Artist Spotlight, Pro Tips

How Director Grant James Visualized the Inner World of Father John Misty

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A few weeks back, LA-based psychedelic troubadour Father John Misty released his latest album, Pure Comedy. It’s a surreal, grandiose, often political opus that skewers modern life, while reveling in the unraveling of the conceits that offer us a false sense of security amidst the chaos. To preview the album, the artist also known as Josh Tillman enlisted the help of frequent visual collaborator Grant James, giving the director access to the studio throughout the recording process to document what went down and create something compelling with the results.

What they ended up with is Pure Comedy: The Film, a 25-minute short film pieced together from more than 80 hours worth of footage. Incorporating subtle VFX, seamless use of stock footage, drone shots over LA, and endless intimate moments, it’s an artistic and unconventional “making of” documentary that plays by the rules about as well as Tillman himself does. With the album now out so fans can get the full audio and visual experience, we caught up with director Grant James to talk about the process behind creating the film, how he approached production, and the true meaning of “documentary.”
 

 

The Value of Collaboration

James realized early on there was something special about Tillman’s music, which was enough for him to experiment with his own artistic approach. “Josh and I have worked together on several occasions,” he explains. “I’ve directed three music videos for him, and I don’t do music videos that often. My background is mainly documentary — for the most part music-related — music documentaries and concert films.”

Based on that experience, James was an obvious choice for this project. “Josh wound up just hitting me up, saying that he was going to go into the studio and record his third record, and he wanted to document the process. I’m a huge supporter of cinéma vérité, and just being the fly on the wall that doesn’t interfere with anything. So, ultimately, we went in there with the game plan of not overdoing it, but we wound up bringing in a lot more equipment than anyone initially thought.”

Father John Misty Studio Setup
 

Choosing the Right Gear

To capture his footage, James chose the ARRI AMIRA, a camera specifically geared toward documentary filmmaking. “I went into the production phase of this with a small crew,” he recalls. “It was myself, my cinematographer, a sound guy, an assistant camera, and a small grip and gaffer team. We kept things pretty stripped down during the course of the production, but the AMIRAs are not the smallest cameras, so we certainly needed support. As far as the lighting, we would get in before they started recording, pre-rig everything, and then have switches to on/off lighting setups depending on where they were recording in the studio. You had to be ahead of the musicians in some regards, because they’re live tracking. I didn’t want to interrupt that flow.”

Rigging Lights for Father John Misty

“The first day was kind of chaotic,” James continues, “but I think we all found the balance, and I don’t feel like the musicians or producers or engineers were too affected by our presence once we settled in. But these would be long days, too. We wound up shooting for two weeks total and walked away with about 80 hours of footage.”
 

Taking Things Slow

“My approach, and another reason why I brought in the AMIRAs, is that I wanted to be forced to slow down during production,” says James. “I wanted to capture a moving portrait of Father John Misty during his process of making this record. When he first sent me the demos to listen to, before we even got into the studio, I said, ‘Okay, I see where this album’s going.’ It’s a little more mature, the songwriting has developed, and I don’t really want to paint him as the character he’s probably been perceived as by a listening audience. I want to paint him as a seasoned singer-songwriter who’s moving his career forward.”

Father John Misty in the Studio

“So I applied that mindset to production. I wanted as much as possible to be on tripod, to be there for the moment. Just a little bit more stillness, and a little more feeling like you’re planted — like you have a seat there in the room, while everything’s happening. That’s the approach that we went in with, and it’s interesting, because there’s a mood that comes with that. There’s an observational tone that develops as you go through production, and even after production, once you’re really sitting with the footage.”
 

Adding Additional Elements

To add another layer of meaning to the studio footage, James and his crew also employed a number of stock video clips and visual effects. The stock video was used to show actual scenes of Los Angeles in flames (wildfires are common in the area), while the VFX helped add similar flames to drone footage capture by the team, and even the studio environment itself.

