Focus Creeps (Aaron Brown and Ben Chappel, plus a tight-knit group of collaborators and friends) is a directing unit that’s gone from producing raw and underground films documenting the some of the more buzz-worthy figures from music scenes around the US, to helping define the visual, global language of today’s youth. They deconstruct the digital documentary aesthetic and reform it into a hyper-real narrative that exists in a world of its own.
It was kind of a random night when we met… We were at a big Mexican dinner with AG Rojas, Ryder Ripps, Stefan Moore and few others who I rate as shaping the next generation of visual culture. I then ended up at Aaron’s LA studio a few weeks later where he showed me hours of footage from his first camera, which totally blew my mind. I’ve been following his work ever since, which has kept the same grit even as it’s rapidly matured in a short period of time. It still holds some of that same soul those initial images of his Dad and hours of footage of people nodding off on heroin that I saw when I first visited their studio.
The Creators Project: So you mentioned to me once that film for you was kind of born out of necessity. You were seeing and experiencing things you felt you had to capture and share.
Aaron Brown: Yeah. A lot of work I like is centered around extreme people and actors. I love feeling threatened or like something really bad is about to happen. It’s exciting to look at. For me, this started with growing up with eccentrics like… Dad. I’d move around a lot and tell the same stories. People would say, “Yeah, my dad did this really crazy thing, too,” but I knew their dad wasn’t as crazy as mine.
I remember seeing that! Was that your first “real project”?
It came from getting tired of meeting people in different towns and telling them the same stories about getting in trouble and being around people who would get in trouble. I discovered movies and art and though, and I thought, “Shit, I gotta get out of this.” But then once you’re out, you keep telling stories about where you were, so sooner or later I thought to myself, “I have to video tape this somehow.”
I went home for Christmas and hadn’t seen Dad in a year or so. He comes barreling out of the trailer in the trailer park, totally nude, storms past me, “Where the fuck is my motorcycle helmet, Aaron!?” like we had seen each other yesterday. I was young and impressionable and a year was a long time to not see your dad.
I walked in, there was some lady digging through the kitty litter box, and, long story short, I deduced that my dad had left his helmet at the liquor store. I offered to go get it, and get him more booze. He handed me a credit card—during the short window of time he had a credit card—I drove past the liquor store to Circuit City, bought a handy cam, drove back and started filming him. Now I don’t have to tell the story ever again. Some people love it, some people HATE it!
So fast-forward to the past couple years… You’re writing your own stories and prolific in the music video scene. How did this evolution come about from that day?
If I were going to psycho-analyze myself, I think it’s a kind of high being around these people, and wanting to share them with others. People like Marlon Brando—he was so self-destructive, you live vicariously through them. You’re too afraid to do what they do, have sex with married ladies, then with dudes, get in fights, cry in front of the camera. They don’t really make people like that anymore, so you cherish the moments you get to be around them. So you seek out people like that, people who appreciate ideas that push the boundaries but also push the boundaries in life, emotionally, physically, socially…
And then try to recreate them for bands like Girls and Cass to continue the sharing process, just once removed?
Girls and Cass were people I was just friends with and who, to me, are like that. Their lives are very intense and so are their relationships. So you make a music video for them but it’s really just a documentary. Then you begin to infuse fiction into it, to give it some structure, but all the meat and scenes are real. The mind will make connections, ask Freud, it needs very little to create a story or make sense. It makes sense out of nonsense. That’s what’s rad, like when you walk out of a movie theater with your mom and have that conversation: “What does it mean? Did she die? Did she love him? Whatever…”
People like you, AG, Vince and a few others peers are all playing with different levels of documentary fused with fiction. We talked a while back about the way you shoot. Does this support the ability to structure things a lot more loosely?
Yea, it’s a formula, kind of. I don’t hold that high regard for the medium of cinema. There’s a few Russians who have got it to transcend but I think it’s kind of a low-brow medium that’s really exploitative and shallow. You have to have some dumb structure like a narrative. The best stuff happens in the cracks. I love things to be scene based—like the scene could stand alone.
When you are looking at narrative, what kind of films and directors do you turn to for inspiration—or does this vary from one project to the next?
Getting strong, intense people like I was saying before to just do their thing, and then make up a narrative to get you to the the next scene. I worship this American style, like Altman, Cassavettes, Pekinpah, Arraki, Korine, who have the ability make these loser characters so perfect and improvise on really meaningless intimate moments. But again, these are just music videos…
From the technical side of things, we also once spoke about the difference between you and Ben (other half of Focus Creeps) running around with a small video camera vs. shooting with a big crew—that there were some limitations that came with the latter. Where do you stand on the DIY vs. proper production thing these days?
I’ll always side with as small a crew as possible. The ideal is to get a strong environment and hang around until the energy builds. Ben and I would shoot rappers, deep in the “bricks” in Houston, with Brick Squad in Jamaica, Queens, in Detroit with Danny Brown and you just have to hang around until the energy is right. I don’t revere my own imagination to come up with stuff that cool. Sometimes staying up till 9am, just waiting… I’d rather go there and shoot than make something up in a studio. But I also hate documentaries, haha, so I’ll add some context, something that creates an arch, if that makes sense. Re-arranging their words, making them more mysterious.
So obviously the edit is where you do a lot of your “writing.” What’s that process like?
The edit is where a lot of the writing happens, and during shooting. The process is preparing a list of locations and people. Locations where you won’t get bothered, people who will stay up, then you hit record and people fall away as the night transpires and others join. Then, in the edit you have to be really conservative. You stick with a timeline, introduce characters with portraits, and then move into scenes. If people are up for it, we can create some loose characters, like Matt Helders’ (Arctic Monkeys) in “Suck It And See”. Sometimes it’s easier to get weird when you’re a character.
One of the most cinematic pieces you had done up until then, yes?
Yea, it is. A lot of pieces came together on that, a lot of luck with casting and locations. Things kept snow-balling.
Then some work after that seemed to return to the more experimental, lo-fi and observational.
That’s the other thing… Cameras: a torrid affair—I can’t use the same one twice… Foundation actually owns a RED, a Studio and all this pro stuff, but for some reason or another, tube cameras or film is so seductive and mysterious. The “R U Mine” we shot (or the band shot) on DSLR but then we put it through VHS to give it a more compressed look—almost like a surveilance camera feel.
Almost like something you weren’t necessarily meant to watch? Like the b-roll or outtakes?
If I could have my way, everything would look like an outtake. Let the audience fill in the blanks. Like the bloopers video when all the skaters eat shit on handrails, snowboarders fall off cliffs, etc. The actor laughs and can’t say the line, or Batman yells at the DP.
Wow! So what’s next? If you had no limitations to time, casting, cash, resources, etc. what would you do?
I would go back in time. Use existing stories, and create scenes within them. Say Oedipus, whatever, any classic story. The point is to make strong scenes. I don’t care about writing a new story. Oedipus the hustler, for example. Oedipus is a gay hustler, his madame, unbeknownst, is his mother. His father is a drug dealer who Oedpius used to work for but was double crossed and he kills him. The rest we all know. But the scenes would be rad! Young prostitutes, gay, straight, drugs, saturated light, intoxicating moments, that quickly become desperate and dangerous.
I’d finance that!
Also, my goal is to make people sob. I want to make the something that would make all the ladies cry uncontrollably.