Along the way to becoming Executive Producer (i.e. the boss) of Merge, the music video division of the internationally renowned Crossroads Films, Trudy’s career has been as colourful as her work. Starting out as a controversy-provoking artist in the ’80s, a holiday encounter with Lindsay Shapero (writer/producer of the Emmy-winning, Helena Bonham Carter-starring ‘Enid’) saw her move into cutting-edge, music-oriented television before making the leap into music video production. Her success as producer led to EMI seeking her out to take up the position of Head of Creative Affairs & Music Video at the label, where she stayed for several years working with an enormous range of artists (Diana Ross, Iron Maiden, Robbie Williams, Cliff Richard) and up-and-coming directors like Chris Cunningham and Guy Ritchie.
Since leaving EMI, Trudy has made quite a name for herself as a director in her own right, bringing a sharp sense of beauty and style and a love of innovative choreography to her work. Among her best-known videos are the much talked about promos for Girls Aloud’s ‘Sexy! No No No…’ and ‘The Promise’, but she’s also worked with the likes of Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Pixie Lott, Dionne Bromfield and The Saturdays, to name but a few. More recently, she’s been branching out into advertising, directing TV campaigns for Marks & Spencer, Rimmel, Sky Living and Britain’s Next Top Model. Is there anything she can’t do? Alan Pedder finds out more.
You started your career as an installation artist working with photography and film, which seems a world away from the highly stylised pop videos you’re so well known for. What were your objectives when you set out, and have they changed over the years?
I combined visual and performing arts using multimedia. I created huge photographic billboard pieces and created sculptural installations which I photosensitised and printed onto. I printed everything myself on Kentmeer art document paper and processed in my bath…I smelled terrible for years! My work was heavily influenced by artists such as Helen Chadwick, who was actually a tutor of mine at Brighton University where I studied Expressive Arts. I assisted her on her one-woman show at the ICA ‘Of Mutability‘, for which she was nominated for the Turner Prize.
My work was based on ‘personal is political’. A lot of it was autobiographical based on personal experiences and taking images from my childhood and words from diaries as a child and exploring sex, relationships, death and religion. It was pretty controversial for its time. There was one piece called ‘Dad blames God’, which was about the death of my sister, and another called ‘And the little girl who’s never fucked runs all the way home and wonders if she is a whore’. It was all very intense! A couple of pieces were exhibited in the New Contemporaries exhibition at Whitworth Art Gallery [in Manchester], and I was commissioned to do a couple of pieces for Camerawork gallery in Bethnal Green. I wrote my own performance pieces, which I then integrated and performed within my photographic or film sets – all very real and edgy and trying to be shocking I guess.
I was inspired by really controversial strong women of that time, like Chadwick and Kathy Acker. When I first graduated with my first class degree I really thought I was going to be the next big thing! I believed I would walk into a job and thought I might continue my artwork and work as a performer/actress within physical theatre. At that point I was writing ideas all the time and was so naïve that I thought they were all brilliant and that I would write plays, books, TV etc.!
Was your love of bold choreography and fashion evident even in your early work? Can you describe the installation you are most proud of?
I specialised in theatre on the performing arts side but also studied constructive dance, so I was very into cutting edge choreograpghy and physical theatre. I did a couple of courses with Théâtre de Complicité and the Jacques Lecoq School of Mime in Paris. There is a fine line between physical theatre and dance; I love synchronised movement, or when an object can be used in so many ways it becomes a form of dance. I have always been into fashion and style and back then was always changing my look and style in an extreme way, trying to be as individual and different as possible. Everything I did was very visually stylised.
I remember being part of an installation performance art piece at Brighton train station where we studied all the movements of general public and recorded all the questions and sounds and then created a massive performance piece, all moving in synchronised action to a soundtrack of station sound. We were moved on by the police, I recall. I also recreated the crucifixion scene in a self-portrait and created a lifesize photographic triptych montage with angels all played by myself. It created a lot of controversy at the time (1985) as I was topless on a cross; however, I never meant it to be offensive to anyone but rather to express feelings on suffering and sin and forgiveness. I was young and naïve so was surprised by the reaction to it…
Your move into music came when you joined BSB’s music channel The Power Station. What was your role there, and how did you come to be involved?
