Jazz Filmmaking – An interview with David Nobay

By - CTL
October 9, 2017

Many have fallen for the charms of beautiful Byron Bay. Included in that list is acclaimed adman and poet, David Nobay; the founder and creative chairman of Sydney-based creative company, Marcel. Alongside director Justin McMillan, Nobay created the short film that helped launch the 2017 Byron Bay Film Festival. With Nobay presenting a session during the festival on his ethos of ‘jazz filmmaking’ we thought it was a good time sit down with the man himself and find our more.

You’re doing a session at BBFF 2017 on Jazz Filmmaking – tell us more! What is it? Where did this term originate? 

I’m not a jazz aficionado by any stretch. I was a drummer in bands in my teens. I was certainly drawn to jazz, especially Jazz percussionists, but I loved The Jam and Simple Minds more. My mother took me to see the legendary Buddy Rich when I was a child. He had a very small drum kit by modern standards, but made it sound like an army on the March. That’s the unique thing for me about Jazz, as a metaphor, at least. Yes, it’s about spontaneity and unpredictability, but to pull that off also requires immense depths of technical skill. It’s the culmination of a wonderful paradox: “chaotic precision”. I guess, that’s the point for me. If you can harness controlled chaos in anything: from the arts to science, then by definition you will create something new. And that excited me.

How can jazz – which is often seen as free expression through music – be connected to filmmaking, where there are often many factors connected to production that are out of your control, like production partners, locations, financing, actors etc? Can you really be free when you’re not in control of everything?

The combination of spontaneity and commercial creativity doesn’t make for an obvious marriage. In advertising, for instance, we aspire to the Arts, but in reality are confined by linear systems. We (the creatives) have so many voices to placate. Art, by contrast, has no such pressures. But, equally, no such support system. I paint, too. No clients. No expectations. No budgets. It’s finished when I think it’s finished. The upside is, the process of pure art is incredibly intimate. The downside is, it rarely covers the school fees.

Are there individuals you have worked with that have been part of the ‘jazz’ ethos?

Tony Kaye is the closest. He’s (in my opinion), a living genius. Ad people will know his iconic work for British Airways and Volvo. Others, his debut feature “American History X”. Tony is a friend. We did one job together, but it’s nothing either of us needs to remember. We connect now around more eclectic projects and ideas. I often get labelled “A Renaissance Man”; which I suspect isn’t always a compliment. But Tony is the real deal. His paintings hang on my wall. His music is in my ears, and his images forever in my mind.

Is there a balance between narrative/story-telling and imagery, to be found? If you’re working with total freedom, isn’t it harder to tell a particular story in a traditional manner?

Twenty years ago, a very smart, older writer once stopped me in mid-pitch and simply asked, “kid, where do you want the arrow to land?” It was LA, and I was frantically trying to sell my first, woefully flawed film script. I didn’t understand the question at the time. But years later, its eloquence struck me. Creatively, we obsess on the journey. How are we going to produce this? Who are we going to collaborate with? The important question is simply; what message do we need to leave?

You have a rich history in advertising – how does that translate or differ from this new phase of creativity?

I don’t resent my career. Although there were many times in the last 30 years I didn’t appreciate it. Every mistake I made has informed something better, creatively. I try not to make the same mistakes twice. “Epic failure” is an important step in the game.

What’s your proudest achievement in the creative world?

Almost 20 years ago in New York, America’s greatest living poet, Maya Angelou (tragically, she passed a few years ago), agreed to narrate three short poems I had written for an ad campaign we created for The New York Times. The ultimate honour from a hero.

What first attracted you to the advertising industry – was there a defining moment, memory or individual that lit the touchpaper?

I did my fair share of drugs at Art College; especially acid. I never wanted to get into advertising. Shit, I didn’t even know what it was! I simply misread a college prospectus and applied to the wrong course. I was aiming for a Fine Arts course and missed. The Universe had other plans for me.

As a creative, did you ever feel hemmed in by your past experience? Being so well known for one thing sometimes hampers an artist’s opportunities in another medium – how have you overcome that?

It may be arrogance. It may be tenacity. I suspect it’s probably a combination of both, but I’ve never taken too much interest in what people in the industry think of me. The marketing blogs in Australia are famously savage. Anonymous comments?? What a joke.

What’s your advice for young creatives across all mediums?

Be honest with yourself. If you’re truly honest, from a creative perspective, you’ll instinctively know when you’re doing your best work. The fact that those around you don’t get it just means it’s time to move your location…not dilute your vision.

What’s next for David Nobay?

I’m working on the final draft of my first serious screenplay. By nature, I’m a sprinter, not a distance runner. It’s why the ABC poetry project last year was so much fun (artbreaks.com.au); eight of my short poems realised by eight filmmakers. (pictured below). By contrast, a 100 page screenplay seems Herculean. But I managed to pull off a stage play (Moving Parts, directed by Steve Rogers in 2012), so I think it’s time to learn some stamina.

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