Stills from Fenn O’Meally’s films. Collage by W magazine.
Welcome to Ways of Seeing, a series in which two artists 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 London-based filmmaker Fenn O'Meally, a self-taught shooter who’s worked with JNR Williams, Nike—and makes her debut with Prada on W magazine.
You just directed this new project for Prada—it’s a beautiful short film surrounding two dancers, and I especially loved the poem in the voiceover.
Prada came to me, and then gave me full reign. They asked me to make something that felt like it made sense for this collection. So I sent over a treatment idea, and they were like, ‘Okay, let’s go for it!’ I was looking for the right poet for it, and ended up working with this really great spoken word poet, Moak. We went back and forth for about a week, just collaborating, until we got something that would work well with the piece. I was also able to build a really great team for this one, collaborating with one of my favorite cinematographers, Olan Collardy. For Moak, it was interesting because it was the first time he wrote about sustainability, and it was also his first time writing for a brand. He usually writes for himself. When you have a vision as a director, you’re trying to navigate other people and you need to encourage them to try again if things aren’t quite right at first. Sometimes directing does take more of a leadership skill or navigation skill rather than just telling someone to do their thing.
Are practical leadership skills something you’ve had to develop as time has gone on?
I’m super lucky in that I spend a lot of my time busting my ass as a runner. So I’ve seen it from all ends. I worked as a runner in television, and then I assisted an editor, and then I went into radio assisting. So I’ve always appreciated when people have treated you the way you want to be treated. One of my first agents told me to treat people the way I’d like to be treated. You know? Learn everyone’s name, treat people well, the same way you would as a runner. If someone needs something, I’ll always make it my goal to get them what they need. I hope on my sets there is no hierarchy. If I didn’t have my team, we wouldn’t be able to work. I’ve been there as a one man band, and it’s not fun.
People always say making art is really the science of empathy, and I think that’s true in the case of filmmaking. With this Prada film, you went with two beautiful dancers. I’m wondering where the idea of using dancers came from? Did you dance at some point?
I danced from age three to 18. Whenever I’m in New York, I go to Alvin Ailey, and I’ll dance there. Sadly I’ve lost contact with it though, I used to do a lot of ballet, but not as much now. You can’t really pull out a ballet move in a club (Laughs). Incorporating dancing into this film was really about understanding and celebrating how the body moves, but also how nature moves, and how we connect with nature.
There’s this really great line in the poem that goes “If animals had a spirit human, I’d hope I’d be one of them.”
For me, it was really that we’ve gotten to this place where we think humans rule the world. But actually, nature is the only thing that has any say on rulership, and how things are going to go. This past year with Covid, I think we’ve especially seen that. It sounds really hippie, but you have to become one with the world for it to work in your favor. We have for so long decided that we own and rule, but actually, right now, we’re seeing that’s not true at all. When we push the earth to a point where it’s not able to support us, we really freak out. It was so great to collaborate with Prada on this project because they’re actually really concerned with, what effect will the product have after it’s worn?
You did a music video with Maverick Sabre, for a song called Don’t You Know by Now. This film felt a lot more narrative, and had me wondering what your process in pre-production is like. Are you into storyboarding your films, or do you make a shot list and go from there?
That one was a lot more shot list-focused. But I’m doing a video next month, and that one is entirely storyboarded. I’m definitely pushing the story more, since that’s what I really love. A lot of musicians are really interested in acting as well. I know Maverick wants to do some acting, so music videos give them this opportunity to try that out, and illustrate that they’re true storytellers.
How does the time of day affect your work? Is there a time you’re most creative?
I’m definitely an early bird. I’ll wake up and I’ll just go. When I was doing Maverick’s piece, I woke up at four one morning, I had another job to pitch on, and I saw three birds flying outside my window. I Googled “what does three birds mean,” and there’s this story relating to three birds representing earth, wind, and fire. So I put that in my treatment and it actually opened the treatment.
You also did this film for JNR Williams and his song Us In Major. The video feels like moving portraits, and they seem to be speaking to this idea of generations and what’s inherited.
