The best artistic collaborations allow each participant to plumb new depths, symbiotically uncovering new facets of each other’s work. Partizan director Allie Avital has created a body of work with musician Moses Sumney that is an example of just such a collaborative effort – through her lens, Allie provides Moses’s singular voice with an equally distinct visual context.
 
The pair have collaborated on the music videos for “Worth It” (2016), “Doomed,” (2017) “Lonely World,” (2017), and just this past week released the video for “Quarrel,” the first of the series where Moses and Allie worked as co-directors. Despite their minimal aesthetic sensibility (often featuring frames of the singer alone in expansive spaces), the videos are rich with dark symbolism – their world is populated with dangerous mermaids, piles of dead horses, rows of bodies suspended in tanks, and more. It’s a balance of beauty and brutality that provides a perfect foil to Moses’s plaintive music.
 
Allie Avital is a music video and narrative director, originally from Queens, New York. She is represented by Partizan worldwide, where she has directed videos for Rachel Platten, Moses Sumney, Nao, Autre Ne Veut, Chairlift, Hundred Waters, and a short film for Ray-Ban. Her work has been been Staff Picked numerous times, featured in the New York Times, NPR, Nowness, Buzzfeed, PromoNews, “best of” lists, and has screened at Sundance NEXT 2017, SXSW, BAM Cinemas, IFC, BUG, Vimeo, and international film festivals.
 
We had the chance to speak with Allie about brainstorming over phonecalls with Moses, their mutual perfectionism, how her work is influenced and interpreted by her Russian grandparents, and the importance of relying on your community for resources.
 

“Quarrel” BTS images by Omorose Aighewi

 

First and foremost, how did this creative partnership begin? What led to working with Moses for the first time?

Moses reached out to me initially to make a video for “Worth It” two summers ago because he had seen my work, and we also had some mutual friends. That first project was a really fulfilling process for both of us, so that led to the other three videos.

What were some of the immediate creative connections that the two of you discovered?

We share a dark sense of humor and taste for risk-taking. The music industry is very fear-driven and trend-oriented generally, so for me it was really refreshing to meet an artist that is trying to do something pure and authentic.

 

 

What have you each learned about the other’s ways of working over time? What qualities does Moses bring out in you as a director, and how does your vision portray him and his music in new ways?

I learned very quickly that Moses was someone who wasn’t scared of doing something new and was willing to push himself (and me) to make the most truthful work we can. I’ve become more rigorous since working with him, mostly because I’m not trying to please anyone or “get the job”, instead I am truly collaborating with him on a deep level. That involves a lot of healthy arguing and negotiating, but all in all our tastes are aligned and we are aiming for the same thing at the end.

Our work is borne out of multi-hour long phone calls in which we start talking about the meaning of the song and end up telling stories about our lives, digging into some of the seed concepts of the songs, and- somehow an idea is cooked up during these convos. We reference films and other artwork occasionally, but we’re both interested in creating a totally original world as much as possible. We’re also both perfectionists, so when one of us is like “it’s fine,” the other is like, “it could be better,” which leads to pretty extensive editing and VFX tweaks. I can’t speak for him, but I imagine that the visuals we’ve made give him and his music an edge that he relates to – adding a darker dynamic and narrative dimension to his artistry that might not be explicit otherwise.

 

 

In your videos together, there are recurring push and pull relationships: between isolation and intimacy, comfort and terror, natural and unnatural elements. Can you talk more about the recurring threads of ideas that you and Moses are interested in exploring?

That’s pretty accurate! To be honest, we’ve worked project-to-project and have only discovered connections after the fact. I definitely believe that in an unconscious way we are creating an ongoing interconnected mythology. At some point I realized that the girl in “Doomed” could potentially have swam up from the ending of “Lonely World”, and I suppose “Quarrel” and “Lonely World” are both, in simple terms, about wild beasts who have agency, and about dismantling the villain-victim relationship. There’s some anthropomorphizing of animal/woman/creature/horse, and of course skin and bodies everywhere. In “Worth It” Moses cradles the other person at the end in the same way he holds the sea creature in “Lonely World”. The former has fused eyes and the latter has a fused mouth. But I think beyond traditional “themes” Moses and I are ultimately most interested in emotional narratives and the relationship between people (or creatures), with one’s environment, and with oneself.

Moses and I don’t have the exact same meanings and interpretations for each video because we have different life experiences, and so we relate to each video for different reasons. We definitely discuss race and gender as we work on the ideas, but it’s also very important that the viewer has their own take on what’s going on. It was really interesting showing “Quarrel” to my Russian immigrant family last week, because they all loved it but had completely different interpretations of it. My 94 year old grandmother thought it was about Moses and the horse identity-swapping, my great-aunt thought it was about the horse having an existential crisis about its own death. My grandmother recited this Mayakovsky poem for me called “Kindness to Horses” that was eerily on point and connected with the video, which was really amazing for me, to have her connect with it and for it to evoke this poem she knows by heart, even though it all was borne out of Moses’ song.

 

 

Each of these videos is incredibly visually resonant (there are echoes of The Seventh Seal, The Matrix, and D’Angelo’s iconic “How Does It Feel” video, to name a few). What are some of your visual reference points for each video?

Honestly, it’s pretty much the ones you’ve mentioned and that’s it! We talked about “The Cell” and “The Matrix” as far as “Doomed”. For “Worth It” I had weirdly never seen that D’Angelo video until after we made it and people told me about it, and there were no other specific references. For “Lonely World” we briefly talked about Bergman and Seventh Seal specifically. For “Quarrel” I actually don’t think there were any film references, but Moses did show me this incredible photography book called “Equus” by Tim Flach which inspired some of the muscular and furry closeups of the horse body. But I think that’s really it.

