You might remember we posted a trailer for the brilliant new road trip film from young auteur Olly Jennings last month. As part of Converse’s Made By You Campaign, Olly was recruited into the Young and Laced creative collective and, using the initiative’s support, he was able to make a fairly epic film. Going everywhere from Texas to New Orleans, he followed a range of underground artists and hot new talents (in particular rappers like Nesby Philips) and explored a range of America’s various cultural and geographical terrains. Fresh from the film’s premiere, we got a chance to speak to Olly about his interest in America, his favourite places from the trip, and his most enduring memory from the process. So check out the trailer, and watch out for Olly’s work if you didn’t get a chance to catch the initial screening of Mystery Lights – it’s sure to reappear.
What was is it about the USA that made you want to make a film there?
I wanted to treat America as a completely foreign land. We are increasingly engulfed by it’s culture in England and I think most of us feel like we have a good understanding of it as we’ve grown up seeing it in films. But I found that when you get out there you start to realise how different Americans and the culture are to us and that the exaggerated view of it we see through film is actually their reality which is surreal and fascinating. Also there are too many cliches associated with America especially in film and I wanted to make something which explored the unseen sides of America. My perceptions where really challenged, from the people being so much more world conscious, open and and creative to how empty the whole country felt, to how certain areas like Texas that we associate with cowboys and Jack Daniels really look like landscapes from different worlds. Nothing was as I imagined.
You’ve spoken about your interest in the blank and “impartial” space of America that connects vibrant cities and towns; which of these spaces or landscapes have really stayed with you?
The landscapes around Vegas where some of the most surreal, it’s like driving across Mars, you drive through rocks and occasionally past bright blue lagoons for hours and then you see the lights of vegas on the horizon. Also White Sands in New Mexico really stuck with me, it’s a silent salt flat in amongst hundreds of miles of desert and mountains with the odd train running through it on the horizon and barely any cars. We stayed in an empty town with a high street which had nothing on it other than every fast food chain you could every think of side by side lit up in neon lights on a mile long stretch of road.
Of all the diverse people and artists you met, who really stands out in your mind?
Every meeting with an artist during the trip has it’s owns story. They where all amazing people to work with. 90% of the shoots where impromptu we’d be out and then come across them or do a bit of research on local artists and end up having a night out with them. Rikirah the girl dancing near the beginning of the film we saw dancing at the Piano Bar in Hollywood, she invited us to her dance class on Sunset Blvd the following evening which is where that shoot took place. Mirror Travel invited us to watch them perform then invited us swimming in some lakes in Texas the following day, it’s only then we realised they where making an album with Anton Newcomb. The strangest was probably booking a camp site, turning up and realising it was literally outside Elvis’s house and that we had arrived at the time when fans from all around the world go there for the anniversary of his death. It all happened very naturally which is strange and now I’m back I’m hearing more about these artists like Kadhja Bonet and DJ Taye.
Michael Boisson was an artist we came across in the middle of nowhere in Marfa. Jesse was filming outside his house on the deserted high street and he came out and started warning him to get off his drive, he had bullet holes in his windows and looked like Iggy Pop so it seemed a little bit dodgy. Jesse offered him a beer and he told us to go and buy some more and let us in. It turns out he was an artist from New York who had moved there and had a beautiful house with lots of classic Gibson guitars. He ranted about America all afternoon whilst we filmed, he also pulled a gun out half way through which was slightly terrifying.
Nesby Philips is doing some pretty good things: can you tell us a little more about how you got to know him?
Nesby Phips is someone I listened to before going out there which was cool as his manager Matthew Moses who met in LA and introduced us to Kadhja Bonet and him and made sure it all went smoothly. Phips is an interesting character and is a good person to meet if you want to break any preconceptions about rappers. He’s a Jet Life rapper alongside Currensy and Young Roddy, we where made to feel very welcome from being given tours of the hood and places places he grew up to being invited to car shows to being shown good places to eat in the French Quarter. The rap scene there is very real without it having to be too violent and Philips seems to sit somewhere between making rap that’s influenced by a tough neighbourhood of New Orleans, art, and the deep jazz influences of New Orleans in particular the free flow stream of conscious way of writing lyrics he outlines in the film.
When we filmed Bang Bang we where out in Hollygrove late at night. Many of the houses are still derelict after Hurricane Katrina and have strange markings on the walls outside detailing how many bodies where found in the houses. The tracks about police shootings in New Orleans and featured a young actor lying in a pool of blood having being shot and a cop with his foot on Philip’s neck. Loads of people in the neighbourhood where involved in setting up the shoot and when we finally plugged in the lights to the generator they didn’t turn on. The whole shoot was about to be cancelled until a local who was blind drunk came and found his way into the next doors electricity supply powering the shoot. Soon after a woman drove past and casually asked us if the kid on the floor had been shot then drove off.
Your previous work has been quite different (for the Chelsea Flower Show etc.), though I’m sure you could draw out some wider parallels between your disparate pieces. How did Mystery Lights compare as an artistic experience to some of your previous work and do you think it changed the direction in which you would like to move?
This project felt more complete than anything I’ve done as it was a collaboration between me and three good friends Jack Layfeild, James Heaphy and Jesse Heath. That brings so much more to it than being a personal project. The art work was created by our interactions together and with others on the trip, going out and meeting people and creating insights into America and it’s people as a result. The main reason it does connect with my previous work though is that it plays with contrast, I always like to create contrast in things as the two contrasting opponents amplify each other in interesting ways. In the Chelsea Project it was the contrast of technology and nature. This time it was the cities and the landscapes, gangster rap contrasting with the empty desert, Elvis impersonators contrasting with footwork etc.
What’s next for you/what project’s coming up?
We just had the launch night for the film, Nowhere at the Bussey Building and Copeland Gallery in Peckham. We screened the film in a cinema and had an audiovisual installation and bought DJ Taye over from Chicago for a footwork performance so it was like an extension of the film. I’m going to focus on this as an on-going an art based performance event in 2016.