As a sexy model struts down the street the voiceover kicks back in. “It’s a solid buzz, with the kids. Tonnes of clicks.” What sounds like a grating pitch from a tediously clichéd creative agency is actually Matthew Frost’s note-perfect satire on the kind of great-looking but ultimately vacuous content that gets churned out every day. The added level of irony is that Matthew is exactly the guy you call if you want something viral and his previous work has garnered “tonnes of clicks” by lampooning the most indulgent tropes of the very worlds for whom he’s making work.
“I have no idea why they let me,” he laughs down the phone from New York. “It’s fun to deliver a film that is a little bit on the nose for them but I have never had anyone say anything.
“There are so many worse things the PR teams have to worry about. It’s an interesting space to be in, it’s so new and there’s so much freedom you can really go out and do your thing. It’s been nice to collect them in a way and have a similar tone throughout.”
“I was always into stories, always yapping away. Having a lot of siblings we all had that same sense of humour and it was more about that than technically being into the making of films at an early stage.”
Une fille comme les autres – the film referenced above that was made for French magazine Jalouse – is the first of this series that self-consciously explores the conventions of online branded content. Fashion Film with Lizzy Caplan followed, then three shorts for Vogue starring Cate Blanchett, Jessica Chastain and Kate Winslet, and last year came Aspirational for Vs. magazine. That film, starring Kirsten Dunst as the plaything of two cynical Instagram addicts, has been viewed 1.8 million times. Solid buzz indeed.
Matthew Frost was born in London but after his parents divorced he grew up mainly in the south of France, interspersed with trips to the States to see his Dad – “That’s why my accent’s all over the place.”
By his own admission he wasn’t the kind of child who was always going to end up making films. “In high school I was drawn to film but I was not at all one of those kids who would isolate themselves and make little stop-motion animations, or the head of the AV club that rolled in the VCR machine and plugged everything in. I was more into football, more of a jock into my 20s.
“But I was always into stories, always yapping away. Having a lot of siblings we all had that same sense of humour and it was more about that than technically being into the making of films at an early stage.”
His siblings were all girls; he had two older sisters and then two younger ones after his mum re-married. A few interviewers have made a connection between his female-centric upbringing and the fact he often makes films about powerful, confident women, but he says it’s not quite as simple as that – a lot of it is just the opportunities that have come his way.
“It was great for trying to score babes as a young person because I had been exposed to things some of my other friends hadn’t been. But there are things I feel I understand, a comfort in certain characters and not shying away from female characters. It feels very natural to be drawn to women, and then trying to get into their heads.”
Matthew moved to California to study film at Berkeley and he enjoyed the largely academic programme that was big on theory and light on actual filmmaking. “I think I needed that time to figure out what kind of films I was drawn to and what kind of films I wanted to do,” he explains. “Instead of just going in and doing stuff that is obviously referential, it was nice to just study.”
After graduating he worked as a production assistant on Hollywood films like Donnie Darko where he started to pick up more practical skills. At the same time he started shooting his own shorts, from which he was commissioned to make music videos, first by Alan Braxe and Fred Falke and then for M83.
Fashion Film, which he made for the Viva Vena brand in 2013, was a huge moment in his career for several reasons – it was wildly popular, it directly led to the Vogue commissions and it cemented some trademark Frost traits, such as his interest in people’s obsession with the way they come across, his unerring eye for satirising modern culture and his ability to, creatively speaking, make turkeys vote for Christmas. Lizzy Caplan moons around ticking every hipster cliché and dismantling those fashion films that look great but have literally nothing to say.
“I try not to be too cynical – it’s too easy to be a hater – but I love to take the piss. What was good with Fashion Film is that people always felt it was someone that they knew, but it wasn’t them, like, ‘Oh that’s exactly what Suzie does,’ but it’s also what the person watching it does as well.
“Who started that, is it the ad industry, the fashion industry, social media, who knows? But the facts are you’re on Instagram and you want your house to look curated in a way that makes you feel cool.
“There’s a general cultural movement that sort of gobbles everybody up,” he continues. “There’s so many people I follow on Instagram who just boggle the mind. I wouldn’t say I hate following them – I don’t hate anybody – but I am fascinated by these people and the way they present themselves.”
“I love social media…there’s a huge discrepancy between the way people present themselves and the way they actually are. They’re creating their own story, it’s very cinematic in a way – and it’s ripe for satire.”
