The director talks about how his career in making music videos informed his first feature-length film.
More than 10 years in the making, director Nabil Elderkin and writer Marcus J. Guillory’s film Gully finally made its big-screen debut earlier this month. Featuring performances from Jonathan Majors, Terrence Howard, Travis Scott, and more, the movie is unlike anything else out there and marks a major debut for Elderkin as a bonafide filmmaker.
Gully takes you on a thrilling 48-hour voyage with three L.A. teens who are products of childhood trauma. “What you see in the film is each one of these characters are carrying that angst, anger, and PTSD and a variety of things that they are experiencing simultaneously, while other things are happening,” Guillory told Rolling Stone. “This is speaking to the kids that no one’s listening to and no one even cares what their perspective is and tying in their trauma and saying, ‘hey, you know what? I went through some stuff, too. I count. I matter. I have value.’”
It all started back in 2006 when Guillory wrote the movie’s initial script. Elderkin, who is best known for his stunning music videos and photographs of musicians like Kanye West and Frank Ocean, knew from the moment he read the script that this was the film he wanted to make. “It was written in a whole new way,” he said. “This is not just a movie. This is saying something about people who don’t always get to see things the way they want to.”
Elderkin was born in Chicago but spent his early years in Australia. He got his start as a photographer shooting his friends surfing before eventually going on to shoot bands and DJs. In 2003 he met Kanye West in the most serendipitous way possible. “When he got signed, they wanted to have kaynewest.com and I had it,” he explained. While those early encounters led to a storied career within the music industry, Elderkin’s work on the video for the Antony and the Johnsons project “Cut the World” in 2012 gave him the confidence to dive into film. “I remember working with an actual actor in Willem Dafoe. It was just like, holy shit, this dude,” Elderkin says. “From that, I think it was something that caught the eye of a manager and an agent which led to Gully.”
Elderkin spoke to Rolling Stone about working on his first full-length film, and how working with musicians informs his approach to cinema.
Can you tell me more about how this film came together?
I met this producer Alex in New York randomly at the Bowery Hotel. He was like, yo, I got the script I’ve been trying to get to you. The next day I read it and I couldn’t put it down. I hadn’t met Marcus yet so then we got on the phone and the next conversation was me trying to woo him. We got along and I understood what his intention was with the film. I didn’t even know what I wanted it to look like. It was just in my head as I was reading the script. So, the film has gone through different iterations since that first script, a lot of iterations. Like every day on set, every day things change. It was evolving as I was shooting. I also had to also bring my experiences to it, things that I could really relate to, which was the beach aspect of it and maybe some other aspects of it, too.
You mentioned that once you saw the script you knew that you needed to make the film. What was it about the script that made you feel that way?
It was written in a whole new way. If you read it on paper, the original version, it was just like something way out. This is not just a movie. This is saying something about people who don’t always get to see things the way they want to or that people don’t get to listen to how they want it said. And I’m not saying I’m the one to say that, but I felt that with this film I could at least create a conversation. The script is a little wild, I’m a little wild. I’ve had the blessing of experiencing many different cultures and meeting many different people in my life. I think I felt a connection to these characters.
You said that the beach was an aspect you can relate to, and it was a significant setting of the film, why was the beach something you could relate to?
I was born in Chicago, but my parents shipped me to Australia when I was three. And I grew up by the beach surfing. Surf Life Saving, which is where you run on the beach, you do these ridiculous little sports on the beach, but a lot of swimming and stuff now. Just being by the ocean has a healing property to it. I remember there was a time where I had gone to Compton probably 15 years ago. When The Game was first coming out. I went and shot some photos of him and his friends. And there was just one moment I really remember where I was talking about how I surf. I was like, you should try surfing and he was like, “man I never been to the beach bro.” I can’t remember how many blocks, maybe it was 16, but he said he never left more than 16 blocks. That stuck with me like, man, how can this person live so close to the beach and have never been. But working with the Surf Bus Foundation, I’m learning a little bit more about that. Systematically, people have been almost creating barriers from reaching the beach.
