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  • Writer's pictureEcem Lawton

Harper's Bazaar September 2021 Issue: 'The Art of Storytelling'

Director Ecem Lawton, the creator of music videos and movies that integrate art, history and subtexts, reflects the stories entrusted to her to the audience with a modern depth. Bade Cakar

Creative Director / Producer: Guvanch

Photographer: Brendan Wixted

Makeup Artist: Ryan Burke

Hair Stylist: Koji Ichikawa

Fashion Producer: Alfredo Mineo

Fashion Assistant: Joao Pedro Assis

Videographer: Philipp Cherichenko

As a director, what are your priorities in the visuals you create, what kind of style do you have?

To me, the song and its music video are a hydra who belong to two distinct universes, but have the same soul. As a director, my priority is for the video to be very different from the way anyone who listens to it with eyes closed imagines it to be. I aim for the song to make you feel some type of way and take you to a distinct world, and for the video to make you feel a whole different way and take you to a whole new universe. As opposed to the song limiting my vision, I want the music video to destroy all the limits posed by the song.

The artists with whom I create visuals for, are above all, very valuable people to me. The songs they have trusted me with and have put a lot of effort into is a treasure that I have to protect and present in the most beautiful way.

As a director, my priority is to understand how the artist dreams of portraying themselves, the image they want to create with the video, how they want to address their audience and how they want to make them feel. Then, listening to the song dozens of times, loving it as much as they do, analyzing and unearthing its context, sub-context, themes and meanings that even the composer did not notice in the lyrics.

While doing all this, to keep the pulse of the global music world on the one hand, and art, literature and film on the other. To create unique visuals that have never been done before, to build a new world and to make the artist the hero of that world, to motivate the audience with concepts and stories that will have their jaws drop, make them laugh and think ‘damn, they did that!’

After your education at Columbia University, you took part in many important projects as a director, producer and editor. What did it mean for you to be in a place that we can call the heart of cinema in America?

Starting my 18th year in New York, where I stood on my own feet for the first time and discovered myself, and the chance to experience university life on a campus where incredibly beautiful minds from all over the world gathered, gave me a global perspective above all. Columbia has a mandatory curriculum called Core Curriculum – no matter what major you choose to study, you cannot graduate without taking courses such as Art Humanities, Contemporary Civilization, Literature Humanities, Music Humanities, and Frontiers of Science.

Through these courses, they aim to make you an individual who has knowledge on every subject, who can think and write analytically, and who has synthesized the most important theories of mankind. In other words, the biggest goal of the school is to make you a visionary person who can think globally. Learning from Nobel, Pulitzer and Oscar-winning professors, learning to listen, understand and communicate with my classmates who come from different backgrounds and think differently than me, and being able to look at the society I was born into from the outside are the most valuable things the US has given me.

The influence of the US and Columbia in my directing career is huge. I can see the big picture in my work and I want to show that to my country. This is my #challenge: to reveal images that may be too much for our society but can lead to great things when accepted, and to convince artists and producers to support and implement these ideas :)

In addition to your film and media education, you also have psychology and art education. What kind of perspective does the combination of all of these reveal and how does this reflect on your music videos?

Double majoring in Film and Psychology at Columbia allowed me to combine my passion for understanding human physiology and behavior with my desire to entertain them. The role that human psychology plays in the entertainment industry has deeply affected me. Conducting experiments with human subjects on one hand, and writing, editing, producing, shooting, and directing on the other, I have developed a powerful skill set that helps me go beyond the surface as a filmmaker, and inspire, move, and entertain my viewers through my work. As a result, I developed a strong and original perspective on my vision as a director – I became a director, producer and editor who can get to the true essence of an artist and unleash their wildest dreams and greatest potential, giving them all the guidance and tools they need.

I discovered my passion for art with the mandatory art history course I took. Learning about Art History and engaging with different works of art, I was tasked with assessing, analyzing, and presenting pieces of visual art to my classmates. This was one of the formative intellectual periods of my life, scurrying around New York from exhibition to exhibition with a little notebook in my hand, taking notes on color compositions and blocking, wondering how the artists froze time and told a story with only a split second. This notebook eventually became my director’s notebook, to which I would regularly refer when thinking about color or creating a certain mood in a shot of the short films I worked on. I started approaching moving images like a painting– I wanted each shot to be elements that create meaning rather than impose it.

