Malia James

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Malia James is a world class director, photographer and all round artistic genius. Directing music videos for modern pop artists such as Halsey, Troye Sivan and Hailee Steinfield, her creative works have taken the world by storm.

Interview by Patrick Bourke

Images provided by Malia James


Q. Where in the world are you currently based and where are you from? 

A. I live in Los Angeles. I was born and raised in Texas. 

Q. As a restless muse, photography and directing is a big part of your life. What sparked your passion and motivated you to continue creating content? 

A. From as early as I can remember, I was always doing something creative. As a kid, I had a fake radio show, played any instrument I got my hands on, created elaborate storylines with Barbies ( fun fact: I once made a water bed for my Barbies out of Tupperware and plastic wrap. It was the 80’s. Waterbeds were big), etc. 

How does it continue? It’s a perpetual, all-consuming, driving force that rules my life. I can’t not do it, which is both a blessing and a curse. 

Q. You have toured as a musician since the age of 18 years old. When did you realise that you wanted to move on from the world of music and direct your focus towards your visual art? 

A. I started touring with bands doing anything and everything but playing from 18-25. I was a manager, tour manager, photographer, oil projectionist, friend, etc. I gave up on playing music at a young age because the people around me were more advanced than I was. It wasn’t until I was 26, living in London, that I started really playing an instrument the day I joined my first band and started playing gigs two weeks later. 

My last band, Dum Dum Girls, was such an incredible gift and took me to places I never imagined I would go- geographically, musically, etc. We got along really well as bandmates, which isn’t easy to master when you’re sharing small spaces and running on very little sleep. I knew, at a certain point, that playing in people’s bands was me taking the easy road, which has never been my style. 

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My dream had always been to be a director, from my early teen years. However, I’d always fantasized about being a musician - as someone who’s main inspiration in life was music- so I felt I should give that fantasy some time. People were shocked I would want to leave my music life, but it was never my end goal. It was a hard decision to make and sometimes I’m sad to think I may never play another show, but I’m absolutely my happiest when I’m on set. We played a show on the last tour and I realized I’d rather have 40 people come to see the premiere of a film I’d done that 400 people come see me play bass. 

Q. From the initial stages to the final product, what processes do you undertake when you are directing a video shoot? Does this process vary from one project to another? 

A. I go on runs to clear my head, meditate to stay grounded, and take baths to carve out some quiet time. I always have a classic monster hit song that I listen to obsessively as ginger for my musical palette. I must have listened to Ciara “Ride” 100 times when I was working on the Hunger Games videos. I also have a tendency to do jumping jacks on set (with crew, if they’re interested) to keep my energy up. 

Q. Are you selective with the particular artists and creative team members you work with? Why/ why not? 

A. Yes, absolutely. I have to feel a connection to the track I work on. Directing a video is a 3 week to 1 month process of being fully invested in that endeavour, so it’s gotta be worthwhile. At this stage in my career, I also have to work with appropriate budgets to bring visions to life. When I was younger, I was happy to run around with a (Canon) 5D and make low budget work, but now I dream up ideas in a more vast (and expensive) landscape. Sadly, this means missing out on working with a lot of my friends I love and adore (for now). 

Q. In addition to the visually stunning colour palettes used in your visual art, there is a strong presence of monochrome in your photography work. What draws your eye and vision to those colours? How important is the use of colour in your work?

A. Colour and light may be the most important staple of my work. Why I love it, I can’t say. I just do. Ironically, I wear all black. 

Q. What do you think is the biggest challenge faced by photographers, directors, and creatives today? How do you work around this issue? 

A. The work/life balance is very tricky to master. I have, for the majority of my life, been driven to make work and it always comes first. Like-minded, supportive friends who don’t guilt you for your nature (and absence) are the solution. The other big issue is attaching your ego to your work. “If I get this job, I’m great” or “if I don’t get this job, I’m not good enough.” Keeping a spiritual practice like meditation helps keep the ego in check, but it’s a wild beast that needs constant monitoring. 

