Jean Khamkwan (@khamkwan) doesn’t sleep much. Based in Bangkok, the director, editor, and all around filmmaking powerhouse has a distinct retro fashion sensibility and a noticeable love for indie music.
In the three years since graduating from Chulalongkorn University she has produced a steady stream of fashion films, commercials and music videos alike, working with a wide range of brands, from up-and-coming independent labels like Sretsis to established brands like Guess, Harper's Bazaar, and Elle. Her music videos have featured pop giants like Hugo and, more recently, contributed to launch indie artist Phum Viphurit onto the international stage, her video for “Lover Boy” amassing over 23 million views in the span of a summer.
We spoke to Khamkwan to discuss fashion, directing, and what comes next for the promising 25 year old.
Your latest video, “Lover Boy” for Thai artist Phum Viphurit, garnered over 23 million views. How did that feel?
It was quite unexpected. Before “Lover Boy”, Phum wasn’t famous in mainstream Thailand at all, because most Thai people want to listen to something easy to understand, like love songs in their own language. And Phum is one of the singers who wanted to do music that everyone in the whole world could listen to—not only in Thailand. So he made the song in English. But most Thai people only listen to Thai songs, so he wasn’t popular at first. Phum was a singer in Thailand that only a small group of artsy people knew, but was still unknown to "regular" Thai people.
After this video was released, even people who only listened to Thai music took interest in Phum, but also Pattaya, where it was shot. In Thailand, everybody knows Pattaya and everybody has bad memories of Pattaya - that it isn’t beautiful and is full of trash. But after this video was released, it made Thai people feel fresh with Pattaya, like “Wow it’s so unexpected that Pattaya can look so much like Miami.” So this is what the Thai people didn’t expect. People now know Phum. Not just people who listen to indie songs, but people who are both interested in Pattaya and his music. So now, I can say, Phum is famous in Thailand. That was really the unexpected part. Thank you Pattaya!
Is this your big break? Has it changed anything for you - a video getting this popular?
Yeah, um, actually people knew me a little bit before. But after this video, people got more interested in me. People will remember that I am a person who can transform Thailand to look international. After “Lover Boy”, I got some project that reached out to me asking “Hey Jean can you shoot the Thailand landscape to look like Switzerland or to look like [Insert city]?” Do you understand? It’s really hard to make Thailand look like New York or Miami if you don’t get great lighting, because the weather in Thailand is so bad. And the lighting to shoot in is only good in the morning and in the evening around 4:00 or 5:00pm. But during midday it’s so hard to shoot outside and capture beautiful sunlight.
So, yeah, after this one release, people got to know Phum much more. And I’m so happy for him because I knew him a long time ago and I saw that this boy had talent but was like: why don’t people know him? So I’m really happy for Phum and I’m happy that people in Thailand have opened their hearts to a song that isn’t just for the masses. [In Lover Boy] I can represent both the song and Pattaya and they both support each other. In my opinion, making a music video is not about how much you’re going to do the storytelling or how much you want the art direction to be a certain way; I think making a music video is doing what’s best for the vibe and the lyrics, so that everything goes together.
Did you ever see yourself becoming a director? How did you get here?
Actually….I’m quite….a girl who’s had no plan at all…since I was a kid. I just knew that I liked art and music. Becoming a director….I never planned that. I only started to know what I wanted when I was in University—I thought: “Ok I really want to make a fashion film.” So that was my start. And now I’ve had a chance to expand beyond fashion films, with music videos and commercials. So that’s why my work features a variety of video types: I started with fashion films; then, I got a chance to do a music video. The commercials that I now get are usually fashion brands who want a “music video.”
How would you define that style? What are some prominent features of your own style and the style you incorporate in your music videos?
I like a vibe that feels a little bit retro. Because, I like listening to oldies - 60s, 70s, 80s music. And I collect vinyl. So, I’m quite into the retro period. I usually know what I want to shoot — the style for my work, so it’s quite easy for me: I can brief the stylist and the art director —clearly— because I studied fashion and art before. So my style is sort of a mix: I use my knowledge from college - when I was a fashion student - and I add my personal identity, my taste, and my musical taste to my work.
How did you transition from fashion student to director?
When I was in my third year at my university, I started to know that I wasn’t going to do anything in the fashion industry at all. Because I hate pattern making in fashion design. I like the visual aspect but I don’t like the process of making clothes. So, when I realized that I didn’t like fashion design, I started to look for something new for me —but still in fashion. At that time, I liked to surf the internet and watch fashion films - Prada films or Louis Vuitton and Gucci... And studying how to make a fashion film became interesting to me. So I started with a video I shot for my friends. I had a photography lookbook that was due to my professor, and some of my friends wanted a video too, so I offered to shoot the video for them: that was really my start to making fashion videos. Since then, I’ve shot the behind-the-scenes video for Elle Magazine - Elle Men and, three years ago, I went to New York and shot for Harper's Bazaar.
