GREG DAVENPORT TALKS RAG’N’BONE MAN – QUESTIONS FROM LUKE TIERNEY
Ah the traveller that is Greg Davenport is back and better than ever with his video for Rag’N’Bone Man’s ‘Skin’. In keeping with everything we like about Greg we see the general struggles of childhood / adolescence amid a ridiculously epic backdrop (another hallmark of a Davenport classic), but this time the journey is much more pointed. Partly highlighting the horrors of the world, immigration is visualised in a post-apocalypse world, as a backdrop to what it is that makes us human. The camera work in particular helps the viewer get right into the young boys world, taking each step, break and sip of water right alongside him.
We caught up with Greg to chat about his thoughts on the meaning of his video, his love of casting and the benefits of shooting on an Alexa Mini.
WORD IS CHEAP: IS THERE A SYMBOLISM FOR YOU BEHIND THE STORY?
Greg Davenport: The idea was to take what was a romantically-centered theme of ‘missed opportunities’ and longing in the track and turn that into something more universal and say something about humanity itself.
So instead of maybe looking at how two people come close to finding love but can’t quite grasp it, our story takes that to a more epic, metaphorical place. Depicting a world that has completely collapsed, we get to see that above all else anyone’s priority, other than pure survival, would be to try and find other people, reconnect and find a home.
Making the protagonist a child only emphasised the impossible nature of the journey and the scale of the struggle at hand. Which hopefully brings you right back to what it might indeed feel like when you are in the midst of heartbreak.
For sure when I was writing the treatment I was influenced to some degree by images of the insane and treacherous journeys of refugees all over our screens but I only wanted that to be a subtle allusion in the final piece. So rather than focus on any specific event or place this was always intended to be more a story about our core universal human desire not to be alone.
WIP: WERE YOU CONFIDENT IN FINDING A CHILD ACTOR TO FRONT THE VIDEO? HOW DID YOU KNOW HE WAS THE ONE?
GD: Casting is one of my favourite parts of the whole process and I do always enter into that with a sense of wide-eyed optimism. However in terms of both physicality and emotion this was admittedly a huge ask. We needed our audience to believe the kid had enough about them to survive, but also enough vulnerability that made us instantly empathize with them and root for them.
We did find one boy that had an incredible look, a face that transformed on camera with big, big eyes and a wonderful innocence about him. He was unfortunately just a couple of years too young for such a physical role and the label were adamant the kid had to have the toughness as well – which was 100% the right call. We were so incredibly lucky to be introduced to Alisher & Alibek – identical twins – who we cast in the video.
I’m always very focused on eyes and saying everything with just a look. There was a pivotal moment in the casting where we slowly zoomed into their eyes as they stared ahead, projecting this feeling of loss and hopelessness in their eyes. When you see that clicking, and you really feel it – you know you have something.
They were totally up for the challenge and took on the physical stuff like a couple of seasoned stuntmen. To be able to split our shoot between the boys was the stuff production dreams are made of. And with us all being so exhausted by the end of it I’m not sure it could have been done any other way.
WIC: WHERE DID YOU SHOOT THE VIDEO AND WHY?
GD: We shot in Kazakhstan and this had been my intention from the get-go. I included a lot of images from Kazakhstan in my treatment and the abandoned ships of the Aral Sea were one of my main inspirations. Totally haunting and epic in scale. Unfortunately we were unable to shoot the Aral Sea itself – Kazakhstan is a gigantic country and we needed to be closer to a population centre – so we ended up basing ourselves within 2-3 hours of Almaty.
Perhaps we could have found some similar locations elsewhere but I felt like Kazakhstan was somewhere more unexpected and gave us both the natural locations and abandoned spaces we needed. Once on the ground the sheer scale and beauty of the place took all our breaths away.
Additionally I was able to bring over some crew members from Kyiv where I spend a lot of my time, and so with my own experience of shooting in Eastern Europe together with the great work that both Radioaktive and Lifetime Films have made, we all felt a sense of assuredness going in.
