~The following interview was conducted by Madeline Glowicki
for issue 7 of the Editorial in Spring 2013. Portraits by Claire Milbrath.~
Emily Kai Bock is a Montreal-based director who, alongside fellow Montrealer / cinematographer Evan Prosofsky, gained international recognition for her Grimes music video, ‘Oblivion’ – which currently has over four-and-a-half-million views on YouTube. The duo has since collaborated on a number of creative projects, including music videos for Doldrums and Grizzly Bear.
I’ve known Emily for a few years, and the thought of sitting across from her with a bunch of formally prepared questions seemed strange at first. Thankfully, the “interview” was more like a long conversation between two friends.
What was your first film project that made you think, “Wow, I want to keep doing this”?
When I lived at Lab Synthese I started these performance works. A lot of musicians were around, they were always making musical pieces and using the main space of the room as a jam space. I mean, we have a lot of really talented friends who have performance skills; even the act of performing music involves showmanship. I used Trevor [Barton], Susil [Sharma] and Alex [Cowan] in this piece called “Rock. Paper. Scissors”. It was them acting out these masculine archetypes and yelling things, while Claire [Boucher] was backstage playing violin. I filmed that with Alex’s camera, which was a present from his Dad – it had a plaque on it that said: Create! Love, Dad. So I starting documenting these performances and then editing them. Lab felt like you were part of Paris in the 20s or New York in the 60s. It was definitely some sort of meeting ground for a lot of artistic creative minds, in this tight Anglo community of Montreal artists.
I also started to film Andy [White] and Eddy [White], I just thought that the stuff they were making and their relationship was so interesting. I was really inspired by this community – a lot of people went to University, but also had this discipline ingrained in them to work on their art 8 hours a day, and then wash dishes for another 8 hours. They used all their free time really creatively, and did it because they had to and loved it. It was also something I really wanted to document, and Andy suggested that I go and film Kyle [Bennett].
Oh yeah, I saw that.
Kyle was living at Torn Curtain, making music and not leaving his studio for days. He had a kind of compulsion to create these beautiful aural things just for himself to experience; it was really fascinating. I went and filmed Kyle, partially because it was about documenting something, but also deep down I think I had wanted to study his compulsion. I think I had lost that when I was at art school, it was always the relationship that the art had with the world that was primary, and secondary, was the relationship your art had with you. You have to keep that intimacy with your art and I think that’s what Kyle and that video taught me.
What would you say is your biggest distraction from your work, or your biggest limitation?
I think when I initially come up with an idea for something I don’t necessarily want to share it with anybody. There are very few times that I want to share it at all, but it’s something I’m getting better at. I’m getting used to just letting an idea exist and have a life, but you have to get over that initial fear of sharing it with others. It’s funny how the act of creating can be one of the hardest things to do as an artist.
It sounds like Lab was a good influence and a great place to live. At a time when you were trying to take a break from art, what was living there like for you?
It’s contagious when you see people make stuff all around you all day, and you just don’t want to just sit there. I think that boys are taught younger to do, while girls are taught to spectate. I didn’t want to be the bus girl, or the girl stamping hands – the door girl or the merch girl or whatever. I was a big ‘doer’ in art school but I also had the accountability of my professors and my work was really boring. But man, it feels really different to make work that you really want to make and not care if people pay attention to it or not. It’s very self-fulfilling and validating. I don’t know, my mom always said that, “ideas fall like rain, and they fall on everybody.” So if you have an idea and you don’t do it, someone else will, or even worse no one else will. You really have to seize the day and make what you can of your life because it is a pretty short life.
How do you deal with negative feedback? Do you think it affects you in a positive way? Do you use it for your next project?
Well, I’m never satisfied with anything I make, I’m really not, so it is almost validating to get criticism because I already know everything that they are about to say deep down. I’m extremely critical towards my own work, I never think anything is perfect and that lack of perfection drives me – it’s a good thing. It makes me want to produce more work because I’m never satisfied. I don’t ever disagree with comments or criticism unless the comment is like ‘this is gay’ [laughs]; comments like that just aren’t constructive. You can get defensive or you can realize that you are consistently making things for life; if you’re in it for the long run you realize it isn’t your last work. You know that at most, you’re going to get 70% of the result you want, so you have to work on a set to be at like 150%. You just really have to work hard.
Was the Coca-Cola commercial your idea?
Basically Coke had researched ‘cap dancing’, where kids in New Orleans put caps on the bottom of their shoes because they can’t afford tap shoes. I saw it when I was in New Orleans. The premise that Coke came up with was to introduce this thing called Cap Dancing as an established and cool style of dance. So I wrote the thing and cast these kids to dance for us. I did a director’s cut for my reel, but the actual corporate cut is much cheesier. Their whole idea was to make Coke look like an energy drink because they have a bad reputation right now with obesity. They still have my name there, attached to the corporate cut, which is annoying because I told them not to use it.
