James Harper is breaking all the rules with their new fashion film

Few people would sit down and watch a commercial for fun. Collingwood-based menswear label James Harper aims to change that with Restless, a short film that takes apart the conventions of fashion advertising.

“Personally, I’m a bit over fashion commercials that are just slo-mo beauty shots,” says director Darcy Conlan of Impel Pictures. “It’s very in vogue at the moment, because it’s an easy way to make things look good…Anything will look interesting in slow motion.”

Conlan, whose idea of haute couture is a black t-shirt, wanted to create a strong mood that would leave an impression on viewers, without intrusive close-ups of the clothes themselves. The result is a frenetic 95-second slice of Melbourne nightlife that feels more like a music video than like a commercial.

“We were trying to capture an atmosphere and a mood of palpable energy,” says Conlan. “If people get involved with that and feel that visceral energy, they’re going to remember the name ‘James Harper’. There’s quite a few shots where the clothes are there, but it’s not obvious, like, ‘Look at this’.”

Restless, which promotes James Harper’s 2018 winter line, features models dancing and riding skateboards and shopping trolleys through the deserted nightscape of the Melbourne CBD. To anchor the film, Conlan turned to busker Paul Guseli. Guseli, who pounds out high-octane rhythms on a drum kit made of pots, pans, license plates and fire extinguishers, is one of Melbourne’s most identifiable street performers.

“I think everyone’s heard him at some point,” says Conlan. “He’s kind of the unofficial soundtrack of the city. I’d heard him for years and I’d wanted to feature him in a film for ages, so, when this came along, I approached him. I thought he would be a bit of a wild card – I was a bit apprehensive. But, when I told him about the project, he was so keen to get involved.

Conlan collaborated with James Harper in 2017, advertising their summer collection, but Restless was a far more demanding and experimental project, he says.

“On this shoot, there were times when we were really pushing it,” says Conlan. “If we hadn’t got a good take and we were pushing on time, we kept pushing until we got the right take. No one cared if we wrapped on time. People cared if what we got was right.”

Guseli praises Conlan’s ability to motivate models and crew to work 14-hour nights, keeping the focus on creating a strong product.

“People these days, they lag, they talk, but this guy – he just goes out and conquers,” says Guseli. “I call Darcy ‘espresso café’ because he’s full of beans. The people around him look for direction, and he’s got the confidence to give that.”

For one scene, Conlan wanted to shoot a model wandering through a deserted Bourke St Mall, which required waiting until 4am.

“We were doing run-and-gun, guerilla shooting,” says Conlan. “We wanted to shoot when it was dead quiet, so we could get that kind of eerie vibe. When we got there, we were very low-key, but, straight away, a cop car rolled up.”

Conlan expected the officer to order them to clear out, but Guseli walked confidently up to the car – it turned out that the officer was a fan of Guseli’s music.

“I was ready for [the officer] to can us, but he just said, ‘If anyone’s causing you any trouble, just let them know that you guys are fine by me,’” says Conlan. “Having that tick of approval was really nice.”

For a nightclub scene, Conlan transformed one corner of a clothes warehouse into a dance floor.

“When you’re gathering people together for a nightclub scene, usually people are pretty stiff and self-conscious, because it’s 7pm and they haven’t had a drink,” says Conlan. “But after two songs, everyone was getting into it. It came out better than we’d hoped, by far.”

Conlan spent another memorable white night shooting a scene at a carwash with a pair of hip hop dancers. Guseli’s exuberant drumming attracted onlookers, and Conlan had to juggle directing the scene and dealing with a broken-down car. This improvisational style of shooting was a major pivot from the fine-tuned storyboarding of Conlan’s previous film for James Harper.

“There was just constant chaos and noise – there was a Maccas literally behind us, with 20 people watching, like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” laughs Conlan. “It was very logistically challenging, but we got some great stuff.”

Conlan, who studied filmmaking at Swinburne, drew inspiration from frenzied cinematography of Trainspotting director Danny Boyle while working on Restless. There’s no reason advertising films shouldn’t be considered art, says Conlan, or why fashion commercials should trade in inoffensive visual clichés.

“A lot of people I admire have come from advertising,” says Conlan. “They’ve got this ability to contain a story in 30 seconds, which is so much harder than you initially think.”

The degree of cross-pollination between advertising and theatrical cinema is greater than the casual filmgoer may realise: Ridley Scott’s commercial for the Apple Mac has outlived the product it advertises, and even David Lynch took time out between Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart to direct a series of commercials for Calvin Klein.

Conlan hopes that Restless will succeed in drawing attention to James Harper’s winter line, validating the label’s decision to give him creative freedom on the project.

“James Harper were very trusting,” says Conlan. “After hearing from a lot of friends who have been on set for fashion commercials where there’s this sense that the client is looming overhead and dominating everything, I feel like I’ve been spoilt a little bit.”

Darcy Conlan’s short film Restless is out now. Learn more here