5 Minutes With… Asa Riton
First things first – if you get a chance to spend time with Asa Riton, do it. A thoughtful and lively personality, she has a wicked line in self-deprecating humour and it’s easy to see how that translates to a collaborative and creative atmosphere on set. Her work is visually driven, dreamy and unique. But while the influences of her experimental filmmaking heroes is there to see, her early ambitions of becoming an adland art director means that she’s a savvy communicator whose films are also approachable and unpretentious. In her native Sweden she’s signed with Camp David and she’s recently signed with RSA who are hoping to bring her brand of Scandi cool to the London market. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Asa for a rather enjoyable chat.
LBB> How did you get into directing? You originally studied at Central Saint Martins in London – what sort of course was that? Were you making films at that point?
AR> I actually did a BA in graphics but I was mainly doing little films and photography and I didn’t do much graphics at all. Thinking back, I think I wanted to make films from the beginning but when I was younger the grownups around me suggested I should do something that would make me money in the real world. So I thought I would go into advertising as an art director. At the time, that seemed like a real job and being a film director was like some kind of utopia.
After St Martins I went back to Sweden and I had a great portfolio and I scheduled meetings with ten advertising agencies in Stockholm. I thought ‘yeah! This is it!’ Each agency was really positive about my work but I realised it was only really men in the creative departments. I didn’t see one single female creative person. Looking back, I can see it was like that. So I started to do my own projects and then I ended up assisting some directors in Denmark. One of the directors suggested I should go to the Danish Film School. I did little documentary projects and art projects but I wasn’t with a production company so I felt a little detached from the industry. I went to the five best advertising production companies in Stockholm to see if I could get signed. The second one was Camp David and I got signed straight away. That’s the short version!
LBB> I wonder if that experience of not going straight into film but going via stills photography and graphics has informed the way you approach your work as a director?
AR> Definitely. I think I had two major film experiences. The first was at St Martins where my mentor was Vaughan Oliver, a design guru who created record covers for bands like The Pixies. I really admired his work and he gave me a box of Werner Herzog films to watch one weekend. I went away and watched them and I was blown away. This guy pursued a whole film crew carrying a ship over a mountain instead of filming it in a studio! That’s determination, right? So Werner Herzog is definitely one of the directors I really look up to.
The second big film experience was when I lived in Denmark and was only assisting directors. I was in the film institute, checking an email, and a guy came up to me and asked me if I was going to a film event later. I couldn’t hear the name of the film because I hadn’t heard of it before. I walked up to the ticket area and they said they were showing the Cremaster Cycle by Matthew Barney. I had never heard of it before and the girl at the ticket booth said, ‘oh you’re really lucky, someone’s just cancelled their ticket.’ So I walked into the cinema, not having a clue what it was. I thought I was just going to watch a film… so basically that changed my whole point of view on filmmaking. There’s no dialogue, there’s only music… aaaand it’s ten hours long. That made me really want to get into film school. It made me realise that the fact that I didn’t really think in dialogue wasn’t wrong. It made me realise that you can make films in different ways.
LBB> You say you feel that you approach films in a different way, so what’s your process? How do you come up with and develop ideas?
AR> Actually, I swim and I meditate. A lot of my ideas come up while I’m swimming. When you’re meditating you’re supposed to not think, but when you clear your mind that’s when ideas pop into your head. I often have a notebook next to me when I’m meditating. It’s similar when I’m walking in nature. I feel like my own ideas come up when I stop thinking and when I’m in a meditation state of mind. It’s like the opposite of concentrating. David Lynch does transcendental meditation and his films are almost like dreams. That’s how the ideas come to you when you’re meditating so it kind of makes sense that his films are a bit trippy.
LBB> And on set, do you have quite a clear idea about every camera placement or are you a bit more spontaneous?
AR> I like to plan it quite thoroughly because I usually have a very clear idea in my mind. I like to work closely with the DoP and I connect quite well with them and really go through every single shot.
LBB> I wanted to ask you about some of the different pieces of work you’ve done. I’ve enjoyed working with a lot of the work you’ve done with Phillips. There are quite a few spots for the brand but for different products, but they seem to have a world around them. What has that experience been like?
AR> They approached me and they wanted me to make two films at first. That was the one in the abandoned swimming pool area in the old house, with the goat and the other one was Compact Clubbing with kids dancing in small areas. The art director had those ideas but I guess the idea from the beginning was to make it quite realistic and to make it feel like everyday life. So, a house party in a normal flat or kids squeezed into normal places in town. But if you find a location, the location can give you more ideas. I had the thought of an old swimming pool and we found an amazing location in an old house outside of Stockholm. We shot these two films in one day, in two completely different locations. One was in an industrial area in Stockholm and the other was in an old country house. We kept to the schedule but we had to really plan it well to make it happen!
