Ask the Director: Simon Gustafsson
I love to build worlds and atmospheres, creating moods that you could almost touch and smell through the screen.
How did you find your visual language? And how would you describe your style?
I feel like it’s almost becoming a cliche, but like many other directors I was introduced to filmmaking while making skatefilms with my friends. Even though I don’t make skatefilms anymore I still feel like it has highly affected my style and my approach to the craft itself. Maybe not as much in a visual way as in having some sort of social realistic approach to filmmaking in general.
Maybe you could call it some sort of poetic realism. I really like to find the beauty in the small things. To portray and craft everyday occurrences with an elevated and poetic approach. I love to build worlds and atmospheres, creating moods that you could almost touch and smell through the screen.
I feel like my style is always evolving though. There’s always new things to explore, so if you would ask me five years from now, I would probably say something different.
Where do you get your inspirations from?
It could be anything. Depending on the project I would always explore different sources of inspiration. It could be anything from old baroque paintings to old french noir cinema to tik tok videos. I have no one stop destination.
I’ll always try to mix my inspirations, where I try to find contrasts and avoid the obvious.
For my film I’ve made for Monza, for example, I was inspired by old street photographs from the early 20th century. This led me to the black and white, unpolished, 16mm look and the choice of music, which are from that time period as well. Meanwhile 90’s Hong Kong films by Wong Kar Wai inspired the heavy motion blur by using his step printing technique in order to build on the feeling of a congested and stressful big city. All of this accompanied by a group of misfits riding through the city where most people might expect some kind of hip hop beat attached to it.
Your process from the idea to the final film? What' s your creative process and what tools do you use?
How I would approach a project of course depends on the project and what I want to achieve. If it’s a brief coming from an agency you always have an idea that you continue to shade and shape.
If it’s more of a personal project I start more from the core and most of the time I do tons of research. As I mentioned earlier I really like building atmospheres in my films and in order to do that I feel like all elements of filmmaking and how it’s combined plays a huge part. Such as sound design, music, editing, color etc. I edit most of my films myself and editing is also a tool I use in and throughout the production process. Even at the ideation process. I use my editing software as a canvas where I use references to make moodfilms and experiment with different looks, different paces, different sounds and music. I try to keep all the elements very thought through and I never just add a piece of music or sound design as a layer on top of any film for example. There’s always a purpose and meaning for it to be there. Or not be there. Sometimes excluding things could be more important than to add things in.
However, it’s of course always different. Some projects are more straightforward and not as experimental.
What is it like to shoot on 16 mm? What are the opportunities and risks of a 16mm film during shooting and post-production?
A lot of people wanna avoid shooting on film because they think it’s expensive, but I actually think it could sometimes be the opposite, haha. Shooting on film could make everything else so much easier and cheaper. The film by itself adds so much to the look and feel of the film that you don’t need much else. Working in only natural light while shooting on film gets you so far. If you shoot digital I feel like you need to work the shots so much more in order for it to stand out. Either in how you light it on set or in post production. When shooting on film you just have to slightly turn some knobs when in color grading and then you’re more or less done.
I also really love the tonality of film. Its organic feeling somehow feels more honest and real. It’s almost as if the scans are living its own life within the film. I also love the “in camera” effects that you get. Changing frame rates while you shoot, slightly over or under exposing on purpose. These little things can give you really unique looks that you would never be able to get on a digital camera.
It's also somewhat limiting when it comes to how many takes you can do on a shoot. Unless you have a really big budget you can’t do 10+ takes for each scene because you’ll run out of film stock. That makes me more focused and present on set.
However, shooting digital has of course its advantages as well. You always have to keep in mind what’s the best for the project and its purpose. I’ve been shooting so much on film and especially 16mm recently that I’m actually quite excited about shooting more digital stuff in the future.
What role does natural/ artificial light bring to your work?
For me the purpose of the light and what you want to achieve in the scene is what first comes to mind and how you might execute it comes second. But the look of natural light has most often been the goal setting for most of my films. If it isn't possible for different reasons or the weather isn’t on your side you can always mimic it using artificial lighting.
