Still from the film Voodoonaut - a figure in the dark behind a plume of smoke

Interview: Director John Clay on his debut sci-fi feature Voodoonaut and the musicians starring in it

If you’ve been a regular gig-goer in London over the past decade or so you’ll probably have seen John Clay swooping around the front of the stage in a superman t-shirt with a handheld camera as he chronicled the cream of the capital’s music scene on his Clark Kent’s Rock & Roll Revue Youtube series. He’s since gone on to direct fantastic music videos for Joyzine favourites Shattercones, REAL(s), Healthy Junkies and Cold In Berlin, amongst many others and has even found the time to pen the occasional article for Joyzine.

We were excited to hear the news that he’s now working on his debut feature film, Voodoonaut, an existential sci fi odyssey featuring many familiar names from the world of music, and if the trailer is anything to go by it promises to be a mindboggling visual feast.

As the Go Fund Me campaign for the film nears its target (donate here to help chip away at the remaining £150 needed) we caught up with John to find out more about the film and the musicians involved in its creation, and to see some exclusive shots from the production.

When we first met you were filming bands at The Windmill and Roadkill Records nights on a little handheld camera. How did you get from there to making a full-blown sci-fi feature film?

No one wants to stagnate in their field, do they? The buzz I got from filming bands in a gig context began to subside and so it makes sense that I would chase that feeling in a controlled live session (the Margo’s Living Room series and the Brixton Hillbilly live sessions).

Finding unique ways to film bands with my one shot camera motif was challenging and fun, as was filming narrative based music videos, but I wanted to be subservient to a tale of my own making rather than capture a point in a band’s history. Feature films have been a large part of my consideration and the prospect of migrating to that patch of creativity slowly began to make more and more sense.

Title screen for the film Voodoonaut
Pic credit: Sofia Martins Gray/John Clay
(Subject: Sofia Martins Gray)
Sofia M. Gray | YouTube | Linktree

How big a leap has it been from filming live music and making music videos to this project? What new skills and approaches have you had to learn?

Directing scenes in music videos or short films is good training for doing a feature which is essentially a lot of those elements tied together thematically over a period of 90 mins or more. I didn’t realise it at the time, but dealing with bands such as Stash Magnetic and Idle Fire was training me up for visuals that were invested in concepts beyond lads jumping around with guitars. I’ll return to that concept from time to time, but less frequently than before as it offers limited scope for what can be achieved. There’s a whole world of possibilities which await performers who challenge themselves to put their phallic instruments away and make statements beyond what holding those items may bestow upon their social ranking.

Still from the film Voodoonaut: two arms reaching through a gap in door
Pic credit: Sofia Martins Gray/John Clay
(Subject: Sofia Martins Gray)
Sofia M. Gray | YouTube | Linktree

A main change is that music videos are essentially promotional tools designed to make the artist look good. I was lucky enough to meet artists such as Sofia of Starsha Lee. She’s less interested in looking cool or sexy as opposed to delivering a philosophical idea. Sofia explores what she calls aesthetic violence and also Butoh, both of which feature in the film Voodoonaut. There is a place for certain thoughts and imagery and placing them in art is one of those safe places.

Still from the film Voodoonaut: A sleeping woman painted green
Pic credit: Lou Smith/John Clay
(Subject: Barbara Pugliese)
(@barbarapugliese_) • Instagram photos and videos

Relearning the mechanics of script writing and character motivation from my student days at Richmond Upon Thames College (Theatre Studies A Level) became unavoidable. Acquiring a better grasp of cinematography via online tutorials also helped. There is a channel dedicated to painting which I continually revisit, as the talk of shadows, edges and contrast to create mood is useful for this film. Often, and there is a further risk at what some might call pretention, still life and abstract portraiture were areas I found myself researching. Useful, considering the various meditations on art by some of the characters in the film.

