Directions to Direction: Chino Moya

January 11, 2016 / Features

By Alex Reeves

From teenage raver to philosophical world builder.

It’s often said that you must suffer for your art, which is unfortunate for aspiring artists growing up in stable, happy environments like RSA / Black Dog director Chino Moya. Raised in Madrid, his father was a professor in Sociology and he was brought up by his mother and her husband, who was a journalist and publicist. “They were sort of hippie-ish, intellectual types,” he says. He was surrounded by books, culture and politics and supported in whatever he wanted to do. Where’s a kid like that going to find the darkness in his soul he needs to become an artist?

Chino’s childhood obsessions already betrayed a search for darkness. “I was very into horror films and fantasy books,” he says, and he was particularly into English fiction. Along with Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, he lost himself in reams of gothic horror like Edgar Alan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and other 18th and early 19th Century writers.

Surrounded by the intelligentsia, there were a few filmmakers around while he was growing up and while he devoured horror films there was a vague idea that he could end up making films, but he never pursued it. “The Spanish system doesn’t really encourage you to do what you want to do,” he says. “I didn’t know that you could go to film school – that you could actually do that for real.”

Chino was a good kid, but when his teenage years hit they hit hard. Maybe in another attempt to escape his comfortable home life, he stopped bothering with school and dove into the decadent rave culture of the 90s, which he admits didn’t combine very well with school – or many other things. “I went completely off the rails,” he says. “I ended up getting kicked out of a few schools. I stopped reading. I stopped studying. I was just hanging out with friends and going out.”

The one passion that remained was film. In his late teens he discovered the more art-house areas of film, which he loved – the nouvelle vague directors, auteurs like Ingmar Bergman and Japanese directors like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu.

Eventually Chino got to university, where he studied history. But his passions remained simple – film and raving. One night he found himself in a techno club, involved in one of those earnest, late-night conversations with strangers, pouring his heart out about the films he loved. “I hardly even remember it, but apparently we had a very long chat about film,” he says. “The guy was at film school at the time. We exchanged numbers.”

Six months later he answered the phone to this stranger, who asked if he wanted to work on a film. “I’d never worked on anything,” says Chino. All he had to do was find a van. He arranged to borrow a friend’s van and eventually found himself picking up equipment for a low-budget short film. “I didn’t know what all this equipment was for,” he says. “Then I arrived on the set and I saw all these people working. Each person has a very specific job with names like producer, assistant director, director, camera operator, focus puller. Everyone was very specialised in what they were doing. The minute I got there I decided this is exactly what I want to do.”

He asked the line producer if he could help on shoots in the future and soon he was running regularly.

Chino’s life began anew in a moment. He stopped going out and never went to nightclubs again. He dropped out of university and dedicated his life to the low-budget films he was working on, reading about and watching films when he wasn’t working on them. His parents were as supportive as ever. “For years I was just hanging out with friends, going out, failing at school and not showing an interest,” he explains. “They saw me really focused on something positive so they were encouraged by that.”

Working for free, he soon got a lot of work as a runner and quickly got into TV commercials. “I was so happy,” he says. “I was doing the crappiest jobs, driving a van, picking up actors from airports or just loading and unloading equipment from vans. But I was so happy to be able to participate.”

Of course he soon burned out. The hours were insane and he wanted to make his own films, so he enrolled on a film course in Madrid. “It was a really crap evening course in this little apartment,” he remembers. Twice a week for a couple of hours in the evening he learnt the basics of film. Still, he was happy to be there.

Soon Chino’s passion for filmmaking made him restless. He needed to escape Spain. “I always felt I was far from where the good stuff was being made,” he says. “I was always looking up to the good stuff they were doing in London and other places. I felt I was missing out. I felt trapped in Spain.” So he went to New York, where he took up another film course. This one was perfect for him. They gave him a camera, some lights, some film and let him spend three months shooting.

He discovered a video rental place called Kim’s Video in the East Village of Manhattan. It was a revelation to him. He could suddenly watch any film he wanted, including lots he’d been reading about for years but couldn’t get in Spain. The energy of New York invigorated him. It was the perfect environment to make his first serious attempts at direction.

Inevitably, his visa ran out and he was ejected back to Madrid. But he had enough confidence in his direction now to keep shooting and cutting his own short films, honing his craft. Obviously he wanted to make a feature film, like everyone else. He shot 20 minutes to try and find funding and, predictably, it wasn’t easy. But someone he knew who worked at an ad agency saw it. She asked him if he wanted to make commercials. Within two weeks he was shooting his first ad.