You really hit the nail on the head. Even in the treatment I wrote about wanting a series of moving portraits that celebrate the Black community. I was inspired by a book of photographs by a photographer named Dennis Morris, who shot Hackney in the 1960s. The main frame of the video is inspired by a photograph that Dennis took of an older Black man with his hand on the shoulder of a young Black boy, just standing together. Having grown up in a very white area, all my role models were white, so I wanted to be a voice for young Black kids who are trying to find inspiration. That’s something that I wish I had understood: how incredible my heritage was, and how me straightening my hair, and trying to conform to a certain beauty standard was so mad. Being Black is an incredible attribute and asset as well.
I read in your Dazed 100 interview that you want to create a narrative film that celebrates Black triumph.
We’ve seen these stories of black struggle, and I think they’re so important to tell, but even something like The Black Panther—that was an incredible way to celebrate Blackness. We see struggle, but we also see Black triumph and power. I find it hard sometimes when we talk about Black success as an anomaly, like you’re one in a million. We have all these stories of white families and people who have become known or renowned in some way, and I just want to see more of that for Black people and their stories.
Because Covid-19 has drastically changed the economy and prevented new graduates from getting jobs, a big part of this column has been asking artists like yourself what they first did after graduating from school. What did you do for work?
I studied English, and while I was studying I was working at the BBC on the set floor as a cable-basher, which is basically when you’re holding the camera man’s cables and making sure nobody steps on them. So my life was clearly very glamorous (Laughs). I would just make short films in my spare time and I was doing interviews, too. I knew I wanted to make some sort of moving image, and I knew I loved photography and capturing people’s emotions. A year after I finished uni, I shot this Stormzy film for Elle magazine, and it sort of clicked that I was interested in filmmaking. I made some films for Henry Holland, shooting all the girls backstage, and I think it was probably then that I realized I just loved capturing energy and human emotion. I remember shooting the girls in Henry’s office, like all the major girls, Hunter Schafer, Duckie, Adesuwa, and I’d just make these videos where they’d say something about themselves; I'd stay up all night editing so it was ready for the show the next day. I’d find musicians on Soundcloud and reach out to use their music.
I just realized that I loved this because I’d spend hours on it. I’d just edit, and I’d be down there for days! So basically, after college, I was at this point where I was juggling TV world, these small opportunities in fashion, and I was getting paid nothing. My dad was like “Don’t you just want a proper job?” but I just loved doing this. I had no idea what was going to happen, and really had no insight. I wasn’t sure if I could make a career out of this. If I could make money from it, great, if I couldn’t make money from it… great!
Either way, you’re back in the dungeon editing.
My advice would be to go with your gut feeling—what makes you buzz and what makes you happy, and still do your side hustle while you’re doing it. I was working at a cafe while I was doing all of this from 6 AM to 3 PM, and then from 3PM to 9 PM I’d be working at the BBC.
That’s so intense.
It was! The cafe was right next to the BBC, so I’d literally take off my smock and run up to the BBC. That’s what it takes, though—you have to bust your ass. But that’s what I do every day, because I love what I’m doing. Do something that you care about because that’s what’s going to give you longevity, and that’s what will inspire you to keep learning. I’d tell anyone starting out that if you think you can’t do something, but you really want to do something, go out and play it. You want to shoot film, but you can’t figure out why your pictures are always blurry? I’ve been there. There’s no formula, really. The second that someone says it has to be X, Y, Z, that’s when things can become too structured. You have to do whatever you can to develop your eye.
Do you have a mantra before you go into long or difficult shoots?
I dance a lot in the morning. I don’t know what it is about Otis Redding, but I’ll feel like okay, whatever time it is, 3 AM, 2 AM, 5 AM, I’ll put on an Otis Redding track. I went to a Catholic school, and my family are Catholics, and I don’t go to church anymore, but I’ll always pray. I think having faith in something else is really healthy, because putting all this pressure on yourself to get everything right, is a lot. I pray pretty much most nights just to thank god for the things that I have and the things that i’ve been blessed with. Once I’ve prayed, what will be will be, and if it’s not, then there’s something else.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I’m proud of having a unique voice as a Black woman that isn’t steered by anything but my gut feeling. Even with my show on BBC, I’ll have artists on there because I love them and believe in them, and it’s not about what the listenership wants, it’s what I think the listenership should want. Or if I’m doing a music video I’m gonna pitch a film that this artist has not done yet, and see if we can’t do something new. I’m really proud of my gut feeling and knowing what makes me happy. From day one when my dad said “what the hell are you doing?” to now, I’ve just been following my gut. For any artist, the work that will be truly unique to you is the work that makes you tick.