find your voice and make the films you want to make. You have to have conviction in what you're doing; your job as a director is to lead a team and make sure everyone knows what the vision is. If you don't have conviction and you don't know what you're trying to make, neither will anybody else."
You don't have to work with Sam Smith, but it helps
"Working with Sam has been amazing. He gave me a platform to get my work in music videos out to an even larger audience. He also makes music that is beautiful to tell stories to and he's an amazing performer, which is why he got the theme tune of the last Bond movie Spectre. Directing the video to Writing's On The Wall, which won an Oscar, was the best experience I've had to date. Working closely with a production of that size was incredible. I learned a lot working on that and it definitely motivated me. Writing's On The Wall is one of my favourite pieces of work to date. I had to be restrained and create scenes that did justice when intercut with the movie, which wasn't easy. Seeing Sam Mendes and Hoyte Van Hoytema on set and coming into edits and Barbara Broccoli's support and enthusiasm around the music video we were making was incredible.
The latest video I made for Sam, Too Good At Goodbyes was shot across London and the Northeast, around Newcastle. My approach to the video was to get the viewer swept up in the human emotion that comes with a goodbye, whether it be through a break-up, death or the farewell to another year passed."
Keep pushing forward
"If you want to that is. I'm always looking for the next thing and in a highly competitive line of work you need to have that fire inside you to always want to improve. But that's why I love filmmaking, because to learn your craft and reach your peak it takes time and a lot of work. And the thought of this career being a process is comforting. Which is nice in the general discomfort of always feeling that you have to do better!"