Interview: Christelle de Castro and Jonte' Moaning

published on 14 December 2015

Kiki Georgiou interviews director Christelle de Castro and performer Jonte' Moaning about their creative practice, the connection between fashion and dance and their work on the Open Up fashion film.

Kiki Georgiou interviews director Christelle de Castro and performer Jonte' Moaning about their creative practice, the connection between fashion and dance and their work on the Open Up fashion film.

Still from Open Up (2015)

Kiki Georgiou: Could you describe to me how you came up with the concept for this video and how that changed from its initial conception to the final result?

Christelle de Castro: It’s insane. Basically, Anna [Trevelyan] had hit me up to do this in September, she’s a friend of mine and she was actually going to style this herself initially. We went to the Nicopanda showroom together and looked at the collection and I learned about Good Kids vs Bad Kids, I got the whole walk-through. I thought SHOWstudio is so cool, what an honour, this would be amazing, what a great opportunity. The initial concept that I had was to recreate that day in the office – I thought, why don’t we do a futuristic video recreating that walk-through and Anna was going to be the star of it! I was thinking, you walk into a room and there’s a board meeting happening and we animate a projection of Nicola [Formichetti] talking to everybody or somebody shows the new handbags and we animate it floating like Star Wars…

Jonte' Moaning: This is a different concept to what we finally did!

CdC: An entirely different concept! It could not be more different - that was the idea, to just make a fun, surreal video where there’s so much to look at.

JM: And it became that, in a different way.

CdC: It did. We were having issues locking down a date at the office and Anna’s schedule is insane – she’s always working and travelling. I never even had the chance to do a real treatment. It was, ‘baby girl, I have ten minutes, this is what I’m thinking…’ but she trusted me, which was great. The funny thing is I have always thought, and I told Anna, that it would be so wonderful if we had cast someone that could carry this video and I always thought Jonte’ would be so cool in that original office video!

JM: Oh shit! I’m still involved!

CdC: In my brain you were already involved! Do you remember Fifth Element?

JM: Come on, of course! I’ve got Chris Tucker down, you know what I mean?

CdC: So, that surreal energy. Anna had always wanted to incorporate dance but in my mind this video had nothing to do with dance. But she really wanted to show how the clothes moved and I feel that’s a very SHOWstudio thing. But I didn’t know how to incorporate dance - would it be too much or too weird? I wanted Jonte’ to be in it and not even be dancing, just acting. That’s when I hit Jonte’ up on Instagram.

KG: So, you didn’t know each other before this?

JM: We did! We’ve been trying to plan something out for the past year but this was the first time we actually got to work together. And it was perfect. The whole cast was perfect!

KG: Tell me about them.

CdC: We had Mela Murder – I met her at a film screening and rest was history - and she brought her fiancé Kaner Flex on! Malik Winslow is like my daughter. We met during our days at Opening Ceremony when he was a shop boy and I was photo director at Ecom. I've known Richard Kennedy for many years, although we rarely see each other. I ran into him at a party weeks before the shoot and it hit me that he needed to be in it! He is an absolute doll. And Kaori Kstar Narita is this Japanese dancer Jonte brought along to set, she didn’t speak any English so only Jonte spoke to her in Japanese!

JM: Ramone, my art director, went to this dance class a week prior to the shoot, saw her there and told me she was killing it so I said bring her to the shoot. So, literally the day of the shoot I asked her to meet me on 42nd street to go to Brooklyn and she came on set and ate the whole set!

CdC: This whole thing was a miracle, how things eventually fell into place. The stars just aligned. So, I got together with my editors and animators, two amazing brilliant girls, Rodan Tekle and Kyunghee Jwa (together they call themselves Studio Junbi), and I thought, if the office plan falls through because it requires a lot - a set designer and so on - what other concepts can we come up, especially involving dance? Maybe let’s shoot the whole thing with a drone. I wanted to do a one-take video with a drone. To do that, Rodan had this idea, what if the drone shoots outside and it comes up and all the dancers have created the Nicopanda logo? And I thought that was easy and high-impact and cute but is it cool enough, is it SHOWstudio enough? No matter what I always want to involve some sort of animation and special effects…I’m still on the fence and mind you, I’ve been working on this since September, and I’m working my ass off coming up with shit…The stress level probably took three years off my life!

JM: But as the performers we didn’t see that, which is important.

CdC: I was at a party and I ran into a friend and he said, ‘I’m going to a rave after this, wanna come? The tickets are, like, $200 and I have an extra ticket.’ I’m like, yep, I’m coming. We’re in the car and they have this crazy building where they throw this party, in Greenpoint, and I’m thinking if the dancers swirl around emulating when things get caught in the wind?

KG: I saw the clip you referenced. It was something you saw on Facebook.

