For the latest in The Drum’s director’s chair series, Emmanuel Adjei (Compulsory, Dreamers, HALAL), discusses themes around social media, how painting and theatre come together with film and the influence of music, including how Nick Cave helps him set his moods.
The series, in which directors discuss influences, passions and career highlights, has previously featured Henry Busby, Andrew Lang, Camille Marotte, Mea Dols de Jong, Klaus Obermeyer, Eli Roth, Mate Steinforth, Pamela Romanowsky, Traktor and Doug Liman.
Who or what inspired you to be a director? (or who are your creative heroes and why?)
I first got introduced to theatre and painting at high school. I have always been fascinated with the Dutch masters, so for a long time, I thought I was going to try and be a painter. Fine art continuous to be a sort of library of references that are constantly in the back of my head. Becoming a director, I guess I kind of combined the best of both worlds together in one practice.
And that is what I love about directing films. To me, it is such a hybrid and expressive form. Perhaps most important to me is how the medium film allows a marriage between vision and sound. The end result is like a completely new form, in comparison to isolating the two elements. It’s quite unique.
Apart from fine art and theatre, my upbringing has influenced me a lot in the way I see things, how I find inspiration and the references I turn to. That being said, my cultural background is never going to be just one reference, and the same goes for my inspiration. I find it everywhere. It could be anything from a sound to a moment - something that triggers you or makes you question your surroundings. This is probably also why I am so fascinated by playing with the boundary between fiction and reality in my work.
Outside of work, what are you into?
If I am not working on a project (which is a rare situation nowadays), I try to make space for quality time with friends and family. I have just had my second child and being a father is a life-changing experience. It encourages me to be more productive in scheduling my days. Everyday life, time spent with my family, growing as a person and father, and seeing how this new setting affects the way I work, ultimately enriches my creative process. It has a major influence on my perspective and point of view.
On a completely different note, I listen to a lot of music. It may sound a bit corny but it truly brings me to a certain state of mind, which can become the start of a new idea or add a layer to an existing concept. All in all, I try to listen a lot. I’m super inspired by sound and try to approach it as openly as possible. A particular sound can change the mood, it can be that missing piece to your puzzle.
How would you describe your style of commercial/filmmaking? What are you known for?
In short…. visual poetry, visceral, emotive, monumental and otherworldly.
I find it hard to describe in words, so here’s a track that somehow reflects the overall mood of a lot of my work:
I often play this track when working, it brings me to the right state of mind.
Have you got an idea about what sort of projects you’d like to work on or are you quite open-minded about what work comes your way?
I try to be as open-minded as possible, but I’ve noticed that most of the work that comes my way is already tailored to my visual style/preference.
On a personal note, I tend to look for projects that enable me to look at the relationship between a character and its context. I’m interested in exploring how our context; i.e. cultural background, skin colour, gender, religious beliefs and so forth shape us.
More than that, it's really about 'the gaze'; the act of seeing and being seen. It's about the roles we all have to play in our daily lives and how society attributes conveyed beliefs to our external form. This can, of course, be translated in a lot of different ways, but it’s an underlying aspect of projects I gravitate to.
When you’re looking at scripts and projects that come in, is there anything in particular that you’re looking for?
I always hope to receive scripts that surprise me or are unexpected. Something that opens the door to tell a story that’s untold or approach something in a unique way. On a different note, I love working on projects that move you emotionally, so I guess ‘drama’ in particular is an important factor for me.
But overall, it’s a lot about collaboration. Whether it’s with a brand or artist, it doesn't matter to me as long as we share the same vision. I've been lucky to work on a few collaborative projects where we realised that our voices could be stronger together, reinforce and elevate each other. It's really about teamwork and sharing creative ideas! And I guess that’s really what I’m looking for.
What's your funniest moment on set?
I once had a stuffed sheep, as in a mounted sheep, on set. It stood in the courtyard of a house for a couple of scenes. It was creepy and funny at the same time. When we wrapped the shoot we almost forgot to bring it back to the rental company for taxidermy.
For my most recent project, Shahmaran, my DP Paul and I were location scouting in the desert. And as cliche as it sounds, our car broke down. We were in the middle of nowhere, it was at the end of the day, it was a pretty ironic situation. After a couple of hours we got picked up, but being out there in the dark - feeling a bit useless - was not so funny at the time but looking back now, it kind of is.
What's your best piece of work?
I'm very proud of my latest piece with Sevdaliza - 'Shahmaran'. It’s a project I've have been working on for a while. Our first project was my short film The Formula (2016). I directed it, she wrote the soundtrack and plays the main character. Our second project was Human (2016), a music video for Sevdaliza as an artist which I directed. And all along, Shahmaran was a work in progress.
As our relationship grew, and we gave each other space to explore our artistic bond with altering people in the driver’s seat, we could really see the potential of a bigger project. A project that would push us both artistically, focusing on quality over quantity.
We took the time to let our visions blend for Shahmaran. It’s almost three years in the making.
Which ad do you wish you'd made?
The Apple ‘1984’ Super Bowl commercial, directed by Ridley Scott and the Nina Ricci ‘L'Air du Temps’ Commercial, directed by Tony Kaye. Two brilliant ads that were so epic at the time. They changed the course, and almost created a new movement or era, of advertising. I’m a huge fan of the postmodern mood and feel. These two spots literally changed the way I looked at commercials.
How well does the information flow between client, agency and production company on a job?
I have been lucky to work very closely with different agencies, clients and production companies on all my (commercial) jobs, so I would say my experiences have all been good so far. Having an open dialogue has always been at the core of what I do, and most of the time I find the flow of information very organic and fluid.
What's been the biggest change in the industry during your career?
The rise of social media and using platforms such as Instagram as an extension of your portfolio. Instagram, in particular, has really changed the stream of communication, making it easier to connect with potential collaborators and similarly minded visionaries. Having a recognisable and strong visual style on Instagram has really become essential. I think the online world has opened up a lot of opportunities, and of course makes it easier to showcase your work. At the same time, it leaves you quite vulnerable. It’s not that long ago since your showreel was your business card. You were very much in charge of who would see it, and in what context. That has all been changed, and often it’s been reduced to the number of followers you have - a weird indication of quality if you ask me. Personally, I use it as a tool to update people on my work. I don’t focus that much on more personal aspects like inspirations, interests and so forth. It’s my approach to it. People do it differently. But you definitely see that these platforms can have a HUGE effect on your career and development.
(Just in case you’re now curious to see my feed and stay up to date on my work: @emmanueladjei_)
Have you worked on any client direct commercials (no agency involved)? What's been the difference?
I’ve directed a few films for Dutch streetwear brand Patta. They fully trusted my vision as an artist and gave me plenty of space (and time) to develop the project. The only difference with a brand like Patta - that operates without an agency - is that most of the time they’ll expect you to be both the ‘creative’ as well as the ‘director’, which is often a welcome challenge but it is for sure, a balancing act.