As Jesus is King: A Kanye West Film premieres at IMAX in London this weekend, SHOWstudio interviewed longtime Kanye West creative collaborator Nick Knight on directing the film, alongside filmmaker Britt Lloyd to take Jesus is King into a bold cinematic vision.
Bella Gladman: How did you come to work on the project?
Nick Knight: My relationship with Kanye started in 2012. Since then, Kanye and I have been talking and working on a whole range of projects. I don't have a formal role in his operation. Simply put, I am a friend who suggests things to him. We work together to make the world look like we want it to look. Conventionally I've directed music videos for him, so I've directed New Slaves, Blkkk Skkknhead and Bound 2, all in the space of a year. I've photographed magazine covers and editorials of him and Kim and right now SHOWstudio are designing the Yeezy Website. A lot of the time it’s just talking to and trying things out for him, visually or typographically. Introducing him to artists or architects, or designers he could work with. Most recently, he asked me to create a film around his Sunday Service.
BG: Compared to working on West’s music videos, what were the unique challenges of this project?
NK: Firstly, Kanye’s Sunday Service 50 piece gospel choir are just awe-inspiring, it was such an incredible experience to be physically in the centre of that choir and to be able to film them. The people who star in this film are so very important to the overall message. They are amazing both as vocalists and as people. Humanity and its struggle to find meaning and ultimately joy and salvation is the core of this film. We filmed it in The Roden crater in Arizona, which is the lifetime achievement and the vision of artist James Turrell. It’s an architectural masterpiece created in a dormant volcanic mountain under the painted desert in Arizona. Its scale is pharaonic and its ambition to use light to humble and awe the visitor makes it the perfect place to host the Kanye West Sunday service because of its image and its acoustic qualities. It’s a brilliant marriage of light and sound. Both technically and artistically, Kanye decided he wanted to present this in James Turrell's Roden Crater, because of the deep spirituality of what he's doing with Sunday Service. It needed to be uplifting and at the same time humbling.
BG: So spirituality is the focus of this film?
NK: Kanye is very spiritual in his outlook now, he's very much oriented around the teachings of Christianity and Jesus Christ. That's his real focus: he's trying to understand the world, life, death and salvation through those teachings. I had to try to understand what he means and what worship and devotion are to him. I work to see the world through the thoughts and feelings of other people. Working with Kanye is very similar in many ways to how I worked with Alexander McQueen, understanding his world and his desires. Both men are extremely complex and extremely passionate about their lives. Both extremely honest and sincere, both are often misunderstood by a media that wants an overly simple answer to the most complex questions.
BG: I’m getting a sense of catharsis and transcendence.
NK: It’s true there’s a lot of joy in the Sunday service. Sometimes people can see devotion and worship as a heavy, oppressive thing, but actually here it isn't. The choir in this film see it as an emotional release, brought about by singing. These are all people whose connection to Kanye is singing and music, which is such a pure connection to the spirituality they all share. I want people to come out of Sunday Service film feeling good about themselves and very moved by it, in the way the people in the choir are very moved by their devotion to Christ. Often we see worship and praying juxtaposed against misery and suffering. When you watch somebody who is in a joyful state worshipping, it's a very different feeling. It’s very uplifting. And of course, the music is an incredible vehicle for the transfer of belief. It has such deep history, ingrained in the struggle, which I would say is still very ongoing in America today for equality.
BG: How is the film structured?
NK: Each song is one shot. We wanted to compose a shot perfectly and just hold it all the way through, no editing, zooming, panning, tilting -to use none of the basic tricks of cinema. It encourages the viewer to think and to really consider what is being shown to them and hopefully to allow them to actually become part of it. People are passive and simply entertained in a lot of cinema, but I wanted to at least try to make people think. It’s a big ambition, we are all too used to being entertained by simple visual trickery, such as fast cutting and overly dynamic camera work. I wanted to slow things down and to let people into the world I see.
BG: The sheer impact of the IMAX architecture - its size and acoustics - is, in a way, reminiscent of a church, where those who enter move into a position of awe.
NK: Regarding showing in the IMAX, we often fail to take into account the spatial element of viewing a film at the cinema. This film is created to be seen in that immersive IMAX experience and I wanted to alter the space, so the imagery of the film is presented through a series of circular shapes. The effect is to be able to change the IMAX space as well as alter peoples emotional response to the imagery. Because it's being presented at IMAX, where there’s a massive screen, you're immersed in the image, and you're tiny in front of it. It is reminiscent of looking to the skies, to the heavens as you might when worshipping. Using the physical device of doing things through a circle, you lose the shape of the screen and the surrounding building. So it's much easier for me as a filmmaker to suggest that people are in a new space, physically and emotionally. It’s a way of pulling people in, and opening up their emotions. It frees you by the use of a new language in cinema. I’ve shown two different films at the IMAX, one for Daphne Guinness, one for Gareth Pugh, so I know what it's like to work with that space, it's particular and not the same as conventional film or cinema. Its a highly interesting space and the IMAX want to get away from just being seen as a space to see huge Hollywood blockbusters, they wanted to be the place to platform the global release of a film which is about experience, faith and emotion. An art film released on a global scale. I think IMAX really are trying to help us re-see and redefine the cinematic viewing experience.
I filmed this with the person who has filmed a lot with me, Britt Lloyd. She's somebody who Kanye really trusted and so do I. Britt, Kanye and I considered and looked and talked through each shot to get the vision we all wanted. While working at SHOWstudio, Britt and I taught ourselves to get away from working in the way conventional film does, where you have a whole team of 60 or so people around you and you can’t actually pick up a film camera. We work with a small team that is highly flexible and very talented, this way of working was ideal for filming the choir without changing the space in the Roden Crater or ruining their acoustics and light qualities by using lots of heavy bulky equipment. They had to be sensitive to the space we were creating within.
BG: Were there particular moments from the film that have stayed with you since?
NK: Working with Kanye, who in my mind is a totally unique person both culturally and spiritually and is someone who I respect enormously, I am aware he is changing so many things for so many people, so it is, of course, a huge pleasure but comes with a lot of responsibility. His vision has great importance today. When you’re making a film that talks about belief and worship in a very real sense, you have to take the viewer on a spiritual journey. There is a very interesting narrative arc, which is also very personal to me and to Kanye. We have to convey that to people who may not be initially open to hearing it. Kanye did not want to be centre stage. He said, ‘This isn't a film that is about me, this is a film about worship - that's a universal thing.' He certainly didn't want to be ‘Kanye West, the star of this film.’ It was a lack of ego and modest humility that was paramount to him in this film. I feel I am presenting a vision of Kanye that I think not many people seen before - it's a very genuine vision about emotion and integrity. To try and portray that in this film at this time in his life is really quite a special privilege.