INTERVIEW: Chris Cunningham talks tech and low-budget filmmaking
Ushered into a private room, at the back of Audi's central London "cyberstore" showroom, Pocket-lint first catches sight of the the acclaimed director-turned-video-artist that is Chris Cunningham.
Now 41, though he looks some 10 years younger, Cunningham sits ready to talk following the unveiling of his robotic installation, jaqapparatus 1, at the launch of Audi City.
He wears his trademark hair long, just as he always has. Wrapped up in an oversized brown-blue long cardigan that dwarfs his skinny physique, cigarette poised at the ready in his left hand, we're not entirely sure he's looking forward to this as much as we are.
The rebellious wunderkid, famed for directing Bjork’s All Is Full Of Love (1998) music video, is now based in Los Angeles and has just flown in to busy himself on his week-long techy installation.
"I haven’t slept in four days," he tells us, requesting that we don’t snap a "gnarly portrait" of him. "No one likes a bad photo of themselves, do they?" he laughs, obviously pining for a blast of much needed nicotine.
He’s not lost an ounce of his English accent. He delivers answers with honesty and, as we banter for longer, a good smattering of casual profanity.
But we’re here to talk tech, not swearing. And we do wonder what the man who originally cut his teeth working in the special effects industry - on the likes of Judge Dredd (1994) and A.I. (2001), no less - has been up to.
"This [referring to the Audi installation] is an ongoing project I’ve been developing in fits and starts over the last eight years. What I’m doing these days doesn’t really fit anywhere. A film company wouldn’t [fund me] because it doesn’t fit their business model. That’s why people say, 'What have you been doing?'."
So, is it the end of working on videos for other people?
"Yeah, definitely, for sure."
What’s the reason behind that?
"I mean it's just restricting. What used to happen is that you'd have an idea and you'd wait for a video or a track to come along that it might be appropriate for. You have to then adjust it a lot. And I just thought, 'I want to have an idea and just make it in the same way an artist would.' Y’know, just pursue it."
It's not because you get annoyed with people putting bad copies of things online, then?
"No, not at all. The only thing that's a problem is being able to make stuff."
Your older work was in the pre-YouTube era. What do you think about what that's done to your career and to video as a whole?
"I dunno actually. There was a window of a few years when people like myself, Spike Jonze or whoever would have just enough money to make an idea happen. That's more difficult now. So, I dunno how much of that's to do with YouTube or any of that stuff really. It probably would've happened anyway."
For Cunningham to be working with Audi on a commercial project may seem like an odd connection, and it’s one that certainly doesn’t have any linkage to the manufacturer’s cars; nor driving.
The temporary installation at Audi City, London, includes an engine as its centre piece, in which two robots dance around, firing an array of lights and lasers to a metallic-sounding, industrial-like soundtrack in a dark, smoke-filled room.
Cunningham describes it as an element of his audiovisual live show - the main venture that he’s been working on since hanging up his director-for-hire boots.
"Oh, we just used the engine to have something in the middle…," he says, almost in danger shrugging off the commercial ties.
So, was the Audi association a no brainer?
"No, not entirely. But it seemed in the end like a…"
"...Good match?" one of the interview monitors pitches in.
"Yeah, but it was quite tricky getting it to work in the space."
So, you really need these commercial companies - like Audi - to step in and help you with funding?
"Well the live show, I've just been funding myself. I do the shows and then that pays to produce the material for the newer shows. I didn't do many in the last couple of years but it was enough to pay for the stuff I'm making now. I can't make or work on it regularly because it's expensive. So I'll be hooking up with someone - a sponsor, or whoever - if it's the right fit. It’s definitely not something I'm going to scoff at. The choice is: not making it or…"
He trails off allowing us to fill in the blank.
You've been no stranger to affordable consumer filming kit in the past when money has been tight. Is it big-hitting, high-tech movie industry gear, or more lo-fi gadgets that you've used on your latest projects?
"I'm actually not that fussy about cameras and stuff. Occasionally you'll get one and think, 'Oh, it doesn't look very nice [its output].' But, you know, I've been using a Canon 60D recently."
So, do you think that that sort of technology really opens up a big window for people, then?
"I used to have a lot of friends talking about films they were going to make, but would never make. And they kinda had an excuse. Ten,15 years ago, putting a film together was hard. You haven't got an excuse now. It's just whether you've got the will because the kit is so cheap and easily accessible."
So, is it Mac or Windows that's your post-production kit of choice?
"Yeah, a Mac with Final Cut.
"I spend most of my life swearing at the computer because it's crashed or isn't working. I probably spend 80 per cent of my day trying to get it to work properly.
"I actually just bought a new laptop and it's taken me about two and a half months to be able to use it. The amount of time getting the software to update and authorise and all that crap, it's like they [software companies] make it harder and harder for you to actually use it."
We continue to chat about Cunningham’s live show, where he teases us with the promise of forthcoming collaborations but, sadly, refuses to name drop. And in that truly British way, the miserable summer weather also comes up in discussion. We're not surprised his LA lifestyle takes preference over dreary London.
Before we know it, our time is up. The clock has ticked down to its last. A quick handshake, a casual wave and Cunningham is off, huge sunglasses popped over weary eyes, eager to get that first pull on his cigarette.
Chris Cunningham’s installation, jaqapparatus 1, is on display to a limited public from Thursday, July 19 to Friday, July 20 at the Audi City showroom, London Piccadilly. For your chance to obtain tickets to see the work in action you’ll need to visit audicity.tumblr.com or contact @audicity via twitter for more information.