The first time Jemima Kirke saw a YouTube video of Alex Cameron, she immediately told her agent she had to meet him. “It was half professional and half date,” she says. “I basically asked my agent to play Cupid.” She met the Australian singer-songwriter at a party in Manhattan in 2016, and it wasn’t long before the two began dating and brainstorming ideas for a project to work on together. “She said that she wanted to collaborate, and I was dead serious about it,” Cameron says. “I’m ready to work. I’m not trying to slow down.”
Neither is Kirke. Since Girls wrapped up in 2017, the actress has kept herself busy — as she puts it, “I’ve got tentacles in a million different things.” She’s starred in independent films, acted in the Netflix miniseries Maniac and appeared in music videos for Mick Jagger and Zayn Malik. Mostly, though, Kirke spends her time creating art in her Brooklyn studio. “That’s always the backbone of my day,” she says.
Most American audiences first met Cameron around the 2016 re-release of his debut LP, Jumping the Shark, for which he took on the persona of a somewhat creepy older lounge singer, complete with slicked-back blonde hair, a leather jacket and liquid latex on his face to create stage wrinkles. “I was really interested in trying to reset who I was, making myself very uncomfortable onstage so I could be this uncomfortable person,” he says. “And then I realized that I was making the crowd uncomfortable.” He dropped the character in time for his second album, 2017’s Forced Witness, an indie synth-pop record that features his musical partner Roy Molloy and the Killers’ Brandon Flowers.
Since beginning their work together, Kirke has gone on to direct and star in two videos for Cameron: “Studmuffin96” and “Stranger’s Kiss,” the latter a duet with Angel Olsen. Their latest collaboration is their most ambitious yet — a 17-minute short film that Kirke directed based on his Forced Witness track “Marlon Brando.” Shot in Bushwick last summer, the film depicts a haughty, eccentric male director (comedian John Early) who’s making a music video for Cameron. The shoot for the video-within-a-video does not go well. When his production assistant (Amy Zimmer) brings him a ginger molasses cookie instead of the ice cream sandwich he requested, the director has a tantrum on set. “I’m looking back on my life, and I’m pissed!” he screams. “I miss my friends from college!”
Kirke and Cameron sat down with RS at a bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn to discuss the project.
Let’s start with the song. How did you come up with “Marlon Brando,” Alex?
Alex Cameron: In Sydney we have a thing called the lockout laws. It’s a restriction on nightlife. They started because people would go into the city and do a thing which used to be called the king hit. It’s walking up behind someone and trying to knock them out from behind. Young guys would do it when they’ve been drinking. People started dying from it. The government used it as an excuse to shut down the nightlife, because they wanted to sell out all the real estate where all the clubs were.
So it became this political thing, and I just wanted to write a song about the person that had started this whole mess — this character, this straight bro, super-defensive about his sexuality, anti-social to the point where the only thing he has left is violence, to save face.
How did that lead to this short film?
AC: Jemima finds her way to use the song in order to tell her own story. I write the songs, and I know what I’m doing when I write the characters, but to have someone contribute a separate vision to it really opens up the meaning. It gives me complete closure.
Jemima Kirke: John Early is a really good friend of mine, and we were having some drinks one night. We’re always talking about our least favorite people and making funny characters out of them. He has one straight guy that he does that’s really great. When Alex was trying to come up with an idea for this song, we thought it was finally time for this new character. It was a perfect fit for the message I took from the song.
We pitched it to Alex, the idea of this film director following him through a shoot, but he wasn’t so sure about it at first. This character seemed too real — what’s funny about this? Alex wanted to touch on the aspect of the song which was taking a dig at male toxicity, and I was like, “But we are.” I think it was because John and I had been in acting, so we know this type of director. We were like, “Trust us, this person is funny.”
AC: I had to see it to believe it.
JK: He just hasn’t been around that many film sets to see how ridiculous it can get.
Like the ice cream sandwich?
JK: Yeah, this stuff is real. That was the other thing we had to work with: “This feels really real. Maybe it’s too much.” That was where John came in and he was able to broaden it up every now and again and make it kind of silly…. This kind of character is definitely not your go-to when you think of misogyny or male entitlement. It’s not what you think of. But I think the reason it was so important for me to make a character out of this guy is that I think it’s a type of behavior that we accept every day on film sets, and even praise in some ways. We’re allowing dicks like this to behave like that on sets.
