In conversation: Daniel Askill talks directing Sia’s visual universe.

Daniel Askill by Kathy Ryan
Daniel Askill by Kathy Ryan for the NYT.

In 2021, Semi Permanent will present ‘Sia + Daniel Askill The Videos 2003-2021', an immersive retrospective charting the collaborative rise of two globally acclaimed, award-winning artists. Ahead of the experience, held exclusively in Porto, Portugal, we’re catching up with the contributors for whom the videos would not have worked without.

Daniel Askill is an Australian-born filmmaker and visual artist based in New York City. His work is most often seen through explorations of film, video installation, music videos and commercials.
Between his solo work and that of Collider (the production company he founded in 2001), Askill has worked closely with iconic brands and artists including Alexander McQueen, Apple, Paul McCartney, Nowness, Acne Studios and long-time collaborator Sia to redefine the visual texture of pop-culture today. With Sia, Askill's videos have been viewed over two billion+ times on YouTube, while her 2017 Coachella performance (which he directed with Sia) was described as 'One of the great moments in Coachella history.’
In conversation with Murray Bell, founder of Semi Permanent. 
Find out more about the exhibition here
Murray Bell: Okay, I have…1, 2, 3, 4, 5….10 questions here. Some are about the music videos. Some aren’t. First question: there was a ten year gap between the videos for Sia’s records Breathe Me and Chandelier. What happened in that time? 
Daniel Askill: That’s a good question. Sia and I had a lot of fun on Breathe Me, which we shot in London when we were first living there. We’d spoken about videos all through that time and stayed in contact. I’m sure if I dug back in I could find three or four treatments for different videos throughout those years. But for whatever reason, perhaps Sia got busy with something or I got busy with something else, we didn’t get to making them. 
Then I remember her calling me one day and saying ‘Oh, I've got this new track. It's called Chandelier.’ She already had some ideas for it. And to be honest at that stage, I was like, ‘yeah, great.’ But as it always is with these things, it just felt like it was probably going to be another one of those videos we chatted about in the intervening years that may or may not happen. And you never know where those things are going to lead. 
Were you focusing on any particular element of your work in that time? As if you knew you were both destined to do something big together, but you needed to develop certain skills first.
That first video really came right at the beginning of my career, just before I made a short film called We Have Decided Not to Die, which was when we started [film production studio] Collider. I remember those two things happening at once: We had the short film play at a bunch of film festivals and Breathe Me play at a bunch of music festivals. I got some representation, and was very much on this little trajectory of working on my own career, getting an agent, directing a bunch of commercials and music videos for other people. 
We probably were more day-to-day friends in those intervening years. I remember she came and lived with her then-boyfriend at my house in LA, and we made little dodgy things for fun. Sia was always playing dress ups. Thinking back to when we had a lot of fun creative time there was probably something bubbling under the surface without any pressure. Her grin was still very much around. And then Breathe Me got picked for the end credits of the Six Feet Under finale, and that led her into more serious songwriting. 
Sia + Daniel Production
Behind the scenes in New York filming the video interludes for Sia + Daniel Askill The Videos 2003 — 2021.
So looking back at that time, you really had no pressure and were free to create whatever you wanted without any observation. Now there’s a lot of observation, and a lot of expectation that success inevitably brings. Do you feel the weight of that? 
Yeah, definitely. It's interesting trying to get back to that time when creativity felt free and spontaneous and that does get harder and harder. I’m talking to you now while directing a car commercial this week. I appreciate this work, but my focus is more and more around how to get back to that place that’s less about pressure and more about feeling free and authentic. 
It’s hard to speak for Sia, but I got a lovely text from her this morning. I lived with her in New York for like three years and one thing you could always count on was that there was always a dress up box with wigs and clothes and tinsel and whatever. And inevitably a few people would be around and we’d be dressing up and filming it, maybe doing charades. I haven’t thought about this for a long time, actually, but that was our relationship. The short story is that it’s a good point and it’s something that’s important to try and get back to.
Working with Sia would always be fun. We haven’t made a video in a little while, but I’m sure we’d love to do it again because it’s always fun. I think we have a unique collaboration because we knew each other for so long before things got too serious.
Maddie Ziegler on the set of Chandelier. Sia + Daniel Askill The Videos.