I was a floor manager (one of those people that counts “Coming into camera 2 in 5, 4 ,3 2… and camera 2…” etc., taking direction from the director in the gallery and organising and making it happen on the studio floor). This channel was so ahead of its time and controversial. It was run by Lindsay Shapero, who was a good friend of mine. She was an amazing director/producer/journalist with fantastic ideas, and was a real supporter of helping other women in their careers. I had met Lindsay on holiday in Ibiza and she really believed in my potential and offered me the job as a starting role as she felt I would progress from there. I have to say I have so much to thank her for as I was doing so many peripheral jobs, not fulfilling my creativity but trying desperately to keep my head above water and find an outlet for my creativity. I had worked as a fashion photographer’s assistant, a recruitment consultant for photographers, a teacher of photography and knitwear design (!), a fashion stylist, and finally a producer of below-the-line advertising campaigns and as an out-of-house art buyer where I would commission photographers, glam teams etc. and produce stills campaigns for catalogues, in–store or corporate clients.
The Power Station was a hotpot of amazing talent. Most people went on to become very successful. I worked with the then relatively unknown Chris Evans. He did the breakfast show, which then developed into ‘The Big Breakfast’ for Channel 4. As his floor manager I was on screen a lot of the time as his sidekick. Matt Lipsey was one of the directors there, and he went on to direct shows such as ‘Little Britain’. Steve Furst, who was also in ‘Little Britain’ and one of the writers, was one of our researchers. As was Jo Whiley, who then did our indie show as her first presenting job. Suggs had his own show, as did Boy George. It was amazing car-crash TV at times. We went out live and had a brilliant mixture of incredible bands and guests such as George Best and Mark E Smith – both out of it, which made for highly entertaining TV!
Lindsay came up with alot of the amazing progamme ideas, which were so ahead of their times, and she employed a mix of brilliant people. We all have a lot to thank her for, for bringing us all together and giving us the creative freedom to come up with our own ideas. When The Power Station closed (when Sky bought BSB) I then moved to a music video production company and began to produce music videos and eventually ended up running the company in the UK.
You then moved to EMI to head up their Creative Affairs & Music Video department for several years. You must have worked with some amazingly talented artists and directors during that time. Are there any projects that particularly stand out for you?
I worked with such a range of artists from new, edgy rock bands to divas like Diana Ross and legends like Cliff Richard
or Iron Maiden, through to pop artists such as Robbie Williams and Geri Halliwell. I also worked with Cooltempo, our R&B label (then run by Trevor Nelson), and Positiva, our dance label. Working with Ms. Ross was amazing, and after an initial baptism by fire she really trusted me and asked for me to approve any visuals on any performance she did, whether TV or video, so I would have to sit with the director and approve any camera shots on her behalf. This could sometimes annoy directors but I never wanted to let her down so I would make sure every shot was one she would like.
My favourite video experience was probably Geri Halliwell’s ‘Mi Chico Latino’, mainly because Geri and I stayed on the yacht in the video for a week just off the coast of Sardinia. Every day the yacht crew went to the shore and brought back fresh pecorino or pasta and amazing wines. We also had the gorgeous male dancers join us each day to hang out and they were amazing company! In fact, all Geri’s videos were interesting for one reason or another. All of Terrorvision’s music videos were amazing experiences, too, as we always tried to work with really interesting, out-there directors like Steve Norrington, who went on to direct ‘Blade’. I also rememeber commissioning the then-unknown Guy Ritchie to direct a £3000 music video for Bucketheads, and Chris Cunningham for Dubstar and Jesus Jones.
What precipitated your own move into directing music videos, and did it take you long to find your feet?
I had been coming up with a lot of the ideas for music video concepts for years and spoonfeeding them to directors. It got to the point where some of the time I was commissioning directors with a lot less experience than myself, and as I knew exactly what the label or artist expected I had to interfere at times to ensure the label was getting what it wanted. It just got to the point where I felt the director was getting in the way of exactly what I knew we needed to achieve, and it was at this point that I knew it was time to move on.