For the first time Chino had a crew and a budget. He was plunged into the relentless process of pitching, losing jobs, winning jobs, shooting and repeating. It was great experience, but he eventually became disillusioned. “It’s less about making stuff yourself and more about competing against other directors,” he says. “I became just another director. I lost all the drive I had to put my own stamp on things.”

The call of the Anglophone world rose in him again, so he took a plunge and moved to London with a DVD full of Spanish commercials and music videos. He tried to get signed, but his reel wasn’t right.

It was a shock. “In Spain it’s very easy to get jobs,” he says, “especially music videos. Labels often ask, sometimes even beg you to do music videos. And they don’t get involved. You do the whole thing and they very rarely ask for changes. It’s not the fierce competition you have in the UK.”

He kept working on Spanish briefs while living in London and soon noticed his style was changing due to local influences. “I started realising what I really wanted,” he says. “I started to find my own voice.”

The voice he found was about creating worlds – free-standing alternative universes that his films transport the viewer to, with their own characters, their own architecture – a philosophy well expressed in his 2009 video for the Spanish band Supersubmarina. Piquing the interest of Promo News’ David Knight, it turned out to be the beginning of a new era for the young director. Soon after he signed with HSI and was plunged once more into the relentless pitching machine.

This process in the UK was more ruthless than he’d known it to be in Spain. “I found the competition exhausting and frustrating,” he says. “I’d pitch and pitch and pitch. Not even for bands I liked. I was just pitching for whatever came in.” He was very lucky. The first job he got ended up being for Ladytron – a band he did happen to like. “From not doing anything I started shooting videos back-to-back, non-stop,” he says.

After a year of this, he decided to focus on what he loved and only take jobs that gave him the chance to build worlds. It was a good strategy. Soon he won the pitch to shoot a bizarre Drambuie ad called Extraordinary Bar. It was an extraordinary job. “I was absolutely surprised that they let me do everything I did there. They gave me almost complete freedom.” They wanted surrealism and they wanted a bar. Everything else was fair game. Small man carrying a giant egg on his back? Great! Man standing above the clouds on a freestanding ladder? Fine. “They said yes. We presented. We shot it. They liked what they saw. We presented the first edit and they approved it. And it worked for them. I hope there will be more like that. It’s one of my favourites.”

Another favourite on his reel is his video for avant-garde guitar sorceress St Vincent for her 2014 single Digital Witness. Again, he was allowed free reign to create an alternate world. He admits that when he pitched the idea of a simplified, weird world he wasn’t sure how to do it, especially not for the budget and with only four days of pre-production.

Pulling in countless favours and flying St Vincent into Madrid by herself on the week before Christmas, they were somehow able to bring Chino’s dystopian vision to life and create an iconic music video. Chino admits he was inspired by the dystopian novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin, We. “As opposed to 1984 [a book it heavily influenced] that was very gloomy, the world of We was very colourful and there was this sense of brightness,” says Chino.

Dystopias have been an obsession of Chino in his search for the darkness in humanity. He blames his Spanish heritage – a nation with a fairly recent history of Fascism. As he puts it, “two worlds: a dictatorship and a democracy with supposed freedom, access to happiness, consumerism and promise. I guess the combination of both had a big effect on my world.” He’s gone further than most westerners in his exploration of models of society, having visited Iraq during the American invasion, Palestine on two occasions and even North Korea.

In Iraq he learnt what it felt like to be surrounded by violence. “I discovered what it was like to be in a country outside of this comfortable western life with suffering and violence – to see people being killed around you.”

North Korea was the most bizarre of his trips. On an individual tour he was accompanied by two guides, young women who were fascinated by his Western life and insatiably asked him questions about sex, society and culture in Europe. “It was sad but also interesting to see people living simpler lives,” he recalls. “There are no billboards, no neon lights, advertising, girls in bikinis or famous sports players. It was very peaceful in a way. You can drive for a hundred miles and only pass one car.”

Chino would love to bring this interest into his work more. “If there’s a chance of doing something dark, I’m very up for it,” he says. “In commercials it’s not so easy.”

It’s interesting to think that this thoughtful anthropologist evolved from a teenaged rebel-without-a-cause raver. Chino is glad about his off-the-rails phase though. “Looking back, it was a good thing because nothing bad happened,” he says. “If I hadn’t found film, my life would have been completely different. I pulled out on time. A lot of people didn’t and their lives are a complete disaster.”

“When you find somewhere you want to go, suddenly your life has a meaning. Whether you get to that place or not is something else, but at least you have a direction.” Thankfully, Chino knows where he’s heading, and we’ll watch his reel grow with interest as he continues to create his strange little worlds.

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