AC: It was an education for me to see. With the song I felt like, “I’ve covered this.” Arrogantly, like, “This says it all.” And then to have Jemima come in and say, “This idea and this character extends further into other facets of life.” It’s an obliviousness that I would have, because that’s how men affect society: violence and anger.
JK: Even in their apologies. We can’t bring up names, but we reference so many people. I went on YouTube and we found a few different apologies and the little nuanced ways that we give them a little pat on the back for it. It’s an apology, but it’s a self-praising one. Like the way John does it. He really makes a spectacle of it and he turns himself into this sort of saint. We’re standing there, staring at him, like, “Wow, you’re amazing for apologizing.”
And here’s my one thing that I want to make clear with this video: I actually don’t think that these people that I’m referencing are necessarily bad artists. I actually admire a lot of them. And I’m not saying that this character is a bad artist. I’m making fun of a behavior. A type of professional. But I’m not saying, “These guys suck as artists.”
Do this song and film have anything to do with the real Marlon Brando and his career in Hollywood?
AC: I wrote “Marlon Brando” in 2015, and then all this shit comes out actually about Marlon Brando behaving like this on set. Months after I recorded it. I was like, I can’t believe this is unfolding.
JK: But Marlon Brando didn’t just do that. There’s also hilarious, ridiculous stories of Marlon Brando being a dick in other funny ways on set.
AC: The video clip encompasses what the song’s about. The spirit, the thread that goes through it, is that these are the people that end up having fans and being idolized and being eccentric geniuses. It’s the study of an artist, really.
JK: I want to say something about the choice of the word “faggot” [in the song’s lyrics]. I know there are going to be some people who will not approve of even the usage of the word, and could say the same thing we’re saying about certain men for apologizing. They could use it against us, saying that we’re using this very derogatory, painful word and capitalizing on it, right? And my point of view on that is that I don’t mind certain words — derogatory words, racist words — being used in a way to make art in a way that makes sense. I don’t believe in getting rid of these words, because I’m someone who likes to tell stories. Words are meaningful. And they’re meaningful to the people that have been hurt by them and they’re meaningful in storytelling for that same reason.
AC: My view is, if we try to write something gritty and real, then everything’s on the table. If you’re trying to write a character and you’re giving that character this side of their personality which is destructive and offensive, then it’s on the table. Especially my experience in releasing the song, the vast, vast majority of people are on board with that. Sometimes people write me emails about it. All you can do is have that conversation with them.
Did you think about any mockumentaries or other movies when you were making this short film?
JK: Oh my god, yeah, Spinal Tap. It’s something you don’t necessarily laugh at the first time you see it. When musicians first watched it — and I only know this from my father [Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke] telling me — they didn’t really get it. ‘Cause other than a few notes here and there, it just felt like a story of a band. Not necessarily a joke. And watching it now, it still fucking applies. What the hell? How come they knew this? Also Unzipped, which was a documentary about Isaac Mizrahi getting ready for his fall show in the early ’90s — it’s all black-and-white, so that’s where that came from.
Are there any musical influences you two share?
AC: My musical influences continue to be artists that have really put their own personal stories and experiences, and almost in a way sacrificed them, so other people could access them. Like Marianne Faithful. Have you heard that song “Why’d Ya Do It” off Broken English? It’s insane. It’s so explicit, sexually. She’s going so graphic, but it’s so effective. It’s a learning experience for someone like me who’s listening to it.
You also have people like Lou Reed, he’s tried to sing about anxiety, so he does a song like “Waves of Fear.” If you listen to it, it is what it’s like to have a panic attack — except it liberates you from it, because someone else has been through it. It’s writers and songwriters that understand that the opportunity to record a song is also an opportunity to shine a light on something that’s affected them so much that hopefully they can liberate others from the same experience.
JK: Alex is truly one of my influences, and he was before I even met him. You could tell that he was making exactly what he wanted to be making. It didn’t feel trendy, it didn’t feel like you were trying to be heard. I was like, “I want to be that guy. I want to be ballsy like him.” He was kind of like the male version of what I wanted to be. I was lucky that he was alive and youthful so I could contact him. ‘Cause sometimes you see those videos and you’re like, “Oh, they’re dead. They’re long gone.”