We catch up with New York-based new director Ethan Berger about his creative relationship with bands and his evolving career shooting commercials.
Sex, lots of sex, drugs, the works – sounds like the usual ingredients for music videos but somehow your narratives donʼt take themselves very seriously in spite of the band appearing in them. How do you go about creating your films?
Because I grew up watching music videos Iʼm aware of certain conventions. I want to make things that reflect my sensibility without ignoring the larger context.
My ideas are a response to the song. The instrumentation and the lyrics. I try to come up with a visual representation of the songʼs tone– or my interpretation of the tone. It’s kind of like directing a movie someone else wrote—or what I imagine itʼs like.
Of course there are certain thematic material ideas that appeal to me personally. I donʼt like recycling ideas, though. If a band nixes one of my treatments—I donʼt reopen that word document. A lot of my favorite things Iʼve written wonʼt see the light of day. Probably a good life lesson.
Brief history please of your background and what led you to making music videos?
I grew up in the 90s. I’d watch music videos for hours. It was kind of the golden age. Budgets were insane. Mark Romanek, Spike Jonze videos were on TV all the time. Thatʼs what got me interested in the whole thing.
When I was a senior in college this group Nappy Roots agreed to let my friend Bill and I co-direct a video for them. They told us we had three hours to shoot the whole thing. We had to pick them up at JFK drive them to New Haven for a show, an hour and half away. We structured the video around that car ride, borrowed a SLR camera from a friendʼs mom. The videoʼs not great but the experience was. I felt like, maybe. Thatʼs when, I started to think I could try and make this work. This seems delusional retrospectively.
Great composition and framing – do you work everything out in storyboarded detail in pre-production? Do you work closely with a lighting cameraman?
My drawing skills havenʼt evolved since first grade, so we write up an editing list. An ordered shot list—with shot scales, focal length, props etc. I think pre-production is 80 percent of the work. Shooting is fun. If the initial edit list and the final cut are comparable, Iʼve done my job.
Most of the stuff, Iʼve done has been shot by Stefan Weinberger. Heʼs one of my closest friends – we went to college together. Iʼve found that Itʼs a real luxury to work with friends. When you enjoy someoneʼs company itʼs easy to put in the time. We always talk a lot about the lighting, camera movement in detail. Clarify any concerns either of us have. He went to AFI, heʼs a talented guy. I trust him to take care of business and he trusts me.
Do you have a favourite camera and lens?
I don’t really. I would love to shoot on film someday. I shot on 16 once in college but never on 35.
Do you collaborate closely with the bands – you seem to have a close relationship with Harriet as well as Fort Lean – or do they give you creative freedom?
The singer of Harriet, Alex, and I have been best friends since middle school. The Fort Lean guys are close friends from college. I really appreciate all those guys for giving me the opportunity to work with them. Itʼs hard to convince people youʼre capable when you donʼt have much to show for yourself.
I think you have to collaborate closely with the band. People associate videos with the artist not the director. The band needs to be comfortable with the way theyʼre depicted.
Fort Lean are any directorʼs dream. Easy going – very funny. Alex and I have collaborated closely on all of the treatments for Harriet. Heʼs an amazing writer. Alex and Henry (the drummer) would probably both be making movies if they werenʼt musicians. They have a lot of ideas and we argue a lot. But itʼs a good thing. If youʼre arguing, everyone is invested in the outcome.
What was the biggest challenge about the production of Ten Steps?
Our biggest challenge was probably making it work with the budget we had. Finding the number of dancers we needed to make an aerial shot around the platform work.
Where did the idea behind the visual narrative come from?
The idea behind the visual narrative came from the song. Itʼs poppy—catchy, but the lyrics are sombre. Tonally at odds. We wanted the visuals to reflect that. I love musicals. There are shots in the video that were inspired by some of my favorite filmmakers. Busby Berekely, Bob Fosse. Itʼs not appropriate to steal from anyone—but I think a little nod is nice every once in a while.
But yeah—I think the song and the video mean a lot of different things.
Would you be interested in shooting commercials or content?
Yeah definitely. I just directed a Jordan brand shoe commercial that aired on tv in the US. Iʼve edited for Nike skateboarding and Vice in the past. My dream is to make movies.
Are you signed to a production company or do you work independently?
I had been working independently. Recently, I started working with Afterall in Portland. Iʼve been talking to people. Figuring stuff out.