In our latest interview, we caught up with Weird Life Films to talk about transitioning from short films to music videos, their philosophy of not taking anything too seriously, their distinct style and much more. Indulge below and make sure to follow Weird Life Films on social.
Hello, hello we are Laura Gordon, Mike Monachos, Ryan Ohm and Jackson James. We are the co-owners of Weird Life Films.
Let’s take it back to the beginning. What is the origin story of Weird Life Films?
Jackson: It began with a couple very earnest music videos which Ryan and I did as a fun film school extracurricular thing that we thought might help hone the skills a little bit for making movies. Ryan had made a music video for the band Twin Peaks and that kicked off a trickle of local acts hitting us up to do a video, with me shooting them.
As we continued making music videos, it started to become a bit more important to us than film school. We wanted to keep topping our last video and it was thrilling in a way, to discover a lot of people around the city who wanted to work together. It brought a kind of excitement about doing your best because it was a sort of mutual investment between us and other folks around the city.
We started taking it a little more seriously, and we knew we’d need help in order to bring our work to the next level, so Laura and Mike hopped in and the quality of the videos skyrocketed. We all worked together really well, focusing on a video at a time, putting everything into it as a sort of 3-director crew with Mike heading up the production department and the business at large. We all explored the kinds of videos we’d personally want to make, growing together by taking the lead on a video with the others being there to offer back up. Now we look at our finished videos and really see them as cohesive and full videos. They are so much more comprehensive and thought through.
When deciding to make it a business, where did the name come from?
Ryan: I was sitting in Jackson’s old house, “Chiller’s Paradise” and his roommate, a very good friend of ours, Mikey Thomas, had said something like, “Life is weird, it’s a weird life.” I marked it down on my phone in a note. Then slowly over time, it tapped on to our videos. Just like us getting together, it happened really organically from there. Before long we were officially Weird Life Films, (or Weird Life LLC) if you want to sue us. We dig doing slightly more unconventional videos and are always open to strange or more off-the-wall concepts.
Beyond music videos, some of your first videos as a company were short films. How did you make the transition from short films to making music videos for local Chicago artists?
Ryan: We all made a bunch of short films back in the day. It was more of a lifestyle than a career. We still love narratives, but jobs have come in more in the music and commercial world. It is great and we love figuring that world out.
Laura: Growing up, film was an inherent way of expressing ourselves. I used to carry a video camera around parties to try and capture the feeling of those times. The narrative stuff is something we want to do more of, but the music videos have come more out of opportunity.
You guys peg yourselves as “a fun group of filmmakers that don’t believe in taking anything too seriously.” How has that philosophy helped WLF succeed in creating videos?
Laura: It is present and (hopefully) something people on set with us feel. One of the ways in which it is manifested is that we don’t really ever try to say, “For this project Ryan is the director, Jackson is the DP” We try to break down the typical film role structure that is commonly seen on sets. Everyone that is there is a filmmaker and equally a part of it. We try to keep our crew as small as feasibly possible so that everyone there can indulge directly in the process. This way it doesn’t have to become that rigid structure that a larger set demands. Also, when we are coming up with ideas, if it makes us laugh and sounds fun to create, that is really all we need to be sold on creating it. We really try to not overthink things too much because it is pretty key for us to continue to enjoy what we do.
Going off of this philosophy, I know you shoot a lot around Chicago. For example, in Grapetooth’s music video for “Trouble”, it is a lot of shots throughout Chicago or in Ne-Hi’s “Rattled and Strange” it is a lot of images of individual details in the bar they are playing pool at. How pre-planned are these individual shots or do they come together as you go location to location?
Ryan: Some films we go into with a pretty clear shot list and others we go in knowing what we want aesthetically and have an idea, but also want to leave some of it to chance. Usually, the best shots come out of thin air on the spot.
Laura: It is really whatever the project calls for, but we do in general tend to work more intuitively and improvisationally than most do. Not every video has a full blueprint from front to back.
Jackson: “Trouble” was probably the most unplanned and unofficial thing I have shot in a long long time. Chris and Clay are good friends (and housemates) and they expressed that they wanted to get some tape cameras and hop around the city filming a music video. We all got kinda wound up after the first few shots and started thinking up stunts with Clay’s lil scooter. Then when we got bored we’d change up the setting and try something else. It was entirely improvisation, and those two have such a great presence on camera that it was easy to get somewhere, watch em go at it for a while and know exactly what to film.
In regards to planning for a video shoot, how much collaboration is there with the artists beforehand on what the vision for the music video is?
Laura: That varies too. Sometimes an artist will come to us with absolutely nothing except the song. Some will have little nuggets of an idea that they want us to flush out, while others have a very thorough plan that they just want us to execute. Each one has its advantage. It is great to work with an artist that is really into it and wants to be part of the collaboration, but it can also be great to just be left to it.