Still from the film Voodoonaut: A face looks at a screen with colourful static
Pic credit: Aloha Dead
(Subject: The formerly known as ‘Dead’)
ALOHA DEAD | Linktree

Taking a backstep to being the one who held the camera to being the instructor of professionals with their own gear was a must. Effectively communicating with people who are directors in their own right was a challenge, especially if I’ll always be the young upstart on the block to them. Aloha Dead filmed so many useful shots for the feature and thus helped create the production design.

I’m also quite thankful to have orchestrated the collaboration between Lou smith and Neil Anderson via visual juxtapositions of projected images and offscreen images. The results appear incredibly well thought out, and yet, all three of us are rather instinctual in our approach. One has to be careful when saying that though as it ascribes a lot of hard work to some mystical realm! Lou and Neil achieved results in cold rooms and with little time to get results.

Still from the film Voodoonaut: A fwoman sits silhoutted against a screen
Pic credit: Lou Smith/Neil Anderson a.k.a Wildblanket
(Subject: Camille Alexander)

Without giving any spoilers, what can you tell us about the film?

Julia Earle is the latest pilot to take part in an experimental space flight programme called Further Space. As a ‘Voodoonaut’, Julia allows ground control to project her consciousness into the cosmos whilst her body remains in Earth. In a mission involving her M.I.A mother, Julia’s body disappears and her mind is subject to a self analytical and self deconstructive process which tests her ability and her very desire to return to Earth. Populated with characters who have designs on her agency, Julia is forced to engage with the unknown elements of both her inner and outer space. She will never be the same again.

Still from the film Voodoonaut: A woman sits bieng photographed
Pic credit: Andras Paul
(Subject: Camille Alexander/Neil Anderson)
András Paul (@polandris) • Instagram photos and videos

Who else is involved in making the film?

Apart from the aforementioned Sofia of Starsha Lee, there is Camille of the grunge band A VOID, the undefinable duo known as ALOHA DEAD, Barbara Pugilese, Lars Chitkka (his first acting role. His main job is a scientist studying bees!), Pat Lyons, Autumn Billal, Ola Kitchen and Ashleigh Cole. That’s the main cast. Theres’s a load of fellow filmmakers too. Lou Smith, Andras Paul, Neil Anderson, Ludovic Cairtey, Rob Homewood, Aloha Dead, Shogo Hino, Sergio Angot and loads more. Received some wonderful images and sounds from Steve Gullick the other day which has helped out with a sequence in the film. There’s so many people left to credit that I’ve tried to put emphasis on different cast and crew per interview.

Still from the film Voodoonaut: A mysterious machine
Pic credit: Lou Smith
LouSmithPhoto | Linktree

You’re working with a lot of musicians on this film – was this a deliberate choice, and have they brought something different to the film than a cast from a more traditional acting background might have done?

Voodoonaut started off in four main areas:

  1. Outtakes from a Cold in Berlin music video
  2. Outtakes from a music video for Idle fire
  3. Footage from an abandoned Twin Peaks fan film
  4. Abstract shots filmed between live sessions at Hermitage Works Studios

Apart from the fan film contingent, the main theme was working with musicians. I’m fortunate to have tastes which align me with people who happen to be working in music but could easily veer into other territories. Sofia is a photographer, often shooting herself in her own projects as well as filming scenes for the film remotely. Aloha Dead are known for their music, but their story contributions and self filming made it into the current cut of the film. All these musicians have strong aesthetics that lent themselves to the creation of their characters, scenes and development.

Still from the film Voodoonaut: Two figures look at a screen showing a projection of a woman's face upside down
Pic credit: Lou Smith/Aloha Dead
(Subject: ‘Dead’/Lars Chittka/Camille Alexander)
ALOHA DEAD | Linktree

Whether we’re talking about the multiple looks of astonishment or critique that Camille Alexander can pull off, or the effortless majesty that Barbara exudes (she plays a character that’s understood to be a divinity), the film benefits from the archetypal resources that a musician relies upon. They are all stars and would work with them all again should the right project come along. I encourage anyone even mildly curious to check out their musical output.

We asked John to create a playlist of the musicians involved in creating Voodoonaut:

Starsha Lee: Noisy, lyrically fascinating and rather visceral live, Starsha Lee are one of those one off bands that carve out their own place on the rock scene, seemingly without precedence. They shot this video themselves in Portugal. Priceless.

