New York based director Salomon Ligthelm has a track record of film projects that many aspiring filmmakers look up too. Known for his bold visual style and rhythmic storytelling, Salomon is constantly trying to reinvent himself by critically examining his own creative process. With projects ranging from explosive commercials for S7, Audi and Puma to powerful, heartwarming music videos for artists like Prince, Daughter and Young Fathers, Salomon’s portfolio is a layered palette of human emotions and compelling images. While talking with him we got to learn what modes of thinking allow him to be original but also how he manages to create high quality passion projects on a frequent basis while pushing the boundaries of commercial works.
Salomon, I would like to start off with the following quote by Chayse Irvin: "Obsession only took me to a certain point. It’s become more about forgetting the things I learned in the past and really using my childlike nature to react to things on a production.” – I was wondering if you resonate with this quote and if so, what elements from your childlike nature you tend to put into your work?
My obsession has always been creating worlds. When I was 16 my dad bought me Pro Tools. Initially I was recording music and at the time rock was the thing that was cool. So first I did a lot of music in that space but then I started listening to the library samples that I had and got obsessed with creating stuff that felt like scores. And scores that felt like worlds. I would close my eyes, play something and I could see a world. Therefore my interest shifted from band orientated music to sound design or scores.
Technology at the time in terms of film capturing wasn't there for me to go and pick up a camera. It wasn't accessible, it wasn't cheap enough and the quality wasn't good enough so I wasn't even going to bother. But then when the DSLR’s came out it was at a place where I could afford it. That’s when things opened up for me. My obsession was then to turn sound design into filmmaking and create unique visual worlds.
But as I’ve grown I’ve become way more interested in people. Perhaps there is a psychological processing that’s going on because when you start to have kids, get married, experience a recognition for your work, then all of that affects who you are. Therefore you put the experiences into your work. Those are the things that start to inspire me. Mr. Martyr for example, was an exploration of peer pressure, Medicine was an exploration of this couple that mimics my grandfather and grandmother who were quite ill around the time when I was shooting that. So that’s how my work started to revolve a lot more around people.
Regarding Chayse’s quote and embracing a child-like wonderment, one thing that I can say for sure is that there is a tendency as an artist that you become more critical and to me, that’s very dangerous. Because when you start to become critical you start to become jaded and cynical and I feel like those two qualities are very unhelpful to creativity. You need a level of naivety and ignorance and childlike wonderment in order to be wow’ed by anything. To be wow-ed by people and to be taken by experiences. Also, to feel worthy of taking something that might feel mundane or banal and to put that under the microscope and say ‘that feels worthy of my attention, of my passion and my focus because I believe in the value of it’. That’s what children have obviously. Especially when I see my kids, I wish I still see the world like they see it.
Do you put pressure on yourself when starting a new project because of the great work you have done before?
You need to at least try to do something slightly different because even if the result kind of feels the same, you can still change the process. To me, that's really important. So sometimes I can do something that maybe feels optically the same as a project that I've done before but I don’t care about that. I always ask myself: ‘is there something in the process that I learned that was different?’ I really want the way in which I work to learn something new. But it’s usually pretty helpful not to be too cynical. When I'm around people that are very cynical, I get depressed myself and I don't want to create a project because then you’re just overly critical about things. I've always been picking up a camera to just go and shoot something. Is it the next big thing? Probably not, and that doesn’t matter.
Your recent project Mictlan didn’t show any beer in the video despite the whole spot being shot for a beer brand. Do you feel big companies are finally starting to understand that pushing their products in a traditional way doesn’t always work?
I get really excited when I see a project that feels like it exists slightly outside of what's normal. There's a tendency that everything is being very trendy and cool. Simply put, cool kids doing cool things. Everyone wants to be on those projects. So you have that work which young and cool directors are doing for urban brands. And then, on the other hand, you have these big commercials for beer or car brands. I have been doing a couple of car commercials but got a big bored of that. So I’ve been pushing to do edgier stuff which brought me to S7 and Valvoline. Now, however, I feel that I want to do projects that are weirder and with more art. It might be for a small company in another market but at least they’re up for doing something a little different. There’s no way that I’m going to get a big Apple commercial like Spike Jonze did. But maybe there’s a small Mexican brand like Victoria that Spike Jonze won’t do - then I’ll take it.
Your work relies heavily on rhythm. What do you do on set to get the right pace from an actor?