What was the first film that you shot where you realized “OK I want to direct films now.” What was that moment like?
At first — I had no idea what positions a production crew had. Because, in production, there are so many positions to work in. I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know what a director did. I didn’t know what the assistant did. So I got started by trying out everything. I started with video because I wanted to understand things from the ground up — making a video from start to finish. You have to think of the concept, the storyboard and the ghost shots. And after that you have editing prep. I began with shooting —for friends or magazines— and after that I went to intern with a production house. The first position I got there was Assistant Director. After that experience, I knew more about the whole process of creation. And I realized: “OK, I’m quite sure that what I’m interested in is directing”.
People will remember that I am a person who can make Thailand look international
What does a director do? Are you lifeblood of the film? What’s your role?
With clients that are more artistic and less commercial, my role in a movie or a fashion film, the story, the script, a lot of it is quite open for me. But if I’m working on a commercial, I’ll get a brief and the agency will give the storyboard and script to me. My role then is to create from that starting point.
For a music video or a fashion film I’ll start with “OK I’ve got a concept of the new fashion collection or I’ve got this song” — and go from there. So my role is to try and find a story that fits the music or that fits the collection. I begin with writing a script and then I’ll do the storyboard. I’ll make a presentation for clients to give them an idea of what this project will look like, I’ll do a mood board. Or I’ll find a reference to show them how it’s going to look, how it’s going to be, which lighting we’re going to use in this film, what vibe or color tone I want to put in the film. I’ll show them the clothes, the typecast, the art direction. This presentation is called an internal: it’s how you share an initial idea with a client or an artist, to make sure they approve of the direction in which you’re headed.
If it’s a go - then you move to another process called pre-production—in Thailand we call it PPM. PPM is like pre-production before we shoot. So if the internal has been approved, I’ll bring it to my team and explain to them my vision of the project. And my team will work to develop ideas around that vision. Then I’ll pick what I like or I’ll tell them what I want more of. When I get the whole picture that I want from my team, I’ll go and present it to the client—that’s the pre-production. If they like it and everything checks, then I start shooting. Then comes post-production. Sometimes I like to edit my music videos myself. Some directors skip this part. But I like to do the editing too.
You’ve done fashion ads, detergent ads, what do you personally like to shoot the most?
I think... I like music videos the most. Because I can add my style, my fashion, my story telling. I like playing instruments—I studied piano since I was a kid and so I play and listen to music a lot. When I get to make a music video, it’s like putting my raw imagination into the moving image. With commercials, you can’t really make art that much because you’ve got the clients and you’ve got the consumer and I have to follow the direction of the product. But with a music video, I can actually put 100% of my style in it.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Do you have directors that you draw from? Who are some of your favorite directors and films?
I like Damien Chazelle, the La La Land director. I like Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, Darren Aronofsky the director of Requiem for a Dream and Mother.
Any clients you wish you could work with or artists you wish you could make music videos with?
Yeah - for fashion films - maybe Gucci or Prada - those are the brands I’d most want to work with. For music videos, it’s hard because I have a lot of bands on my mind. Oh my god I’ve got so many artists I love. Um… I have to open my itunes - to figure out which bands I love most - maybe that’ll help me get the answer. Oh I have a lot of artists.
Do you have a trademark? Is there something in “Lover Boy” or your other videos that you could point out and say "Yes this is something that definitely makes it mine"?
I don’t know what people see in my work but, most people that I talk to, they know it’s my work because of the tone of the colors and the music I choose to put in my film and also the cast and styling. I like to ask people: “What do you find that’s common in my works that tells you it’s my work?” Because, I don’t understand what they see. Between, then and now, it’s clearly not the same. I’ve never wanted to stay at the same point. I want to try something new. Something I haven’t done before. To get out of my comfort zone.
What have you tried recently that was out of your comfort zone? How has your style evolved?
If you look at my early work, it will be an art video or a fashion video that doesn’t have a story. I look at the picture. I look at the frame as a picture. And I make it continue. But I don’t have transitions. I don’t have any camera technique. I don’t have any storytelling in it.
Now I try to go further. I’m starting to put more technique and more storytelling in my work. Not trying to do just fashion or just an art video but trying do more of my thing—more storytelling or more short films in my work.
I tried a lot of new things this year. I did a financial commercial. I wanted to experiment, so I did a lot of commercials that didn’t fit me. I wanted to try something new and see what I could come up with —if I worked with clients that didn’t always understand me. I’m trying to train myself to spend more time with people that don’t understand me as much—that aren’t in the art world— more regular clients.
Any hopes/wishes for the future?
After the “Lover Boy” release, an artist in Brooklyn contacted me, but I didn’t get a chance to make it work because I’m based in Thailand. In the future, I hope that I’ll get a chance to work with more international people —not only for music videos but also for fashion films. I hope that my work can communicate with not only Thai people but also people outside of Thailand.
Mack Caldwell is a writer and multimedia journalist based out of Wilmington, Delaware. Reach out to him via firstname.lastname@example.org.