When looking to shoot loose, intimate, authentic-feeling footage of musicians Niall Horan, Ray BLK and Maren Morris, audio equipment brand Bose turned to a director with first-hand knowledge of life on the road.

In addition to her career as a commercial director, Malia James has spent years on tour as a bassist (she’s a former member of the band Dum Dum Girls), and photographer. Her work for Bose captures moments with the musicians that feel instantly relatable – Ray and her friends gossip and laugh about a date gone wrong; Niall and his crew wax poetic about the brilliance of Fleetwood Mac‘s “Go Your Own Way,” and Maren Morris enjoys her post-show solitude to the sound of TLC‘s “Waterfalls” before continuing her busy touring schedule. These are the kinds of glimpses into aestheticized reality that Malia has become known for, and her deep personal experience of the life portrayed in this campaign is evident.

Malia’s fluid directing style blends a relaxed demeanor with high attention to detail, and her passion to direct is evident on every set, setting the room at ease while establishing a creative, energized atmosphere. Clients are drawn to her work because of her ability to capture realness in her subjects, stories, and locations, proving success with a roster of commercial clients that includes Adidas, Sephora, Converse, and Mailchimp.

We chatted with Malia about the level of creative freedom she was given by Bose, the joy of surpassing expectations, and the importance of being kind.

Since you have a background as a musician yourself, did you tap into your own personal experiences in order to direct these new ads for Bose? What elements do you think you brought to this shoot that were unique to your vision?

Bose was a DREAM client. These spots are almost entirely my vision – with the exception of tailoring the scenarios for natural use of the product. The boards that came to me merely said we needed these speakers to relate to the three artists, so I drew each scenario entirely from my experiences on the road in bands or photographing bands for many years. It was produced through Vice, but in a lot of ways, I was also the agency and always speaking directly with the client to shape each piece. Every time we spoke about what our approach would be for each artist, it always felt like a dialogue between two experts – me asking them what’s best for the product, them asking me what’s most natural to life on the road. I look forward to working with them again (and again). 

We love the intimacy and texture of these spots. How did you capture the authenticity of these scenarios? What was your approach for working with the talent in each?

Thank you! That was the aim for sure. Since the musicians aren’t actors, it was important to me that I allowed them to feel like they weren’t acting. While we knew the narrative arc going into filming each piece, we captured the footage in an unscripted way that allowed the artists to relate to the product and one another naturally, creating a cinematic hybrid between documentary, narrative, and advertising. We’d chat through the intention and then after each take, I’d say which part was best and ask to do it again, so we were building it as we went along. 
 Did any of the three spots pose any particular challenge? Were there any noteworthy on-set experiences?

What happens on set stays on set. 🙂

Production always involves a variety of challenges- which I think is part of the allure if you work on that world- whether you admit it or not. I like having to think on my feet when something isn’t working out the way we’ve planned as it often brings a new unpredictable magic. 

Uniquely, for these spots, we only had the talent for a very limited amount of time on the day, but we needed to cover what you’d shoot in a full day (or two), so it was a lot of moving quickly. Thankfully, I’m used to this having come up in music videos. For Niall, we only had 5 minutes left with him on a hard out so he could catch a flight, but I was desperate to get that opening scene with him in the back of the venue. The guy who was there to work the house lights decided to vanish at the ONE moment we needed him and, though we had gone over that plan so many times, once he did get into place, he kept switching on the wrong lights and my 5 minutes turn into 2 minutes to shoot an entire scene. So, I’m there, waving everyone on the crew to get out of the shot behind him and people are fishtailing behind us and we know we’ve only got basically 2 runs of the verse and he’s gone. Niall was great and stayed focused on what I needed him to do, knowing when to ignore me waving at the crew and when to look at me and see where I was motioning for him to go. I love that scene, so I’m glad we got what we did.

How did you initially find your way to directing? Was it something that always interested you?

I wanted to be a director from a really young age.  I was working towards it but building the peripheral skills through other loves- music and photography. For a long time, I wanted to be able to do it all- and I did. At one point, I was on tour in a band, directing, taking photos, and DJ’ing, but I knew in order to get to the “top,” I had to invest more into one passion. The last year on the road in Dum Dum Girls, I started missing out on too many great jobs, so I knew it was time to hang up the bass. While I took the “scenic route,” I always knew this was the long game for me. Now, it’s an unquenchable thirst that consumes me and leaves little room for anything else. Even grocery shopping. 