CdC: Rose petals caught in the wind and swirling around. I thought it would be cool to shoot the logo and run it backwards, so the dancers swirl into the logo. So, we needed to find any kind of open lot – a basketball court, a parking lot, a field… And I saw that rave building. So, I asked if we could shoot at the space and my friend said, ‘I’ll put you in touch with the Super, he’s going to ask you for $500’ and that was that. I mean, it was completely illegal, I paid off the Super and his son! It’s the truth. It’s New York, that’s how you get things done. I got to the space and I thought, ok, now the concept has to change again! This warehouse is insane, so I thought let’s just do a dance battle and make it the good kids vs the bad kids and run amok in this entire space.

KG: So, how did you get involved Jonte’?

JM: Christelle hit me on Instagram and I thought, of course I’m going to do it, I’ll be there. And she told me who the dancers were. I came during the second half of the shoot, they were there since the morning and I came in the afternoon and I got there and I thought, ok, I’m going to go to the liquor store! I’ll be right back, I can already see you guys need a little lift. And we started the second half of the shoot and it was so much fun!

KG: When you heard of the concept what did you start thinking about?

JM: I had no idea what the hell was going to happen, I had no idea who was styling. I just showed up. I’m good at showing up and just doing whatever. I brought shit in my bag, just in case they didn’t have anything that looked good on me, I came prepared. I worked with Beyoncé, come on! I’m always ready.

CdC: The other thing too is, because this is a passion project for everyone I wanted to give everybody the creative freedom to just come in and do what they do. I’m wasn't going to ask these people to have rehearsal days and choreograph the whole thing…

K: You both work on so many different projects; do you approach a fashion film any differently because you’re thinking about the clothing and how you have to show them in movement?

JM: I ignore it. For me, I’m a muse, I’m Grace Jones and Keith Haring, you know what I mean? So, whatever you put on me I’m going to make it look good. At all costs! That’s my job and I just trust Christelle and I trust Kyle, the stylist. That’s what I do, I show up and just look hot! The connection between fashion and dance is fabric. As a dancer, we know how to move objects, I know what to do with everything that I wear. I know how I feel in it. Dancing is about how you connect your body with the world around you. I put myself into a space and I think here I am and this is what I have to give.

KG: And how does your photography work differ from your film work, in terms of how you approach each – is it seamless or are they two completely different disciplines for you?

CdC: This is an interesting one. A huge difference between photo and film is that films take much longer to turn around. Pre and post production is way more involved when working with video. I take creative meetings with my editors throughout the whole process of making a film, whereas photo shoots can be as simple as, ‘Here's the vibe. Here's the lighting. Shoot. Retouch. Deliver.’ Commercially, I think I am able to be more imaginative directing videos versus let's say, shooting a photo campaign for a brand. When I'm directing, I'm creating and pitching the concepts. Most commercial photo shoots already have the art direction locked down, and I just show up as the photographer. So the two worlds are a bit different for me. I don't think I choose one over the other, though. I'm happy I am able to work in both arenas because one alleviates the other. In terms of my personal work - that's usually portraits of my friends. Most people don't really get to see much of that unless they're hanging at my house.

JM: I started out as a dancer and then I became a choreographer for Beyonce in 2008 and now I’m an artist. I wanted to know if I could actually handle being a superstar because I’ve been trying to be a superstar for a really long time!

KG: Tell me your stories, how you both got into what you’re doing.

JM: I started out taking a jazz class when I was eleven years old. I was doing Capoeira first, in Portland, Oregon, and then next door was a jazz class and they were playing Montell Jordan and I told my mum I had to go because the music was amazing. My jazz teacher looked like a mix between Michael Jackson and La Toya and I thought, this is where I have to be. She told me if I wanted to be a fucking master I better take ballet. So, I went to the Oregon Ballet Theatre and I became a ballet dancer, I had to do ballet, African, flamingo, tap, jazz, the whole nine. I would go to school and after school I’d go to the ballet studio at three o’clock until seven and then do homework after that, every day. It was intense and nerve-wracking at first but I loved it. I’m in Oregon in the Nineties, I’m the only black boy out of three thousand students – can you imagine? And of course they made me the Gumdrop for of show of The Nutcracker! When I was eighteen I moved to New York City and I started training with the Alvin Alley Ballet Theatre and I thought it was so boring so I quit and I started auditioning for artists, I auditioned for Janet, Britney, Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, Missy Elliot and I got cut from everyone. They said I was too much! After auditioning for four years my first job was the Superbowl with Janet in 2004, which helped start YouTube, by the way. That was my first gig as a professional dancer and everything just fell into place after that.

KG: Do you feel that the times have changed and just caught up with you – now, are you still regarded as ‘too much’?

JM: They have. It makes sense now. And I’ve been testing the waters because I started out as a dancer and then I became a choreographer for Beyonce in 2008 and now I’m an artist. I wanted to know if I could actually handle being a superstar because I’ve been trying to be a superstar for a really long time! Two months ago I went to Russia and I was a choreographer and artistic director on So You Think You Can Dance. Can you imagine being in Russia at this time when they hate everyone and the gays, I’m a double whammy! But it was the best experience I’ve ever had in my life - they were so receptive to everything.

