An Interview with François Rousselet
by Ilaria Mangiardi
Award-winning director François Rousselet is a creative force in the field of music videos and advertising. From shaping commercials such as Nike’s ‘Da Da Ding’ and Diesel’s ‘Go With the Flaw’, he blends his love for comics books and pop culture with thought-provoking ideas. Did we mention he directed music videos for Snoop Dogg, Depeche Mode, Kanye West, Madonna, Pharrell, Iggy Azalea, Jack White & The Rolling Stones? No biggie. And if you don’t know, now you know.
It’s one of those cold, grey mornings in Amsterdam. I jump on a video call with François, expecting him to sympathise with me about weather complaints, even if talking about the weather is small talking and I hate small talking. Surprisingly, he’s in his garden, enjoying the morning light.
The first thing you notice about him? Despite his awards and accolades, François is a very down-to-earth human being, definitely not an ego-inflated individual. He’s a people’s person who knows what he wants without taking himself too seriously.
We had him over for our Music x Film Craft event in collaboration with ADCN: you can find our podcast recording at the bottom of this interview. It’s just that with some people one conversation is not enough. That’s why we went for round #2.
How would François Rousselet describe François Rousselet to someone who has never met François Rousselet?
‘A French director living in London’. I went to art school before starting with music videos: I guess you can see it influenced my work. Actually, when I was a teenager I dreamt about being a comics artist. You have no idea how many comic books and zines I devoured and drew, when I was a kid.
It helps when it comes to the framing and structure of my videos. That’s where I start: from the creation of my own storyboard. Ok, maybe I should change my description to: ‘A French director of comic fiction’.
Have you always wanted to become a director? Or did it just happen?
I did want to become a video director. I moved to Paris to complete my art-film school but I quickly got bored. So, together with my mate Jonas, we started knocking on production companies’ doors.
Eventually, one of them gave us a chance to get started with low-budget music videos for electronic artists as well as album teasers.
Do you prefer colours or black and white?
Colours, without hesitation. Do you know that some comic books have one page with colours and one black and white page? It’s a thing. I love colours because I’m very inspired by pop culture. We’re the MTV generation, after all. I always try to inject a bit of pop culture in my videos. You have to listen to your background, your native side and gut feeling. It’s talking to you for a reason.
Diesel’s ‘Go With the Flaw’ directed by François Rousselet
Was there a specific moment where it all started making sense?
Funny thing is, I started being a music video director when music videos were not that cool anymore. After working with Kavinsky and a few Ed Banger Records teasers and compilations, I ended up directing ‘D.A.N.C.E.’ by Justice. The response was not immediate. You think people will never notice you and then the exact same video gets nominated at the MTV European Music Awards and.. wins.
From that moment on it went really fast.
Next thing you know is Kanye West calling Ed Banger Records to reunite that exact same team, myself included, because he loved Justice’s video.
Wait, wait, wait. You have to give me as many details as possible here. You know this, right?
It was amazing. It all started because Kanye was one of the nominees together with Justice. So he lost to them.
At least he didn’t walk on stage saying it wasn’t fair. I would take that call as a huge compliment.
He asked me and Jonas to direct his music video for ‘Good Life’ together with T-Pain. He had a very good idea: he wanted to bring his own lyrics to life and have the graphics floating all around him.
He’s a very dedicated artist. He called me a few days before the shoot to see the storyboard and we ended up reviewing it together in a hotel room. We worked side by side also during the post-production phase, where we decided to prioritise primary colours, with So-Me joining forces to work on the graphics.
Did you still have the freedom to do your own thing?
Yes, lots of freedom actually. He had many inputs and wanted to be on top of everything but in a really nice way. To thank us, he invited us to the recording studio so we could listen to him finalising one of his tracks and throwing ideas around. I had never been to a studio before. It was my very first time.
Mind-blowing. Do you still remember your first approach with music?
At school, exchanging CDs and records. I was really obsessed with 90s Brit and American rock: Blur, Oasis, Smashing Pumpkins.
MTV generation indeed. Did you also patiently wait for your favourite songs to appear on the screen so you could record them on a cassette?
I would wait for indie bands, usually programmed for late at night. At that time, we were listening to music in our own bedroom. The whole music experience was more static and music videos did half of the job. It was a big deal back then.
That’s when I started to witness the magic that happens when you combine music and video, something really appealing to me. But did I see myself becoming a music director back then? Nah, I thought that was way too big to achieve.
Snoop Dogg’s ‘So Many Pros’ music video directed by François Rousselet
The biggest opposing force that you encountered on your journey?
Funny you ask. I started this journey as part of a duo called Jonas and François. I was working with this very creative guy who at some point felt directing was not enough. There are no hard feelings. We just went separate ways as he didn’t feel completely fulfilled and I respect that.
