One of my favorite quotes is by artist and photographer Chuck Close, who famously said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
It really rings true; a creative block is just like a dead end – you have to turn around and find another route. You can’t just sit around waiting for some serendipitous brilliance to make the block disappear. You just have to redirect yourself and work your way through it.
The spirit that lies underneath that quote is likely the reason that film director Amanda Speva found herself backstage at The Hideout with a group of friends on a strangely snowy April evening in Chicago a little over a year ago.
It’s a moment that Chuck Close would call “showing up and getting to work.”
They were at the club to see Caroline Rose, indie singer, songwriter and brilliant wearer of the iconic red Adidas tracksuit. Snow in April could depress anyone; and while the weather was not ideal, Amanda was determined to meet Caroline Rose after the show. Speva was in the midst of an uncharacteristically stagnant period of creativity and the snow was just piling on at this point.
She remembers it as a time of feeling overwhelmed – and underproductive. “I was feeling like my creative fuel tank was low,” Amanda told me. “And then a friend asked me if I had heard of Caroline Rose.” Amanda remembers her friend telling her, “She (Rose) oddly reminds me of you – you look similar, have similar features, a dark comedic sensibility and you’re both goofy.”
Having met Amanda, I can with a fair amount of certainty say that her friend was right. Speva is wide-eyed both physically and mentally – she lives in the world of “why not” and has a voice that is measured in a way where every word feels important in the least pretentious way imaginable. She’s fearlessly creative, darkly comedic and yes, endearingly goofy. It was a foregone conclusion that she would contact Caroline Rose.
But first, she would immerse herself in Rose’s critically acclaimed album “Loner”, a poptastic vox continental fueled ride through Rose’s psyche. It is infinitely danceable, groovy, melodic, quirky, and remarkably honest. Needless to say, Speva felt a profound connection to Rose’s songs.
Speva reached out to Rose on Instagram in the way only she could:
“Hey, I feel like we’re kindred spirits. I love your record. I’m a director and I would love to make something for you, whatever you want, and I don’t have to get paid. I think you’re rad and that we’d have fun together.”
Months of conversation between Rose and Speva ensued. Ideas flew. Creative block be damned. A creative bond inevitably emerged, and it all led up to that night at the Hideout. Speva was standing near the stage waiting for Rose. “I told my friends, hey, I need to walk up to her and show her that I exist.” Her friends asserted that she was being a little too “groupie-ish” – but Speva was not about to let this opportunity pass.
It’s really a lesson to all creative people, regardless of who you are or what you do, that the boundaries of what’s possible are always expanding. And you should always be pushing yourself to do more – and better. Embrace failure and discomfort, because on the other side of those experiences can be an immensely life-changing one.
“Rose was in an argument with her manager and had a really bad cold so I waited for it to die down,” Speva recalls. “I walked up and said something like, hi, I’m the director you’ve been talking to on Instagram and I wanted to show you that I’m a real living breathing person.” They hit it off. Their discussion was brief, yet deep and enlightening. And at the end of the night, Speva and her friends were helping Rose and her band load their gear into a van.
If anything says you’re invested in a project, helping a band load their gear is right up there.
Speva is all personality, all substance. In her daily existence, she directs commercials. 30 seconds and 60 seconds. Compact, economical slices of commerce, and she does it with a sense of humanity that’s rare. I originally met Speva on a commercial shoot during my (ab)normal life as an advertising creative director and witnessed her ply her craft firsthand. When I ask her if making commercials is a form of selling out, she snaps back with her trademark quick wit and dry, sincere matter of fact-ness: “Spike Jonze makes commercials.”
Speva makes me think of how I’ve had a longstanding belief that one-dimensional people are the most boring people in the world. Especially the ones that work on advertising. The more creative outlets you have, the more well rounded you are as an individual, and the broader your creative world view and the more you are intellectually informed. And who the hell wants to talk or think about advertising all day?
Speva’s brain is dissected into sections — film, music, philosophy, etc. — which was started by her supportive parents and stoked in college.
“I was a double major in film editing as well as music and had a minor in philosophy because, why the fuck not,” she told me. “My professor was a fantastic editor and took me under his wing. I also got into audio editing and had a radio show.”
She speaks of filmmaking utilizing all of it — you have to have communication and people skills, you have to be empathetic and kind, and you have to have a photographic eye. Her musical background informs pacing. And just being a decent human being plays into what may be the most important part of it:
“You have to know how to mitigate disagreements between people.”
What would a creative process be if you didn’t have to go back to the drawing board at least once?
Originally Caroline Rose wanted Speva to direct a video for the song “Cry,” one which Rose has called a “conversation with myself.” Speva had a creative structure for the video and then out of nowhere, during a conversation with Rose, Speva finds out that the director who was going to do a video for Jeannie Becomes a Mom had bowed out and could no longer do it. “Can you concept something for that?” Rose asked.
“So Caroline and I worked together for 5 months, spitballing ideas and having a billion conference calls. It was not only amazing to get to know her on a personal level, but to be creatively and comedically on the same page.”
Jeannie Becomes a Mom hits you in the face right away with a vintage organ sound reminiscent of Elvis Costello’s Pump It Up — it’s dirty, loud, reverbified. The song tells a story of suburban banality in the most tap your foot and snap your fingers way possible. And therein lies the reason Speva was perfect casting to direct the video. It required quirk, a distinctively female perspective, and a visual language that communicates suburban life in all it’s striking weirdness.
The song is a study in contrast – as upbeat as it is, it’s actually a heavy song about suburban decay with a female main character who imagined a white picket fence existence that might not be exactly what she envisioned. The idea of the video was to make Caroline the third omniscient person. “(She’s the) unseen indie songstress singing about it all. She knows the characters’ thoughts and feelings and she’s narrating the story of this couple,” Speva told me. “Caroline is empathetic, she’s the one who is watching over them and perhaps protecting them in some way – when things are going well Caroline is there, but when the shit hits the fan she’s absent – it also deals with various themes such as isolation, adulthood, mortality, jello molds and beloved goldfish deaths. Caroline is there, trying to make sense of it all and provides comfort to Jeannie at the end.”
Speva immersed herself in the details of the story to bring the lyrics to life. The key lyric in the song, “The world don’t stop, even if you’re living in color” informed much of the art direction from the jello cake to the red bra hanging on the clothesline. And the circular refrain of the song’s final line “Now you’re in real life” informed the spinning camera of the video’s finale.
With a limited budget from the record label, the one day shoot was ambitious – which is why Speva created a full length board-o-matic before the shoot to keep everything very specific and on schedule. And Speva admits that while it’s immensely rewarding to work with an artist the caliber of Rose, it’s a massive commitment.
“With a music video – you have no choice but to listen to the song over and over again — so you’d better love it.”