Maddie Ziegler on the set of Chandelier.
Do you think you were channelling anything particular from her as a songwriter that helped push your craft as a primarily visual artist? 
The number one thing that I’ve learnt from Sia which starts with her music but is really just her as an artist, is focusing on humanity and emotion. In those intervening years I felt I was really honing my craft as a director. I think for a lot of young directors, coming up is all about what you can do technically. Any commercial I was directing in that stage I would always jump into a pre-visualisation first and break it out in post into a million layers. It would all be quite cerebral and technical, which is a great learning experience. 
But I think the experience from Chandelier through Elastic Heart with Sia, even though I was probably doing more on the craft side of the directing, her focus was always on the emotion in an instinctive way rather than a calculated one. She was just always looking to have her heart ripped out. And I was really able to learn from that. I feel like that was part of the chemistry between us—she's just an instinctive emotional creature and artist in a wonderful way. And I feel like I've been on a path to find more of that in myself as a result.
After Chandelier, you worked together quite a lot together in a small period of time. When you develop a creative relationship like that, what does that do to the work? 
I don't know if this is exactly an answer to that question, but this is along the same lines. More often than not with a music video, you might be pitching against three other directors, and you have a brief window of working with that artist. As a result, it might not be as good because the relationship can be a bit superficial just because of time. But with these projects there was a group of us that worked on a few of them—Ryan Heffington, the choreographer; Sebastian Winterø, the DoP; Maddy, the dancer; David, Sia’s manager; Jason Baum, the producer; plus the makeup artists and costume designers and so on. When you’re working with a group like that, there becomes an unspoken language. 
We were lucky enough to feel like a band. Everyone has different skills but they interlock in an organic way so you can do stuff that no one person could ever do individually. And we all knew without having to say what each other’s strengths were. That sorted itself organically, because that can be a bit of a nightmare too when you have a lot of opinions. This is a long-winded way of saying that what was amazing about the span of the projects was that the team got to know each other and it allowed us to be stronger than any of us were individually. 
Sia + Daniel Askill The Videos 2003 — 2021 - Production
Daniel Askill on set in New York, directing a new video interlude for Sia + Daniel Askill The Videos 2003 — 2021.
OK, so we have Ryan doing this wild choreography, Maddie performing it like no one else, Sebastian shooting in this now-iconic style. What did Daniel Askill the director add to the equation? 
The easiest way to describe how it works is to explain the process of how a video like Chandelier comes about. Everyone sees that video and probably thinks ‘oh yeah they had this idea that Maddie would dance around’, but it never started like that. The first thing I remembered was getting an email from Sia with the track and she had an idea that was something like ‘I want to build this human chandelier out of dancers and have them swinging from the ceiling.’ 
So after listening to the track and looking at the budget and I guess through my experience as a filmmaker, I was at least able to go back with some confidence: ‘I think we should make this more singular, let’s make this about one great dancer.’ So it starts with little things like that. I know she's going to come with great ideas, but I have experience as a filmmaker in how are we going to get the best bang for our buck and focus in on the idea. 
We were brainstorming different dancers for the video. She loves reality TV. She had been watching Maddie on Dance Moms and sent the idea of Maddie over to me and I was like ‘this girl seems amazing’. Moving on the technical side, Sia wasn’t used to pulling a crew together or working with a DoP or deciding whether to shoot on steady-cam or on a dolly. Do we do a wide-shot? Do we use a backlight? There’s a lot of craft-based decisions that need to be made on the simplest things. Getting to the simplest idea is the hardest part, because it’s ease to have a lot of complicated ideas that will fall on their face when you try and put them together. So on Chandelier it was about trying to bring them to this essential place and allow the dance and performer to speak for itself.
A big part of directing is about diplomacy. It’s not the bit I like the most but when you’re working on a shoot like Chandelier with 30 crew or a car commercial with one hundred crew, you’re trying to navigate a lot of people and hold onto the creative idea so it doesn’t fall apart somewhere along the way. 
Chandelier was a turning point for both Sia and yourself. How did you deal with the sudden exposure?
Obviously it was an amazing thing. We felt that there was something special the first time we saw Maddie do the choreography in one hit, but I don’t think anyone could have imagined it having the cultural moment that it did. Seeing Jim Carey send it off on SNL, live clips of Seinfeld cast members talking about it…it was just one of those things that had a moment in the zeitgeist in a way that was quite pure because it wasn’t manufactured for that purpose. It was just one of those things that did good things for all of our careers, and continues to as well. 