As for me, I never had a doubt about my call. I do doubt the projects I am working on though, because I can have totally different ideas in between. Sometimes you have the feeling that you’re almost at the finish line and it seems like you’re almost rejecting what you’ve done so far. I never thought of quitting. I just focus on the next project, the next vision.
I don’t really care about others’ feedback. Everyone will have a different opinion so, at the end of the day, it doesn’t make sense to spend too much energy on that. Even awards. I mean, what does it really mean? People judging other people’s work? Really? As long as the client or artist I am working with is happy (and I am as well), there’s nothing to be worried about.
Have you ever been compared to someone else?
Can I answer with a question?
Are Daft Punk visionaries or copycats? Is Stranger Things brilliant or pointless? “It looks like that”, “It reminds me that”, “This has already been done 20 years ago”.
Everything is relative. I know that a lot of my colleagues struggle with that. But again, how can you come up with something that has never done before? We’ve all been inspired by someone or something. It would be ridiculous to think otherwise.
Nike’s ‘Da Da Ding’ directed by François Rousselet
⏯ Listen to the podcast at the bottom of this article to hear the full story
Can you see your finished product before you start?
I can see the colours and the look and feel. I have to say that my storyboard is pretty similar to the final product in terms of frames and number of shots. And, in all honesty, I am not that good at changing the plan when I’m on set.
With the first commercial for Diesel, there was a bit of improvisation for the dance part, whereas the second commercial, also for Diesel, was exactly as the storyboard. I feel I didn’t answer your question? Ok, let’s say that everything can change in between. It’s always evolving. We’re always evolving.
And do you use a storyboard also for music videos?
No, almost never. Usually, there’s not much time to prepare. It’s more loose, also in the edit. I still use paper to take notes though.
Talking about music videos, among the others, you directed Jack White’s ‘Lazaretto’ which is 100% black and white. And I guess it’s not because of his last name.
Even if I said that I prefer colours, I acknowledge that black and white is very striking. This video is really short and it really focuses on depth. You know, if I had the possibility to go out of the frame, I would have considered it.
Also, it’s very in sync with the music, to highlight it even more. And when that happens, your brain thanks you for making its life easier.
What are you listening to at the moment?
Most of the times you can find me listening to indie radios. There’s this one called KRCW, a very eclectic radio station from California. Because of a project I’m currently working on, I’ve also been listening to a lot of 90s rock lately. As for specific artists, the first name that comes to my mind is Rainbow Kitten Surprise, especially the song ‘Fever Pitch’.
If there was a trailer that talked about The Magical Life of François Rousselet, what soundtrack would you choose?
Something that means something. I would love to pick The Rolling Stones, but maybe that’s not a good idea?
Well, you directed their ‘Ride ‘Em On Down’ music video, together with Kristen Stewart.
True story, but to have one of their songs for the trailer of my biopic? Hmm, it would probably make me sound like a megalomaniac.
Ok, I think I have it: ‘Charmless Man’ by Blur. The one thing I know for sure is that it would be a tragicomic trailer. Not too pretentious nor serious.
Everyone is talking about the latest John Lewis’ commercial with Elton John. How did you like it?
I think it’s very well-done. Talking about Elton, two years ago his management ran this contest and asked young directors to release three videos for songs that never had a video. ‘Tiny Dancer’ was one of them. It’s such an interesting combination, to see the match between old songs and modern picture.
Didn’t know that. Guess you also watched ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
Yes, I liked that one as well, especially the look of it. Actually, one of the guys who worked on the movie used to be my Director of Photography. Yeah, maybe it’s a bit too chronological and sugar-coated. But I would lie if I said I didn’t enjoy it.
What does the future hold?
In the Rolling Stones’ video with Kristen Stewart, there was a very short moment of dialogue. I loved it so I‘m thinking to do a 4-minute video with dialogue only.
New projects, new elements. There will still be music, don’t get me wrong. I just want to incorporate more words in my work.
Music videos and commercials: which one do you prefer?
Hard to say as they’re very different.
With commercials, you have to tell the whole story in 60 seconds. Yet, I really like the fact that, now more than ever, music is taking over in advertising. Which is great as long as it doesn’t become a gimmick. Think of how many dance-related commercials or vignette films with a soundtrack there are out there. Even in the film trailers nowadays, it’s all about the right license, re-recording or composition.
When it comes to a music video though, you have a different approach. It’s a visual or a narrative exercise and there are no brand guidelines to follow. But you know, after I shoot a music video, I have the necessity to work on a commercial. It’s all about the balance. A different perspective is what is refreshing to me.
Let’s solve the riddle: did the Internet save the music video?
Yes, let’s say it: the Internet DID save the music video.
It did because, at some point, MTV replaced music videos with reality shows, and that’s when the Internet took over: you see more and more videos going over 500 million views, some even over a billion. It’s a blooming business!
I’m so glad that any band or artist can now air and share their videos with the world. There’s a silver lining to every cloud. Might be even better than the MTV era.