ONLY THE LONELY PART 1: JENNY GOT FAMOUS / by Karl Dixon

Last year I enjoyed a brief spell of keeping a weekly blog. I’m not sure how long this spell will last, but over the next month I will be writing a bi-weekly entry detailing one of the most challenging, stressful but ultimately rewarding experiences I have ever had in my 10 year filmmaking career.

Five and a half years ago Jenny Got Famous - a rock band from Coventry comprised of four of my oldest friends - entered the studio and produced their second EP Miles Away. Two of the three songs were bluesy soft-rock songs about relationships (continuing the theme as their previous EP Letters I’ll Never Send) whereas the third stood out as something quite different. 

By that point Jenny Got Famous already included Master’s degrees in Electronic Engineering, Chemistry, Mathematics and Mental Philosophy and would eventually include a doctorate in Physics. Combine this with their collective interests in sci-fi, technology and history and you’ve got yourself the geekiest band to record a song since Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking's bongo-synth duet*

* this never actually happened.

My first interaction with Loneliest Hour was reading the lyrics before the band entered the studio. They detailed the plight of a lonely astronaut orbiting above a world that has forgotten about him and then coming home to no fanfare. The story was tantalisingly open but had intriguing parallels with the real life story of Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins.

Once I heard the band playing the song I was struck by how surprising its tone was. Melancholy and maudlin lyrics were paired with a bouncy beat and a catchy pop-rock chorus in a juxtaposition that reminded me of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s Enola Gay. As a filmmaker I’m always looking for stories with surprising instances of irony and this one set my mind whirring.

I knew I had to make a video for this track, it just seemed so out of reach. A year previously I had made a handful of very low budget videos for the some of the tracks on Letters I’ll Never Send. I treated them as post-university training-ground films and their DIY quality was not great. The enormous scale of the subject matter of Loneliest Hour was so far removed from this early approach and seemed to be the sort of thing low-budget filmmakers struggle to touch. Still the idea gnawed away at me…it just needed something to bring the spaceship down to Earth to make it achievable.

Then it hit me.

Two years previously I had completed CV1; a cardboard recreation of my hometown and easily my most ambitious project up to that point. One thing that film had taught me was that rendering a naturalistic space (a city) in a deliberately synthetic and low-fi recreation (cardboard) allowed me to do things that I would not be able to with the real location. The form of the film gave it a visual spectacle but also made it accessible and versatile. 

The spaceship needed to be made of cardboard.

I knew that this concept needed to be firmly embedded in the narrative of the video; you can’t separate the two. I mulled over this for some time and eventually found a story that fitted the concept and seemed to strengthen both by the pairing:

What if this astronaut’s plight was being imagined by the one person who hadn’t forgotten him, his young daughter down on Earth?

The spaceship would be made of cardboard and decorated with poster paints, egg boxes and toilet tubes because the young girl's only frame of reference would be the childhood craft materials available to her at home. With this I was satisfied that I had the ingredients to make the video both achievable and cinematic and decided...

...to do nothing about it for five years.

In summer 2016 two things happened. Firstly a nice hole was opening up in my calendar. Not enough to cause me to worry about my income but enough to slot in some kind of personal project. Secondly, Jenny Got Famous guitarist Andrew Packwood sent me a WhatsApp message, casually telling me that his new band Pleiades wanted to make a music video and asking me what it would take to make one (more of this in ONLY THE LONELY PART 2).

The stars had aligned, the blue touch paper lit, the starter gun fired. For a long time I had been itching to throw myself headfirst into directing something imaginative, cinematic and with a sense of low-fi spectacle; something which would push me forward in an exhausting way...and now suddenly I found myself throwing myself into two at once!

BOARD TO DEATH

The first pre-production step I needed to take was clear; I needed cardboard and lots of it. The materials for the cardboard city model featured in CV1 had been scavenged from the bins at the bottom of my Bristol uni flat and in the alley behind the local OneStop. While this method was admittedly quite successful, I had now reached that stage in life where I didn't want to spend anymore time climbing into dumpsters. I began to hunt online and quickly found a post on Freecycle by Georgina from the non-profit urban agency 3space, who had just finished a project and were getting rid of the cardbord motherload. Two car trips later and my spare room was overflowing with enough boxes to build the walls, floor and furniture of the spaceship, with plenty left over for all the panels of switches, dials and keyboards.

The second pre-production step was to find a studio in which to shoot this project. After scouting a number of potential venues throughout Greater Manchester I was pointed in the direction of the club space of Salford's Islington Mill by Bloc+Blur filmmaker Louise Cowley. This slightly out of the (cardboard) box booking meant saving a lot of money which I was able to put to use in other ways, but also meant that we could use the unique architecture in the room to our advantage. The dancefloor of the club is filled with old cast-iron pillars, which served as the perfect structural basis for our creation. Up stepped sculptor, artist, carpenter and former technology teacher Dave Cowley who then designed and built a series of wooden frames which allowed us to connect any two pillars a turn them into a set wall.

With a method of construction solved the next task was to design the layout of the ship and create the bulk of its shape. I made the decision that most of the detail and texture of the ship would be added on afterwards, stuck to the walls with velcro (100s of metres of it!). The eventual shape was a sort of narrow tunnel made of mostly flat walls which we would eventually decorate.

The decorating then took the bulk of the work and roughly 2 months to design and create. While I made a lot of the components myself I also snared several helping hands with a cheery smile and the promise of unlimited cups of tea. Over 3 days in the Autumn half-term my sister, my girlfriend and my girlfriend's family and friends all came over to our flat and helped amass a brilliantly colourful array of imaginative 3D cardboard creations. This is always the most rewarding part of filmmaking, taking a very personal idea and sharing it with other creatives and seeing how they respond. This early pre-production phase set in motion a pattern that I'm happy to say was repeated throughout these projects: the people I got on board to help totally understood what I was going for, threw themselves into it and produced work that surpassed anything I had hoped for.

The Australian documentary filmmaker Dennis O'Rourke once described filmmaking as a kind of 'qualified madness'. Whilst this project is completely different to his work I certainly came to understand exactly what he meant. In the depths of pre-production it would not be unusual for my girlfriend to come home to find the living room a sea of cardboard offcuts with me squatting in the centre with hands covered in marker pen, poster paint and accidental glue-gun blisters, furiously raging at an egg box that just didn't look like a spaceship intercom. How my girlfriend put up with the experience I cannot imagine, suffice to say that I will be the one hoovering our flat for the next galactic year.

At the start of this journey I knew that this was the kind of pre-production job that would never be finished. The spaceship could always be tinkered and tweaked and could always have things added or taken away but eventually there would come a point where the clock would run out on us and we would simply have to shoot what we had. As such I was tinkering with final design elements right up until the morning of our shoot. Fortunately our hard-work had paid off, the good ship JGF was complete, space-worthy and ready for blast off...