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Meetings: Leonn Ward

We interviewed director Melina Matsoukas in our latest issue and she talked about the magic of blending the right song with powerful visuals to make something thought provoking that creates a dialogue. There are a lot of female directors coming through who are capable of just this, creating really strong films and videos that are beautiful, dynamic and that also have the power to say something interesting.

Leonn Ward is one of these women. Armed with an unquestionable vision and aesthetic she is on a mission to bring back energy and real empowerment to music videos and film. Her films are fun, full of life and genuinely make you happy. Her film The Way We Dress for Nowness is a joyous exploration of why women choose to wear the clothes they do and what character those clothes allow them to be.

She has brought her ideas to life for the likes of Stella McCartney, Isabel Marant, Adidas, Henry Holland, Nike and a roster of brilliant publications. Her family in Ireland inspire a determined work ethic and she isn’t afraid to call bullshit on fake feminism. We can’t wait to see what she makes next.

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Where did you grow up?

Dublin, Ireland

What did you used to watch when you were a kid?

Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Hey Arnold, Mona the Vampire, Saved by the Bell, The Simpsons.

How has your childhood had an impact on your aesthetic?

I’ve never actually thought about that before. My mum and dad worked so hard for me. My dad worked on a ship and my mum was a cleaner. They worked constantly to afford to get me into a good school and have a good education. My mum was the hardest working, go-go-go mum. When I suddenly lost my mum at 16 years-old it made something click in my head that I had to finish the hard work off myself. My determination to go far and make her proud is always at the forefront of my mind and will never leave me. She’s the reason I have my drive to not stop.

Nowness series 'The Way We Dress' directed by Leonn Ward.

Do you have a crew that you always like to work with?

I do indeed. When I first began directing it was really important to me that I felt comfortable as I had never studied film. I was quite nervous when I first started because all I was going off was the vision that I had – on any project I know what I want every detail to look like - so it was extremely important to me to build up a team that understood how I worked but also work with people that I could learn from as well.

Once I made the jump from stills to moving image I was extremely lucky to have support fromBlack Dog Films and RSA Photographic when the time was right.

How do you find managing such big crews and ensuring that your creative vision isn’t diluted?

No matter how big or small the job is I make sure that on that day I know exactly what I want to achieve and what I’m after. I have a routine and that’s to sit down before shooting and draw in my notebook everything I want to shoot on the day. I wouldn’t be able to work without my drawings! They’re very bad by the way! I’m usually the only one that understands what it’s symbolising but they’ve never failed me.

Do you ever suffer from anxiety or a crisis of confidence on set when you’re directing so many people?

I'm actually quite an anxious person in daily life, so I guess when I'm on set it's a place where I am the happiest and most at ease. I shot my first commercial job for Adidas Originals in 2012 and that was the biggest job I had ever done. I was 22 years-old at the time and scared shitless! Now it doesn’t really faze me as much.

The only anxiety I get is making sure it’s absolutely perfect and how I want it to look. In terms of confidence I guess I’m just friendly. My worst nightmare is my talent or model feeling uncomfortable, there would be no way I would continue shooting them if I felt like they weren’t feeling themselves.

For the Stella McCartney film where the girls are dancing I must have burnt 1000’s of calories that day as I didn’t stop dancing the whole day. I hate anything looking fake and put on so when I wanted to capture a film with young girls feeling free and confident I had to feel and do exactly the same.

Stella McCartney, POP Fragrance, directed by Leonn Ward.

What’s your process from when you get a brief? Do you have a set of questions you ask yourself about the project or a specific research process or does it vary with each project?

I sit down with the brief and write out exactly what they want, the aim of the project, who it’s for, the logistics and decide whether it’s right for me or not. On my computer I have a folder of all my ideas and research, it’s called my “Divinity folder”! I go through it and see if there are any ideas I want to do and try incorporate it into the brief.

Music plays a big part of your films, how do you decide on the music you feature?

It’s funny you ask that. I never planned on doing so many films that featured dancing and I was just thinking about it the other day that pretty much every film I’ve made is primarily dancing!

Music is really important to me, you can elevate a film so quickly with the right piece. It can also do the complete opposite so it’s very important to me that the music is right.

Do you have an overall aim or objective you like to try and achieve with all of your work?

My overall aim is to direct hip-hop music videos. It never leaves my mind. I have a very strong vision of where I want to be in my career and I’m not stopping until I get there.

When I was a teenager I was absolutely obsessed with hip-hop videos. I’d run home from school to watch Slim Shady, Missy Elliot, Nelly or Dr Dre on MTV. It made me feel like I was over in Hollywood with them and not sitting in the middle of Ireland! My aim is to bring the energy of this era back to music videos. Basically what I’m trying to say is that my aim is to become the female Hype Williams! Other than that I want to create work that makes people think and makes people feel good.

Tainted Love | Selfridges x Dazed, directed by Leonn Ward 

What have you seen recently that you really loved?

The film Moonlight. I’ve watched it several times by myself taking notes and learning from it.

Who would you love to work with?

Kendrick Lamar.

You’ve spoken out about the recent LOVE advent calendar. It felt like such an out dated and depressing thing to put out with all of the progress that has been made towards challenging stereotypical concepts of beauty. What would you like to see this year as an antidote?

I want young girls and women to be CELEBRATED. I feel like this is statement that you see a lot these days and then the LOVE advent calendar came out and it made me think, “Wow, I thought we were doing good this year!”

I thought women had made such a stand this year and then you see this 100% complete opposite with the tagline of the whole campaign  #STAYSTRONG.

All I know is that as a female director I would NEVER portray any of my girls like that. Even if I was trying to make something ‘sexy’ my girls would never come across as provocative and objectified as LOVE magazine made them look. This year I hope that male photographers and directors stop doing this. It makes me so angry seeing seventeen, eighteen year-old models doing test shoots in nothing but a pair of Calvin Klein knickers thinking that’s what they have to do as part of their job. It’s not. 

It’s not an understatement to say you love dogs! Did you have a dog when you were little? What would be your ultimate doggo?

Yes!!! My baby Dancer. RIP Dancer Ward. Dogs are my life. The aim is to have 7 dogs - 2 Shibas, 1 King Charles, 1 English Bull Terrier, 1 German Shepard, 1 Pitbull and a black and white sheep dog!

You’ve been really busy recently making a line up of amazing moving image pieces. How do you balance a hectic work schedule with making sure you have time out for yourself and time to develop your creative ideas properly?

It’s so important to give your mind a rest. Otherwise your standard of work drops and you start to do things by half so I make sure every Sunday is my day to chill out and see my loved ones.

www.blackdogfilms.com/us/directors/leonn-ward