Welcome to Ways of Seeing, a series in which two creatives sit down to discuss the nuances of their work, trade industry secrets, and fill each other in on their latest projects. The only catch? One of them is on staff at W magazine. In this week’s edition, visuals editor Michael Beckert chats with the director Nina Holmgren, who phoned in from Copenhagen.
You started 2020 on a really exciting note: you signed with production company Smuggler, and you just released a new short film for Justine Skye’s new track, “Intruded,” with them. How did you come up with the concept for the music video?
The short film for “Intruded” with Justine Skye and Timbaland was a really special project. Justine is an amazing artist, and she’s really in control of her vision, which made this project an amazing collaboration. The idea started when Justine and her team of creative directors explained that one of the ideas for “Intruded” was what happens when we’re on Zoom or FaceTime—how, at times, you can get more caught up with your own image than the person you're talking to. That moment when you’re supposed to be listening to the other person, but you’re distracted by your own reflection; this technology can make you more self-obsessed with your own image than our ability to communicate. Within the context of 2020, this is sort of the new reality for us all, so we all more or less can relate to this in a way.
What was so interesting was that there were all these layers to the song and the backstory of the collaboration between Justine and Timbaland that started online, and we wanted to make something that was also about analog meets digital, which provided a great canvas to get more conceptual with the visuals. Besides having the track “Intruded,” we also share two snippets from two other tracks from her upcoming album Space and Time with Timbaland.
Justine is playing this character in the film that gets more and more obsessed with herself and her own image—for instance, that’s why she is slightly ignoring Bella Hadid at the beginning and ends up losing interest in Lil Yachty, who also has a cameo in the film.
For this specific short film we really wanted to create something that was cinematic. We played a lot with sound design and visual elements to create a heightened visual language for the film. E&E, the creative directors, shared with me Timbaland's first reaction upon seeing the film and he said that it felt like he was watching a movie. That was such an amazing reaction to receive, because it's Timbaland—someone I really admire, and I grew up with his music, so it was important to me that he was into it.
There are some really amazing VFX scenes in the film. I’m thinking about the melting car, the technology that moves around Justine. When you go to direct scenes that are heavily dependent upon post production, how do you communicate that with your subject?
Before shooting the short film, I had written a full treatment that pretty accurately described each concept we were going to execute. Even if it sounded weird, I'd write “Justine is on the ground and technology around her starts to levitate.” We also had a VFX supervisor on set while we were shooting, which helps you plan exactly how you’ll shoot each shot that’ll depend on VFX in post, and how to position Justine so it looks right.
Did you shoot this in Los Angeles?
No, we actually shot most of it in London, and then some parts in Miami and Atlanta. It was a bit of a world tour production-wise [laughs]. There were definitely a lot of production challenges because of Covid, but we made it work.
The first project I ever saw of yours, which made me think, “Oh wow, who is this director,” was your film I Want You to Panic. It’s this super aestheticized film, but it’s grounded in a real life horror—the global climate crisis. Can you tell me more about it?
I Want You to Panic started because Nowness reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be part of this series called Survival Season—a call to action on the climate crisis.
They wanted to know If I’d be interested in working with Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmental activist. I was immediately excited by the idea. I was also asked to choose one of the four elements to be part of the film, and I chose fire. I was really inspired by the way the youth are trying to wake the world up and draw attention to the climate crisis, especially the urgency of Greta Thunberg’s and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez’s speeches.
We have, in many ways, gotten used to seeing these images of ice melting or forests burning down, so early on I was really interested in approaching it in another way. The film is an abstract observation on humans and passivity, where I wanted to ask the question: what will it actually take for humans to react?
Take us back to the start of your career. How did you get into filmmaking?
I’ve always been really creative and practiced fine art. Originally, I was drawn to video art—visuals and sound installation. At some point, I wanted to get a bit more into narrative work, so I decided to apply to this prestigious program at the National Broadcasting Company in Copenhagen (our version of BBC or ABC) called The Talent Team.
What’s great about that place is it’s a production company—you have fiction, documentary, and radio all in-house. I applied and was accepted, which was wild because they only chose four people out of 1500. I transitioned more into filmmaking when I did a short film about my grandfather for a Scandinavian streetwear brand called Le Fix. My grandfather wrote the poem for the film. The film is called Club 99.7, because that’s how old my grandfather lived to be. So instead of the famous 27 Club, we made a Club 99.7. The film premiered exclusively on Nowness, and was nominated at Cannes Lions. It sort of just skyrocketed.
What advice would you give new art school graduates entering a tough economy?
The thing about being creative is that there is a lot of freedom in it, and that can be really motivating, but it can also be challenging. Whether you’re a new graduate, or you’ve been doing this for many years, that paradox exists. I’d say you should find something that motivates you, whether that’s developing a new skill within your craft, or doing a project you’ve been dreaming of. Whenever there is a crisis, the ground shakes a bit and cracks, but some good new things can come out of that, too. Being creative means that you’re able to rethink things and invent new ways, but it's important to build a small community of people to share and create stuff so you can motivate each other.
I end each interview by asking artists what they’re most proud of so far. What would your answer to that question be?
On a more personal level, I’m really proud of the film I did with my Grandfather, Club 99.7. It's something that will always be really special to me, both because we did the project together with him writing the poem for the film, but also because it started my path into filmmaking. There is this fixation on youth in the world, and the elderly are often not portrayed in the media, so it was also to pay homage to old age in general. I'm really grateful that I got to do this project with him.