Because it’s so cheesy?
Well, they kicked me out of the editing room [laughs]. I went in there and was fighting with the editor. That’s when I sort of learned the lesson that if you’re working for someone like that, you are a hired gun and it’s no longer your art. They had to get this ‘head’ person to come downstairs and ask me to leave.
Would you ever work for someone like that again?
I have to if I want to make any money as a director to do my own things. I mean even Wes Anderson, who you would assume has enough money is still making ads, he just directed a bunch for Toyota.
Do you find that making videos is getting easier? For instance the Grizzly Bear video, was the whole process easier than some of you’re older videos?
Well, that one was different because it had a narrative, which made it easier in a sense. But I only had 4 days to prep it and 2 days to shoot it, and that made it extremely difficult. We got the budget on Monday and started filming on Friday. We still had to cast actresses, find locations, wardrobe – all that stuff. So when we arrived in Toronto on Tuesday we had nothing and then, due to a lot of hard work from our producer, by Friday the video was prepped. It was crazy. Then there was editing, which I did on a laptop while I was in Nevada working on a video for Doldrums. That was kind of a fucking crazy month. But I don’t know, I think it’s getting easier too, I was a lot more of a control freak on Grimes than Grizzly Bear. I used to be really high strung, and now I think I’m a lot more chilled out on set.
What are some of your upcoming projects?
I’m going to New York to shoot a documentary on underground rap, which is funded by Nokia Music. They are pairing up directors with American cities to cover an underground music scene. It’s this other avenue that corporations are taking, like Nokia, investing money in creative films to associate themselves with cool things, like independent music. The documentaries are going to be premiered at Sundance Film Festival. I chose the rap scene in New York because there are a lot of rappers there that are resisting the stereotypical image of, you know, the macho-pimp daddy role model and just being themselves. I’m planning on interviewing Mykki Blanco; it’ll be really good. I mean he’s dressing in women’s clothes, which is just so different than commercial rap mentality. I find it extremely interesting.
I’m also making a Majical Cloudz video, which is going to feature Devon’s [lead singer] dad, who is sort of a Canadian acting legend. It will be first time working with a real professional actor. He’s been in countless films, as well as his iconic role as Windom Earle in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.
Sounds like you have a lot ahead of you, how are you coping with all the work?
I feel super exhausted lately, like I’m in this transitional period where I’m working super hard but not making very much money. It’s like still being a starving artist but having so much on your plate – it’s not just you making work for yourself but instead having other people involved, other parties. They expect a certain level of professionalism but none of them fully realize your position. Like when I was editing Grizzly Bear and doing the final cut on my computer in Parc Ex, our power was surging because of the bad wiring in our house. The power was cutting out every hour – I was looking at edits while knowing other people, directors I’m competing with have professional editors in posh editing rooms. Sometimes I’ll be on a job and one of the producer’s is like, “Oh yeah, you need to upfront the car rental,” and that’s like $800 and I don’t even know if I have that in my account.
I’m glad this interview arose because ever since we ran into one another a while back I’ve wanted to sit down and talk with you. You were lugging all this film equipment back to Concordia [University], and you were like “Fuck, fuck it, is this worth it?” We talked about how misogynistic and stubborn people can be; you didn’t think anyone took you seriously. Then within three months, it had totally turned around.
Oh yeah, man that was a dark time. But it’s cool; I don’t actually have that problem anymore, that burden of having to prove myself as a girl. When I meet other male directors there is this mutual respect thing that happens, which wasn’t the case when I started out. It’s shitty you have to really prove yourself whereas men don’t have to prove themselves as much. I’ve noticed men are given respect inherently. Whereas, if I say I’m a director, everyone gives me kind of a funny look and asks me what I’ve done. Before anything of mine came out, I definitely was not taken seriously. I think men have a lot of doors open for them because people expect them to make stuff, people expect them to be a professional and to have a career with longevity. But women, they don’t expect that of you, it’s not something that’s crucial.
Do you have any advice for people who find themselves in ‘dark times’?
If I could have told myself something five years ago it would have been, “get busy, and don’t give a shit what people think of you while you’re doing it.” Even if you have to go through growing pains, don’t stop, just keep going and maintain that intimacy with your work, that relationship is vital to the quality of what your making. You can worry about what people think after, if at all. The important thing is to get it done and make it happen, even if eyes roll, even if it’s ignored – keep making it and don’t stop. Just make yourself do it, sit down and start.
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