I decided to combine my passion for cinema with my passion for art, and in 2018 I got my Contemporary Art masters from Sotheby's Institute of Art London. I have curated exhibitions at major museums such as the Tate Modern and presented works of art to the public at the Venice Biennale.

Following my master's, I came back to New York with my newly acquired understanding of modern art and worked as a manager at two large art galleries.

I feel that I gained a more intellectual and analytical visual language after my art history and modern art education combined with my film background. I am very excited to read the analysis of the references to art history and that can be noticed after watching it a few times, which I placed in the music video 'Bumaya' that I just shot for Kenan Doğulu! I love enriching my videos with ancient stories, artistic details and motifs.

We got to know you better with the videos you have shot recently. What was it like shooting music videos?

Since I am interested in many things in life and I believe that I can master anything, I gave a shot to everything that attracted me and never limited myself. In each new professional endeavor, I never thought that I was starting from scratch, I always thought I was starting from experience. I strongly believed that one day I would find my calling in life. I've always dreamed of one morning, I’d wake up and say 'I found it!'. Now I experience the unbearable lightness of waking up (and being) like this every morning, I believe I was born to be a director! I am very happy to have found a career that combines all my strengths, especially creativity, leadership and the value I place on people. I am sometimes surprised that I traded a 9 to 5 work life with a 24/7 non-stop work! My job is very personal to me– a process where I don’t let go of the hand of the artist from coming up with the concept, shooting, montage, watching the artist perform live, and debuting the dance challenges to the public.

Music video projects are super fun because they don’t have delayed gratification like movies. Being able to see a video you're working on on screens in a short time is great compared to a filmmaker’s journey. You get to meet and work with so many different people in the industry.

Who were the names in the world of cinema and art that influenced you the most?

From the outside, although I may seem like someone who’d answer Tarantino, Wes Anderson and David Fincher, my movie taste is actually more eclectic, grotesque and provocative. I admire directors who make me think about the realities of life in an artistic and surreal way, who profoundly affect my outlook on life, whose impact I can't get over for a long time after watching their films, whose motifs I can't understand at first glance and need to unpack over time, and who have equipped their visual world with art, history and mythology. Among these directors are Lars von Trier, Gaspar Noe, David Lynch, Harmony Korine and Robert Eggers. I can add Safdie Brothers and Nicolas Winding Refn to the directors whose films I wish I had shot.

I have a special interest and admiration for the directors on whom I wrote theses for school and the artists I exhibited in galleries. I wrote my senior year thesis at Columbia on Nuri Bilge Ceylan's 'slow cinema'– this process made me look at the film stills as pictures. When I was managing the painter Francis Bacon's 'Bacon's Women' exhibition in New York, which consists of portraits of women in his life, it was as if I was one of his female subjects.

While I was doing my master's at Sotheby's, I was fascinated by video artists like Dara Birnbaum, Tony Oursler, Pipilotti Rist who added the human component to technology. The first of these is Marck, the artist I wrote on my master's thesis, who made 'video sculptures' and fascinated me the most with the fourth wall he demolished. Marck became my mentor after graduation, we met at his exhibition in New York and he is currently designing video sculptures for a music video I’m working on.

May we know your future plans?

I am currently working on an HBO documentary about trans women, which I will direct and will start shooting at New York Fashion Week. I would love to produce world-renowned music videos. I desire to become an auteur– I want people who watch my work to easily say, 'This was shot by Ecem Lawton'. At the same time, I want to break some stereotypes in the entertainment industry, and sometimes be in front of the camera in the films I shoot, produce and edit!

Annette Insdorf, my dear film professor at Columbia, had once said something that became my motto: 'The more personal a story is, the more global it is.' I am proud of my Turkishness and as a Turkish director, I want to bring the stories, history, original structure and humor of my country to the global.

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