Is that how it goes for post-production as well?
Ryan: We will show them a rough cut at a stage we feel is a preview of what’s to come or is good enough to give them the idea. We will never send them just one cut. If we did, our jobs would be a lot easier. Usually, it is anywhere from three to a dozen back and forths, but it is part of the game and you figure out and learn a lot through the edit.
You have a very distinct style. From angles that challenge perspective to vintage effects, it comes off as very natural, honest, and raw. Your music videos aren’t ever over-glamorized or over-produced and you make viewers feel like they are learning about the artist through the videos. What is the inspiration behind WLF’s style?
Laura: The videos Ryan and I used to make in high school were just documentation of friends having fun, which remains at the root of our production. That element of nostalgia is what translates. We feel like individually, we don’t have just one style. On the creative side, we all have very distinct styles and personalities. We are completely different people. Our overall style is the place where those personalities meet.
Jackson: We don’t dwell a lot on trying to get everything perfect and polished. I used to have a hard time making music videos because I held on to what we envisioned too much. Ryan helped me with letting go of the “everything must be perfect and technically sound” mentality they really drill into you in school. He’d respond with statements like “Well, I kinda like how shaky and out of focus it is!” I figured he was just trying to not offend me, but after a while, I understood what he was getting at.
How does your style separate you from other music video production companies?
Ryan: Nobody’s got Mike cooking the books like we do. We haven’t paid taxes in 20 years, but that’s off the record. We just really dig what we do and have fun doing it. We don’t know if there is something specific that makes us different, except that we are truly a group of friends. It is very collaborative in every process and step.
Being behind the camera for Chicago-based artists’ music videos, what would you say is the significance of the Chicago music scene?
Jackson: There’s a very friendly element among a lot of the people working in Chicago. We’ve done a lot of promotional videos for Knox Fortune where we just took a super 16mm camera out on the town and shot some silly skits with a buncha folks from the music scene. It’s nice to run into someone at a bar or while hanging out at the beach or something and leave with some plan to make a video together. It feels very informal and in that way, there isn’t the same sort of buttoned-up feeling of having to present yourself as a total pro, it’s much more about having fun and making something together. Having that sort of perspective going into a project is often what makes it work for us. We’re not afraid of coming off as a little informal but just ourselves.
Mike: Laura, Jackson, and Ryan tend to work more with the artists and I hang out with the managers more. Video commissioners are strict to businesses, but managers can really be anything.
You guys have shot across America and shooting can’t always be a breeze. I know when you were filming “Walk to the One You Love” with Twin Peaks some “drunk wrigley bound boyos” messed with your set. What has been the wildest experience you have had while filming?
Ryan: This is where the memoir begins.
Laura: We all have a stick and poke tattoo dedicated to one specific day on set. We made a music video for “Girls @” with Joey Purp and Chance the Rapper and the day we ended up filming was two months after the original day we were supposed to shoot. We were shooting on top of a parking garage and the weather said a chance of rain, but nothing too crazy. The darkest clouds started to move in while we were building our set so we tore everything down and put it all under tarps with sandbags. We tried to do everything we could to help protect our set from the storm, but it hit and our entire set went flying. It was a movie in itself with everything moving in slow motion. Eight by four huge pieces of wood were flying straight into the air and barrelling over the edge of this parking garage. We were all trying to catch the set as it flew off and we all left with a few scratches. It was the most nuts thing we have ever experienced. Somehow despite that, no property or cars were hit. The only property destroyed was our set and by that, we mean completely demolished. We went to Jackson’s house and got stick and poke tattoos from our friend, Corey. The tattoo is a wall jumping over a wall.
You also are in the advertising world. WLF did a video for Department of Defense Warrior Games. How did that opportunity present itself?
Mike: The ad agency reached out to us and centered their campaign around wanting to make it more like a music video and less like a commercial. By the grace of God, they found us.
Laura: They found us through our Strand of Oaks music video for “Rest of it.” It is a great video, but the last video you would ever expect an ad agency to watch and go, “We want those guys.”
With it being centered around a music video perspective was it similar to your normal shooting process?
Laura: It was big budget movie-making with every camera rig and toy you could ever imagine, as well as trailers. It was awesome, but it could not have been further from what we are used to.
Last but not least, what can we expect from WLF in the future?
Laura: We don’t have a definitive answer to that, but part of what we do is remain open to opportunities. We have had a lot of talks on how to expand while remaining true to ourselves. We want to make narrative work as well as continue with our music videos. Individually too, we all have things we want to accomplish on our own while being able to use WLF as a platform. We also have a lot of friends that are filmmakers. We have been really lucky with the opportunities we have been given and would like to figure out a way to extend those opportunities to more people and spread the reach further in terms of people benefiting from it.
Written by: Colleen Kennedy