“At the end of it, we’re just trying to paint this moment and this portrait of the world Josh was living in while he was making the record,” says James. “The stock footage and elements of VFX helped paint this world that we weren’t going to blatantly speak to, but rather, subtly imply. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in LA when it’s on fire, but it’s crazy. The skies turn ominously dark and it feels like the end of the world. So, I really was drawn to the idea of all these subtleties of Los Angeles on fire being kind of a normal thing — but it’s not normal, you know? It’s scary. And I was using that to match the tone of what’s on the record.”

Brush Fire in Los Angeles by ForrestBrown

There was another reason for visual effects, as well, which anyone familiar with licensing issues may be able to guess. “If you look closely, some of the VFX are like fun little Easter eggs,” reveals James. “For one thing, I was saying, ‘Look at all these billboards we can’t get cleared. Let’s just put all the album art on them instead of blurring them out.’ It’s not supposed to be that clever, but you always have to come up with solutions, and that, to me, felt appropriate.”

“We didn’t have the most massive budget for this, but in terms of the VFX inclusion, we just wanted to keep it simple and subtle,” he continues. “At the end of the day, I wanted to balance the realism in the film and make sure that you kind of feel like, ‘Wait, is this really happening? Did that really happen?’ Because a lot of the imagery in there from the stock footage is real. It’s just a question of, when did it happen? Or when will it happen again?”

Billboards and Fire in Los Angeles
 

Deconstructing the Music

James didn’t only play with the visuals for the film; he played with the sound, as well. Tillman supplied him with all the individual stems for each track on the album when recording was completed, so while James began the task of sorting through the many hours of footage, he was also able to consider how the imagery and audio could work complement and counter each other.

“I basically took every single stem of music and manipulated them to create the sound design,” he says. “So there are elements from three songs that I’ve compounded into one soundscape to create this atmosphere and off-kilter energy. It created this sonic world. If you notice, there’s pretty much no voiceover. I find that probably the most attractive thing about the post-production process that we got to bring to life. Not only that, but I got a really good friend of mine who won the Oscar for sound mixing Mad Max, Chris Jenkins, to mix the film, as well.”

“It was an interesting path to be just dumped with every single isolated music stem from the record, and come up with stuff,” James reflects. “A lot of it was experimenting. Sometimes it works a little too well — and then sometimes it didn’t work at all, and we’d spend hours and hours working to craft something that was tonally adjacent to the emotion that we were trying to convey.”
 

Taking Risks for the Right Shot

“Probably the craziest day we had in the studio was when they were recording strings for ‘Leaving LA,’” reveals James. “It’s like a big, 13-minute song, and Josh got the great composer Gavin Bryars to write the arrangement. There was a 15-piece orchestra, and we brought in a jib to fly over the strings as they were live tracking. Which is a ballsy thing to do. I guarantee there are camera noises on the recording, since we were flying the camera inches over their heads as they were recording the string arrangement.”

“There were priceless microphones hovering above the musicians, and we’re just taking a large metal jib and swinging the camera from that. So, I was definitely holding my breath during a lot of those takes, but we captured it. Nothing you see in the film is staged for camera in the recording studio. It’s all doc. It’s all vérité. To me, just accomplishing that is fantastic. It’s not easy just being there with that much equipment and being that fly on the wall.”
 

The True Meaning of ‘Documentary’

In the end, just being present and capturing everything that occurred without a set agenda led James to create the ideal result. “Josh’s arc for the record starts out very frenetic, and then it just settles and it slows down and elongates,” he says. “I didn’t necessarily think that was the direction I was heading in when I just started cutting, but that’s exactly what I wound up doing. I wound up mirroring and trying to stay true to the arc of the record in terms of how this film felt.”

Huge Asteroid in Space by MovingImages

“I think there’s a beauty in not going in with a clear story game plan, because you don’t know what you’re gonna walk away with, and you need to let the footage speak for itself,” James concludes. “You need to let the footage dictate what story you want to tell. That’s what true documentary is, right?”