June 16 marks Sam Branson's release of his debut album, Under The Static. Ahead of the launch, FILMHOUNDS sat down with him —also known as Waves Rush In — to chat documentaries, music, and everything in between.
What has been the most meaningful documentary that you have worked on?
I've worked on so many wonderful documentaries with my incredible team that have not only engaged audiences, but also had a hugely positive impact in the world. In the early days, one that stands out for me is producing Breaking the Taboo back in 2012 with my partner Johnny Webb, co-directed by my friend Cosmo Fielding Mellen and Fernando Grostein Andrade. That was the first feature documentary that we had made about the war on drugs.
In the documentary, we followed the global commission on drugs policy as it made a case for the decriminalisation of drugs, which at the time was a very progressive point of view to be expressed to the world. Since then, as we've seen in many different cases, it's something that has been adopted and has had a positive impact in many countries. For me, it was a steep learning curve working on that project. We travelled all over and I felt I really gained a lot of experience of being on the front line of making feature length documentaries.
Since creating HiddenLight, it has been our feature documentary, In Her Hands, about the first female mayor of Afghanistan in the lead up to the Taliban taking over. Getting to meet Zarifa when our film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival was a highlight as she's such a brave and remarkable woman. It's so important to support women and girls in Afghanistan, to let them know we stand with them. Working with Netflix was also a great experience on this project.
Please tell us about the other projects you are working on.
Our most recent documentary series Gutsy has just aired on Apple TV+, and was incredibly well received. The previously mentioned feature documentary, In Her Hands, also picked up high praise on this year's awards circuit. We've got many other projects in the pipeline, some of which we can't talk about, but of the ones we can, we have a new feature documentary in the pipeline starring the Oscar winning Roger Ross Williams and directed by Elegance Bratton. Can't say much more apart from it will have the best soundtrack ever!
How does your love of music and documentaries combine?
Storytelling is at the core of everything I do, and there's a huge overlap between film and songwriting. Having an eye for film has really helped me with songwriting and in turn, having an ear for music has helped me with documentary making.
Understanding how film works with a narrative arc and the traditional acts based approach to filmmaking has been incredibly beneficial when storytelling. In film, I've learned how to engage a viewing audience whilst providing them with a meaningful message and it's definitely a USP of how I approach creative endeavours.
Part of the reason some of the best documentaries and films are so special is because of their accompanying music and soundtracks, and striking the right balance of what's going on visually and audibly is when you can really transport an audience out of their seats and into a new world. Using music cleverly in film can have a huge impact and they're really synonymous with one another, completely changing the energy of a sequence in a multitude of ways.
Who are your music and film influences?
My influences in music range from musicians across all genres, but I think the ones that have stood out the most include Oasis, because they were such a fundamental part of my childhood growing up. I also take inspiration from both Coldplay and Jack Johnson, as they were big characters in my most informative younger years. Equally, soul artists like Nina Simone, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles have also had an influence on my writing and the direct storytelling we previously discussed.
In film, I love Working Title and most of the films they create. A24 is also wonderfully good quality content and as a model for a company designed to specifically tell stories that matter, Participant Media has been a big source of inspiration in my filmmaking career with HiddenLight.
Do you have any funny anecdotes from your time making movies or music?
One that springs to mind is the way I met one of the main producers for some of my music. I was on a motorbike trip and I met this guy who didn't know anyone else but he'd been invited on WhatsApp, and liked motorbikes so he joined. For me, that was my type of guy.
We met up the following week for a songwriting session and he brought along a friend of his, Richard Craker, and as we were walking to the studio for a writing session my pilates instructor appeared at the front door. I'd forgotten that I'd had a session planned, so I said “Look guys, do we cancel the session or do Pilates before we write?” Needless to say, we decided to do pilates.
We're all on our mats in a line doing cat cow and I suddenly felt a whiff of air over my bottom. With Rich sitting behind me, who'd I'd only met 30 seconds before, I said “Have I ripped my shorts?” to which he responded “Yes!” We all burst out laughing and I don't think I've come across a better way to break the ice before meeting people for a session in the studio than that!
What were some challenges you faced while making your documentaries/music?
Coming from such a well-known parent is a double edged sword. In some ways, I have lots of opportunity, but in other ways there's another added element of external judgement that comes with what I do. Interestingly, I've chosen two industries where it really does not matter who you are, the only litmus tests is how impactful what you do is, what the quality of what you make is, whether that be a good film or writing great songs — it all comes down to creativity and your art.
I think I've chosen these industries subconsciously because it's really down to me and whether I make anything that's of value or not. There was resistance to me stepping into the documentary industry in the early days and it seems there is a little of that in the music industry too. I feel there's some preconceived perceptions and judgement and I have to work harder than most to be taken seriously. But at the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding and if I'm making great films and writing great songs I always trust that my art will speak for itself.
What kind of books do you like to read?
I love reading books about personal growth and lessons learnt in the laboratory of life from other people. I'm a big factual reader, I don't really read fiction. The way that I switch off is through watching films and TV series. When I read, I like to learn and grow and so anything that is going to expand my mental, physical, emotional and spiritual state is the type of books that I'm drawn to.
What does an average work day look like for you?
I do a whole range of different things from being a filmmaker to a singer/songwriter to an adventurer to a philanthropist. Some days can be relatively chilled, where I'm mainly focussed on being a dad to my two children, and other days I can be flying to new places in the world to climb mountains. I may be going from meeting to meeting, I may be on the radio doing an interview, I may be in the studio recording a song, I might be in a writing session or on stage performing, I might be catching up with emails, it all completely depends day-to-day.
At the end of the day, I love what I do, so I'm always filled with passion and purpose to create and to make sure my creations have a positive impact in the world.
Waves Rush In releases their debut album, Under The Static, on Friday 16 June