What was your thought process when it came to creating these visuals?
I tried not to completely show anything, to be honest. I think I wanted to show as much off-camera as possible. Like you don’t actually see the violence in any way. Maybe it registers because there’s a lot of power in sound and cutting away. You know, there’s a lot of films in every genre where you have brain splattering and heads getting chopped off. There’s a lot of power in what’s not seen and that’s a lot of what the film is about.
How did you incorporate the video game aspect?
That was something I came up with later in the process. I remember there was a scene that’s not in the film anymore, but it was something that happens with a police officer. It was pretty nuts and I didn’t want something to be so blatant. I just wanted to show it in a different way. By the way, kids see it every day, if you look at GTA, they’re very specific with the places that they choose to create these scenes. So, I felt that would be a nice way to show violence in the film and show parallels in surreality — I just made that one up.
Can you tell me more about how you settled on the cast?
I’ll be honest, it was something that grew organically. Charlie [Plummer], I met almost as a kid. I met him some years ago. A few years before even getting to the point of shooting, Charlie was someone a friend had put on the map to me and I met him and we’d been in contact. He was super excited and super young. So he’d been involved for a long time. Kelvin [Harrison Jr.] came later in the game. He was a recommendation. The financier and producer had worked with him on a film with a friend of ours. John Legend was recommending him too. For Jacob [Latimore], he had been on an audition tape. I remember seeing at one moment that he had something special, and then I remember meeting him at a premiere of one of his films later and said, you know, I’d love for you to be a part of my film. When push came to shove, we got to the end and he was there and he was available. Jonathan [Majors] is my good friend. This guy is special. And this is before a lot of his big roles came out. He showed up on set as Greg and he left set as Greg. Every moment of it he was there in spirit. He was there for me, too. Like I look back at it and it was really special to have him part of this and obviously people know who he is now. Terrence [Howard] came in late and he was just like the icing on the cake.
I know you have a background as a music photographer/music video director. Can you talk about the incorporation of the music in the film and putting together the soundtrack?
I wanted the music to feel like it was part of the film. I had to separate the score and the music. There’s the score, done by Daniel Heath, an amazing friend of mine who did a beautiful job and then there’s the music. I also use pieces of the score in some of the production of the tracks to help with that cohesiveness. The Dua Lipa song has the bell of Mr. Christmas (Terrance Howard’s character) and even the Snoh Aalegra track too. I also really wanted to make sure the moments hit like having Ty Dolla $ign, Schoolboy Q and B-Real playing during the barbecue scene, and 21 Savage bumping in the scene on the way to the club.
How did you get everyone from Travis Scott, Miguel, Metro Boomin and so many more to be a part of the soundtrack?
You know, I’ve been working a whole 15 years with artists giving my heart to create things as a piece of their journey. Taking something that they created so beautifully and trying to add a visual component to it. So to be able to be in the position where I could ask them was scary and exciting. I was so grateful to all of these artists that came through and did it because this was a small independent film. They didn’t do it for any kind of money.
You have an extensive catalog in directing music videos from Kanye West, Dua Lipa and even doing Don Toliver’s latest video for “What You Need.” The pattern in your latest music videos seems to incorporate film-like aspects, why is that?
Well “Welcome to Heartbreak” was no narrative. It was just a wild journey of psychedelic vibes. “Mercy” was like a freestyle. I just showed up and they’re like, yo, can you shoot a video tonight. So I found a location and figured it out. The more I got into film, the more I wanted to expand. I had got to a point where I could either make a cool little short or a really simple statement. As long as it has a feeling. All I want to do is create a feeling. As long as you can walk away and it adds or at least complements the song and doesn’t take away from it. I feel like I’m blessed because people are giving me money to go make something. The song is almost like a script. And by the way, there is going to be a second part to Don Toliver’s “What You Need” video. Can’t say who or what, but it’s coming. I’m excited to have artists that are down to jump outside of the box and shoot in Colombia like Don’s video. To really go in and just embrace it and immerse themselves in new communities. It’s awesome.
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