Mara Whitehead began studying film as a middle-schooler at the Denver School of the Arts — and she's been pursuing a filmmaking career ever since. She went on to attend the Colorado Film School and got an internship at a local boutique production company called Ramble West, and now she's an established director. She's worked with local talent, from directing an ethereal music video for Denver's Kayla Marque to chronicling the climbing pursuits of Fidi Naj in a short documentary that was picked up by Rock and Ice Magazine. In the past couple of years, she's brought her talents out to L.A., though her Denver roots are as strong as ever.
Whitehead recently directed the biggest music video of her career, at least in terms of star power: a collaboration between music icons Norah Jones and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.
Westword caught up with Whitehead to talk about her new video and the persisting power of music during the COVID-19 pandemic. But first, check out the new video and bask in the bluesy tonic that is Norah Jones's unmistakable voice in the single "I'm Alive," which was co-written by Tweedy — a lamentation of the violence of patriarchy and a celebration of survival in the face of it.
Westword: What was it like working with Jeff Tweedy and Norah Jones?
Mara Whitehead: They are not only a talented duo, but also some of the most humble and cool people I’ve had the chance to work with. From a directing perspective, it’s always great to work with artists who are excited to co-create. Jeff’s sense of humor and Norah’s warmth and kindness helped create a great atmosphere on set.
What was the collaboration process like in the making of the video?
It's a beautiful process to take a piece of music and give it a visual experience, and it requires a lot of trust between the artists and the director. I worked closely with a commissioner at Capitol Records to develop the concept, and the team expanded to include an amazing producer, director of photography, production designer, gaffer and others who all helped bring our idea to life.
What was your favorite part of shooting the video?
My favorite part of this project was getting to work with such a vibrant cast and crew. There is so much work that goes on behind-the-scenes that makes a vision come to life. It was my first job in New York, and a lot of friends came through to participate, which was really cool to see. When I’m directing, I feel really connected. Relationships form out of creative experiences, and that’s what makes any project special to me.
What about the most challenging part?
We had a really tight timeline. The industry is fast-paced — from the time you get a brief to the final delivery, a lot of projects are made in a few weeks. The team was working around the clock leading up to the shoot. A lot of problem-solving had to take place in a very short amount of time. It turns out that getting a couch around New York City is not the easiest task!
As intense as that can be, the constant opportunity to be resourceful, to adapt, to make things happen against it all is part of what I love about this work.
The video seems to play simultaneously with togetherness and isolation in that Jones and Tweedy play together, seemingly invisible to the party-goers. What about the song "I'm Alive" prompted this filming style?
This song is definitely an anthem of hope, and the lyrics speak to the state of our world right now. Within the visuals, I was curious to explore what it felt like to be connected and disconnected and to be heard and silenced. And we made some cinematic choices that fostered those themes.
The pup’s name is Craig! You can follow him on Instagram here.
In your opinion, what is the unique power of the art form of music videos? How might this be especially true, with the current global crisis of the coronavirus?
Music videos are not going to save the world, but they are a way to bring art to life and to experience your favorite jams in a new way. As I’ve worked more in the industry, I’ve felt firsthand how much vulnerability it requires on the artist’s side to express. Music touches us all in different ways, and I’m proud to be a part of something that is an extension of that impact. Right now, we all need to socially distance to take care of ourselves and our greater community. Still having access to art in our lives will hopefully make this chapter a little easier.
Listen to "I'm Alive" and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.