There had been a few videos where I had to step in and take over directing for one reason or another to save the video. I was also shooting stills on videos and shooting a lot of the album and single covers and not getting any more money or rights for those shoots, which seemed unfair considering if I didn’t shoot them I would commission other people to do so for vast amounts of money.
When I first left EMI I signed to a production company as a director but my main source of income was commissioning and being a creative consultant for major and independent labels. I was working for EMI, SonyBMG, Universal, Hed Kandi and Ministry Of Sound, among many others. The commissioning was my main source of income for the first few years and gradually the directing took over.
The not entirely reliable Wikipedia says that your first two music videos were for Louise Nurding. Is that true? What are your memories of those first shoots?
Yes and no… I co-directed a couple of Louise videos when I was still at EMI. Basically I had commissioned all the Eternal videos for years and was close to Louise since she was seventeen. I came up with most of the concepts for her videos when she left Eternal and she asked me to direct, but as I had so many other videos on at the same time I couldn’t dedicate myself to just one project so had to do it in a co-directorial capacity. To be honest it didn’t feel that different from any other shoots when I was co-directing.
However, my first real directing job was for Shy FX’s ‘Shake Your Body‘. I remember being so stressed, nervous and hyper. I commissioned myself to do it and didn’t tell the big bosses at the label, so I was incredibly nervous as I knew that if they didn’t like the finished result there would be big trouble. However, they loved it, and when I confessed that it was indeed I who had directed it they were shocked and not very happy! Especially as I was leaving!
You’ve since directed several videos, including six for Girls Aloud. What attracts you to a client and makes you want to work with them?
It’s normally the other way around: they approach me, I listen to the track, look at photos, previous videos, any brief, and decide if I want to be involved. There are obviously a number of clients I would love to work with who I don’t get the opportunity to do so. These are usually artists whose music I love, or artists that seem really interesting for one reason or another, or artists that I feel are going to be the next big thing if the video is right. I really wanted to work with Amy Winehouse, for example, right from the start when I got sent her first single. I wrote ideas for her on most of her videos, but for one reason or another it didn’t work out. I tend to get a lot of repeat business, which is great, especially in the case of Girls Aloud. Usually if I am not that excited about the music it may be the challenge of recreating a style look for the artist that attracts me. First and foremost though, if I love the song I don’t care what the budget is and want to direct the video. I can usually tell if something has the potential to be huge. I was asked to write for the very first Lady Gaga video but suffered a family loss at that time so had to pull out… probably one of the big regrets.
It seems that most of your videos have been made for female artists. Is that just a coincidence, or do you find women easier to work with?
Actually, I think I write for an even number of male and female artists… I have shot a lot of guys and bands, like Bodyrockers, JLS, One Direction, Rhydian, Joe McElderry and 3SL. I do get pigeonholed as a beauty director, so of course I am an obvious choice for most female artists, but the same applies for guys. I write a lot for male artists and have nearly won some really cool acts. I guess I get awarded more female videos because I can relate to them better than I can guys, and usually my ideas hit a chord or I just ‘get’ them. Also, I ensure that I present my artists in a really strong way where they are in control and I try never to create gratuitous shots of them.
So you feel some kind of responsibility to present those women as role models for young girls rather than as scantily-clad sex objects?
Absolutely, although I am realistic about these artists wanting to follow fashion trends. They may want to wear something minuscule but I try to style them in a strong, cool way, and always empower them so they are never seen as victims. They are sexually aware yet in control.
Have you ever been put under pressure to sex up a video more than you would have liked?
Yes, especially with foreign videos (the Russian market in particular) and dance videos. I turn down many videos for this reason. Often you get a brief to create a titillating video like Benny Benassi (girls with power tools) or Eric Prydz (Swedish girls in aerobics class) and I always pass on those…
What are the main things you have in mind when your conceptualising a video shoot?
First and foremost it’s about the song and the artist. I listen to the track and work with the sound/vibe/feel and the lyrics. It’s great if you can collaborate with the artist, as they may have some seeds of an idea that you can use as a starting point. It’s different with each artist I work with. Sometimes it takes days to come up with the right idea, other times it comes immediately. I imagine the artist within the concept, and it develops from there.
You’ve also directed a number of TV adverts. What are the challenges within that medium that you haven’t experienced in the world of music videos, if any?
