Henry Kaplan Creates A Shoot Out
Talented unsigned director, Henry Kaplan, taps into the old classics for his brilliantly unusual music video.
An almost-seven minute tribute to old western movies and Hong Kong gangster films may not be the most obvious choice for a music video-cum-short-film with such an upbeat 90's sound. However, with such a detailed appreciation for the old classics of cinema (and some less obvious ones) emerging young director Henry Kaplan delivers us a powerful character-driven creation that packs a few punches (literally). The story follows an aging Chinese gangster's sickly demise and political struggles, all of which are complicated by his unlikely obsession with, and imitation of, cowboys.
Despite an extremely low budget and a relatively unknown musician outside of his native Belarus - Deech, for his song "Get Better Boss" - the peculiarity and strength of the narrative and it's brilliantly developed characters makes it stand out; Kaplan gently pokes fun at the western/gangster genre while simultaneously imitating it. The result is a film that is as warm and moving as it is dramatic and unexpected, with features on taste-making blogs such as Video Static and Directors Notes and even a recent shortlist for the D&AD Next Director Award!
We were so charmed by the video and impressed by the talent of it's (unsigned!) director, we decided to both feature it on our Scout section and catch up with the man himself.
Can you tell us about where your idea for this video came from? Was it inspired by the music or did you already have it in mind?
It was inspired completely by the track. Deech sent me several demos to choose from, and the track that eventually became "Get Better Boss" was by far the weirdest of all of them. I was really tickled that he even thought a video could (or should) be made for it, so I thought about what that might look like. The image that came into my head, for whatever reason, was of a sickly gangster. What really drew me in was the idea of clashing the happy, "vacation" vibes of the track with a somewhat serious, almost tragic story. I'm obsessed with both Westerns and Hong Kong gangster films, so the actual content and setting weren't too much of a stretch for me to come up with.
How did you get involved with Deech, the band?
Deech is a young DJ from Minsk, Belarus, sort of a "bedroom producer" who also plays shows and has a solid following in that part of the globe. I came upon his stuff through a blog, and the music just really blew my mind. It's a crazy mix of 90s R&B and Eastern European dancehall music that just sounds really shocking to me. I should add that "Get Better Boss" is a strange track for Deech. His other stuff is much more dance-able.
Anyway, a lot of his tracks had this great atmosphere to them that I thought was really fitting for some sort of video component. I found Deech's email address, sent him some of my previous work, and asked whether he'd be down to do a video with me. And he was!
Was Deech involved in the creative concept of the video at all, or did they give you free reign?
I had free reign. I wrote up the treatment and he was totally down with it.
Why did you specifically decide to base it around a Chinese gang? Is it something you have personal experience of? ;-)
This is a great question. I originally imagined it would be a less recognizable ethnic group- like a Russian or Eastern European gang (which would make sense given the artist's nationality). But as I started thinking about the story visually, I realized that East Asian gangster cinema specifically lends itself really well to establishing these gang societies through visuals alone, which is necessary when trying to tell a story like this economically. East Asian criminal societies like the Triads and Yakuza are so old and have so many rituals and customs particular to them, and a filmmaker can use these things to quickly establish basic information about the world while also moving the narrative forward. The house decorations (i.e. "Hai San Gang" composite photo) and the red-envelope ceremony are good examples of this.
I don't have too much personal experience with Chinese gangs, other than my love of movies involving them. Some of the actors in the film, however, do have some history with Vietnamese street gangs, which I think comes across in the performances.
What country do you envision this video being set in?
I imagine it's set in LA (where we filmed it). I think of this as an American branch of an old Triad organization that's still operating in China. And so there are several different gangs that make up this American branch.
The leader of the gang is such a brilliant character – both sympathetic and ridiculous. Where did your idea for him originate from? Is he based on something/someone specific?
I didn't consciously base him on anyone, but in retrospect, he's definitely a character I plucked from the universe of Takeshi Kitano (Japanese actor/filmmaker whose movies I adore). There's this Yakuza boss in the movie "SONATINE" (1993), who has an embarrassing obsession with a specific kind of traditional Japanese dance that is usually performed by women. Whenever the guy gets drunk he stands up and starts performing this dance, to the embarrassment of his gang soldiers who are forced to stand by him and even join in the dance with him when their Boss forces them to. I think this sort of situation is hilarious.
As for the Boss, it was easy to write him because in a half-serious way I am very similar to him. I love Westerns and definitely wouldn't mind becoming a cowboy one day.
One of the strengths of this piece is that the characters in general are remarkably developed for a music video, and in fact this feels in many ways more like a short film. Is a strong narrative important for you?
For this film in particular, I wasn't thinking about a strong narrative more than I was just really concerned about connecting the viewer to this Boss character. It's something that is very hard to do in a film, let alone in a short film. And if I pulled it off here it's only because I had two full minutes of story before the track even starts. Which, in most cases, wouldn't be a possibility.
In general, I think narrative is great but character is more important. And those things usually go hand-in-hand anyway.
Your recent video 'She was born in Bahia' is made in a silent-movie style while this one harks back to old cowboy movies. Are you conscious of connecting your work to the old cinema classics?
I'm a big lover of old silent movies and other early classic cinema- so, yeah, a lot of my ideas stem from old (or somewhat dated) movies. What's great about silent films and stuff from the 30's, 40's and 50's is how visual those movies were. The great directors back then had an incredible grasp on telling the story through subtly designed images. And I try to steal anything I can from them.
What was the casting and pre-production process like?
Casting and pre-production was incredibly intensive and took 3-4 months. Deech needed time to finish his EP, so we had the luxury of taking our own time, which is the only way we were able to pull off most aspects of this film, given our limited budget. For weeks I met with every Asian male actor in Los Angeles who was willing to work for free, which enabled us to piece together such a brilliant cast. Some of our actors were based in Little Saigon, which is an enormous Vietnamese community just south of LA. I ended up befriending and spending a lot of time with these guys down there, and they were able to hook me up with several locations for free. The owners of these establishments would usually crack up when I told them what the movie was about, so that helped, too.
How did the shoot itself go - did everything run smoothly?
The prep for this film was so long and intensive that the actual shoot felt like a big performance after a long rehearsal period. Every shot was planned in great detail and we rehearsed with the actors for weeks beforehand. So on the actual shoot, we were spending an average of 20 minutes per set-up, with very little deviation from the plan we had set out for ourselves in pre-production. We were also shooting on 16mm, so couldn't really afford to do more than 2-3 takes per set-up or try alternate ideas.
The reaction to the film online has been very good! How did the band react when they saw it?
I've frankly been blown away by the film's reception online. This is a 7-minute music video for an odd track by an obscure Belarusian DJ, with two minutes of stuff in Cantonese before the music even starts. I was always very happy with how it turned out, but certain it would be seen by maybe a few thousand people. I'm glad to be wrong about that!
Deech's response to the film was very sweet. I emailed him a cut and he replied something like "This film made today a good day."
Is there anything you would like to change if you could?
I'm sure there is. But making this was such an important learning experience that I really can't be unhappy with any of it.
What's up next for you now?
Commercials! I'm trying to get into comedy and visual stuff. I just directed my first spots for a Karate sportswear brand, two :30s that are going to air on ESPN2 in July. I've also got several short films lined up which should be ready towards the end of the summer. One is a super-short comedy thing, and the other is a longer music video / short film hybrid, sort of like "Get Better Boss". So stay tuned!