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Jamie xx’s ‘Idontknow’ video
Still from Jamie xx’s ‘Idontknow’ video

How Jamie xx’s ‘Idontknow’ video came together the night before lockdown

Co-directors Oona Doherty and Luca Truffarelli on shooting the producer’s beautiful new video in Belfast just hours before life shut down

Idontknow”, the new single by Jamie xx, was something of a mystery when people first started hearing it on dancefloors last year. The track made its way into DJ sets by Ben UFO, Four Tet, Caribou, HAAi, and Bicep, but the author of those huge breakbeats and chopped vocal samples was not revealed until last month, when Jamie dropped the track via Young Turks. It marked the producer and The xx member’s first piece of solo music since his Brit and Grammy-nominated debut album In Color in 2015, and might have gone on to be one of 2020’s biggest summer festival anthems, had the summer festival season not been cancelled. Instead, “Idontknow” is taking on a different life with its music video.

Starring Belfast dancer and choreographer Oona Doherty, who co-directed the video with Luca Truffarelli, “Idontknow” was filmed with a tiny crew – just five people, in all – the night before Northern Ireland went into lockdown. You can tell, too: the streets are deserted, and there’s a visible urgency in its kinetic, one-take setup. Such lo-fi imagery is a far cry from the expensive, extravagant set of Jamie xx’s last music video, Romain Gavras’s 2016 film for “Gosh”, but it’s befitting of the track. As Doherty explains, they did initially consider a high concept video shoot – “big, lots of people, helicopters, beautiful,” she says – but in the end, it just didn’t feel like the right fit, emotionally, for the track.

At the early stages of the “Idontknow” video’s production, Oona Doherty sent Jamie a series of videos she and Truffarelli filmed of her friends dancing to the track. Prior to “Idontknow”, Jamie had been hit by writers’ block, frustrated with his inability to finish anything he was starting. The video showed the dancers’ instinctive reaction to the song. “Heard you’d had a rough year. And when it’s rough the music and the art goes away for a little bit,” Dohery wrote in a letter to Jamie. “I think it important that you see... normal folk, honestly reacting to your music.” Jamie ended up sharing the videos, as well as Doherty’s note, on his Instagram page, itself inspiring a number of dance responses from fans.

Doherty and Truffarelli spoke to Dazed over Zoom about making the video. Doherty talked from the dance theatre she’s currently occupying while it’s out of use for the general public, while Truffarelli spoke from his home.

How’d you get involved with the video initially?

Oona Doherty: I didn’t know Jamie or any of those guys from Young Turks before. I was doing my solo, Hope Hunt, at The Yard in London. We were on for five nights, and I think Caius (Pawson) from Young Turks saw it and he said, “Jamie, come along and see this.” They asked if I would do a music video. I said I’d do it if Jamie wrote some music for my show, and they were like, “Hahaha – no, just do the music video.” And here we are.

Good hustle!

Oona Doherty: First I was like, “Do you want me to make a video, or for me to dance in a video?” They asked if there were any directors I wanted to work with, so I said Jonas Lindstroem. Well, I also said Gaspar Noé and David Lynch, ’cos I was like, “Fuck it, I don’t know who these guys are – I’m gonna make a list.”

Luca Truffarelli: Then you ended up with me. Sorry!

Always worth aiming big, though.

Oona Doherty: At first they said, “You want Jonas Lindstroem? No problem.” I was like, “Holy fuck.” I started to shit myself. Jonas sent through a treatment that was very Jonas Lindstroem – big, lots of people, helicopters, beautiful. But Jonas hadn’t seen the solo that Jamie and Caius saw, and they were imagining it more in that style – more lo-fi. So I sent a video that me and Luca had made with a Dublin director, Cara Holmes, that we’d filmed around Belfast. I put Jamie’s music on top and they said, “You and Luca should make something.”

Before this video came out, Jamie shared some footage on Instagram that you’d made in a studio of dancers responding to his track.

Oona Doherty: I asked some friends to help me out, and they did. They danced for free one night. And the MAC theatre gave us a studio for free. Luca filmed the material I thought I would be sending to Jonas. I got drunk on my own in the house and wrote a letter to Jamie and sent him the videos.

