Director Marc Sidelsky returns with a new campaign for Shelflife, South Africa’s cult sneaker store, that combines bone dry humour, brutalist architecture and an exquisite sense of tone and timing
Massif director Marc Sidelsky’s collaborations with cult South African sneaker retailer Shelflife are the stuff of creative magic. In their work, they’ve hit upon a tone and tension that crackles with potential and stands out in both sports and fashion sectors. Their first outing, Nike X Stussy was a deliciously disturbing dreamscape that was a hit with the MEA and global juries of the Immortal Awards 2020. This new campaign is an accidental sequel, of sorts. Marc reunites his cast for a deadpan exploration of the extent we go to justify the things we covet. Where the first spot was dark and Freudian and self-consciously 'Weird', this one whips up a bright, brutalist, speculative fiction aesthetic that contrasts the dry tone and tempo of the humour.
LBB’s Laura Swinton catches up with Marc to find out more about the spot, which launched in late December.
LBB> We loved the previous Shelflife spot – and it was one of the select campaigns that was Commended in the Immortal Awards 2020. Why did you decide to return to the cast and the disconcerting weirdness for this sequel?
Marc> The first film was a wonderful success and the client, Nick Herbert (Shelflife founder and CEO) had spoken about us swinging for the fences again. He had mentioned that there would be another Nike project due for the end of the year. I had actually written a script for another Nike shoe, but suddenly there were difficulties in getting merchandise to shoot with in time… so I had to start from scratch. For me, the idea must grow from the product; there was no way to retro-fit the other creative. As for the ‘weirdness’… that seems to be my headspace!
I didn’t initially conceptualise the film as being a sequel. I always wanted it to be able to stand on its own. But as I refined it, certain themes came up. I began to love the symmetry of the first film probing Sechaba’s dream, and this one being the flipside, with the audience seeing Matthew’s inner life and his fantasy, with these shoes. Once I settled there, ‘Teddy the Dog’ needed a cameo! They obviously aren’t playing the same characters, it’s a parallel universe. From a practical point of view, I also was secure in Matthew and Sechaba’s abilities – so on a tight schedule it gave me great confidence knowing I had the cast to deliver what I had in mind.
LBB> On the other hand, how does this film move things on from the previous one?
Marc> Like I said, I was determined to make something that could exist and succeed, free of association from the first film. I was happy for there to be a kinship with the predecessor but I had no interest in recycling the palette or precise tonality of ‘Stussy x Nike’. Sure, there are other layers which provide added enjoyment if you’ve seen the other film, but it’s not necessary for comprehension.
It feels like tonally, this film is even more adventurous, the humour being even more understated. The humour is often based in the contrast between his grandiose musings and the visuals that accompany them. The first film visually revelled in the ‘poppiness’ of the clothing line; here I consciously sought to create a more monochromatic, brutalist-inspired world.
I think the first one had more obvious ‘laugh lines’ and there is something immediately more comedic, structure-wise, about the back-and-forth banter between the two roommates.
I also tried to expand the scope and scale, production wise.
LBB> Can you tell our non-South African readers a bit about Shelflife as a brand and business and why you think this deadpan surrealism works well with them?
Marc> For years, interesting, bespoke sneakers were hard to come by in South Africa (personally, I always used to buy my sneakers abroad when I travelled). Shelflife was the first time a singular destination was created for sneaker culture and streetwear. It began in Cape Town and now has a flagship store in Johannesburg (where we shot the bookends in the new film). Their online store does huge business and they have a massive social media presence with serious consumer engagement.
When I pitched Nick the vision for the first film, I preceded it by saying I had no interest in shooting burning tyres or moody models leaning against graffitied walls, staring into camera. Nick built Shelflife on being different and he recognised the originality of the voice and was excited about the freshness it would have in the marketplace. I think the reason it also works for them is that it comes across as effortless. It doesn’t break a sweat….and THAT is cool.
LBB> In terms of the storytelling, the arc is great, once the self-doubt kicks in and the story comes, inevitably, crashing down. Given the time of year, I couldn’t help but interpret it in the context of New Year’s resolutions (my new Fitbit WILL be the thing to make me lose weight and get fit, this book will be the thing to solve my terrible life decisions and so on), it felt all too relatable. What inspired that story? Were you intending to create something that would launch around the time that people are coming up with New Year’s resolutions or am I reaching?
Marc> Interesting way to see it, but I’ve actually never been a New Year’s resolutions person. For me, it was a peek into fashion and, in fact, consumerism in general.