Who are some of your biggest influences, directorially? Musically? Artistically?

I’m influenced by everything, everywhere. A producer I worked with recently kept making jokes about how I was always working. We’d be driving home from a meeting and I was always looking out the window, into the stores we passed and commenting on the lighting or the location and how it’d be great for a shoot. For me, it’s beyond the individual pieces or artists, but all of it together. It’s the film on the screen, but also the way the light hit the streets outside and the stories I shared with the person next to me on the way home. It’s not just the song, but where and how I heard it and the memory I attach to it. 

How has your work in advertising affected your other creative practices (i.e. does it provide financial stability? Have you learned specific lessons from working in advertising)?

Financial stability is everything. Money can’t buy you happiness, sure, but when you know your rent and bills are paid for a while, you can utilize higher thinking. Since you’re being hired for your creative vision, it’s important to have the space to nurture that part of your mind.

Working in advertising, since you’re generally less in control of the creative, is refreshing in a way. With music videos or short films, it’s largely your vision and that’s wonderful, but there is a different layer of stress that comes with it. It’s great to come onto a project with an agency and client and be more of service to their vision, while bringing your unique skills to the table. Anything that better sculpts your ability to collaborate will make you a better director. I have so much respect for creatives, so it’s exciting for me to see what comes of us putting our heads together. 

What are some of your favorite kinds of spots to shoot? What are some dream projects that you’d love to be hired to work on?

I love capturing “realness;” it’s one of my greatest strengths. While I’m equally proud of my ability to shape an aesthetic and cast interesting people, I now know I’m interested in applying that skill to more genuine moments rather than pure aesthetic. I want to keep bring the heart and connection to the scene. Don’t let all my black clothing fool you, I’m a soft-hearted romantic underneath. So, as for dream projects, it’s anything where we’re capturing aesthetic curated realness. I love travel jobs and have become the master of dropping into a place and capturing the essence of that city. In the last few years, I filmed in Jamaica, Mexico, Canada, Germany, England, Japan, and the Ukraine. I’m looking forward to where the next set of projects may take me. 

What are some exciting next projects for you?

A musical short film with a great female artist, possibly a few commercials at the start of the year, a few music videos, and a branded doc piece on an inspiring artist. I’m using the quiet period during the holidays to work on writing a TV pilot that I’ve been dreaming of for a few years. 2017 felt like just the warm up for the Big Game in 2018; I’m excited to see what it will hold.

As someone who’s been successful in a number of industries, all of which have their own barriers to gender equality, what are some of the career obstacles you’ve come across, as a woman?

It’s been an uphill battle, for sure, and has taken many years for me to learn to not “turn down”any part of myself to make someone more comfortable. It’s changing, sure, and it’s beautiful to see, but there are still moments where I can sense people making snap judgements about my abilities based on how I’m dressed or purely by being a woman. There’s no satisfaction quite like the moment when you see their judgements fade by seeing you in action.

Free The Bid is committed to advocating for diverse perspectives and points of view. What do you think are some of the benefits to diverse representation on both sides of the camera lens?

Perspective! Storytelling – be it in an ad or a film – is about the perspective of the voice. We always say there are two sides to every story, but very rarely has the *other* voice been the one we’re hearing in these realms. As more of the minority get the chance to narrate, I think we’ll simply have more of a variety in story, look, and feel. It has a butterfly effect too. As the idea of “normative” gets expanded through diversity, there will be less of a feeling of “otherness.” Less “oh, that’s not how I look or feel, so I’m not good enough.”

Finally – if you could give advice to young directors just getting started, what would it be?

Be kind. Everyone on your set is a part of bringing your vision to life – from your DOP to the PA making sure there’s coffee. I think my reputation for being nice to work with has helped me to get the chance to work with really talented people – DOPs, Editors, Colourists, etc – who wanted to work with me despite the production or circumstances being below what they’re accustomed to. Sure, they’re interested in my vision, but thankfully, I think the days of tolerating the arrogant tyrant running a set are dying out… coincidentally as more women are taking the lead. 😉
Prod Co: Vice UK
Producers: Emma Yuille, Harriet Towler
DOP: Sy Turnbull
Editor: Jason Bradbury
Colour: Simon Bourne
Production Design: Emma Rose Mead, Ollie Hogan