In music video the director usually comes up with the concept, and although you write a treatment and maybe explain the idea to the label and artist, you don’t have to go into specific detail about every aspect of the shoot. With commercials, the ad agency comes up with the initial concept and then you embellish their idea and give it your own twist, explaining how you would develop it into your own style and what your vision and take as a director is on their idea. Once commissioned to direct the ad, you have to have several pre-production meetings with the agency and client, consisting of a huge team of people. Here you have to show them designs for the set, colour plates, mood boards for hair, makeup styling, casting, set design, lighting references, etc. Every single aspect of the job has to be approved by the client prior to shoot so that there are no surprises on the day. In this respect it’s very different to music videos where some people make it up as they go along!
I find commercials on the whole quite limiting as there is no room for experimenting or trying something out. It’s all storyboarded and there is no creative freedom on any level most of the time.
Do you think it’s easier or harder to get noticed as a director since the arrival of YouTube and the like?
I guess YouTube opened the door to DIY filmmaking, and now anyone can be a director. It has also meant that the market is now saturated with very mediocre filmmakers rather than those with real talent and vision. I do, however, think it’s a great way to get your work seen.
Tell us a little bit about Merge, and what its aims/motivations are.
Merge is the music video division of Crossroads Films. We develop directors into working in music videos and digital markets as well as eventually into commercials and features. We are represented by OB Management and aim to create interesting, innovative creative work.
What makes your role there difficult?
As the budgets come down in music videos it’s very difficult to meet the expectations of record companies. Despite the budgets shrinking, labels expect a huge choice of directors and I find it very difficult to watch directors (including myself!) toiling over scripts for days and not even hearing back from the label, and then seeing it on TV.
What makes your role rewarding?
I love working closely with directors on their ideas and helping to realise them. I also like to brainstorm and throw ideas around with them when we are trying to come up with concepts for things. It’s great to see a job through from concept to delivery, when everyone is happy and the artist goes on to get success.
Do you feel your background/education has encouraged or discouraged your career choices?
It’s definitely encouraged my career choices. I won a scholarship to Bedford High School, a private girls’ school, and was given amazing opportunities. My drama and art teachers really encouraged me to be creative, individual and innovative, and likewise the tutors at Brighton University really supported my ideas and pushing boundaries. I never felt that anything was out of my reach. I always knew I would eventually do something I was good at and/or loved.
Has your gender affected your career in the music industry? Do you feel it’s been beneficial, detrimental, neither or both?
That’s a difficult one as I wonder how successful I would be if I was a man…maybe I would be a huge features director by now, who knows? I personally don’t think my gender has been detrimental at all to my career. If anything I would say it may have been beneficial as I have been sent a lot of commercials scripts to write on where they have specifically wanted a female director. And likewise with the younger female pop artists; the label wants them in a safe set of hands where they can trust they won’t be exploited on any level. My attention to detail and fashion, style and beauty is something that people come to me for, and the fact I look at these elements from a female perspective is definitely a plus point.
Do you have any essential survival tactics?
Directing is a hard job. You are constantly pitching and sweating blood and tears over a treatment, ideas and visuals, and then after a week of living with this idea you hear that someone else has won the pitch. It’s important to keep strong and know that every idea you write might be the seed for the next one, so I try and keep positive and not bitter. Also I think it’s really important to have another string to your bow, another job that is a regular source of money so you can pick and choose which videos/ads you want to direct and are not forced into writing for every track that comes in regardless of whether you like it or not.
What advice would you give to other young women hoping to follow in your footsteps?
I think it’s really important to get out there and get your hands dirty. Work for free in any areas of the film business that excite you and learn as much as you can about each department: hair, makeup, styling, camera, lighting, art department, editing, Telecine colour grading, special FX. Then borrow a camera and start testing. Make films. Try things out and get a showreel together. You might be lucky, and if your work is good then you might get a commission straight away. Once you have a great reel together, go and see production companies and try and sign to one so that you have a company behind you, supporting and developing you.
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To join Trudy and OB Management founder Otis Bell at the music video masterclass this Thursday, tickets are on sale through the British Music Experience at £7.50 a pop.