Under the Influence: Sam Pilling

August 31, 2016 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Find out what inspires one of music video’s most exciting directors.

Great directors are invariably voracious consumers of culture – music, art, film and literature all contain the raw materials that build brilliant filmmakers. And it’s always interesting to see what lies under the best directors’ foundations.

Pulse Films director Sam Pilling has been laying down some of the most impactful music videos out there since 2010, as well as some top-class commercials. Most recently he’s caused an online ruckus with his latest music video for DJ Shadow featuring Run The Jewels – the incredible scene of an online brawl between suited world leaders. 

We asked him to tell us a bit about the inspirations that go onto his creative mixtape.

Ascenseur pour L’echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows)

“Jeanne Moreau, a murder, Paris in the 50s and Miles Davis.
Need I say more?

Somewhere between Film Noir and the French New Wave this film paved the way for every crime-thriller to come: lovers gone bad, a crime of passion that inevitably goes wrong and a mistaken identity.

I think the way Louis Malle combined style and substance is far beyond his time. The opening scene is so bold and visually striking but also the perfect way of introducing the characters and setting up the story. The film opens on an intense, emotional close-up of Jeanne Moreau’s wet-from-crying eyes as she whispers “je t’aime” into a telephone receiver.

As the credits roll the camera slowly pulls back to reveal she is in a public telephone booth, hiding, making a call she shouldn’t make. It’s clear she is talking to a lover, not her husband.

We cut to see Maurice Ronet on the other end of the line. And our camera pulls back to see he is at work, in a grand office block. By the end of the phone call and the end of the opening credits we know our two lead characters, we know they are secret lovers and we know something terrible is going to happen. This style of visual but informative filmmaking is something I find incredibly powerful.

Moody, atmospheric and cloaked in darkness, Elevator to the Gallows has also been an inspiration because of its fatalist theme; that even the best-laid plans will always go wrong. Which brings me nicely onto…”

 

The Coen Brothers

“Things never go to plan in a Coen Brothers film and there is a strong fatalism theme in much of their work. In fact their storylines are almost always a messy knot of interweaving weirdos and oddball characters that have to weave their way through a series of events that are seemingly out of their hands and that always spiral out of control.

The confusion and misunderstanding that results in George Clooney’s ‘Harry’ hiding in the cupboard and accidentally shooting Brad Pitt’s ‘Chad’ in Burn After Reading has to be one of the most hilarious accidents in film! Not to mention the entire storyline of Fargo or The Big Lebowski. Both of which seem to be one fuck up followed by another, by another by another…

The Coens’ love for Film Noir can be seen in many of their films from Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Fargo and No Country For Old Men. And I love the way their films combine elements of humour and silliness alongside these unsavory events and actions. One minute their films make you laugh, the next they have you transfixed with tension and suspense.

I love the choices they make when it comes to their storytelling: the moments they choose to show us and the way in which they visualize these moments.

For example in No Country For Old Men when Javier Bardem’s ‘Anton’ is approaching the hotel room that Josh Brolin’s ‘Llewelyn’ is posted up in, the tension is immense but we only know how close Anton is getting to Llewelyn by a shifting shadow seen through the gap in the bottom of the doorway… then the light in the hallway goes out and we’re left with a moment of darkness and suspense - broken only when Anton tries to open the door and Llewelyn shoots him.

And in A Serious Man when Aaron Wolff’s ‘Danny’ has got stoned just before his Barmitzvah, the Coens use close-up macro shots, intense sound design and off-kilter camera angles to perfectly visualise the kid’s spaced out paranoia and heightened senses. The result is hilarious.

What do we learn from Coen films? We learn that people don’t learn! That life goes on and people will continue to make bad choices and mistakes.”

 

Storytelling in Hip-Hop

“As a teenager all I listened to was hip-hop. It was a culture and way of life for me that helped me grow up and find a place in the world. I started doing graffiti, I bought turntables and (don’t laugh) tried to break dance. I became captivated by the cut-and-paste sound of hip-hop, the cultural references and the re-appropriation of songs and samples. I was in awe of rappers’ tongue-twisting lyrics, ego and bravado, and I just had to nod my head to the big beats and jazz and funk samples that the DJs put together.