WIC: HOW DID YOU CAPTURE ACTION SHOTS WITH SUCH ENERGY?
GD: It was always a key consideration for us to be able to switch up the pacing at different moments in the video. My single greatest fear was that this would end up simply being ‘kid walking through different locations’, so together we made some conscious choices to avoid that. Pat Scola our cinematographer chose to shoot with the Alexa mini and so he was free to really get in close and move with our kid in those moments that demanded it, sometimes shooting with the camera slung low in the palm of one hand.
I always knew the scene on the bus had to have a feral feeling to it but there are a couple of examples that stand out which both had an element of improvisation to them. The moment when the first chorus hits I’d always envisaged our kid scrambling down near the bottom of the canyon, but on the day to save us a bunch of time and a unit move I chose a different spot near the top where we’d just finished shooting a dawn scene. Our boy leaps up over a rock and just nails it across a ridge without stopping, running, jumping and taking us all by surprise with the way he attacked it. Pat was able to run along with him and capture the moment, and that sense of energy really translates.
Similarly when the kid runs to the survivors building at the end of the video, man he just bolted and never stopped – again Pat instinctively went with him and it’s ended up one of my favourite shots, perfectly encapsulating the excitement he feels at seeing this beacon of life and hope.
WIC: WERE THERE AN HAPPY ACCIDENTS ON THE SHOOT? FOR EXAMPLE DID YOU STUMBLE ACROSS THE HAND MURAL ON A RECCE??
GD: I’m glad you mentioned that! In line with the idea of missed opportunities I was keen to tease in hints of other human life throughout the film; like clothes & bags left behind etc. I also knew I wanted something haunting, almost ghostly at the exact point in the track where our boy now raises his hand to the wall.
When I found images of the Cueva de las Manos cave paintings it just clicked, so beautiful and haunting. It felt like the perfect way of hinting that maybe there are (or were) people out there and maybe they are trying to communicate something – whether that’s in hope or desperation, or even a warning. I love the idea that if everything collapsed that we might have to revert to these ancient ways of communicating.
Our incredible Art director Anna Laznya and I researched the methods of application and she managed to get hold of some natural red ochre in Almaty, which is exactly what ancient humans used. She tested different mixes and ways of creating the stencils, carefully spraying over her hands on that huge wall of the abandoned hospital. It’s the most enduring image of the video for me personally and kinda gives me chills every time I see it.
One happy accident that did occur was when a couple of badass shepherds on horseback rode into our shot of the electric pylons, bringing with them the puppy that you see the boy playing with. I always intended for animals to play a part in the film and to see our kid smiling, even just briefly is so important for the overall tonal balance of the piece.
WIC: WHERE DO YOU STAND ON THE DRONE DEBATE, DO YOU LOVE USING THEM?
GD: Hah, well first of all this was my first experience of using a drone! The idea of including aerial photography came up in our very first conversation and we all agreed it was something we wanted creatively. Just to feel the scale of the locations, the epic nature of the journey, to see the landscape in a way not possible from the ground – and even musically how the strings and keys play out in the track, it seemed to fit.
It did not come without its challenges though, finding out before the shoot that our first choice drone was broken was a killer but our never-say-die producer Jack Bradley managed to source us another one. This too had its problems flying exposed to the elements. It was a rather harsh lesson in never relying on these kind shots being achievable on the day but thankfully I covered myself! Just a couple of aerial shots can really lift a piece if done right and since we had twins at our disposal it made that decision even easier.
We had to strike a balance in the video though, to breathe out and feel that sense of scale but not lose sight of the story. That was a juggling act in the edit but we definitely landed on the latter side. Would I rather have had Patrick shooting out of a helicopter on the Alexa though? You betchya!
In general terms I get folks in the industry having a certain cynicism about drones, when the shots feel unnecessary, out of place or just plain gratuitous. But like any tool there’s always going to be a place for aerial photography if it serves the creative. And I don’t think the public share any of the cynicism that people in the industry might feel about them.