Allie Avital on Directing Videos for Moses Sumney and the Power of Empathy in Art

The director discusses why fearlessness is a key ingredient to working in her field, and how empathy has made her a better artist.

Welcome to Ways of Seeing, an interview series that highlights outstanding talent in photography and film—the people behind the camera whose work you should be watching. In this week’s edition, senior content editor Michael Beckert chats with Allie Avital, who has made music videos for Moses Sumney, Kesha, and more.

Last time we saw one another was at your production company’s party, and now parties aren’t safe! Does quarantine feel like it’s ending to you?

I’ve lived in New York my whole life, so I started hustling when I was born; I never really stopped until 2020. At first, quarantine was definitely scary—not really knowing when I’d work next, but then you realize it is this rare time when you’re allowed to be quiet. Every week has been really different. I’ve been going in and doing a lot of personal work, a lot of writing. I’ve oscillated between wanting to get my feet back on the ground and anchored in reality, verses being in a dreamworld, writing films. I’ve been working on three different screenplays, and then some ideas for TV shows. Basically I want to come out of quarantine armed with scripts.

Your latest music video with Moses Sumney, Me in 20 Years, was released this past July. I read the video as wondering about whether or not you’ll be just as stuck in your ways in 20 years as you are right now. Can you tell me more about what went into making it?

We shot that in December, actually, so it was sort of foreshadowing what was to come—considering a lot of people are stuck in their ivory towers these days, similar to Moses in the film. It’s the fifth video that I’ve done with Moses, so by the time we started talking about what we wanted for this film, we had a very different shorthand. Most musicians you work with, it’s a bit more of a guessing game and pitching process. Moses sent me that song last fall and I immediately knew I needed to direct the video for it. Sometimes there are songs that align with something in your spirit when you hear them. I guess that’s true for anyone. When you’re uniquely challenged to come up with a visual for a song, though, you know you’re right for it when it hits all these different parts of you. That’s how I felt about this song. I basically convinced—or forced—him to let me do that video [Laughs]. At the time, he was starting to talk to other directors and we had an open conversation about him starting to branch out. He actually ended up beautifully directing a lot of his new stuff himself—but I was able to grab this one before that.

The actual process of making the video was a lot more straightforward than it usually is. He sent me the song, we got on the phone, and then he told me what the lyrics were about. The lyrics are, “I wonder how I’ll sleep at night, with a cavity by my side, and nothing left to hold but pride, will I hold out for more time?” I was thinking about the visuals and thought, why bother overcomplicating it? We should go ahead and just make that.

Still from Allie Avital’s music video for Moses Sumney, Me in 20 Years (2020).

Still from Allie Avital’s music video for Moses Sumney, Me in 20 Years (2020).

And then there’s that shot with the milk in the refrigerator, and it lines up perfectly with the lyric.

Exactly. It was a good reminder not to overcomplicate it. Sometimes with directors, it can be a bit of an ego thing where they want to put their own idea into the project. The strength of this film, for me, was not making it about myself and taking what he wrote and making it into a strong visual. I knew the feelings would evolve out of those images for the audience because they were already in the lyrics. I pitched the project right over the phone—I was like, let’s have you on the bed with this pulsing cavity and we’ll have this VFX moment; it’s about the absence of another being but also the cavity within oneself. Then there are some visuals directly from Moses’ lyrics—like the milk. Then there’s the fridge and inside, there are rotting lemons and avocados, and that idea really came from this idea that when you live alone, your food starts to go bad. You can’t even get through a gallon of milk without it going bad.

You also released a video with Kesha back in November for her song, My Own Dance. Having met you and knowing you have such a calm demeanor, how did you manage to exist on such a chaotic set? How do you manage the choreographed insanity of a video like that?

Part of being a good director is knowing how to code switch. It’s about being sensitive to your environment and knowing what’s going on. A lot of directing isn’t just seeing the vision in your head and telling the actors what to do, it’s about being able to step back and see the whole theatre performance of the set. With Kesha, it was a very different collaboration because she’s someone who has a very clear brand. With an artist like her, you’re contributing to a large chapter in her career. She’s the sort of artist that imagines each album as this moment in her life with its own visual world. It was incredible to be part of her comeback, after the unfortunate public drama that surrounded her life and career. I had been talking to her team for a while about doing something together, and it was cool to finally see it come together and her whole thing was like, I don’t really give a fuck, I’m back!