When we want something, we really can justify and inflate the importance it’ll have. If I wore or drove ‘this’, she’d look at me, he’d promote me… which is silly…or is it? I love the idea that, in a positive way, a piece of fashion can open up a world. Sometimes buying a jacket, a pair of boots or sneakers can give you access to a movement, certain music, a worldview and shape you. But you have to believe it and you have to own it. The film is a darkly comic exploration of this idea. The Nike MMW is divisive; most things with a very strong design aesthetic are. You can’t wear that shoe half-heartedly. Own it… or it’ll take YOU for a ride.
LBB> This time round there's a real sci-fi or speculative fiction vibe to the whole spot - maybe it's the architecture or the grade and the feeling of lightness – but what inspired your aesthetic choices?
Marc> The shoe itself has a Brutalist design. So, I always liked the idea of him being so enamoured with this shoe, that its aesthetic shapes his fantasy. His world is informed by the product he covets – concrete, hard lines, industrial minimalism and a narrow colour palette.
LBB> I enjoyed the various vignettes, skits and jokes - how did you go about brainstorming those scenes and which ones are your favourite?
Marc> I had the tone very firmly in mind from the outset. Once I had the voiceover completed, I began to play with variations on how some of the scenes would play out. The axe, the automated door-portal-duel were all there from the beginning. But with some of the others, I will often have a few options I’m weighing up and then I just get a sense for what feels tonally right, what is lining up with the other scenes that I like.
Also, some things develop as the production progresses. For example, I knew I wanted to have a groupie/creepy fan for his downward spiral. Once I had settled on casting Matthew, I knew what shape that had to take. A synthetic version of his beautiful, curly mane would be attached to a rubber mask on a kid… and he’d have to stare at it while signing box replicas of his shoes.
My favourite is still the “these shoes could open doors…” line and the infra-red sensor opening the door for him… as it does for everyone. So dry. Then we swing completely to the peak of his fantasy with ”all kinds of doors...”, as he tears a hole in time and space.
LBB> How do you work with the cast, especially the two main guys, to get that really distinctive performance and vibe? And this time around, what did they bring to it?
Marc> On the first film, I had so much on-camera dialogue, threading the story together. The three of us went to the Starbucks after the wardrobe call and I talked them through the script, line by line. The cadence is everything. The lines and humour fall flat if the emphasis isn’t placed correctly. So that meeting laid the groundwork – on-set I’d let the guys run the dialogue, but I’d give line readings if I didn’t believe they’d hit it. I’d just repeat the line in the fashion I wanted and they’d give me options. That’s not to say that there weren’t moments that both Matthew and Sechaba didn’t imbue with their own wizardry.
In terms of the music, voiceover and performance I wanted this film to have very subtle shifts. I never wanted the negativity to be signalled in an overly dramatic fashion. I love the tight close-up on Matthew’s face as the voiceover says, “but what if it’s too much shoe for me to handle?” It’s a wonderful performance – he does so little, but you can see the bottom of his world fall out!
On set, we recorded the voiceover with a boom mic. We did it line-by-line, with me over his shoulder, getting him to land that vocal performance just right. I was going to just use it as a guide for editing. I did record the voiceover again in a booth, but it never had the same magic. We then cleaned up the set sound and used it in the final mix. I also played the music at points on set to bring that sense of serenity to the action. The composers did a beautiful job; Six Feet High in Amsterdam.
LBB> What were some of the interesting production challenges with this job and how did you address them?
Marc> Probably the biggest challenge was the deadline. I sent the client the script on November 17th and I delivered the final film on the evening of December 18th! Luckily, during production, the global release of the sneakers shifted from the December 16th to the 21st. Those precious few days were invaluable.
LBB> I know Covid safety restrictions can make some forms of acting and directing really hard, for example if you want to convey warmth and intimacy. But I can imagine when you're trying to create this unnerving atmosphere and surreal comedy, the idea of distancing might almost help. I’m really curious what your experience was in reality!? Did the Covid-safe restrictions help heighten the weirdness in a strange way?
Marc> I can’t imagine shooting something that is supposed to feel naturalistic under Covid restrictions. I think you nailed it – the film is ‘presented’ and ‘staged’ in an unnatural way, so the atmosphere of distance complimented it. The unfortunate thing is I often like to talk during a take; prompting action, providing the voiceover narration for timing… and no-one can hear you with a mask on! So, you need to project. It’s a mood killer and makes you hoarse.