Filmmaking is an art of storytelling, and the best stories often are inspired by experience. The ability to share a unique perspective is only possible by experiencing that perspective yourself, and to do that you have to truly LIVE. You have to participate in different, unexpected, or sometimes uncomfortable facets of life; plug your nose and dive in head first.
This is the kind of living normally watched in movies or read about in novels; aspirational adventures that feel limitless in daydreams but risky in reality. But in order to tell great stories such risks are necessary. Harnessing fearlessness, bravery, and shameless naivety can push you to higher heights and expose you to life only previously imagined as an angsty teenager daydreaming of something, anything ELSE.
What we love about Malia James’ work is how she captures the optimism, hope, beauty, and pain of youth. She transports you into a mindset of dreamy adolescent reality, where emotions are heightened, where heartbreak feels monumental, where energy is limitless and where rules are meant to be broken.
The stories she tells on screen are a product of her own adventurous life lived without abandon, and her fierce, fearless attitude that makes you question your own. She taps into emotions only accessible through experience, and shares them on screen with an assured confidence. It’s been a pleasure to get to know and work with her as her reel grows, and we can only sit back and anxiously wait for what she releases next.
How did you get involved with your band, and how did you transition into making music videos?
I remember a girl very distinctly from when I was about 15, Sarah Brown. She had the pixie haircut dyed blue, and we went to private school so we had to wear uniforms, but she had a nose ring, and a boyfriend who looked kinda femme and wore these grunge outfits… I thought she was so fucking badass. One day I remember she was outside the arts building playing guitar and singing with her boyfriend and their whole crew. I was in 8th grade and awkward and not cute, but seeing her there made me want to play music.
I got a guitar and tried to play but it just wasn’t working… so I thought ok I’ll be a director. I took photo classes and directed plays. Then I went to film school in Boston, and I started to learn guitar again… Dated boys in bands, that was a nightmare… Still couldn't get past three chords. I decided I’ll just be Annie Leibovitz, and my contribution would be that I’ll see musician’s lives and be able to share that with the rest of the world. I was doing PR and making websites for bands, and managing another band. I finished school, came to LA and met a musician. I fell in love, he broke my heart, and I swore off ever dating another musician, picked up everything and moved to London.
In London I met a guy who said he’d teach me guitar. One day he was being super grumpy, and I was like ‘Why are you being an asshole,’ and he was like, ‘My bass player just quit and we have shows booked.” I paused and said ‘Well I could learn to play…’ So we got a bass from a friend and he started teaching me that night, and I played my first show two weeks later. I don’t know how well I did that night, but when it ended and I had survived - I’ll never forget it - the crowd started clapping, and I felt that rush of accomplishment and was hooked. I tried to stay in London for 2 years but could never get a visa, so I came back to LA, where I joined a brand new traveling festival called FYF as the photographer.
Wow, as in the FYF Fest? That’s one of my ultimate dreams, to pack up and go on a tour like that.
Just don’t do one on a school bus that runs on vegetable grease… It was the first tour and there were about 30 people on the bus. It was a disaster from day one. We got jackhammered in a ditch and the bus broke down in the middle of nowhere. Sean and Phil [festival organizers] came to me saying ‘You’ve been on tour before, why don’t you tour manage?’ So I wound up managing that tour.
From there, a guy who had been on that tour was good friends with Marnie Stern, this crazy guitar shredder. After FYF, Marnie needed a tour manager, so I went back out on the road with her. At the end of that tour Marnie was like I want you to come on tour again, but I want you to play in the band. So my second ever band was with Marnie Stern. I was driving, managing, dealing with money, and playing every night. And after touring with Marnie I bounced around playing in a few other bands, and continued to take photos.
Somewhere in the middle of all the touring, one of my ex-boyfriends invited me to come and shoot video on one of his photoshoots. I hadn’t shot video before so I learned how to use the 5D that night, and I filmed on his shoot the next day and loved it. Then one night a friend of mine who plays in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club texted saying he felt I should direct their music video. I had to write a treatment that night, and I just shot up like ‘Ok I’m going to make a treatment.’ I stayed up all night, wrote the treatment and got the job. I had 9 days to get it cast shot, edited and delivered. So I didn’t sleep for 10 days. And that was my introduction into directing, and I’ve just kind of kept going since.
"Jump in. Everything in my life I’ve just jumped in. Like with the bass, I was never going to sit down and learn scales. Jump in and just go for it."
A lot of your videos focus on a theme of youthful angst and adventure. You’re great at directing scenes full of feeling that sort of hurt-so-good; scenes that make you feel gut-wrenchingly alive. You can make us feel in love or heartbroken, capturing life through an electrifyingly youthful lens.
I love addressing youth. I don’t know, I’ve always been obsessed with that time. Even though that’s when I was probably the most unhappy. It was the best of times it was the worst of times.
I went to boarding school in Texas, in the same city that I lived in. My mom had to take a job in a Kansas City to pay for the school, but it was cool because it didn’t really feel like I went away to an unfamiliar place. We were so wild. Age 14 and 15 were my wildest years easily. I would call the school and pretend to me my mom and check myself out, and my rich friend had a mustang and we’d take it out and drive it around all night. I remember one night I didn’t have a learner’s permit and we drove to Austin from Dallas on cruise control at 90mph. We got to Austin, and changed our slutty teenage outfits in a Denny’s parking lot and tried to get into a club, but no one let us in, obviously. So we sat in a coffee shop till like 4am and drove back. Those days were funny, I remember buying weed from the older girl and it just being like a bag of sticks.
"I love those kinds of stories and people at that age. My casts have all been soooo great. I hand pick most of them. I troll instagram and find the perfect people, most of them aren’t actors, and often times I’ll tell them to dress themselves. Just real kids."
Finding that perfect person is so important to a project. If you don't have them it will feel off. Gut feelings are so important to listen to, in whatever you’re doing. That authenticity is so important. We also love that you work so much in Japan. I’m [Justine] from there, and I love how you portray Tokoyo in such an authentic way.
It’s a magical city. My first exposure to it was when we shot Halsey. The original idea was to shoot LA as a sort of Japanese inspired futuristic gritty utopian place, but when the producer looked up flights he realized it’d be cheaper for us to fly there and capture it authentically. I put her wig on and we shot me from the back walking through the streets.
And for the second project for Honne and Izzy Bizu, I was interested in how repressed the culture is there - with physical contact, with everything; feeling conflicted about your traditions and desires. Trying to cast that was very difficult. The only people we were getting from casting agencies were adult entertainment models. And that was so not the vibe, it was more innocent and real. So again I spent so much time on the internet, we slept probably 2 hours a night looking for the right girl.
I finally found a girl was a DJ who was perfect, but she didn’t get back to us right away. We kept reaching out and it came down to the wire to cast her but it finally worked out. The moment I laid eyes on her I knew she was the one.
We’re inspired by what seems to be a defining ideology for Malia, which is to not overthink things, because if you think too carefully, you’ll find an excuse to NOT. And to not do is to not learn, to not live. Her stories reveal how she’s lived by her gut and challenges her own ambition, because she understands that if you wait for the perfect right time to do anything, you’ll never actually do anything. The best way to truly learn anything is to just start doing it. To see more of Malia’s work visit: http://maliajames.com/