Still from Allie Avital’s music video for Kesha, My Own Dance (2019).

I’m wondering how your own vision played into that collaboration.

It was definitely a collaboration. She wanted to go through all these freaky rooms, and she never had any moments where she was like “Ah, it’s too weird!” But for me, the approach to a video like that is a little more fun. I’m there to execute these visuals but also to not be super precious about the emotional narrative thread in the same way I might be with a different artist—because that’s not the point with a video like this. I’m there to engineer this whole Kesha-themed world.

It’s a totally different part of my brain, because with an artist like Moses, I’m starting from the ground. With him, it always starts with the meaning, and we never do anything just because it’s visually cool, and I wouldn’t necessarily say we did that with Kesha, either, but it’s definitely more of a party. So I guess I’d say on a set like Kesha’s, I’m a scientist—but I’m also at a party.

I noticed this interesting motif in your work. You have two films, Quarrel, for Moses Sumney, and another called I Am Going Home for an artist named Roseaux. In the video for Quarrel, Moses’s character has this deep relationship with a horse. One day, the horse discovers that Moses has damaged all of these other horses, and the horse realizes that its partner has a history of destruction, and it feels betrayed. In the video for Roseaux, the main character keeps trying to fall in love, but every time she touches a man, he dies. In both these films we are presented with these protagonists who are trying to love, but are killing the ones they love. I’m wondering what significance that idea has for you?

Still from Allie Avital’s music video for Moses Sumney, Quarrel (2018).

Still from Allie Avital’s music video for Roseaux, I am Going Home (2019).

That’s so interesting, because Moses was the one who wrote the original script for Quarrel. I can definitely say that I’m interested in people’s power to destroy and especially to be destructive from their own place of pain. A lot of the narrative I want to do in the future has to do with the capacity that women have to be destructive. I want to see more characters like that on screen. There are enough people showing the empowered woman, you know, like, the female CEO, and I think that’s great for sure, but I want to see more female villains. In the Roseaux video, it’s more about this idea to self-protect, and a fear that you’ll destroy anyone you come into contact with. The Quarrel video is thematically linked, you’re right, but there’s this other theme of fetishization there—those that you objectify you are sometimes destroying in the process. Moses and I have always been interested in studying the gray area of morality. The desire to help someone or care for someone even can eat its own tail, and when it comes full circle it can actually reveal itself as a type of abuse.

I know you released The Naked Woman last year, which was phenomenal. What has it been like as you continue to dive into narrative filmmaking?

It’s been amazing and excruciating. A lot of directors go into filmmaking aiming to be narrative filmmakers, but that’s not what happened with me. I was almost coming at things from a more theatre, fine art, or video art perspective. I only really started feeling the draw toward narrative in the last five years. I think it was because I felt a limitation with what I could do in the narrative or advertising spaces. I wanted to be able to explore something different in conjunction with all of that work I’m doing. And it is interesting because it’s definitely a jump. It’s a completely different way of thinking. I think having as many hundreds of hours on set as I do—that will benefit me when it comes to a lot of the actual directing work. I think a lot of directors go in a different way and make a few short films, and maybe they have a leg up in the narrative world, but they don’t have the set experience, working with multiple DPs, etc., that a commercial filmmaker has. During quarantine, I’ve been studying with this woman named Joan Scheckel—I almost feel like I’ve been through graduate school with her in the last couple of months. At the start of quarantine, she messaged all of her students and was like, “We’re all at home, so let’s do some workshops over Zoom,” and it completely changed my life. I’ve been deep into this world now of writing and workshopping with other people, and that’s been great because it can be very lonely and alienating when you’re locked up alone, trying to parse out your personal relationships into your script, trying to write about your adolescent shame or whatever it is for you.

