In this interview from 2018, director Danny Cohen talks about his background and his collaborations with musician Courtney Barnett.
Cohen has since made a feature-length documentary, titled Anonymous Club, gaining intimate access to the private life of Barnett.
Tell us about your background and what led you into photography and directing?
I originally studied graphic design. While I was studying, I was photographing live bands which eventually led to taking band promo shots.
Over time, I realised I enjoyed the immediacy in photography compared to consistent refinement when designing – although this has now come full circle as there is so much refinement in filmmaking.
After leaving the design course, I completed a degree in photography at RMIT, Melbourne, Australia. Throughout my studies I was always inspired the most by film. It was a constant reference in all my work although I never planned to direct.
For the last six to seven years I have been supporting myself through photography, specialising in conceptual band and artist portraits. It was only three years ago when a friend’s band asked me to shoot a music video. I did it, loved it and here I am, twelve music videos later.
How would you describe your style and the approach you take to your work?
My style is tricky to pin down – I am still experimenting. Each clip has its own feeling but I believe there is still a signature style throughout although I am still not sure what that is – it is definitely a weird and humorous one.
I will usually listen to the track over and over with a clear mind, then a hint of an idea will come along and I will race off with that. Usually, this initial idea is unachievable, mainly due to the lower budget world of music videos. So I will then spend months figuring out a way to make it work – it is exhausting but I enjoy this process. I also try and keep the artist involved during this time. I want it to be collaborative, I want them to enjoy the ride too. I am a silly perfectionist but I have definitely been forced to retrain my brain and embrace imperfections.
How did your collaboration with Courtney Barnett begin and why are you such a good fit?
It started by me taking Courtney’s photo. It was a slightly more out there style of shot compared to other portraits of her. After that, she asked me to take photos for a few more projects including the Kurt Vile ‘Lotta Sea Lice’ collaboration.
I chucked my name in the hat for a music video for the album and ended up doing two. I think we are a good fit because we really get each other. I feel supported as a filmmaker, she is really open to my ideas and vice versa. She is totally happy to go through the hard yards to get a memorable clip. This is super important when trying to create a unique vision in a saturated music video world.
Need A Little Time is the latest music video you have worked on with Courtney. Who came up with the sci-fi theme and the concept?
Need A Little Time has such a soaring, floaty feeling to it and my gut reaction was seeing Courtney floating in space. I decided to play on the meaning of the song, Courtney needs some time away from herself. I did not want to show Courtney leaving her friends, family and fans. It needed to be more metaphorical, slightly dark but not grim.
Visually, I also tried to keep the style and tone of the clip within Courtney’s DIY world. The end result is Courtney preparing for teleportation with help from a team of aliens. She travels through space and time, ends up in some isolated part of the universe. She finally has found some alone time. It is just Courtney and her guitar, singing and floating around space without a care in the world.
Can you tell us about the shoot, especially the challenges of working with animation, visual effects and prosthetics?
The whole production was four months in the making. From initial conception, refinement, location scouting to shooting, editing and VFX.
I have found VFX super tricky in my experience – it is a lengthy process and the budgets we have for it are not ideal. Luckily this time round, I had a super talented team. Dave Abbott and Scarlette Baccini handled the space scenes. All the rocks and planets were shot in camera so they had to mask out all the supports and crew.
Benjamin Portas worked on the teleport sequence which again was beautifully executed. The location’s architecture was inspired by 70s Brutalism and I wanted the animation to play off the symmetrical design and shapes present in the building.
Aside from the time required for VFX and animation, the scenes pre-post needed a bit of imagination for the editor (Ben Hall) and the label. Courtney being suspended by wires with people holding rocks around her obviously is not the most interesting image. Prosthetics were handled by Sharp FX, a surprisingly smooth process.
I guess the trickiest challenge overall was trying to bring so many elements together over two shooting days on an independent budget. Alex George (producer) did an excellent job at bringing this vision to life. Marni Kornhauser (production designer) and I also spent so long figuring out the set for the blue teleport room. The creation of the room was super time consuming too. I really tried to shoot as much in camera as possible which meant lugging and building the teleport room at the first location (four hours from the studio). There was so many moving parts to the clip, each act very much dependant on each other. It really was a team effort by all involved.
As you alluded to, you also worked on the music videos for Continental Breakfast and Over Everything which were filmed in Melbourne and Philadelphia. What were these cross-continental collaborations like?
They were super fun. A crazy schedule but lovely to see so many beautiful places. We scouted for locations at both spots and marked out the best route to film. It was a two day road trip with both Courtney (around Victoria, Australia) and Kurt (Philadelphia and New Jersey). We shot 50 locations all up and ended up using 40.
The math was pretty tricky too. I had a math whiz friend (Chris McKenzie) come up with an equation that would allow us to calculate the changing distances between Courtney, Kurt and the camera. It needed to be slight to begin with so it would almost go unnoticed and push further back as the clip progressed to really show the locations.
‘Continental Breakfast’ was much different. It is an intimate home movie into their lives and the time spent with family and friends between recording and touring. Shot over four days and filmed on 16mm, the mini-documentary captures honest moments that show the loving and playful nature of both Courtney and Kurt.
You have worked with numerous other musicians such as Kirin J Callinan, The Murlocs and Loose Tooth. Is there something that attracts you to working with musicians or vice versa?
I have always gravitated to music and working with musicians. I just love working with artists that inspire me and I love collaborating with an artist that has their own unique voice.
How do you see your future as a photographer and a director?
I definitely am leaning more towards a director. I still love photography and am still working regularly, but directing feels like home. I truly feel like I am in my element – it is exciting and liberating.
Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
I am in pre-production for a long-form music documentary. That is all I can say at this stage.