I showed Sia my references, which included an image of a guy who had his genitals strapped up like a lamb roast.
Kris Moyes has been something of an open secret in the music video industry for years. Having propelled into the spotlight with a string of clips of a decidedly ambitious scope—Sia’s “Buttons,” The Softlightes’ “Heart Made of Sound” and The Presets’ “My People”—Moyes is peerless when it comes to his heightened level of ingenuity and undeniable good taste. At 32, the Aussie director continues to plow forward, perpetually hungry for fresh ideas and inspiration of the tallest order.
Sitting down with Anthem for a conversation at a neighborhood café in Brooklyn Heights, Moyes is impressively smart and quick to laugh. His commitment to the craft is firmly planted at the root of his words. And to watch him work the set of his new music video for The Rapture’s “Sail Away” is to take a stroll down a road less traveled with an unassuming creative genius. Scroll down for a transcription of our candid talk and a small sampling of his innovative body of work.
What do you set out to accomplish with each new project?
I have a punk-rock attitude. I want to go against the grain like salmon swimming upstream. It’s not the easiest way to produce work, but I always aim for quality.
The Softlightes’ “Heart Made of Sound” video really put you on the map. Was that a painstaking shoot?
It was a fourteen-day shoot with my friend, Jonathon Zawada, and a cameraman who basically sat in a chair the entire time eating corn chips. [laughs] We didn’t have a lot of money, but Pav, the label owner who allowed us to use his house, gave us heaps of time to shoot. Since his house was in the process of being renovated, we were allowed to damage the walls since they were going get knocked down anyway. Things like that gave us more freedom to explore ideas. It was great to utilize a location for a longer duration. The timeframe was very meditative. I’m very grateful that he let us use the space. His generosity allowed the video to be as good as it was.
You direct a lot of videos for bands on Modular’s roster. How did that creative partnership come about?
When Modular signed The Presets, they asked me to write a treatment for “Are You the One?” It was the first time that I ever wrote a treatment. Counter to what most people might think, my brother Kim—the skinny guy in the band—said encouraging things to me like, ‘Don’t fuck this up!’ I was pitching against directors at Partizan and I didn’t like my chances. I must’ve had good visual references because I wrote the longest promise to make something unbelievable. What I ended up making was an accumulation of ideas that I had stored away over the years. That’s why the video looks like an explosion of ideas. I’m lucky that they took a chance on me. I probably couldn’t do anything like that now—I’m too old! [laughs]
How old are you?
32. I directed that video when I was 25 or 26. Directing your first video is like anything else you do for the first time—you put your heart and soul into it. It’s hard to go back into that kind of mindset and channel it once you’ve made a name for yourself. After the first clip was done, I was no longer unknown and now I have expectations from people. I have something to lose now. Maybe I’ll have the energy to do something like “Are You the One?” again if I don’t make another video for the next few years.
Do commissioners at record labels normally tell you what other directors you’re pitching against?
Some record labels or commissioners like to play their cards close to their chests. When it comes to commercials, advertising agencies are pretty open about that stuff. Transparency is not essential, but it’s great to not feel like information can’t be shared freely. I’ve heard that, sometimes, ten or more directors are pitching on the same video. It’s pretty intense. My focus lies with doing clips with friends and for people who contact me directly because, otherwise, it’s too much of a gamble to invest all of my creative energy into an idea that could just get lost in the mess. If I was in a band and there were ten treatments in front of me, I’d just look for a name that I recognize. If I don’t recognize anyone, I would grab the shortest treatment.
You seem to work with bands that make music of a certain style and genre. Maybe that has a lot to do with Modular’s roster—
You mean bands that make techno? [laughs] Totally.
How important is it that you like the song you’re directing a video for?
I think there’s a typical belief amongst all directors: two of three boxes need to be ticked. Firstly, is the artist a nice person? Secondly, is the money good? Thirdly, is there time? If two of those three boxes can be ticked, you’ll usually commit to writing a treatment. Obviously, we all want to make videos for artists we like. And then there are bands that you don’t get the opportunities to work with because they’re either out of your league or you don’t really have anything on your reel that would be of any interest to them.
Would you ever consider directing a video for someone like Kanye West? He seems somewhat receptive to the world of music videos at large.
That might actually be a bad match because we’re both so opinionated. It would work if we both shared a single-minded vision. I would totally do a video for him, but I hear that he likes to get really involved in the creative process.
Let’s talk about your collaborations with Sia.
We’ve done four videos together.
“Buttons” is still one of my favorites videos that you’ve directed.
I was actually writing a treatment for The Gossip at Sia’s house in Los Angeles at the time. I wanted to contort Beth Ditto’s face because I thought she would be the right kind of artist to push that idea onto to. I was really into the idea of being the first person to make an anti-pop video. I needed an artist who would be cool with being made unattractive. For whatever reason, she passed on the idea and I showed Sia my references, which included an image of a guy who had his genitals strapped up like a lamb roast. [laughs] I wonder why Beth turned it down… Sia, on the other hand, was like, ‘If Beth doesn’t want to do this we can just do it.’ At the time, Sia was transitioning between record labels and there was a lot of freedom without specific marketing agendas. I’m lucky that it worked out at all.
Were you and Sia involved at the time?
No! [laughs] She was having an on-and-off relationship with Giovanni Ribisi, I think. She’s an old friend of mine from Sydney who I met through Sam Dizon, her main collaborator. Sam’s like the grounded sensible parent and Sia’s kind of like the child who takes off on flights of fantasy without feeling any responsibility. It’s a pretty amazing way to live.