Q. You have labeled yourself a ‘total cinephile’ and listed Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick as your biggest inspirations. What is it about film that captivate you? Do you have an all-time favorite film?

A. It’s impossible to pick a favorite. I love how films transport you into a world and a story for two hours and have always been drawn mostly to dark and beautiful films. I love that we see films in a dark theatre with no phone or interest in the outside world. 

Some favorites: Eyes Wide Shut, The Graduate, Christiane F, Rear Window, Movern Callar, Eternal Sunshine, Victoria. I love a solid rom com too. I’m pretty sure I can quote most of Dirty Dancing. Edward Scissorhands is also pretty high on the list.

Q. Are there any modern day directors or photographers that influence or inspire you? In what ways have they influenced you and your work? 

A. Many of my close friends are talented image makers that inspire me with their work and attitude. I’d start naming them, but if I forget someone and they read this, I’ll be in hot water. It’s important to surround yourself with people and things that inspire you, always. 

Q. You have worked on a diverse range of music videos, documentary-styled productions, and video shoots in general. How do you find a balance between your creative vision and the client’s desired outcome?  

A. I say directing is 90% diplomacy. As of now, I’ve never had a "Director’s Cut" as I feel a big part of being a director is guiding the project to place where everyone agrees. Does this mean I feel there are “better” versions of what I put out that better represent my vision? Sure, but I’m being hired to bring my skills and visions to serve someone’s need. I’m very involved in every step of the way, down to the sheets on the bed usually, but there always comes a point in the edit that I have to compromise. Having been on the other side of the camera, I empathise with people wanting to feel like they’re properly represented.  That said, I’m excited to make a short film or documentary that’s mine. 

Q. You directed the “Ghost” music video for Halsey, what was it like working with such a bold artist? Where did the visual approach and style of the video initiate from? 

A. I was certifiably obsessed with neon lighting at the time. I noticed one reference for a neon sign on a Pinterest board Halsey had, so I thought “yes! Here’s my chance to create a world made of neon!” She had written the album about a fictional world called “Badlands," which was perfectly suited the dreary and dreamy color-drenched world. It was wild to watch Halsey’s career blow up in weeks and months after we made the video. 

Q. A few of your projects utilise very unique and vibrant lighting designs – for example “Ghost” by Halsey, “Rock Bottom” by Hailee Steinfeild ft. Joe Jonas, and “Youth” by Troye Sivan. Is lighting a key aspect in your visions for your projects? Do you work closely with lighting specialists on your projects? 

A. I LOVE light. I have always been someone who comes alive at night and, for most of my life, have been up to the the sunrise more than most from all-night work sessions. This translates into my work for sure. I always work closely with my DP’s and gaffers on the lighting design. The lighting design and color palette are generally the backbone of the idea I’ve pitched, so my team helps me to bring that to life onscreen. Fun fact: my home has some serious lighting design happening. Every light is on a dimmer. I don’t even have bulbs in the overhead lights. 

Q. What is the best advice that you have ever received? What advice would you give to aspiring directors, photographers, and other creatives trying to break into the industry? 

A. The best advice I’ve gotten is "Keep going. Don’t give up.” The best advice I can give is “be grateful, show gratitude.” 

Q. From photography to directing to every creative project you work on, how do you find the time to do it all? 

A. Something always takes the lead and something always takes the back-burner. I quit music in an effort to narrow my focus and haven’t been taking as many photos. I realized that the people at the top of the heap, the ones making the most provocative work have chosen one thing to commit their life to. On some level, that’s what I’m trying to do right now, but let the other outlets become more of a hobby or a place to “play.”

Q. Are there any projects that are currently in the works right now? 

A. I just finished a run of 8 videos between Feb and July, and then took a few weeks to put my life and health back together. I’ve just written on a few tracks and a piece for a clothing company. I’m starting work on some narrative writing and going to take part in a photo show celebrating artists who shoot film next month.