The engine of communities across the USA is creativity. If not for the makers, the communities would be less vibrant, the human experience less enriching, our daily lives less full. Commonstate is a tribute to creative thinkers in every community who believe that a culture of creativity is a better culture for all.

Jessica Farrell & Quinn Hester

Nicholas Pipitone • Milwaukee

Jessica Farrell and Quinn Hester met in 2010 at the film school at UW-Milwaukee. When you’re around them, it becomes clear that their personalities occupy distant ends of the creative spectrum.

Jessica clicks her fingernails on the table, almost like a nervous tick. One leg moves frenetically, and she doesn’t really walk – she race walks. She doesn’t sit still. Ever. Quinn, by contrast, is relaxed on the surface, measured, choosing words carefully. But on the inside he has a burning desire to make something great.

I joined Jessica and Quinn on the set of their latest music video, a highly emotional piece for Milwaukee band The Listening Party. Jessica directs and Quinn is the cinematographer. They work together better than you’d expect a couple to work together; they get each other in a complimentary way and they push each other. Hard. 

The Listening Party video features four vignettes; a single Mom lives with her son in their car; a young guy works numerous jobs to make ends meet, traveling by bicycle; a vet experiences the onset of PTSD; blah blah blah. They work quickly, setting up simple lighting, (Quinn has become exceptionally good at creating atmosphere) and Jessica interacts with the actors helping them find their emotional place. They’re as industrious as you would expect indie filmmakers to be – they shoot in friend’s apartments, buy their own props, and routinely give up their weekends to do it all. 

This video is their best work yet, and is premiering at the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival. I talked with them about their approach to making music videos over lunch one Wednesday afternoon.  The overriding sentiment of the discussion was simple enough. “Know your roles” was the theme – with them, you’re not exactly sure if they’re talking about producing music videos, or about their personal lives.  

While their artistic impulses told them that filmmaking was in their blood, it was producing music videos that allowed them to flex their creative muscles in a way they didn’t expect. “You’re always learning, and with a music video you don’t have to worry about plot or story or dialogue,” Jessica told me. “Everything is practice.”

Knowing their roles – her, a “fearless, get it done, stay organized and always finding a way and never quit” producer and him, the “always be shooting, pushing yourself to get the next great shot and never settle” cinematographer, – turns out to be a perfect coupling. “We push each other to grow and write more – you need to push and challenge yourself – to always say hey, you can do better than that.” They both agree that when you’re doing what you love, you can always be pushing yourself to do better.

Just because it sounds cool when you sing it, doesn’t mean it’s going to look pretty when you see it.

But one of the banes of the music video business, especially locally, is the constant chorus of “we don’t have any money” when it comes to production. Quinn and Jessica both believe that’s not a barrier – but there is a cost (a significant investment in equipment, perhaps?) and the ability to have a bit of creative freedom is incredibly important to them. Quinn says it best: “If you don’t have any money, then know that I’m not making something I don’t want to make. If it’s more about the band’s idea, then pay a filmmaker.”

It all gets back to knowing your roles again. Musicians make music and filmmakers make film. Quinn believes that trust in a filmmaker is key to making a great music video. Everyone has a job to do and it takes a lot of discipline and maturity to relinquish creative control to a filmmaker. And as Quinn says so eloquently, “If you want me to shoot your band performing on a white background, well, I’d rather put a gun in my mouth.”

Music Video Shoot for The Listening Party

Music Video Shoot for The Listening Party

Jessica chimes in about the value of having filmmakers do their job: “Just because it sounds cool when you sing it, doesn’t mean it’s going to look pretty when you see it.”

In other words, musicians, know your role, and by the way, trust us. We’ll do right by you. For the bands they work with, their dedication is never in question.

“In college they push you and push you. Then you get out of college and no one is on you to get stuff done. But as they say a ball in motion stays in motion. You have to be practicing, playing, thinking, and writing all the time.”

Credits & References

  • You can follow Quinn’s work here, and Jessica’s work here.
  • Some photos courtesy of Quinn & Jessica.
  • Other photos taken by Nicholas Pipitone.