2015: A Year’s Worth of Memories (Sabyn Mayfield)
by Steven Spoerl
Over the course of 2015, more film coverage started trickling into this site’s regular coverage and that expansion will continue going forward. At the outset of Heartbreaking Bravery’s creation, the plan was to emphasize film in some way. While most of that emphasis lay in the admittedly limited coverage of the technical aspects of music videos, a few short-form documentaries and art films made their way into circulation. Before beginning this series, there was a 15 of ’15 post that covered the best scenes of last year and following the conclusion of this series, the final 15 of ’15 — the films list — will go live. Even with films now officially a part of this site’s fold, the critical dissection of music videos will remain, as it’s still one of the most fascinating short-form presentations currently being produced.
By all of these tokens, it’s a genuine honor to bring in Sabyn Mayfield as a contributor after he nearly topped the music video list and as he continues post-production on his directorial debut, Boomtown. A few of Mayfield’s various other credits working as a writer, producer, composer, casting associate, key grip, and actor include cult classics like Wristcutters: A Love Story, Spring Breakers, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Palo Alto. Below, he writes about site favorite Julien Baker, the “Sprained Ankle” shoot (which easily ranks as one of my favorite clips of all time), and touches on Boomtown. Dive in and go shoot something beautiful when you’re done.
You would think these things would be easier for me to write being a writer/director, but in all honesty, I’ve become a writer out of necessity rather than pleasure. Writing is something I’ve done from a very early age and have found enjoyment in, but with the advancement of technology, I have to admit that my typing ability has not progressed at the same speed as my thought process. Long-form handwriting is my preference, but once I started transcribing it from pad to laptop, I said the hell with it. But I digress…
2015 was an enlightening year for me as a director, but the catalyst for it was a 3-taco combo I ate at the end of 2014. A few years back I worked on a film called Spring Breakers, directed by Harmony Korine. Harm has become a good friend, but more so someone I look up to and can seek guidance from as I make my own path as a director. At the end of 2014 I was in Nashville working… or hanging… or something.
I reached out to Harmony asking him to take a look at the body of work I’d compiled at that point with the hope that he could give me some feedback or guidance in taking it to the next level. Long story short, we played a little text tag, and he hit me up saying his car was in the shop, but if I was free I could pick him up and we could grab lunch. Done and Done.
So we ate tacos. Harm was cool, as usual, and told me that he thought my work was really great, but that it was obvious I had amassed a series of pieces that reflected what agents/managers/productions companies told me I needed to help “sell” me. From what Harm knew about me personally, he felt my work lacked my true fingerprint. What he meant was that it wasn’t the type of work that reflected my individuality, edge, and identity as a filmmaker. And the real kicker was that he was right! Hard to argue with a guy when he vocalizes the thing that you knew all along, but couldn’t quite pinpoint. Boom!
This was the best and worst lunch I’d ever had. Best, because I felt free to truly express myself as an artist. Worst, because I knew that meant becoming more selective, which could negatively affect my “Dolla, Dolla Bill Ya’ll”. But at that point, it was the only option moving forward.
Now a little back-story on me as a filmmaker: From as early as I can remember, and even when I was in film school making my first shorts, I knew that I wanted to make films and tell stories that made people feel. Stories that affected people good, bad, or indifferent. Stories that ultimately became timeless because they were based on a universal truth or experience that everyone could relate to; real stories about real people.
So all that information takes us to January 11, 2015, and me sitting on my computer trolling Facebook for something to pass the time. What I found was a link to an EP self-released by Julien Baker on Bandcamp. I listen to a ton of music. I’m a fan, I make records, and I love shooting music videos. It’s always a blast no matter what, and one of the ways I get videos is my reaching out to independent artist that I like. Sometime it goes somewhere, sometimes it doesn’t.
But there was something really special about this record and the single in particular. It had this sparse instrumentation and these vocals/lyrics that penetrated deeply to my core, but more that than, on first listen I could visualize exactly how the video would play out in my head. So, having the obsessive compulsive tendencies I do, I trolled the Internet some more and found an email address for Julien and shot her a note.
Lucky for me, she replied right away (she addressed me as Mr. Mayfield which made we feel incredibly old at 33, but I guess to a 20-year old I probably was) and we began a dialogue that continued until May 12, 2015 when Julien arrived in LA and we drove our asses to Joshua Tree to shoot the video for “Sprained Ankle”. Now the end result is what I can only describe as lighting in a bottle. We had zero fucking dollars, but we had an amazing song, an amazing vision, incredible team, one location, one outfit, and one continuous take (I’d like to tell you how many takes we did and which one we actually used but that would ruin the mystique of the whole thing).
If my memory serves me right, we left for Joshua Tree around 6am, began shooting at 10am, wrapped by 1pm, got back to LA at 4pm, and delivered the 100% locked video by 6pm. Pretty rare for something this cinematically impactful to happen that smoothly. But, because of all the ingredients I mentioned above, we were able to make a breathtaking video that represents the song and Julien to the T. And, to expand on my point earlier, it is representative of me as an artist. It has been an evolution, and this video is the culmination of the work I’ve put in to developing my craft and who I am as a filmmaker.
What is so impressive to me about Julien is that at such a young age, she is confident in who she is and her voice. Not only as a singer, but also as an individual. It takes most people, including myself, many more years to trust in their inner voice and follow the path that is unique to them. In hindsight, not only was this piece pivotal for me as a filmmaker, but this experience was necessary for me as a man.
OK, so that seems to be a really good place to stop, but it actually gets better if you can believe that….
So just about the same time Julien and I were getting ready to shoot the “Sprained Ankle” video, my close friend and frequent collaborator David Newbert (who also shot “Sprained Ankle”) asked me what I knew about Williston, North Dakota, to which I replied “fuck all.” What I also didn’t know was the seed he planted that day would 8 months later turn into my first feature film, Boomtown. As I sit in my living room writing this, it is November 30, 2015, which is exactly 8 days since we wrapped principal photography on Boomtown.
What began as a casual lunch conversation turned into an 8-month whirlwind of researching, writing, casting, scouting, interviewing, funding, fighting, and driving, which culminated in our arrival in Williston, North Dakota. I don’t want give away too many details about the film at this point, because post-production has only just begun and we have a long way to go, but what I can tell you is that Boomtown is the byproduct of the “Sprained Ankle” video, specifically the way we willed it to be and the rawness in which we shot it. Boomtown is a unique and specific story that takes place in a very extreme and real environment. My main objective with the film, as was my goal with Julien, was to capture the true essence of the individuals, their emotions and environment, be it past present or future. To convey a feeling that you can only capture by being there and living it.
What I have come to find to be true through the course of this year is that you don’t need all the bells and whistles to deliver a dynamic product. You don’t need over-produced music. You don’t need big budget blockbusters. You need the simplicity of a true story and real people. People just like you and me. Those are the stories that are too often untold. But when they are, it is a sobering reminder of how much we all truly relate to one another.