ABTEEN BAGHERI TALKS KODALINE – TEXT LUKE TIERNEY
Being long time fans of Abteen (who isn’t?) we knew we had to sit down and have a chat about his latest music video for Kodaline, his sixth Vimeo Staff Pick to date. We’ve said it time and time before, Hollywood stars bring a new level of performance rarely seen on the music video platform and Christopher Mintz-Plasse is no different bringing a deep emotion to the disabled jockey narrative. What is different however is the support he receives, locations, colours, styling, everything comes together matching the performance as we canter towards a happy ending (wait are we doing horse-riding references??).
Quicker than a snap of the whip we reached out to Abteen, who fortunately didn’t bolt for it, instead giving a soft-to-firm reply (JUST STOP IT!) of “sounds good”. We had a chat about Abteen’s background as a writer, what it was like having your producer have to pull out on the first day of shooting and why the freeze-frame ending.
Word Is Cheap: Is it true you studied screenwriting, do you prefer coming up with ideas and fleshing them out or actually making them?
Abteen Bagheri: I studied English with a creative writing emphasis at Stanford. We didn’t have screenwriting or film production, though I minored in Film Theory which exposed me to a lot of films and ideas I wouldn’t have come across otherwise at the time.
I want to say I enjoy all the stages of making a film equally, but there’s a special place in my heart for editing. There’s nothing like sitting in an air-conditioned room, attempting to be detached from the stresses and the harsh conditions of the shoot, and finally seeing what it is you made. Out of a string of seemingly endless takes comes something that resembles real emotion. It’s almost as if you’re understanding the piece for the first time, seeing its rhythm, watching the characters and world you’ve created come to life. These are the moments that make it all feel worthwhile. You hope to be pleasantly surprised.
I love writing. That instant when you catch an idea and explore its possibilities can be one of the most exciting highs you’ll feel, but I try not to get too excited about anything until it’s a sure thing. I realize now that you have to have a tremendous respect for any director who shoots anything… Even if I don’t like the work, at least they played the game and won. They essentially persuaded someone to give them lots of money, and that’s not an easy task.
WIC: Was the narrative based on a real story at all?
AB: The idea started almost as a joke. I’ve known Chris Mintz-Plasse through mutual friends for years–we both grew up in the same part of The Valley in Los Angeles, and I knew I wanted to cast him for a music video. We got together and started thinking of what kind of character it would be interesting to see him as, and somehow, the image of Chris dressed in a jockey’s outfit came to me. But because Chris isn’t an experienced horse rider, and because he’s a bit taller than your average jockey, the idea evolved. An injured jockey.
It was only after I submitted the idea, and began the research phase, that I started to realize just how important it was to tell this story. We watched documentaries together with the cast and crew, visited Santa Anita Park every free weekend, speaking to jockeys and trainers–fully immersing ourselves in the culture. Everyone was really into the idea. They’d say, “Ah, that happened to so and so last year.”
It seems like a lot of outsiders sympathize with the horses, but not many people considered the riders. They’re under immense pressure… to stay under weight, to place in the top 3 so they can make any kind of real money. An ambulance follows the action closely because it’s the most dangerous sport on Earth. It’s an addiction that you can’t replicate elsewhere once you’ve tasted it. You’re practically standing on the saddle of a horse galloping at 40+ mph.
So the idea of what it would feel like if that thrill was taken away from you was a situation rich with emotion and empathy for Chris’ character.
In our frequent trips to Santa Anita for research, we got the attention of the PDJF (Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund) and were able to shoot at these amazing locations in Santa Anita Park on our limited budget. This video wouldn’t have been possible without their cooperation and support.
WIC: What did Christopher bring to set?
AB: To say this was the most stressful job of my life would be an understatement. Our producer quit for personal reasons the morning of the first shoot day, so we all arrived on set, sort of lost, like a bunch of school children without their chaperone. At times, we didn’t know what the next scene would be or if we’d even have permission to film.
This didn’t phase Chris. He came to set ready, no pun intended. The biggest thing he brought was a sense of professionalism. Calm and confident. No producer? Fuck it, let’s rock. Isaac Bauman, the cinematographer, and I had a ‘brute force’ mentality on set as well. At every avenue, we faced an uphill battle, but early on, I told the crew we’re taking this thing a scene at a time. For every scene, we’re in the moment, trying to perfect that scene, before we move on and try to figure out how we’re going to tackle the next problem. I don’t recommend trying to shoot something without a producer, but it sort of opened things up a bit because there were no rules. Eventually, Antonio Flores joined as our producer, pulled in the reigns, and helped us get to the finish line.
I don’t think this video would have been possible without working with someone like Chris, and I’d love to work with him again in the future. Despite all the chaos, he made it so easy. We rarely had to re-do a take because of his performance, but because the camera move needed some adjustments. Occasionally, a door or two would open up to us because we had a celebrity on board. A lot of the shops and locations we used were excited to have a camera crew and Chris at their joint.
WIC: Colour is both engaging yet passive, what was the aim in the grade?
AB: Isaac Bauman and I spent weeks scouting the areas both north and south of Los Angeles looking for the perfect locations. Maybe what you’re describing as passive is the landscape–lots of browns and muted tones, which we enhanced with Ali Rubinfeld’s production design. Jockeys tend to have extravagant taste in home decor—splashes of colors and patterns. New money, taking cues from the old. The world of horses and trainers has a very specific color palette, we found.
Sara Sensoy, our costume designer, brought a lot to the color palette with the clothing. Chris has 11 costume changes if you look closely, which is an insane number for a four minute piece. Her idea was to explore color symbolism in the clothing, really bringing out the reds and the warm tones–the fire burning inside Chris’ character, his desire to experience that feeling of speed once again. The most obvious example of this are his bright orange sunglasses.
The aim in the grade was to let these colors pop, but to sit naturally within the world we created. Isaac and I watched films from the ‘60s and ‘70s to inform the combination zoom/dolly aesthetic, so inevitably, this piece became more saturated and colorful than my other works. Almost like a modern technicolor.
WIC: What was the thinking behind the freeze-frame ending?
AB: I always knew the film would end in a freeze-frame. Maybe it’s a brave choice, but I felt if we could get away with it, we might as well. The song seemed to call for it, and logistically, it helped with creating a convincing moment with Chris and the horse. It’s not important what happens when he’s on the horse, just that he’s back on it. I like the mystery. Maybe he gallops off into the sunset. Or maybe just sitting atop the horse was enough for him in that moment. To me, it felt like an appropriate cap to the sort of throwback language of the style we were exploring.
WIC: There’s always a “cool” aesthetic to your work, which of course is subjective but is there a specific aim when starting a project? What does cool mean to you?
AB: I try to best serve the narrative and the concept that I’m working with, that’s probably why a lot of my videos feel different from each other. At this stage in my career, I’m experimenting, testing out different ways to tell stories, to create a sense of wonder or connection in the audience. I find it more rewarding to allow the content I’m working with to decide the style I’m going to use.
There’s a sort of ubiquitous “cool” aesthetic across most music videos, and to me, what’s cool is to try to create something outside of that. To believe in an idea and execute it in a way that isn’t expected.