Sia seems like she has zero issues when it comes to stuff like vanity.
She has incredible issues with vanity.
Yeah, which is weird because she was so open to doing the “Buttons” video, right? For that, we taped her up in whatever way and, because we didn’t have a mirror, we used photo booth on her laptop so she could see the character she would be playing. That’s one of the amazing things about her. You create a context for a situation for her and she fills it with this incredible energy. It’s a rare gift for an artist of any kind. She’s like putty and really malleable emotionally. She cried a lot after we shot the first day. I didn’t really understand why until we shot our next video for “Day Too Soon,” which got shelved due to vanity reasons.
Was it her decision to shelve that video?
I think so. She wasn’t happy with how she looked. Check it out—we created this linear set that consisted of eight different environments with stuff like snowcapped mountains, a yellow observatory and so on. The layout was like the Nintendo game Kung Fu where she would walk through each set from left to right. She starts off in a cocoon on a pile of rubble in an abandoned space, moves into a marsh, a forest, etc. on this adventure to reach an optimistic future—her Saturn Return. Some people have a complimentary profile. For some people it’s their left, while for others, it’s their right side because our faces are asymmetrical. She felt that her more flattering side was her left, but she told us so late in the build and the art department had to swap the order of the entire set at the last minute. This meant that she would’ve been talking from right-to-left, which would be counter intuitive to the viewers at home. So we shot it with her walking in the opposite direction and I flipped the whole thing in post so she’s walking from left-to-right again. After all that, she still wasn’t happy with how she looked so they canned the video. It was frustrating to say the least.
With “The Girl You Lost to Cocaine,” she had a breakdown on the first day of the shoot because her girlfriend at the time made comments about the characters that she was playing. I made these cross-pollinated characters for her like an aviator and a stripper. It was a weird pastiche of characters. She told me, ‘I’ve been walking around wearing really unflattering outfits and I just want to look sexy. I want to be saccharine.’ She wanted to completely change the whole concept of the video mid-shoot. I was like, “But you signed off on all the characters and I drew illustrations of what they would look like… This is what you agreed to.” I guess there came a point where she needed her feelings messaged. I felt really bad for her.
I’m assuming vanity is a big issue for most bands, which is understandable.
Is that something you take into consideration when you write treatments?
I did a video with Franz Ferdinand where I basically told them, “You guys are going to look fucking awesome,” to get the job, essentially. And they chose me. [laughs]
What was the concept behind the Bag Raiders video? It’s incredibly well executed.
They’re time travelers triggering a series of really banal tasks and if these tasks are done in the right combination, it will unlock a portal to send them back home. It was really inspired by their lyrics. In a lot of movies that deal with time travel, you have some guy twisting knobs on a futuristic device or they sit in some wacky vehicle that travels at incredible speeds or whatever. The thing that’s consistent between what I did and these stories of time travel is that it’s about having the right balance of variables. In the video, they’re trying to open a portal, but the portal has a combination lock on it, if you will. The interpretation that I chose for the video was a little more abstract than the literal meaning of the song, which is about a guy finding his way back to a relationship because he feels vulnerable without her. I thought it would be interesting to replace the woman with something else like time. I told the band, “You’re from the past, but you somehow wound up in the future. It’s at a point in the future where time travel has become illegal because people have abused their privilege. You have all the ingredients to open up a portal in the basement, but you don’t know the sequence and you keep fucking it up. That’s why there’s evidence of your past attempts on the walls and the floor.” For instance, when they use the big Chinese paintbrush, you can see the row of circles on a massive roll of paper.
Let’s talk about your new video for The Rapture.
The concept is very simple. Luke [Jenner] rides a bag of chips through the streets of New York, propelled by the wind. The wind is blown by Gabe [Andruzzi] and Vito [Roccoforte], these Hasidic-type dudes blowing a conch and a shofar.
How did you come up with that idea?
For that one, I was at my friend Ben Dickinson’s farm in upstate New York planting seeds for a veggie patch. I heard the track out there. Sometimes ideas just come to you, completely unrelated to what you’re doing, you know? I just thought about the sense of movement in the song and the sense of freedom that’s evoked from the lyrics. Luke is saying, ‘sail away from here,’ so that automatically made me think about the notion of travel and, naturally, how I could convey that in an unconventional way. Then something reminded me of how you sometimes see a bag sliding across the ground in the city and it looks like it’s choreographed by the wind. I also thought about the scene in Fantasia where these beautiful sirens are bathing in the waterfall before a massive windstorm comes. Zeus is throwing lighting bolts from a cloud and, eventually, night falls and a beautiful goddess shoots the first star of the evening into the sky with her bow and arrow. The physical representation of the elements like wind and lightening was really interesting, and that was something Gabe and Vito shared as well. With this video, you can literally see how Luke is propelled forward. Gabe and Vito are kind of like the motivational forces behind Luke in a lot of ways. This concept seemed to work for them.
Do you have any plans to direct feature films?
I’m pitching something at the moment, but it’s a fine balance because there’s a band wanting to fund the right idea and I guess they have an agenda to have their music be present. I feel like I have an obligation to present something to them that’s not going to turn out like Mamma Mia! I want to be able to do something in their world, but not have it be a movie that comes across as being an advertisement for the band—the way that Electroma was for Daft Punk.
How important is artistic integrity?
It’s really important to me and it’s something I like to protect. The only thing that you really control in your life is your integrity. You might not necessarily be able to control where you end up, but you can certainly aim to head in a direction that feels right for you.