 

 

Your work with Moses shows nudity in unexpected ways – can you talk about how nudity and eroticism are depicted in these videos?

It’s not something I’m conscious of until people mention it, and I find it funny because so much classical art was based on the nude human figure, but I suppose to me it’s a way of avoiding fashion and telling (literally) stripped-down human narratives. I like nudity as anti-fashion, or a way to make characters exist outside of time, trend, and culture, allowing the focus to be on the ideas themselves. I guess that might be ironic since I’m also drawing attention to the nude figure, but it feels right. Internet trolls have accused Moses/us of being anti-feminist for having images of a clothed Moses with naked women, but I think that’s lazy (plus he eventually was also naked in “Doomed”, soo…) I won’t get into it too much, but it is something I consider very carefully, and I’m fascinated by the naked female body as an image of both power and vulnerability. In “Worth It,” people often think it’s a strong muscular man until it’s revealed that it’s a vulnerable androgynous creature (who has breasts). In “Lonely World” we think she’s a powerless nude victim but she turns out to be a (perhaps still vulnerable) killer. “Quarrel” also has naked horses, ha. Are we objectifying them the same way we do a female human form? If the man was naked the entire time would that somehow make the female characters less “exposed”? So in my mind the nudity is always multifaceted.

 

 

The “Quarrel” video prominently features horses, including a disturbing-looking dead-horse tableaux. How were these shots accomplished without causing harm to any real horses? Since this is one of the only films that features animals, how does horse imagery playing into the vision of the world that you and Moses have created in these videos?

The horse sculpture is by an incredible Belgian artist named Berlinde de Bruyckere that Moses discovered. She uses already-deceased horse bodies for her work. We went all the way to a museum in Aarhus, Denmark to get that scene, and it was a big part of the original concept for the video, which Moses initially wrote. Even though this video features a relationship with a horse and not a human, a lot of the same themes of intimacy, alienation, fetishization, and the body were discussed. Moses had been drawn to horses previously in his album art and that’s where these ideas came from. My late grandfather was actually obsessed with horses and painted countless “troika” paintings, which are horse-drawn sleds featuring three horses – a traditional icon of Russian painting. When he moved to the US, he would take me to Central Park every weekend and draw the carriage horses there. He actually loved the smell of horse manure and I may have inherited that trait. So it all comes full circle.

What were some of the biggest challenges on set for each video? Did these video shoots allow you to stretch your technical skills as a director in different ways?

For “Quarrel”, the biggest challenge was getting this video to happen in the first place. We budgeted it in the UK, Bulgaria, Budapest, Ukraine, and California, and no one would do it for the budget. It was only when our superhuman producer Meghan Doherty (and of course my incredible out-of-this world Partizan EP Whitney Jackson) decided to take it on, we were able to miraculously make it happen in Connecticut and Denmark. And then of course there was the trained horses, and the blizzard that started during our very first shot… There were runaway horses, frozen cars, equipment glitches, near-death slippery snow driving, lots of tears. It basically happened against all odds.

 

 

“Lonely World” was also exceptionally challenging because it was freezing cold that day, and there was a nude Sasha Lane, and a prosthetic tail that trapped cold water inside of it…

“Doomed” and “Worth It” were easy in comparison because they were in a studio.

What are some of your favorite elements of the final videos?

I’ve learned in recent years that it’s all about the process and the final videos are just artifacts of that. When we complete each video I usually get sad and text Moses “so what’s next?” Haha. It’s great to celebrate them, and participate in festivals, screenings, etc. but it’s the work itself that matters.

 

 

Where do you see your work going from here? What upcoming projects are you most excited about?

Narrative projects that are coming up. Finishing feature scripts, completing a short film I shot last summer, and making more shorts this year. Also a couple of music video and commercial opportunities in development!

Finally, what advice would you give to any aspiring directors reading this who would love to follow in your career footsteps?

It’s such a cliché but the most important thing is not to be discouraged or give up. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have to remind myself of that EVERY single day. Hold on to your vision and trust in it, even when you don’t yet have the support or affirmation from the world. Use every resource you can find around you – a musician with a decent song who needs a video, an artist friend who will make you some free props, a friend with a 5D, a rich friend’s parents’ house for a location, whatever it is, and then thank people profusely and genuinely for supporting you along the way because those favors are more valuable than you know. As soon as you can pay those people back with paid work in the future, try your best to do it.

And this should go without saying, but if you’re a woman then use that to your advantage. Acknowledge how difficult it is and how outnumbered you are (I recommend befriending as many fellow female directors as possible and then starting a group text where you can compare stories) but then keep your head up and keep making stuff. Make work that only you could make!  x

 

 
CREDITS:
 
‘Quarrel’
Directors: Allie Avital & Moses Sumney
Cinematographer: Sy Turnbull
Producer: Meghan Doherty
Executive Producer: Whitney Jackson
Production Company: Partizan Entertainment
 
‘Doomed’
Director: Allie Avital
Cinematographer: Ryan Hope
Producer: Jade Forte
Executive Producer: Whitney Jackson
Production Company: Partizan Entertainment
 
‘Lonely World’
Director: Allie Avital
Cinematographer: Ryan Hope
Producer: Peter Williamson
Executive Producer: Whitney Jackson
Production Company: Partizan Entertainment
 
‘Worth It’
Director: Allie Avital
Cinematographer: Martim Vian 
Producer: Tasia Judd@Pollution
Executive Producer: Whitney Jackson
Production Company: Partizan Entertainment