By the end of the day we were in the old house and we were supposed to have a drone fly into the house before tapping into the Alexa camera to make it look like one continuous shot. It started raining and the drone crashed and we weren’t able to use it! It meant the whole beginning of the film was gone and by that time it was nine in the evening. We had one hour left. So I figured maybe we could use one of the goats near the house, and start off by following the goat as it walks inside. The goat wasn’t behaving and the DoP was like, ‘maybe we should just forget about it’. I said, ‘no, let’s just try it one last time’. And the goat just walked inside, on his own, perfectly. I don’t know… sometimes you just need to ask for some help from the Goat Gods!
LBB> I loved the film that you did with The Knife where you get the young kids to interview them…
AR> (laughs) Really? What was your interpretation of it?!
LBB> Well I was looking through your reel, expecting a few ads and a few music videos and then this film came up and I was totally unprepared for it. I had no idea where it was going and I can’t imagine how awkward the kids must have felt!
LBB> But watching it felt quite sinister to begin with but by the end it felt like a very strange therapy session that was almost cathartic for the kids involved…
AR> I love that! It’s exactly what I wanted! I don’t have a clue how people perceive that film because I’ve never watched other people watch it, so you’re the first person who has had that kind of response to it.
In the big picture, we like to project our dreams onto other people and that’s what we use artists for. I think The Knife is the perfect band for that, we just have an inkling of an idea of who they are but when you’re a 14-year-old fan they’re your whole world. I went to two concerts in a row, so on the first night I picked out some of the diehard fans and said that I wanted them to think of some questions to ask them the following night after the concert. The idea was that the band would not answer any of the questions and would turn them back to the interviewers. I wanted to know what the fans were thinking. But there’s a very thin line between doing something ‘against’ someone or keeping their integrity so I was very careful about showing them in a decent way.
LBB> It was interesting to see how they all responded quite differently. One boy was obviously very awkward whereas one of the girls just ends up in her own little day dream all about birds…
AR> You don’t have a clue how people are going to react! That’s what I love about documentary but it’s also what I love about Herzog. He creates situations and makes it look like documentary. I’ve never done that but I find it an interesting concept.
LBB> I’m interested in the work that you’ve done with other creators in other disciplines. Obviously there are your music videos but there’s the Avant Garde Diaries, which features two artists, and the films you’ve done for Danish fashion designer Henrik Vibskov. What’s it like working with people who are visually creative themselves? As a filmmaker do you find there’s a bit of resistance projecting your vision onto them? Or are they generally quite up for it?
AR> That’s a good question. I need to like their work. It would be hard to do something on an artist whose work I physically don’t want to see! So it feels like if I love the art or fashion or music that the artist is creating then I want to try and understand something about that person, maybe getting into that person’s world. It’s a bit like being a psychologist. If you can understand people and listen to them then you get something really interesting out of them. If I don’t listen then they might be a bit rejecting. Talking about what I wanted to do when I was younger, as well as wanting to be an art director, I think I also wanted to be psychologist at one point.
It’s a bit like being a psychologist in a way, working with other artists and musicians. And for that reason it’s super frustrating treating on music videos when you don’t get to speak with the artist first. It makes no sense. If I could change one thing in the industry it would be getting rid of that waste of time by letting directors spend ten minutes talking to them. How should I know what the artist wants if I don’t get to talk to the artist? The most important piece of their advertising is the music video. It doesn’t make sense to get ten directors spending three days each working on treatments. That’s a month’s worth of work making treatments on something that’s just a one in ten chance. It would save so much time to get the artist to sit down for an hour to have a few chats, even if it’s just to narrow it down.
LBB> What are your goals and ambitions? Obviously you’ve just signed with RSA so I guess you’re looking forward to doing a lot of commercials and music videos with them as well as with your Swedish production company, Camp David?
AR> Long term vision is probably something like Werner herzong meets Matthew barney, some abstract art house film using music and an abstract world that I have to create myself. I’ve never been interested in making feature movies, it’s never been my ambition… but maybe it just needs to be shown somewhere that’s not a cinema or a gallery. I have to come up with a concept where my film fits into its surroundings. I’d like to collaborate with musicians. When I hear musicians I see pictures.
The other thing about being a female director is that I really missed the fact that I didn’t have any female role models. All my directing heroes were male. But if you see someone like Miranda July or Sofia Coppola, I can relate to it in a different way to David Lynch. So now younger girls studying film contact me, asking for advice or asking if they can help me. They just want to see someone doing what they hope to do. I can’t say that I want to be a role model because I don’t think I am, but I want to be a mentor for younger girls who want to get into the business in the future.