From making movies in an Airbnb to wowing audiences at Berlin Commercial and the London Fashion Film Festival, Jordan Blady is one to watch. Born and raised in The United States, Blady’s artistic drive has brought him to the streets of Paris, Kyiv, and Berlin to create films that marry cutting-edge couture with extra-terrestrial invasions; and semi-autobiographical works about lost poets finding themselves in foreign lands. We sat down with the director to talk a bit about his latest project, finding the funny in the fashion industry, and the appeal of the unapologetic self-expression.
Jordan, it’s fair to say you are an artist with an international outlook: you’re originally from New Jersey; you’ve lived and worked in Berlin and Kyiv; and now you’re going between Paris and Los Angeles for projects. How do you feel your experiences living in, working in, and interacting with the people of these countries has shaped both your films and your personal outlook on life? And, where do the two overlap?
My travelling, especially within the past 5 years, has meant everything to me both personally and professionally. It had always been my dream to move to Paris since I discovered the French New Wave in my teens, but when I graduated from New York University 15 years ago I was too afraid to go. Instead, I drove out to Los Angeles where, over the following decade, I gradually lost the drive to do anything creative.
Approaching the end of those 10 years, I had my heart broken (by a French person) and unable to bear the idea of running into them in Paris, I set off for Berlin instead. It began as a trip of a few weeks that turned into 5 years of residing mostly in Europe with about 4 months a year in LA. It was in Berlin where I met Christian Huck, made the first narrative short I was proud of, shot my first feature film, and basically restarted my entire creative life. From Berlin I travelled to Kiev to make my first fashion film – it was the people in Kyiv that got me interested in Georgia. Then I finally landed in Paris 3 years ago where I found representation for my commercial work and a comfortable network of friends and inspiration.
I feel very fortunate to know such wonderful people all around the world who are excited to collaborate – it was never something I could find in The States. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had gone to Paris right after school like I had planned. Instincts are everything whether you’re an artist or not. Trust them.
Your latest short film, Comfort Zone (2020), captures the everyday/night experiences of Georgian drag artist Matt Shally. The piece manages to express his eccentricity as an activist for Pride and self-acceptance while simultaneously cradling a sensitivity to the deep-rooted struggles of a drag performer living in a highly conservative country. Take us back to where it all began, the project’s inception. How did you first come across Matt Shally? And what was it about his story that you envisioned would work well with your own style of storytelling?
Matt has everything there is to love in a person. He’s wild, has a great sense of humour and a tremendous capacity for empathy. I find that with Comfort Zone, I was really making a film about someone I admired, and one of the things I truly admire about Matt is his unapologetic self-expression, which I yearn for on a personal level.
I made a different short film in Georgia almost 2 years ago called From Beyond, which Matt auditioned for. I had seen footage of him on Instagram dancing in a fashion show and I had to get to know him. When Matt and I met, he told me about how he had received a lot of unwanted attention from an interview with a local reporter on YouTube condemning the nightclub raids in Tbilisi in 2018. While Matt didn’t end up acting in From Beyond, we decided at that point that we had to do something together. After a year and several terrible ideas later, Comfort Zone happened.
There are a joyfulness and a cheeky sense of humour that you explore in your portrait of Shally that also underpins a lot of your other projects within the fashion film industry. Your video for Thom Browne’s fall collection, Animal Bags (2020), comes to mind. Why do you feel humour is essential to fashion communication?
Everything should be at least a little funny. Maybe it’s my upbringing – my dad’s side of the family is so sarcastic and that was how we usually showed love to one another. I remember my aunt and I giving each other the finger at Passover from when I was very young.
In 2017, when I first started making fashion films, I felt that the world wasn’t as immersed in comedy as much as it is presently. Wes Anderson was making funny fashion films, but I couldn’t find much else. So, I thought it was a good direction to go in: try and make things a little less boring and serious. I hate anything that takes itself too seriously. If you can’t laugh at yourself or your work, I think that’s a problem.
On a similar line of thought, a particularly striking element of your feature film, Softness of Bodies (2018), operates on a kind of inside joke; in that the poetry discussed and performed in the film was written by its cast and crew. There’s something droll and quite meta about how your characters debate the meaning of their verse within the film when there is this whole other layer of meaning, another conversation going on between you, the crew and the audience, that is unknowable for your characters. Explain for us a little more about how SOB was created and why poetry had to be at the heart of the project.
For me, Softness of Bodies is one long joke with the punchline delivered at the prison visitation scene. I can’t really say much more about it without giving it away. But the film came out of a couple of different notions, the first being that I love the idea of following a character pursuing a career in poetry in our current world. Certainly, it’s possible and I think probably more essential than ever, but the feasibility of making a living out of poetry is difficult to imagine, even though some manage.
The short film I made in Berlin before SOB, Syllables, is about a lost poet from the States hiding in Berlin trying to figure out his life (can you see the overlap yet?). It gave me the first taste of this world, and Dasha, who has a small cameo in the short, was my inspiration for expanding that notion into a feature. The poems that Dasha recites in the film, aside from the final one, were all written by her before I wrote the script. As I was writing, I had to consider which of her poems to include and where to place them, something that definitely shaped certain scenes.
The most meta thing to happen was the poem that Dasha reads at the end, was written by her a few days before we shot that scene. It was from this poem that I took the title of the film. As for the poetry reading scenes in Softness, they were based on readings I attended during my time in Berlin.
A really interesting idea that you raise in the film comes from how your protagonist, Charlie, interprets – and even misquotes – T. S. Eliot’s view on writing: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” How does this idea translate into your own artistic process? When you are writing a script or editing a final cut, who do you, as an artist, find yourself actively stealing from?
