After a youth spent immersed in UK dance music culture, Rollo Jackson has made music videos and films for the likes of James Blake, Hot Chip, Jamie xx and Warp Records, as well as the documentary ‘Tokyo: Where Do You Know Me From?’ for Stormzy. More recently, Rollo directed the ‘First Never Follows’ campaign for Adidas Football, featuring several of the game’s superstars, and a narrative film for Stormzy’s album, G.S.A.P.
The first time I met Stormzy, it felt quite choreographed and formal. A meeting was set up between me, him, his managers and some people from the brand who’d asked me to make the film. It was fine but quite hard to build a real rapport in that situation. It was only once we got to Japan, where the film was set, that we got to hang out and talk about everyday stuff – which is hugely important when you’re making a character-based piece.
But docs are only as good as the characters in them, so regardless of the meticulous ideas in my head, if he wasn’t into them then it would have all been a bit of a waste of time.
It must have been weird for him at first, too. He was just becoming famous, so I could listen to his music and get a gist of who he was, but he didn’t necessarily know anything about me. I’m about ten years older than he is, too, but I knew a lot about the early grime music that had inspired him as a kid and he recognised that. I remember too that Alex Ferguson was about to resign after 26 years as manager of Manchester United, who Stormzy is a massive fan of – me being an Arsenal fan, we had some lively chats about that as well.
I got to Japan four days before him and had a very set idea of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to shoot. But docs are only as good as the characters in them, so regardless of the meticulous ideas in my head, if he wasn’t into them then it would have all been a bit of a waste of time. In retrospect I think we’ve seen with his career that he wears his heart on his sleeve; he’s candid about who he is. We were sat somewhere in Tokyo when I saw he had a picture of Amy Winehouse as his phone wallpaper – I was surprised but he just said, “Yeah, I love her – the only music I have on my iPod is her and Adele.” In the doc I think you can see he’s not hiding anything, that honesty comes across, both in his interviews and quite personal freestyles.
While half the film was documentary-style – following him around, letting him speak – the other half was performance-based. My idea was to do a series of quite long, one-shot takes, where there’s a lot of time involved rehearsing specific camera moves. I don’t think he’d done that kind of filming before, so he had to just trust me and put up with what can be quite a tedious process. As well as that, I was having to say, “Can you do a freestyle that would work with this emotion or in this situation?” so that it fit with my script ideas. Thankfully, he had loads in his head already and totally got where I was trying to go with it all.
Since Tokyo, I’ve worked with him twice – first when he cameoed in an advert I shot at Old Trafford with the Man United team, and then last March, when I shot the film that accompanied the release of his album. The Japan shoot was quite pressurised but if you’re put into a situation like that with someone and you get on, then it’s almost bound to continue. We’d not been in contact a lot after the Japan film, but we always seem to pick up where we left off. I think that first film turned out to be perhaps more cinematic and dynamic than he thought it would be from those three days of filming, which established a sense of trust between us that let me then experiment even more with his album film.
If you try too hard to impress, you can be caught out fast – it’s like watching someone on a game show get a question wrong.
If I had one tip on how to build a rapport with someone quickly, it’s to do a basic amount of research, to know who they are, what their background is, simply as a courtesy. I used to work in the news department at MTV and would suddenly be sent off to interview someone whose music I’d never heard before, but I’d always try to get some quick research in. Although it sounds like a cliché, it’s also important to be yourself. In high pressure situations, you quickly notice people who try too hard or pretend they know more than they do. I’ve seen people who try to be very matey straight away and kind of rush or fake that rapport. If you try too hard to impress, you can be caught out fast – it’s like watching someone on a game show get a question wrong and their score instantly plummeting down to zero. If you’re honest from the start, people trust you, even if things do go wrong along the way.