A VOID: Camille’s band’s gone through a lot of evolution, particularly in regards to songwriting and live performance. The second album ‘Dissociation’ is being toured at the moment. They always give 100 percent at their shows and sold out the Brixton Windmill the other day. I didn’t get in. That will teach me to turn up thirty minutes late after doors open!

Barbara Pugiliese: Barbara has tried so many styles of music and yet her voice is distinctive enough to grant that journey a sense of consistency. She is a great example of someone with immense musical gifts and yet displays a remarkable amount of humility, hence her sizable and loyal fanbase. Barbara plays a celestial force that appears to the main character of Julia in a humanoid form My kind of divinity. We are not worthy.

Aloha Dead: Ah, such a treasure. I have been lucky enough to film this unique duo on multiple occasions. Their combination of Lynchian aesthetics and lap steel guitar is utterly unique. Without their look or sound Voodoonaut probably wouldn’t exist. In fact, strike the word probably and replace it with definitely.

Killer Bee Queens: Lars Chittka really does live many lives, one of them being the fronting of Killer Bee Queens. I think the project is on hiatus at the moment. Was fun filming this tongue in cheek video and directing Lars in Voodoonaut was instructive. For a first time actor he was thrown into the deep end and thrived amidst the oddity.

Coco Varda: If people wanted to hear more about that song in the trailer for Voodoonaut then check out Coca Varda. I am pleased to say that ‘Branches’ will feature as part of the film for thematic reasons. If you like the sound of what they call ‘cave pop’ then check out ‘There Are Worse Things On The Internet’. Such a dreamy E.P. Think Julee Cruise meets The Chromatics. Airplane Mode is the first track off the E.P.

Idle Fire: The delicate and searching vocals amidst the warm production (played with such feeling!) manage to pull me in every time. Idle Fire were gracious enough to allow Voodoonaut to utilise outtakes of the ‘Starve to Strength’ music promo. I can’t wait to talk more about what those shots do for the film. We’ll have to wait and see.

Stash Magnetic: All the music videos I’ve shot for the last three or more years have featured intros that were directly lifted from my work with Stash Magnetic. Voodoonaut continues that tradition, and for good reason: ‘Our Blood’ was not only a cool track, but the filming of the video made me a much better craftsmen. Rebecca and Nick contributed so much painting, body art, miniatures, and patience to an ever evolving project. I wish they were available to be part of the production. Really good people. One day I’ll get round to doing a documentary on the making of the video. They are worth it.

Dee Byrne: I had to enlist Dee’s music as a huge part of the soundtrack of Voodoonaut. I just had to. After witnessing Dee perform solo saxophone at the HG20 festival (celebrating twenty years of the Dexter Bentley Hello Goodbye Show on Resonance 104.4FM), I became convinced that a lone solo jazz piece – improvised no less – sonically represented the feeling of cosmic horror. The full thirty minutes was used in the film without too much editing.

Still from the film Voodoonaut: A man and a woman looking up
Pic credit: Lou Smith
(Subject: Camille Alexander/Lars Chittka)
Find ✨Camille Alexander✨ Onlyfans – Linktree

Tell us about some of the films, writers and directors that have inspired you and this project.

My main inspirations have been rather obscure. Maya Daren being a major one, mainly for her philosophy on not relying upon the bigger studios for money at the conceptual stage of a project. Their interests can affect the making of the film and since there is more than a little critique on the entertainment industry, her influence is notable here.

Still from the film Voodoonaut: A man sits on a chair
Pic credit: John Clay
(Subject: Lars Chittka) | John Clay (Artist)

David Fincher would never make a film like Voodoonaut, and yet, it is his eye for detail and emphasis on huge numbers of takes that’s inspired me. The way the actor sits in a chair on set is going to sell you the idea that we’re not on set if he sits in it in a certain way. You don’t capture that way if your actor is focussed on getting the take right in as few tries as possible. After that twentieth time you’re going to capture something more real. Of course, the only way you can command that many takes is through the concept and the contractual obligation of capital.

