Malia James - Armine Iknadossian


Malia James

This restless muse recovers from touring with the Dum Dum Girls by diving into her latest project, directing Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s teaser videos for their upcoming album Specter at the Feast. Rekwired gets a few minutes with the ever-busy, beautiful and talented renaissance woman.

Rekwired: The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club teaser videos you directed to promote their newest album include voiceovers from the band members taken from interviews or conversations. Can you elaborate on how you were able to accumulate such candid and intimate footage and audio?

Malia James: Inspired by my interview series ONE:ONE, Robert wanted me to apply that approach to telling a story about the band or the album. The idea behind ONE:ONE was to weave together the intimacy of a photo shoot and the candidness of a conversation between two people. Most people don’t like being interviewed on camera, so I film the subjects without any concern for the audio. Later, I’ll sit down with the subject and talk over a glass of wine or a cup of tea. Each “interview” lasted at least a few hours, and there’s as much personal information about myself on the recordings as there is about whomever I was talking to. I can’t expect someone to tell me their dark secrets if I’m not willing to share mine. I’ve always approached interviews that way.

Rekwired: Some of the camera work on the B.R.M.C. teasers is really interesting. What types of cameras and effects were used for this series? Where were they filmed?

MJ: With the exception of some of the studio footage at 606, everything was shot by me on a Canon 5D. I have a few tricks to make the footage look the way it does, but I can’t very well go sharing that with the world. We filmed in LA and Felton, CA. I see the 5D as the modern day Bolex and, in that way, I like to let it feel human. I don’t mind things being in and out of focus, shaky, or of varying exposures. To me, that feels more real and intimate and lends itself to this style of storytelling.

Rekwired: Was there much collaboration between you and the band members when directing and editing the footage?

MJ: I may be one of the only people given near free reign in the direction and edit of projects for BRMC.

Rekwired: How long did this project take from idea to realization? Any future B.R.M.C. projects possibly in the works?

MJ: We first discussed the idea of this project long before anything was ever put into motion. It was shot and edited over a period of 4-5 months. I’m currently making the video for “Let the Day Begin” and possibly starting another project with them after. I hope there will always be some new collaboration between myself and BRMC on the horizon.

Rekwired: I’ve had the pleasure of watching you in action when you were shooting the Dum Dum Girls video. You seemed to be having a good time even though working on set can be a stressful experience. You maintained a sense of humor throughout the long day. How do you keep your composure and maintain your energy level during those demanding hours?

MJ: I really, really love what I do. Sometimes, producing a video or a project is so stressful, I don’t think I can bear to do it again – asking favors, wrangling things short notice, working understaffed, etc., but as soon as I’m on set and we start shooting, it’s bliss. I hope that feeling never goes away.

When I first started out, I was the first assistant for Chris McPherson, a successful advertising and editorial photographer. He was great with people and was always in a good mood heading to set. I asked him once if he ever got nervous beforehand and he said, “I’m not a doctor. If I screw up, nobody dies.” What I took most from that is that what we do should be fun, even when things go wrong. It’s a music video, people. Chill out. Enjoy yourselves.

Rekwired: Most of your visual art relies on a black and white aesthetic. What draws your eye and vision to those colors?

MJ: I’ve been going through a black and white period, it would seem, but I’m equally drawn to working with color. When my work involves color, especially in video, it becomes a part of the narrative. There’s a scene in the movie Paris, TX where he visits his wife in a brothel where she works. There’s a really intense contrast in the blue and red lighting for that. I was so moved by that use of color; it’s burned in my memory. Kubrick is also famous for his intentional use of color.

Rekwired: Which artists, writers, musicians serve as muses or influences when you are imagining a project? From which artists in particular do you repeatedly gain inspiration?

MJ: I draw a lot of inspiration from movies. I don’t go to bars or socialize much at all, but I love watching films. Hitchcock and Kubrick are my biggest inspiration. Lynne Ramsey and Andrea Arnold are two of my favorite current directors. I also spend a lot of time trolling tumblr for inspiration. It’s important to have an extensive reference library as a director because, unless your client trusts your vision entirely, you have to be able to build a picture for them of what you plan to do.

Rekwired: What do you think is the biggest challenge for filmmakers and photographers today?

MJ: Budgets are not what they used to be, so you have to be able to think creatively when you can’t throw money at your problems. It’s exhausting to have to always ask for favors and convince people that their effort will pay off later, but I’m lucky to have a group of talented friends and colleagues who believe in me enough to hang on for the ride. I wouldn’t be where I am if not for that kind of support from my DP, James Wall, and my editor, Forrest Borie.

Rekwired: Do you storyboard before a video shoot? Journal? Collage? Let us in on your process.

MJ: I’ve never had much time to prepare for most of my jobs, so I’ve never had a storyboard and rarely had a definitive shot list (which makes my DP crazy), though I always have a clear vision of what I want and I’m very, very particular. In general, when I have downtime (which is almost never), I love to journal and collage. I like to keep my brain active creatively in one way or another.

As for my process, when it comes to photography, I just find a good location and good light and keep it as loose as possible. I like to try and get people to forget we’re on a photo shoot.

When I’m trying to come up with an idea for a video, I tend to lay on the floor of my office with the lights dimmed and candles lit and listen to the song on repeat until something comes to mind. I’m big on creating a mood for creativity. Environment is important to me. Once I think of one kernel of an idea, I take that one thought and build around it. People sometimes say “I can’t imagine how you came up with x, y, and z,” but it’s important to remember you just take it one step at a time.

Rekwired: Making a living as a visual artist can be a challenge. What have you done to be financially stable over the years while still pursuing your passions?

MJ: I’ve always been willing to do anything and everything to make money to keep things going. Only 4 years ago, I was the PA out fetching coffee on photo shoots and now I’m the director, which is wild. My mother raised me as a single mother working freelance most of my younger life and I learned from her that it’s important to have skills you can fall back on. I’ve relied on credit cards to fund a lot of my early development, which will take a lot to pay off, but I looked at it as a necessary evil to move ahead. I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to know that I have family that would never leave me out in the cold, which I know isn’t a luxury everyone has. So, Mom, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU.

Rekwired: Your work spans genres, from photography to film to fine art. In
addition, you are a touring musician who has played with bands like The Black Ryder and Dum Dum Girls. Do you ever feel like you are not getting enough time to focus on one creative outlet or does this process work for you?

MJ: Ahhhhh, the million-dollar question everyone asks. “How do (I) find the time?” Each of my endeavors speaks to a different part of me. Maybe I could have been more successful earlier on if I’d focused on one medium, but I wouldn’t trade it for the myriad of experiences I’ve had along the way. I like to do it all, but it doesn’t come without sacrifice. I work all the time. I mean ALL THE TIME. I have some of the greatest friends I could ask for and I never see them. Romantic relationships? Forget it. I think eventually this compulsive drive will slow down a little, but for now it feels like an unstoppable train. I was taught that you can be or have anything you want, but you have to work for it.

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