Some readers of this column are recent graduates from college and art schools. I’ve been asking the artists I’m speaking with to take me back to when they first got out of college. What did those first couple of years out of school look like for you?

I was pretty fearless, and I think I had that on my side. I was ready to make bad work. I think that’s really the best thing that I did, actually, I just went out there and not only did I make bad work, but I made bad work and invited all my friends to come see my bad work [Laughs]. Not everyone is like that, and that’s totally fine, because approaching your own work is one of the hardest things to do in the world. But I think just having my blinders on and just going out there and doing it was the best thing for me. I was putting on performances, and basically just using any resource around me that I could find. If you have an idea—or honestly, even if you don’t have an idea—if you just have the will and the confidence to make something, people will show up and you just sort of have to be shameless. I remember I got this grant from the Here Arts Center space downtown to put on a performance, and everyone hated it so much and I cried so hard because people just hated it.

It’s amazing to hear that at one point you made bad work.

I think about it a lot! It’s really important to make bad work, especially at the start, and to get it out of your system. That’s not to say I haven’t made bad work since, it’s just that you realize you may hate that work, but you survived and you learned something.

These things don’t happen overnight and I think that with stuff like this, you can’t calculate it. Sometimes, your most successful work will be the project that was actually the easiest to do. Ultimately, it’s really difficult to know exactly what your career will end up being like.

Sometimes I’ll look at old work and truly just cringe. I always think the tighter the edit, the more concise your vision is moving forward, but maybe you think about it differently?

Most of my work, I feel that way about. There are two videos I’ve done, though, that I deeply cherish. One of them is Mutual Benefit video for “Advanced Falconry” that we shot in my current backyard. I really connect to the projects where I was able to conceptually be pure. The other one is Autre Ne Veut “World War Part 2.” I think with both of those projects from start to finish, just being able to approach them like an artist was so lucky. I think as you grow as a director you realize those opportunities are rare because the bigger the artist the more there’s a team and you want to be working through this narrative thread, but you gotta get the glam shots and you gotta make sure the artist looks good, etc. I love doing that too, but when working with Moses, or Autre Ne Veut there’s a certain integrity to it, so I’m always seeking that feeling out. I’m hoping Kendrick Lamar hits me up for a music video!

What’s your opinion of the artist being perceived as a selfish person? I’ve always really disliked that idea.

I’ve been finding that as I evolve as a person that there’s a lot of generosity in being a great artist. I don’t just mean that you’re sharing the fruits of the labor with your world. Being able to empathize is a really big part of being a good writer, for example. I think if you claim to be making work about human beings, then you need to understand and have true empathy for human beings. I think I was a lot more selfish earlier in my career, actually, because I thought that the only way to succeed was to be ruthless because I had that image in my head of, “That’s just how you have to do it.” There’s this idea that the artist is selfish- as you said. I’ve found, though, as I grow more internal strength and confidence, that I’m able to take myself out of the equation more or sort of see other people, and then consequently, I’m able to channel more human qualities into my work. I do think there is this really bizarre myth that if you want to succeed you have to be so obsessed with your work that you don’t take care of yourself or the people around you, and that’s a bit patriarchal if you think about it. That idea does not consider the possibility of being a mother and being an artist, or even if we think beyond gender, it doesn’t really consider that the artist has or can care for anything else beyond themselves. You’re serving yourself and you’re serving your art if you let other things into your life, and letting those things into your life is part of being selfless and seeing others where they’re at.

At the end of my interviews, I always ask artists about what they’re most proud of, all accolades aside.

Right now, I’m the most proud of how I’ve given myself the time over the last few months to write and sit in the discomfort of the murky space. I’m less interested in the finished product right now and more interested in the rough, moldable clay of everything that I’m working on. I’m proud of that because it almost takes like, an anti-discipline; to be able to let go is the most difficult thing sometimes. I’m proud of my ability that I’ve recently found to not be fixated on a polished or finished product, and to allow myself to go a bit deeper and ask “If I could make anything what would that be? If nobody saw it, what would it look like? If it didn’t make me any money what would it be?”

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