Born and raised in Texas, Los Angeles-based music video director Malia James first gained a degree in Film and Psychology from Emerson University before moving to Los Angeles, then to London on a whim before picking up a bass guitar and soon enough – in fact as soon as her first day practicing the instrument – she was the bassist in the Californian all-girl band Dum Dum Girls, capturing the whirlwind of fun that ensued through her camera. Now a director with an extensive list of music video credits for the likes of Danish wonder star MØ, Halsey and Hailee Steinfeld, the self-proclaimed diehard romantic is on a constant quest to explore the theme of love and bring to life her fascination with human relationships.
Do you remember the first impulse you had to express yourself?
I had a compulsive need to make things and express myself from a young age. I had a fake radio show I recorded on tape when I was around 6. I obsessively played with Barbies as a kid, but I remember I was making movies with them – mostly R rated. Fun fact: I made a waterbed for my Barbies using tupperware and plastic wrap. It was the 80s, waterbeds were big. I was raised by a single mom who was gone a lot, so I spent a lot of time in my head, in my imagination.
You previously played bass in the band Dum Dum Girls, what made you decide to solely focus on directing instead?
Music had always been the fire that fueled me, but I didn’t start playing until I was 26. It was out of fear, so once I tried it and was decent, I decided to live that dream out for a bit. I was really fortunate to have played in the bands I did and have the experiences I did – playing on Letterman, making the festival rounds, getting filmed for a Terrence Malick movie alongside Michael Fassbender, singing with Debbie Harry, etc.
I quit music and put photography aside a few years ago to focus on directing. I knew that what I really wanted to do was direct and that I'd need to give it 150% of me to really succeed. As soon as I did, things took off for me, so it was the best choice. I miss playing music sometimes, but am absolutely happiest directing.
Music seems to be such a big force in your life – first playing to now directing music videos. How would you describe your relationship with it?
Music is and was always there. When I was a moody teenager, I’d sit in my room and listen to Nirvana LOUD. When I’ve been sad, I’ve sat on the floor and cried to Springsteen’s Nebraska. When I run, I listen to hip hop and pretend I’m Rocky Balboa. And lest we never forget the nights when young lovers stay up till sunrise with the lights dim and something soft on the stereo.
Playing music is a gift unlike no other – and I managed not to immerse myself to the point that I stopped being able to enjoy it without dissecting it. Lately, I’ve been dancing alone a lot late at night to shake off the day – especially when I’m traveling and shooting. It’s my way of getting grounded in my body because directing is so much about putting energy OUT that music is how I bring it back in.
Walk me through the process of making a music video, where does it all begin?
A track comes in and I’ll generally listen to it on repeat as I walk around the neighbourhood. An idea starts to take shape - usually I just see some kind of image - then I spend a long time looking at photos on the internet. I’ll build a big, broad sweep mood board that I then narrow down for the treatment. The treatment gets sent to the artist/ label for approval, then we jump into production, which is never anything less than a whirlwind. As soon as the job moves forward, the arbitrary idea I had becomes emails from everyone in the crew going “So,what kind of eyeliner are you thinking?” “Do you see this being toplit?” “How do you want the camera to move?” “How many people do you see in this scene?” Shoot day is my favourite day, when everyone is pulling together to bring all their A game to the vision. I LOVE being on set. Then stitching it all together in the edit and the spit shine with colour grade.
What are the most important things for you to consider when directing?
I love beautiful light. LOVE beautiful light. My concepts are as much about the colour and the lighting as they are about the story or content. A DP I worked with earlier in my career once said that I needed to learn how to shoot on a tripod – to be more considered. I was laughing recently about how I’ve made a name for myself by shooting loosely on the go. While a more structured style makes things look more “expensive,” I prefer the emotions and realness I’m able to capture the way I shoot.
I don’t fit into any typical “feminine” mould, so I’ve learned to be confident in my own version of femininity
In which ways are you conscious of how your practice affect your senses most of all?
Sight: Always seeing, looking, observing.
Sound: Music has always inspired me visually. So, I hear music and see images.
Touch: I’m very picky about who I touch, but I’m an Olympic level cuddler. Touch is so important for recovering from the madness of shooting.
Smell: I love how smell plays into creativity. I usually have a candle I burn through every project- treatment to colour. Then, I get a new one for the next run.
What does femininity mean to you?
Confidence and tenderness. I don’t fit into any typical “feminine” mould, so I’ve learned to be confident in my own version of femininity. My manicures chip after a few day, I like my hair messy, I wear pants more than dresses, I have an alpha personality, etc… but I’m also really tender and sensitive. Lynne Ramsey and Andrea Arnold are two of my favourite directors. Fishtank (Arnold) and Movern Callar (Ramsey) are in my top 10 favourite films of all time. I don’t get upset or even care about the idea of “female directors” vs “directors,” but I admire that these women have made dark and beautiful films with flawed female characters that manage to find themselves in some way. I’ve always been drawn to dark and beautiful cinema, which these two have perfected. I love Penny Marshall too for her ability to make incredible timeless “pop” movies.
What advice would you give to other girls who wish to work across a number of disciplines in the same way as you?
Chase all your dreams and take in all the experiences, but eventually, pick the one that you want most and give it everything. Don’t take no for an answer. Stick to your guns. Be kind.