Usually during the casting of a project, you can tell if a person has the right impulses that are required for the film. When working with a good actor, I don’t want to explain too much because it should come alive through their personality. On the other hand, when I work with non-actors it takes a different effort for me, to the point where I have to activate them on set by shouting in a fun way. Sometimes as a director, you are just in need of non-actors who can basically play themselves. For Prince’s music video Mary for example, we casted people who had to play in a scene of a kid passing away which symbolised the holy ground. Everyone on set was quiet and you could sense the experience, but I still had to interrupt and state the feelings that I wanted them to display. It’s good if there is a mix of both kinds of actors; non-actors can play the character that a director wants to create in their film world and the actors play a character that integrates into that world.
How do you plan your investments for your passion projects?
I spent quite a bit of money buying cameras. I've got two 35mm and one 16 mm camera. I bought some lenses for both 16 and 35. A lot of the money that I make, honestly goes straight back into passion or gear. When it comes to commercials, I don't want to buy the gear but when it comes to shooting on film for music videos and passion projects I don't want there to be an excuse of “No, we can't get the gear in this country or it’s too expensive to rent a camera here.” If that's the reason why we can't do it, then bring on.
The 16mm and 35mm film looks are often praised for their timelessness. At the same time it’s increasingly becoming a trend. Do you think film will retain its timelessness despite the trend?
I have been thinking about this a lot. Some people's aesthetics work well in digital. They can pull off something that looks good in digital but for me, I don't know how to work with digital. It doesn't look like my style. And so if you look at my old films, and you look at the amount of grain that I put on, the curves, the contrast and the way that I would grade the project, you could say that I always wanted my projects to look like film. I could never afford it or it felt like such a world away from me. Then when I did Mr Martyr, I got the rushes back, threw a curve on it and just went ‘O my God, this is it. It just works.’ Straight after that I bought my Arri 416.
The first time I shot on 35mm was on the Medicine project and then I did Puma and again, a curve on it and that was it. From then on I just knew that that was the way I was going to work. And not only was it like that in post but also on set. With digital you’re so focused on the small details that you can compromise what’s happening big picture on the screen which is performance and the talent and the way that orchestration is coming alive. So in my opinion it makes the performance less compromised.
To your point of it becoming trendy. I would say for the time being, that’s not a bad thing. The trend aspect sucks, but at least what it is pushing clients and agencies to be more comfortable with it, because everyone is pushing for it. I’m a bit nervous about the trend because to me, it’s timeless. I don’t want to shoot a bit of digital and a bit of 8mm or 16mm and it becomes kind of a cool pastiche cut. I want to shoot the whole thing on 35 or the whole thing on 16 and hopefully in that way it exists as a piece that falls into the canon of other films.
You mentioned in the interview with ‘Akkurat’ that if you could change something in the industry, pitches should be paid. Then François Rousselet mentioned exactly the same thing. I was wondering if you consider pitching in the first place to be a good thing, not matter if it’s paid or not.
I think what's really frustrating is when an agency and a client already has their mind made up, and they still just have to triple bid. And so there are basically two people who are pitching for no reason in order to fill the pitching slots. Then they go with the one that they thought they wanted. I don't know if it'll ever change. I've been chatting to these two guys and they're interested in giving directors a fairer process so if you're going to pitch, take some percentage off the top of the job, and split it amongst the directors that are pitching. To me it makes the most sense. But whether or not that'll change I don’t know.
Are there any modes of thinking that allow you to be original? How do you know if an idea is actually yours?
Honestly, you don't know. Unless you've read everything, and you've seen everything, will you know whether something is original? Because that's what it would take right? I just try to inject as much of who I am in the way I work. Sometimes people become cynical because ideas are never original enough. But then you see that not a lot of work comes out of that type of mentality.
There are films in the ether that are very similar. There is something in the shared consciousness of people that makes that happen. For example technology, but also race. Conversations about race if explored a lot in films these days because it’s in the cultural consciousness. That’s why you’ll see similar things coming out in a certain timeframe.
Who are artists you look up to in the industry and why?
In the commercial industry I admire the work of Martin De Thurah, Daniel Wolfe and Aoife McArdle. Sam Pilling does amazing work, but my all-time favourite is Scorsese. The process and philosophy behind his films leaves me impressed. Kubrick also just recently became an inspiration again, because I like to look at his technical obsession as a director.
One director that I also really love is Jacques Audiard. One of the most powerful films is Rust and Bone. I’m obsessed with that film. Also Denis Villeneuve is a great director. Incendies, Rust and Bone and The Lives of Others are three of my favorite films.
Do you have upcoming directors on your radar?
Yes, there are a couple of people that I've been talking about recently. Bear Damen has been doing some great work. Also Diana Kunst published some really amazing work. I'm really impressed with the work that Diana has done. Finally I really dig the work of Jonas Lindstroem and Pantera.