Jamie posted your letter on Instagram alongside those videos. There are some lines in the letter, like “don’t doubt yourself” and stuff like that. What did you mean by that?

Oona Doherty: I don’t know the full story, but I had a chat with Caius and he was saying Jamie wanted a more Belfast style for the video that me and Luca should film. I got pissed off: “Jonas Lindstroem is talking about a helicopter in his treatment! What do you want, lads?” And Caius was saying that Jamie hadn’t made a track in a while, that he wasn’t feeling creative and that the juices weren’t flowing. He didn’t make music for ages – but he connected with the solo, which was about struggle and masculinity. He said, “This is the route, not a drone over a helicopter with a whole mass of people dancing.” The music doesn’t need that. I think that’s where the letter came from: “We all feel shit sometimes, let’s have a boogie.” It doesn’t need to be deluxe.

“Jamie hadn’t made a track in a while, he wasn’t feeling creative and the juices weren’t flowing... I think that’s where the letter came from: ‘We all feel shit sometimes, let’s have a boogie’” – Oona Doherty

Once you decided to do it with just you and Luca, when did the idea for the video come together?

Luca Truffarelli: We created a quick test video, condensing a movement into a narrow space. When Oona sent this video to them, they liked the idea of having one long clip instead of a lot of cuts.

Oona Doherty: The film Luca’s talking about was a practise, shot in the loading dock at the back of the theatre in Belfast. It’s got a blue strip light and a load of old dance mats rolled up out back. It looks like the smoker’s area of a supermarket or something – the back of somewhere – and it has this cool blue light. So Luca said, “Let’s try this, just for the light.” That’s when we started thinking, “OK, it’s one shot, filmed straight through.”

Luca Truffarelli: Then the guys were saying we need to give a sense that you are in Belfast, not just in an interior space that could be anywhere. We decided to go to East Belfast, which is a really beautiful place. We found some different locations…

Oona Doherty: We got kicked out of different locations. It started lashing down with rain and we were eating pizza at my friend’s house at nine o’clock and we thought, “Fuck it, we’ll try one more time around the corner.” And that’s where we filmed it, last minute. It was not planned.

The streets are so empty in the video.

Oona Doherty: It was the day before the lockdown.

Luca Truffarelli: Also, for the story itself, if it were full of people outside it wouldn’t be the same. The beauty is the reality, not trying to create something that’s not there. We worked in that space without changing anything. That’s five minutes and 30 seconds of reality. The space and the movement are real.

How does the choreography relate to the narrative?

Oona Doherty: I was hitting the beats, but instead of having a long back and long arms and making the beat look beautiful, I was trying to hit the beat in frustration, because of the text that was sent (in the narrative of the video). I’m like, “For fuck’s sake,” stressing out, in a rush to go meet someone. The beat is an exaggeration of what a normal movement would be – an extreme version of physical mannerisms.

I still struggle with my body in the difference between an audience member looking at me and a camera looking at me. In the flesh, they can see more polyrhythms in me. On camera, you need to do a bit less. Jamie’s track is so dense, with layers of different rhythms, so if I were also doing multiple polyrhythms at the same time, it’d be less effective. Whereas if you do just one headbutt and the character is raging, it looks like the sound. Rather than a dance battling against the music, they both exaggerate each other.

Tell me about the ending of the video.

Oona Doherty: It was raining, so we couldn't film when we were up in East Belfast. So I rang up my friend Janie and said “Can we wait in your house and order a pizza while we see if this rain lets up?” I was there like, “What the fuck is the ending? Does he just walk away?” I can’t remember who came up with it, but we were like, “Come on Janie, can you wait in the car for us for an hour and be the hug at the end? It needs a conclusion!” 

We had a different idea, where if we shot in the daytime, we could knock on a door and ask a wee granny if we could come inside and film and sit on their sofa for a second...

Luca Truffarelli: ...but the problem with the virus was already there, so we were thinking, “How can we go inside someone’s house?” It was interesting. We were the last ones, basically, to do a video.