And these videos are full of space for the audience to extrapolate their own meanings from. How did you go about leaving enough clues for them to decipher the message while leaving things ambiguous?
It was a lucky coming together for all of us, because we all inhabit that space between meaning and abstraction in different but complimentary ways. Speaking for myself, I know I feel more comfortable in a “poetic” space where you’re dealing with metaphors and symbols rather than black and white meanings. 
The second part of this is that dance is wonderful because it can hit so many emotional chords while still holding back and abstracting through movement instead of words.
The third factor is that with video there’s often an underlying concept that guides the filmmaking, performance and choreography. Elastic Heart is a good example of that, because we had a new collaborator in Shia LaBeouf. Shia wasn’t someone who was just going to turn up and do his job. Off the back of Chandelier there was a lot of interest in what the next one was going to be, so he came in with a bunch of ideas. One reference he talked about a lot was an art installation by Joseph Beuys, a famous German conceptual artist in the 70s who locked himself in a gallery with a wolf. He was exploring the psychological confusion that was symbolic of the times. That was a starting point, but there was also his dealings with celebrity and family life, then Ryan Heffington was trying to process or hold it all together and deliver it in a way that was streamlined and accessible but held layers of meaning. There was a lot of interesting stuff going on in the background of those videos and a lot of work to translate it as something that read with a level of emotional purity. 
Sia + Daniel Production 3
Sia’s headlining Coachella show was one of those interesting explorations of a few different mediums. It was interesting how it changed the way we connect to stories through different levels of light and sound and performance. 
It’s interesting because in one way we changed the medium, but on another we kept it the same. The Coachella show came up and we were on a roll of doing these videos together with this team—myself, Ryan, Sia, Maddie, Jason etc. From a sales perspective, she just wanted to roll with that. And I remember her coming to me and saying, ‘do you want to direct this Coachella show with me?’ And I think at the beginning I was a bit like,’ Oh, I would like to, but I haven't really done a stage show before.’ And, bless her, she was really the one with the confidence of like, ‘I just want to do this with the same team.’
And I guess because we were all used to making films, we turned it into a film. We mounted the whole Coachella show on a sound stage in L.A, and shot the whole thing as if it were a film. The great trick, which was really Sia’s idea and was wonderful to execute, was to create a gag where we could pull in a whole lot of celebrities into the film. We had Kristen Wiig, Ben Mendelsohn, Maddie, Paul Dano, and Ryan was choreographing them because he’s great with actors, and I was directing the show with Sia. The thing about Coachella is that all the celebrities are there, and because we had those visuals on the jumbo screens (and people assume what’s on the jumbo screen is what’s happening on stage) it looked like they were on stage. We had the vision sync-locked to the audio, so we didn’t need cameras running around on stage either. It was a great twist on how to do a show, starting with the filmmaking and then piping that out onto the stage as opposed to doing a stage show and filming it live. 
There is a real evolution of the visual universe over the course of these videos. Chandelier features one dancer in a small apartment, Elastic Heart expands that into a bigger space, then The Greatest has a cast of many. Was that by design? And where to next?
It wasn’t by design from the start, but as the project evolved there was a feeling of wanting to up the scale. We started with Maddy, then we added Shia and Mahiro, then by the time we got to The Greatest we had a whole cast of dancers. So there was a natural evolution of ambition throughout the project. In terms of where we go from here…it’s an unwritten book. I think we got to a point that felt like we had done an organic body of work. Ryan is doing all sorts of amazing stuff, Maddie has grown up a lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is another chapter in the future, but what’s great about this exhibition is that it’s a really nice way of framing the whole arc of the work, including a teaser for the Coachella project. 
After all that, can you introduce yourself and this exhibition? 
I’m Daniel Askill and this is an exhibition of the collaborative work made between myself and Sia over the course of a decade. It’s been an amazing journey working with an artist like Sia over this time. I’m really proud of this work and how it touches on different, important moments of in both our creative lives. It’s the result of an amazing collaboration between dancers, choreographers, musicians, producers and all sorts of artists. I feel very lucky to be part of it, and I hope you enjoy the show.