Will Robson Scott
Originality, in its truest sense, is something very hard to come by these days. The democratisation of information and, with it, subcultures has led to a vast, sprawling online landscape in which few stones have been left unturned. Which, as a result, presents a problem for anyone in the industry of finding or documenting stories. As a writer, I face the same problems as a filmmaker in the pursuit of something, if not totally original, then at least from a new perspective.
According to Will Robson Scott, nothing is original any more. The acclaimed filmmaker and photographer from North London – who recently bagged second place in the European Short Film category of the Young Director Awards at Cannes – is measured in both his ton and outlook. Today, it is often your process or approach that sets you apart; your ability to present a subject that we are aware of from a standpoint we had not considered. Eschewing what has gone before is often the hardest task in documenting any story.
“I think it’s possible to find stuff that is completely original nowadays,” admits Scott over a crackly cross-Atlantic telephone call from his Brooklyn apartment. “It’s usually just a chance meeting with someone that triggers doing a film or some pictures on the person.”
Scott’s 2013 film Chi Raq – for which he won his Cannes award – shone a light on the gun violence problem of Chicago in a way that no set of statistics could ever have done. The film delved deep into a culture that few others had ever properly documented. It almost seems absurd to label a film, which deals in teenage deaths, as beautiful – but it is. Robson has a knack for creating films with genuine soul and an incredible aesthetic, no matter how bleak the subject matter. The same is true of his film John and George, which is more avoids the Channel 4-style voyeurism that often accompanies any tale of addiction.
“It’s not political. I’m just trying to let the subjects tell their story. I’m not trying to push any sort of agenda,” he says. “It’s not really about me; it’s about the person or the relationship. The nicest thing about Chi Raq was the response from people in Chicago. I was getting emails from teachers and people who worked in trauma units. That’s the best accolade, to be honest, to have people in that area and who are affected by issues in that film actually reach out and say that they enjoyed the piece.”
After realising that he could take a quality picture during the May Day demonstrations of 2001, he has honed his talents both in terms of photography and filmmaking. There is a refinement in his recent output that wasn’t there in his earlier films such as Popek, something he admits “wasn’t at the production levels I want my stuff be at now.” Yet, he has retained the raw, ocassionaly shocking, essence which has permeated nearly all his creative work.
Such refined rawness is a hard balance to find and one which is likely owed to his earliest influences. “I guess my background reflects the stuff I’m into now. I grew up being into skateboarding. Then I got into graffiti and started going to raves. Basically, it all comes from a DIY-type background. I feel that has sort of translated into the way that I work. Making videos was kind of self-initiated and I was doing it because I wanted to, not really for a specific purpose. Now, obviously, I’m working a bit more commercially, but initially my work was just shooting stuff that interested me.”
In the wake of Chi Raq, big brands have come calling, wishing to capitalise on both Scott’s talent and his unique brand of counter-culture expertise. It is a fine line for any artist to tread and one he takes great care with. “At the end of the day, you don’t want to be a tortured, poor artist all your life because I don’t know if you’re going to be happy. But, I think the worst thing you can do is a really bad bit of commercial film. Every time I do a commercial film I always wonder how it’s going to turn out and how it’s going to be released into the world because that affects everything.”
His recent work with adidas on their EQT reissue was one such example of his commercial work, but also one which did his reputation no harm whatsoever. Actually, the film made for fantastic viewing even for those, like myself, who are not trainer obsessives. “It’s nice to have an engaging brief that’s a bit more multi-layered, but they’re hard to find. And it’s hard to get commercial work as well because there’s a lot of competition,” he says.
While the commercial work pays the bills and, rightly so, Scott has no wish to become a starving, tortured artist, his commitment to finding and documenting stories about real people has not been dulled. “Aesthetically, it’s difficult for me to pinpoint what I like about films, it’s more the process and interaction with the subject. My work is people based.”