He has no time for people who dismiss social media (he likens this affectation to people who make a big thing of not owning a TV, or only listening to vinyl) and his own Instagram is an enjoyable rabbit-hole down which to lose yourself. Recent posts at the time of writing included a picture of him with supermodel Naomi Campbell, a spread from a book about dating body language and a short video focussed on his face as Ludacris’ Fantasy plays out full-volume in a seemingly empty nightclub.
“I love social media; I love watching people go though trials and tribulations to make their lives look a certain way. There’s no secret at all at this point that there’s a huge discrepancy between the way people present themselves and the way they actually are. They’re creating their own story, it’s very cinematic in a way – and it’s ripe for satire.”
His other great interest is in celebrity and the way in which it changes both the stars themselves and the people who come into contact with them. So in the Vogue films we see Kate Winslet Googling herself and Jessica Chastain having some fun with a star-stuck passer-by. But this exploration reaches its best extrapolation in Aspirational with Kirsten Dunst, where the actress is assailed by two woman who see her as prime timeline fodder.
“It’s a strange thing with celebrities because they’re caught between three worlds,” Matthew explains. “They have the person they grew up being and become, then the public person and then they have all the roles they play so people see them as that character.
“They have three distinct things going on so it’s nice to wiggle into those little tiny spaces that exist between those three things, poke around and see what’s going on in their heads.”
And while PR teams still try to control how their charges are seen, the reality of social media is that their ability to orchestrate a celebrity’s public profile has been decimated. Moreover, social media has changed how people see celebrities on a very fundamental level.
“For someone like Kirsten Dunst, she has to deal with people who see her as an opportunity to forward their agenda as opposed to them just being fans. ‘You were great in that film!’ – that stuff’s gone. It’s ‘What can you do for me?’”
That explains why Aspirational is actually quite poignant. When Kirsten Dunst asks the two girls who’ve waylaid her whether they’d like to ask her anything, all they can come up with is “Can you tag me?”
The more experienced I’ve gotten the more it’s been about letting go of lots of stuff…We know what we want to achieve but we don’t know how we are going to achieve it.”
The chance to work with some of the world’s biggest stars doesn’t just give Matthew the chance to explore the very notion of modern celebrity, it also lets him see some of the world’s best actors exercising their prodigious talents up close.
“They have this aura that just comes out, that captures people’s imaginations and allows them to see something in their eyes. They might not be exposing this insane vulnerability but you can see something interesting going on. You don’t know what it is, but it definitely elevates your film, even if it’s only one minute long.”
The other things he’s learned about working with Hollywood megastars is to be quick. While some filmmakers might plan every precious minute down to the last detail, Matthew prefers to build in “a good chunk of what-the-fuck’s-going-to-happen.”
“You can set up shots and do storyboards with little arrows and elaborate camera moves and you can watch all the classic films, but when you’re actually doing it, what really matters is what’s happening beyond what people are saying and where the camera is going.
“The accumulation of all the shots tell a story but the atmosphere is just as important as the storytelling.
“There’s always a plan – you don’t go in with your hands in your pockets in a lazy way – but you can’t overplay the plan because then you’ll end up being a little bit mechanical. The more experienced I’ve gotten the more it’s been about letting go of lots of stuff, being sharp in a creative way and using the things that are going on on that particular day. We know what we want to achieve but we don’t know how we are going to achieve it.”
Matthew says the best compliment is when people don’t see the work that’s gone into the films – someone even asked him if the girls who approach Kirsten Dunst in Aspirational just happened to be passing.
Having so comprehensively mastered this art form, what’s next for Matthew Frost? He’s interested in feature films but in his photography he also explores more idiosyncratic ideas. One of his books documents pet cemeteries, a world he first encountered filming for M83.
“I had a collection of all these tombstone names and some were silly and others were sort of racist as the stones spanned 100 years. You see patterns and themes in various countries and what I like is how people who aren’t typically creative are confronted with moments of creativity in their lives. Naming a child maybe has to do with family names that are passed on, but definitely naming their pets is very personal and says so much about the owners.
“It was very interesting to try and imagine who these owners were and what their lives were.”
And so whether it’s shooting Cate Blanchett or documenting dead dogs’ names, Matthew is still doing what he always wanted to do – telling the stories that interest him.