Thankfully when you work with Sofia, Barbara, Ashleigh, Lars and many of the others, their focus is on following you the director towards what is useful. It’s sad when watching the clock and continual distraction can fundamentally erase the chance of creating the mood and thus sticking the landing for a shot. Bertolt Brecht was another big influence. Our high bar of filmmaking now is all about immersion into the fictional world. People are ready to call out plot holes and odd character motivation whenever they can, right? The thing with Brecht is that he didn’t want people to get lost in a fictional world. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of meta around now, but more often than not it’s used as comic relief and self referential world building for its own sake. More can be done with it. Anyway, Brecht’s didactic approach can be evidenced in the script and performances in Voodoonaut.

What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to face as an independent filmmaker?

Apart from the issues of self funding, the main challenges have been internal. When you realise that your imagination has been colonised by the fantasies and concerns of an industry that is only slowly starting to become aware of marginalised voices, well…you start to revisit your work and find ways to make it truly searching. Thankfully there isn’t one person on my cast and crew that had an issue with how modular the film has been. I used to show them cut after cut as the film grew from ten mins, to twenty, then thirty plus to fifty. Now it’s nearly two hours and my job is to cut away what isn’t required to make room for intriguing plot points and revelations that give the film its character.

Still from the film Voodoonaut: Two figures look at a projection of trees on a hillside
Pic credit: Lou Smith/Ludovic Caritey

It’s not for everyone. It’s a marmite movie, or a feature that may sit comfortably in an art gallery rather than in the populist context of a cinema. Some people literally go to the movies to turn off their mind and hand it over to the quick gratification of a franchise. This film is a bit of an oddball given how people currently associate sci-fi with action adventure films. I’ve said far too much for now. It’s important that the realestate of the mind not be filled with yet another artefact which is thoroughly disposable. If there is one thing that Voodoonaut is, it’s not a burger and fries. You consume a film like this in chunks, and it’s perfectly understandable if it all doesn’t go down well the first time.

Still from the film Voodoonaut: A bowl of snacks on a tabletop
Pic credit: John Clay
(Subject: Bryony Miller) | John Clay (Artist)

How far along is the project now? How’s it been going and what is still left to do?

We’ve achieved a lot. We’ve filmed in Italy, Spain, the Orkney islands and in some rather bewitching woods in Surrey. There are three scenes left to film, none of which can be detailed here. Thankfully I’ve been working with people who are keen on doing something off the beaten track. During the end of a recent shoot one performer, Ashleigh Cole kept remarking how there were no bad apples in the production. We found ourselves ahead of schedule and with no social interaction nonsense that is commonplace in the industry. Voodoonaut is so strange, and I’m only truly realising that through feedback as I am not doing anything strange on purpose. It’s just the way the film has evolved, which is important to me. Is it possible to do something owing to Mark Fisher’s treatise on audience’s reliance on cinema to vicariously express anti consumerist ideals on a sofa rather than attend a march? With Roger Corman’s production value? We shall see!

Still from the film Voodoonaut: A green woman with lights shining on her
Pic credit: Lou Smith/John Clay
(Subject: Barbara Pugliese/Lars Chittka)
LouSmithPhoto | Linktree

How can people help to get this film made?

One of the scenes required £350 more to film. During this interview a substantial donation has really bitten a chunk into that amount. A further £150 pounds would help us hit target and thus enable production and post production crew to be paid. I’ve tried to pay people working on the film with my own money, and despite there being no money involved with the principal filming, I just can’t go back to that. Our gofundme page has done rather well in just under three weeks. Hopefully people will read this interview, see these images (all stills from the film) and think yeah, I’ll chuck a fiver in their direction! Even a like or a share helps, so, there’s choices. There is also the trailer.

Watch and share the teaser trailer for Voodoonaut here

Support the production on Go Fund Me

Header image by Lou Smith/John Clay (Subject: Barbara Pugliese)

Interview by Paul Maps

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