Everyone. It feels like every decision can be attributed to something I’ve seen, read or heard at some point in my life. Film has always been a comfort to me as much as an interest, going back to being a young insomniac watching the same movies on cable over and over again. I’ve always had a good memory for the specifics in film: the shots, fonts, moments, tone. I feel like I always reference moments in my work that people may not recognise because they tend to be really subtle.
Sometimes I’ll reference something in a way that doesn’t actually make sense, so it’s not recognisable to anyone except me, but I’ll know where it came from. For example, Morgan has this line in Softness of Bodies asking about where his pants are.
While we are on the topic of artistic influences, we should probably talk about the New-York-School poet Kenneth Koch, right? He is not only visually referenced in this film and a direct influence on Charlie’s poetry, but he is also alluded to through the film’s refusal to relinquish its sense of humour even in its darkest moments. What does Kenneth Koch’s work mean to you?
Actually, it was Dasha that turned me onto Kenneth Koch, as he was one of her favourite poets and an influence on her own writing. Since her own poetry is incorporated into the film, I wanted to at least pay tribute to him with the visual reference and further promote this idea of original versus plagiarised work. Actually, I think my favourite nod in the film is when Dasha says towards the end WI burn the way money burns," which is the last line of Anne Sexton’s poem The Breast. She wasn’t technically a New York School poet being in Massachusetts, but she was still publishing at the same time.
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When working on a project, do you find yourself separating the script-writing process from the selection and shaping work involved in making directorial decisions? Do you see one as a form of creation and the other as a form of editing? How do you mediate between these two modes of operating?
For me, it’s all creation, and maybe that’s because I’m not a very good writer. I really love improvisation. Not just from the actors, but in terms of directorial decisions, that’s how some of the best stuff happens. Sadly I didn’t have much opportunity to do this with Softness of Bodies as it was such a low budget project and we never had enough time for anything. But I think one of the best things you can do on a shoot is schedule a little extra time for scenes just so you can fuck around and try things you didn’t think of before that aren’t in the script. It’s great to just use the script as a rough blueprint and then find magic on the spot. Honestly, I feel the exact same about editing.
A discourse prevalent across film and literature in recent years focuses on the presence of protagonists, both male and female, who subvert common notions of ‘niceness’. Is this idea of creating characters that reject social convention something you think about when creating your leads? What other key ideas inform your process of character building?
I can’t say that ‘rejecting social convention’ is a box that needs to get checked when I’m creating characters. I do try to put realistic characters in situations that aren’t necessarily realistic, and I’m also fascinated by psychology and sociology. And I love the idea of watching your characters interact in a world you’ve created almost as a science experiment. I think that’s something that Ruben Ostlund is also interested in. I guess I focus on what might be thought of as the potentially negative qualities in humans because I tend to find them more interesting to observe. Growing up I was always the bad kid, getting in trouble, getting injured, pushing all the limits for the sake of getting negative attention. But it’s the ‘why’ that’s fascinating and how you react when you get caught, rather than the action itself. It’s like [Slavoj] Zizek when he talks about revolutions: he’s not as interested in the protest as what happens the day after government crumbles.
Regarding niceness, I think there is an emerging revolution against binary constructs right now, especially in regard to gender and sexuality. When addressing the behaviour of characters we run into similar issues: how can anyone be just good or just bad? Everything in life is so nuanced and all of those nuances need to be explored.
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While it’s certainly crucial in the industry to make connections with other creatives, and co-ordinate a team that you can rely on, project after project to produce the results you want, something that’s particularly interesting about your portfolio is that you’ve continued to work with individuals like Christian Huck, cinematographer, and Aaron Short, composer, to produce the really essential elements of your films: visuals and sound. What have these individuals contributed to your artistic vision over the years? And how do you feel they have helped shape that vision for the better?
I think Christian was the collaborator that had the biggest impact on my work and life. We met at a time when I didn’t understand why my projects weren’t coming out the way that I had envisioned them. To be fair, that doesn’t include my first short documentary, Slab City Prom, which I’m still very proud of. But after that project, nothing seemed to click right, and when I first watched the dailies for Syllables in Berlin (the first time Chris and I collaborated) I almost cried because I was looking directly at what I saw in my head, except better because he had added his own spin to it. It’s fair to say that Chris restored my confidence that I could be a filmmaker, after years of crushing depression back in Los Angeles. As we did more and more projects together, Chris also really taught me the importance of standing up for myself both personally and creatively – that was something he always did well.
It’s also important to mention that Syllables was about as low budget as a project gets. I produced it, we shot illegally in my Airbnb, and every other location was a favour or stolen. If you can make something with no money that you love, then you know you’re working with a great team. As for Aaron, we had been friends for years going back to the days when he was in the band The Naked and Famous. Aaron is an incredibly talented musician and one of the only people in my life that I can have a discussion about ambient music with. Softness of Bodies was the first feature film Aaron scored and it was fun working on that together because it was also my first time directing one. I have to add that I still marvel at what he came up with for From Beyond, which he also scored.
What is the one piece of advice that you wish you’d received when you first started out writing/directing?
Your craziest ideas are probably your best so make sure to believe in them. Also, don’t forget to have a sense of humour about everything.
Is there a particular idea for a film you are developing at the moment? What can we expect to see from you next?
I’m desperate to do a genre movie, either a straight thriller or something horror. I like the tone of the last 15 minutes of Softness of Bodies and I’d love to expand that over the course of a full feature. A few weeks ago, I shot a short film in Prague that I’m excited to share early next year, which takes place entirely within a nightmare. I loved the gothic vibe of the city and had such a great experience shooting; I think it would be a great place to make a second feature.
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