CdC: They worshipped Jonte’! I grew up in a small suburb in California and it was a really rough neighbourhood, pretty poor but it made me. I always liken my high school to that movie, Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer. It was fucked up. Huge drop out rate, a lot of the girls got pregnant but where we shined was not necessarily in academics but the creative arts. Even though we didn’t have a ton of money being pumped into the school we had a huge creative arts building and a huge auditorium where the entire school really got together and came alive during the school rallies – every couple of months they’d be performances and you could showcase your talent. So, I started hosting those, I would MC the school rallies and everybody lived for going to these rallies. We also excelled in theatre, we had the best marching band ever and a really good football team. I was born in the Philippines and I moved to the States when I was five not knowing any English at all. My parents bought a mom-and-pop Philippino-American video store and expanded it to a grocery store so at eleven I started working for my parents! That’s why I was so hardcore at school, if I had to be at marching band practise then that was a good excuse to not be at the store. That era of films had a big impact – that’s why the films that I tend to wanna make are so playful, when films today are not playful at all. They were films like, drink this glass of champagne and all of a sudden you’ve switched lives! We don’t have movies like that anymore.

JM: It’s not just movies that aren’t like that anymore, it’s everything – commercials too. People have such short attention span and all the commercials are fifteen to twenty seconds. Before they used to be a minute long and we could handle it, now it’s too much.

KG: Were those films the beginning of you as a filmmaker?

CdC: Yes! A movie that made a huge impact on me was Mr. Destiny starring Jim Belushi. I must have watched this movie a thousand times growing up, but not a single person I know has seen it unless I make them watch it with me! It's a story of a kid who strikes out on the biggest high school game of his life. Years later as an adult, he drinks a mysterious life-altering cocktail served to him by his guardian angel. The drink launches him into a parallel world in which he had actually hit that ball & made the winning home run. He is married to a different woman, he has a different job, etc. In terms of how I approach fashion films - I tend to create environments or scenarios that are hyper-real & often humorous. I think that has a lot to do with the movies I grew up watching circa-video store days – things like Hook, Ghost Dad, Home Alone 1 & 2, the list goes on. How fun would it be to recreate the food fight scene in Hook for a fashion brand? By the time I was a senior in high school I knew I wanted to go to film school. I had a teacher who really believed in me and one summer he, illegally, let me take home a computer from school so I could do projects on it and edit throughout the summer. I remember being at the dinner table and I remember telling my parents I wanted to go to New York and study film. My dad was a disciplinarian, really scary, not a kind man and he laughed at me and he said, ‘with what money?’ By the time I was finishing high school my dad had left my mom so I couldn’t really apply for schools in New York because I had to be nearby so I could go home in the weekends and work with my mom. So, I went to San Francisco State, which was literally at the bottom of my list. We didn’t do much though so I went on Craigslist to try and find a film project I could be a part of and I found this add from these kids from another school, the Academy of Art of San Fran, and they were making a Playstation commercial for themselves and they were casting and I wrote them and I auditioned and they cast me. The DP and I hit it off and we became best friends and he brought photography into my life.

KG: How did he do that?

CdC: I’d never taken a photo in my life, I only knew video. I was so fascinated by his photography - he had lots of cameras and gadgets and a dark room in his apartment - and one day he told me to stop asking and try it. He said we’d take pictures every day. He taught me and he trained me and I had his camera on me every fucking day. It was just an amazing environment to learn something new and feel empowered while doing it.

KG: What made you nervous about photography? You’d obviously handled a camera before in your film studies…

CdC: Honestly, it was just breaking his equipment! When you’re taking a still you’re thinking, why am I looking at this and why do I think this is the one fucking frame that I want from this scene? When you’re used to motion picture it’s one continues roll. Taking just one is weird. But I ended up loving taking pictures of people so that became my thing. A year later I got into my first art show and then I became an artist and I was doing art shows in San Fran. I moved to New York because after a few years being an artist and curating shows, I was not making any money. I was working at a diner and I needed to find out how to become a professional photographer and get printed in magazines and get hired to take pictures. Being an artist was fun, I worked so I could buy film, develop it, get stuff framed and hang it up in shows that weren’t selling anything.

KG: So, in a way, you’ve come back full circle to film then. Did that happen naturally for you.

CdC: It did not, it was a slow process. It’s funny because once money starts getting involved with things, once you start working in a field, you laser-focus so hard. In SF I was doing street art, when I moved here I thought, oh, I’m not this educated white girl. I don’t know how to fit in, how do I get a show? So, I thought, this isn’t my lane, my lane is being a commercial photographer and I have to somehow try and build a name.

JM: I feel like New York has a way of helping you find where you belong. I always figure out who I am in NYC. Because people always want to take pieces from you and you have to know how to be centred in this fucking chaos - it’s really intense here.

KG: So, how do you do it?

JM: I leave New York!



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