Fashion Filmmaker Autumn de Wilde on Prada, Postmen & the Power of Dreams
Along with experience as a photographer and filmmaker, Autumn de Wilde has worn enough hats to confuse a milliner – having also been a dancer, model, author and actor, and her unique visual style feeds on many sources, including her own dreams.
It’s easy to see why top fashion houses like Prada, iconic brands like Uniqlo and Keds, and luxe hotels, such as the Venetian in Las Vegas, turn to acclaimed filmmaker and photographer Autumn de Wilde when they need witty, colourful and inspired campaigns.
With a flair for combining the playful with the dramatic, and with an innate gift for capturing the ever-changing cultural zeitgeist, whether through her commercials, music videos, books, portraits or films, de Wilde blends the line between art and advertising with her unique contemporary style and polished commercial approach. “I really like to play in heightened reality, but with extreme sincerity,” she says of her style.
Prada: The Battlefield
That approach is perfectly illustrated by her work for Prada. Last year she created The Postman Dreams 2, a series of four short films, written and directed by de Wilde, which was the sequel to her first project with Prada, a five-film series that debuted in 2015, was featured in Vogue and picked up a slew of gongs, including Visual Style winner at the 2016 AICP Awards and silver for Production and Post Production at the 2015 London International Awards.
The sequel features A-list Hollywood talent – Elijah Wood portrays the Postman and Emma Roberts is the heroine, playing herself in the opening mini-film The Bogey – but the real star of the surreal, very tongue-in-cheek series is the Prada Galleria bag, a key plot driver in each film and an intense object of desire.
The Postman Dreams 2: Bogey
De Wilde’s quirky, dance-heavy Uniqlo Move campaign won multiple gold, silver and bronze awards at last year’s British Arrows and at the Ciclope Festival. And for the Venetian Hotel’s Orologio spot, she created an energetic, retro-fresh commercial featuring five dogs, countless cuckoo clocks, and an arresting colour palette of vibrant stripes and saturated tones.
“I’m very collaborative, even if things end up being recognisably mine, and I try to create things that people want to watch more than once, which is why colour and a sense of heightened reality are so important to me,” she explains. “I was a photographer for many years, and still am, and then I got into directing, and both are my passion and obsession, so I feel my work has all these different veins and muscles. And some muscles get stronger while others don’t get used as much, and then that changes. I go through stages of exploring something to its fullest, and then move on.”
One constant in her work is the influence of dreams. “There’s no logic, but you don’t question it, whereas when you’re awake you’re questioning everything,” she notes. “So, when I mix reality and surrealism, my characters don’t question things, however bizarre the situation, and I think life is truly bizarre and colourful.”
As de Wilde points out, growing up in LA “was bizarre enough. There’s no loyalty to history, so you’d pass a house from the 20s, and right next door there’d be something from the 50s and then the 80s, so it feels like a collage city. And then they’ve made so many movies here, you’d see something and immediately go, ‘I know exactly where they shot that. I know that building’.”
“There’s no logic [in dreams], but you don’t question it, whereas when you’re awake you’re questioning everything.”
Having a father who was a professional photographer – “my brother and I lived at his studio for a while when I was very young” – meant that visual media “was always really interesting to me, especially as the [pop] artist Ed Ruscha lived very close by and there was this great enclave of interesting creative people around there who all influenced me, although I actually wanted to be a ballet dancer, and studied dance,” she reports. But her impressive height – she’s 6ft 2in – gradually became a problem in the dance world, and for “a tiny bit” she became a model – “but I didn’t like it.” Ultimately, she ended up in theatre school in LA, where she studied every kind of classical and modern acting technique. “It was sort of like RADA. I was sad about not being able to pursue dance, but then I also love theatre and it was a such a great toolkit to have, and I probably first got the directing bug then. The acting was so helpful later on in dealing with actors and directing them, as I really understood their process.”
Ironically, de Wilde “did not enjoy the company of actors back then,” and far preferred hanging out with musicians. “So I became a rock star photographer in the mid-90s, and I still do that along with everything else,” she adds. Her photographs of such stars as Beck, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Jenny Lewis, The White Stripes, Fiona Apple, Elliott Smith, Norah Jones, Sonic Youth, Wilco and many others have appeared as album covers and editorial spreads, and she’s also written several music books: Elliott Smith, an in-depth look at the late artist through photographs and recorded conversations; Under Great White Northern Lights, which documents the White Stripes on the road during their Canadian tour in the summer of 2007; and Beck, a chronicle of her 15-year friendship and creative partnership with musician Beck Hansen. “Part of the photography thing with all the musicians was that I was trying to create a visual language for them, and trying to help build stories for them where they could either hide behind it or reveal themselves through it,” she explains. “It’s all marketing, but it is creative marketing.”
Portrait of Beck by de Wilde
Her stills work with the artists gradually led to directing music videos for such bands as The Raconteurs, Spoon, Jenny and Johnny, and Death Cab for Cutie, and that in turn led to directing commercials. “At the time, the record industry was basically collapsing, and I was looking around for other avenues, as I was signed to an agency but not getting any work,” she recalls. “And my big break was when Mark Romanek, who I’d known for years, and who was always very supportive of my photography, took me over to Anonymous Content and got me set up there. And I immediately felt that they got me, and a plan was forged, but it took a while to really get established in commercials.”
She admits that “being a female photographer and commercials director in a male-dominated industry” is far from easy, “You have to continually prove yourself, but I worked hard and it gradually all came together.”
De Wilde got another big break when she landed the first Prada campaign. “It was a game changer for me, as it really showcased what I could do,” she says. “They essentially gave me a blank sheet of paper and so much freedom to design the whole world for them. And everything then developed from that and gave people confidence that I could handle big campaigns.” It was also a logical step for the artist, as her photography has long graced the covers of such fashion and lifestyle magazines as BlackBook, Flare, PAPER, New York magazine, Stylist, FILTER and L’Officiel. For years, she has also documented the couture design team behind fashion brand Rodarte.
Danai Gurira by de Wilde for Rodarte FW 2018
De Wilde, who’s written, directed, and shot brand films for Oliver Peoples entitled Catch a Tuesday, starring Zooey Deschanel, and The Children Are Bored on Sundays, with Elijah Wood and Shirley Manson, was all set to make her feature film directorial debut with Goodbye, Felix Chester, a YA dramedy produced by Anonymous Content, until the financing fell apart at the last minute. “I’m told it happens to even the biggest directors,” she adds, “so I feel like I’ve graduated now.”
WHAT INSPIRES... AUTUMN DE WILDE
What’s your favourite ever campaign/ad/fashion film?
Every fake photo shoot in The Eyes of Laura Mars.
What product could you not live without?
How do you relieve stress during a shoot?
I don’t really feel that stress creates an interference for me creatively – I might actually get high on roadblocks.
What’s the last film you watched and was it any good?
The Great Beauty, for the hundredth time, which I believe implies that I’m a fan.
What’s your favourite piece of tech?
The new Redback lights by Hudson Spider. (Instagram: @hudson.spider)
What film do you think everyone should have seen?
Harold and Maude.
What fictitious character do you most relate to?
The Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.
If you weren’t doing the job you do now, what would you like to be?
I’m doing my dream job.
Tell us one thing about yourself that most people won’t know…
I was in a Tom Petty video.