However, above all that, it was the stories in hip-hop that consumed me. Great rappers are really great storytellers, using rap as a device to address social inequalities and issues ranging from poverty, crime, drug-abuse and broken families. In their raps they would often describe key events that they experienced or the lives of the people and communities they have grown up with, in clever, brash and hard-hitting ways.

Gil Scott Heron is seen as the godfather of Hip-Hop. His tracks were always provocative, had a social or political edge and told us a story. I still love songs such as We Almost Lost Detroit. In the same regard, Gangstarr – Just To Get a Rep, Nas – New York State of Mind, Jurassic 5 – Contribution are all hip-hop tracks from my youth that I still love today for their storytelling qualities. More recently Kendrick Lamar - The Art of Peer Pressure (and in fact the whole Good Kid, Maad City album) blew my mind as Kendrick brought us, the listener into his mad world, growing up in Compton and everything that went along with that. This was hip-hop back to its storytelling best.

Many of the music videos I’ve made have been for urban or hip-hop artists, and because of my love for hip-hop storytelling, I have tried to give a narrative element to each of these videos, and where possible, I’ve tried to tell stories that are slightly unexpected or un-typical for the genre.”

 

Jurassic Park / Stan Winston

“Jurassic Park is one of those movies immortalized from my childhood. The film I loved before I knew anything about film, it is Spielberg at his nail-biting, entertaining best and there are many, many reasons why I could cite it as being influential, but I’ve included it for the way that Spielberg combined in-camera, practical effects alongside digital VFX.

As a result of this approach, I would argue that bar a few shots, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park look far more realistic and believable than in Jurassic World.

For me, Stan Winston’s Human Velociraptor suit or the animatronics of say the T-Rex are examples of movie making at its best – creative problem solving to achieve as much as humanly possible IN-camera, rather than relying on post effects.

The scenes where these techniques were used have stood the test of time; they look just as awesome and believable today as they did in 1993. The close-up shot where the T-Rex comes up close to the car window and blinks, because Tim accidently flicked the torch on, is terrifyingly realistic.

To go back to the Velocirapter suit, what I love about this making-of video is two things: Firstly, in its early, crude stages the suit is just made of pieces of foam tied together and this D.I.Y approach to making things or problem solving is something that I’m very into. Whether it was constructing things out of cardboard, Cellotape and Blu-Tac as a small kid or wrapping band members up in cushions, to roll them down a bowling alley for one of my music videos!

The second thing that you can clearly see is a group of passionate people working together tirelessly to create something that they believe in – where there’s a will, there’s a way. And this drive and passion has stuck with me ever since. Whether at university where we all stayed up until the crazy hours of the night, turning my sitting room inside-out to build our set (a giant-sized T.V that our actors could sit in) or the countless occasions that people have given up their precious time and expertise, to make a low-budget music video come together.”

 

Darkness / the Night

“For me, the darkness of night is a scary place but also one of wonder and mystery. A place filled with uncertainty, where anything can happen and where the moonlight casts an ethereal blanket over the normal world. A place where reality meets fantasy.

Bad things happen under the cover of darkness: villains lurk in dimly lit corners, people commit violent, bloody crimes and the super-natural reveals itself to us but the night-time is also alluring and sexy. It holds an unknown, and a mystery.  An area that seemed so boring and insignificant by day suddenly has an air of suspense, silence and intrigue about it.

In the darkness our minds race, trying to make sense of what we can’t properly see, often coming to all sorts of ridiculous assumptions, and this over-active imagination is something that has been a great influence on me. “What IF…?”

The night is the time of choice for many Film Noir or crime-thriller films and directors that I admire such as David Fincher, Alfred Hitchock, Steven Spielberg, The Coen Brothers, Louis Malle etc etc… who have mastered the darkness as a tool for drawing viewers into their stories by heightening tension, creating suspense, and emphasizing loneliness.

Photographers such as Patrick Joust and Gregory Crewdson are also great influences. In Patrick’s work there is an emptiness, stillness and isolation that is compelling and makes you wonder what might be lurking behind closed doors or in the dark corners of an empty street. Whereas Gregory Crewdson’s work goes one step further, hinting at surreal, other-worldly happenings – revealing odd characters and staging scenes that feel like they are part of a bigger story. It is impossible to look at one of his photos without thinking, “what happened before this moment?” and “what will happen after?” 

My fascination with darkness has resulted in many of the stories or scenes in my music videos being set at night, often with an underlying sinister tone or a fantastical, other-worldly element.”

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