Sometimes you also might want the lighting to be more elevated and abstract or you might need to control the lighting for a longer period of time. Then artificial light is of course very helpful.
5 commercials you like
SENSEO - WAKE UP - MILES JAY - https://vimeo.com/371488972 The script, the cinematography, the editing. Everything is so perfect and thought through. This is an example where shooting on film and the cinematography really adds to the story. The changing of the frame rates while shooting, causing these beautiful fragmental and overexposed flashes portrayed as memories and how all the plates of the apartment are seamlessly being cut together as a way to portray a longer period of time. Everything is just perfect and ties everything together so beautifully.
RIMOWA - ROAD - JULIA LING KELLEHER - https://vimeo.com/420953269 Talking about atmospheres you can smell and touch. The 80’s Wim Wenders aesthetics makes me feel nostalgic and miss something I’ve never even experienced.
GUCCI - PRE-FALL 2018 - GLEN LUCHFORD - https://vimeo.com/282849429 I feel like I could literally put any of Glen Luchford’s Gucci ads on here. They’re all great. This is also a great example of working with contrasts that I like. The scenery takes place in the 60s or early 70s, but he’s throwing a 90’s acid house track by Laurent Garnier on top of it. Two totally different worlds but it shares the same rebellious tonality making it a perfect fit, while also creating something unique and new.
PIRELLI - CARL IN NEW YORK - JONATHAN GLAZER - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dua35KT8Aps&ab_channel=TheHallofAdvertising Advertising at its best! Such clever and effective storytelling by using Carl Lewis feet as a metaphor for Pirellis tires. The Aphex Twin soundtrack also adds so much to the energetic and pulsating forwardness of the film.
BOSE - IT’S BEAUTIFUL UP HERE - IAN PONS JEWELL - https://vimeo.com/380778892 Just pure magic. Ian’s work isn’t always my cup of tea since they’re usually so filled with VFX and CGI, but this film really blew me away.
5 films to watch right now
Some of my all time favourites (with emphasis on “some”):
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND I don’t think any film has destroyed me as much as this one. So heartbreaking but still so playful. Putting this script together definitely deserved the Oscar it got and no one can portray dreams, memories and our inner selves as beautifully as Michel Gondry.
PERSONA I was exposed to Ingmar Bergmans work quite late in life. Honestly I think most people who are my age have been as well. His films are not the easiest films to digest as a kid and not even as an adult haha. He leaves a lot for the audience to interpret on their own, but watching Persona for the first time, it really blew me away. Bergman’s dreamlike storytelling, the lighting and the extremely thought through and perfectly balanced compositions is something that has influenced me a lot. ENTER THE VOID Gaspar Noé is always pushing filmmaking and storytelling to its edge in each of his films. Why not portray the entire narrative backwards (Irreversible)? Why not portray an elderly couple in split screen, where one suffers dementia and one isn’t (Vortex)? Or as in Enter The Void, why not portray the film from a POV of a dead person's soul hovering around and observing the repercussions of his death? Each time Gaspar releases a new film you’ll know you’re gonna see something that you’ve never seen before.
AMORES PERROS So real, rugged and raw that it feels like a documentary. PUSHER This escalating tension and increasing bad luck from the leading role, Frank, is something that will give you hypertension and on the verge of a heart attack just by watching it. The Safdie Brothers must have used this film as one of their biggest inspirational sources when making Good Time and Uncut Gems.
Tips for aspiring filmmakers?
In many ways I would consider myself as an aspiring filmmaker haha. I’ve only been in the game for a few years and I’m constantly learning and I’m far from where I wanna be in the upcoming years ahead of me.
But if you want to have a successful career in filmmaking I think this quote by Jerry Saltz (New York Times art critic) is quite on point:
”It doesn’t matter how much talent you have. You must be willing to be embarrassed, understand rejection is not defeat, work all the time, and have drive, delusion, desperation, flexibility, resourcefulness, obsession & confidence. This is what will give you a life in art.”
You’ll just have to replace the “in art” at the end with “as a commercial director”. Or literally any other industry that has way too many people working within it than there is actual paid work for.
Cool instagram accounts?