“it was a surreal hour” — lord whitneyBack
“It was a cold, March morning,” said Rebekah Whitney.
“Do you want the short version or the long version?” asked Amy Lord.
We asked for the long version. Sitting in the top bar at Whitelock’s, there was plenty of time, time to hear a story that takes us to places that didn’t exist when people first sat down in the Turk’s Head, as it was then, to drink and tell stories about places that might or might not exist. When this pub opened, three hundred years ago in a yard in Leeds, there was no Leeds Town Hall, no Los Angeles. There was plenty to talk about, even so.
There was Paris, which is not where our story begins, but where we join it; in a hotel suite, where Nicki Minaj, aka The Harajuku Barbie, aka Nicki The Ninja, aka Nicki The Boss, glares doubtfully at a laptop screen, glumly rewinds the rushes of new video The Night is Still Young, listens severely to her aides outlining the difficulties of reshooting in Paris the scenes that didn’t work in L.A. She’s here for two nights. But Paris can’t do it.
In Leeds it was a cold, March morning. Rebekah Whitney was at home recuperating after an operation; Amy Lord was at Leeds Town Hall for a meeting. Amy took a call from Harvey Ascott, a producer Lord Whitney had worked with a few times before; when she called Rebekah to tell her about it, they laughed.
It was Thursday, the day before the Easter Bank Holiday. It was a week since a request for Lord Whitney to design a set for Take That had come to nothing. Amy was about to head to Norfolk for their friend Laura’s birthday party. Rebekah couldn’t even move. “Could you make a set for a music video by Tuesday?” Harvey had asked. Oh god. Technically, yes. That’s the kind of thing Lord Whitney have been doing for the past few years: building worlds, no matter what for.
Who was this one for? Nicki Minaj. Amy knew the name but didn’t really… It wouldn’t be confirmed until Saturday. Well, technically, yes. But the Take That call last week, so they laughed it off.
It was only to be a backdrop anyway, a fifteen foot fake shopfront, and Amy could build that with Jonny Esgate in a day; there’s more than just Lord and Whitney in Lord Whitney now, they’ve become a whole team. No problem at all. So even if it did happen it was no problem at all. Funny story: build a set for Nicki Minaj over Easter. But it probably wouldn’t happen, so Amy set off for Norfolk.
There, in a country cottage, while she enjoyed a costumed feast, on Saturday, at midnight, Amy’s phone rang again. “It’s been signed off.” Well, Amy and Jonny could do it in a day. And on the conference call with Los Angeles next morning, they gave Amy 72 hours. No problem at all.
Nicki Minaj had filmed a video in L.A., said L.A., but she didn’t like one of the scenes, and she wanted to reshoot it while on tour, said L.A.; and Paris couldn’t do it fast enough while Nicki Minaj was there, and Harvey had suggested these Lord Whitney guys, said L.A.; had said they could deliver it in Leeds, at Prime Studios, while Nicki Minaj was in Leeds for one night to perform. The song is called The Night is Still Young, said the voice from L.A., into the misty Norfolk morning.
“No problem at all,” said Amy, sketching a fifteen foot long shopfront, knowing she would have to move fast. Harvey had filled her in on the brief. A stylish and modern Tokyo-looking shopfront, fifteen feet, nobody even goes inside. Amy and Jonny could build it in a day, no problem at all.
The brief has changed, said L.A., and Amy said no problem. It’s forty feet now, said L.A. It’s a Japanese street. “Not a shopfront?” asked Amy. A street, said L.A., forty feet long. With a twenty foot road in front of it, said L.A., and Nicki Minaj and her dancers will go inside. “It’s not just a backdrop?” asked Amy. Interiors and exteriors, said L.A., and Amy reached for a clean sheet of paper. It has to be ready in 72 hours, said L.A., and Amy said, no problem.
And when the conference call ended and L.A. left the line, Amy called Leeds and got Rebekah, and they laughed. Because it was so ridiculous they couldn’t help but laugh. And then they got cracking.
They didn’t know what the rest of the video looked like; they didn’t know what Nicki Minaj had rejected. A couple of reference images from the director, and their own imagination, was all they had. Amy did new sketches, quick, designed the structure. Everything had to move fast, on a weekend where the country was set up to move slow. On Bank Holiday Monday your wood buying choices are limited, so on a mission for Minaj, Lord Whitney hit B&Q.
And they hit the phones. People they’d worked with over the years were called, begged, bribed away from whatever Easter activities they had. Those people called more people. Graduates who had been in touch for work experience now had their chance. In Leeds, Duke Studios fired up their vinyl machine. Neon Workshops in Wakefield took the enormous neon order, ridiculous as it sounded read aloud over the phone, and worked through the night.
And they hit the shops. They had the Japanese reference images and they had the Tokyo vibe to aim for, but they had a Bank Holiday to deal with, and a grab-what-you-can deadline, and a recent Chinese New Year that had cleared the shops of Leeds of suitable decorations. Rebekah ran around every Chinese supermarket in Leeds: do you have any Chinese lanterns? Do you have any Japanese anythings? Chopsticks. Just grabbing chopsticks as that was all there was. Grab what we can, and imagine the rest.
And imagine that day at Prime Studios, on Kirkstall Road in Leeds, among the old Arla milk factories and the new student flats, the Northern Snooker Centre and the Travelodge; imagine thirty people, pitching in, guided by Lord and Whitney and their producers Lins and Aidan, and imagine the actual set build, building a forty-foot Japanese street with decorated interiors and neon lights and everything that Nicki Minaj, and her entourage, and the director and producer could want; everything they weren’t satisfied with in Los Angeles, everything they couldn’t get in Paris, but that Lord Whitney had put together in 72 hours, with Lord starting from Norfolk, and Whitney starting from being unable to move.
“WE GET OURSELVES IN SOME AWKWARD SITUATIONS”
And imagine the build actually being quite stress free, and becoming a pleasant project as the hours ticked by, because with thirty brilliant people on the job who all knew this was kind of a big deal, who all had their own crucial expertise, who didn’t complain about the hours or the pressure but just cracked on and built, building became easy.
And imagine Nicki Minaj. And imagine, after a frantic 72 hours of impossibility and no sleep, you’re looking at Nicki Minaj, aka The Harajuku Barbie, aka Nicki The Ninja, aka Nicki The Boss, sitting at a table in Prime Studios on Kirkstall Road in Leeds, glaring doubtfully at a takeaway Nando’s, glumly suffering through a cold, listening severely as her aides describe how the video she didn’t like will become a video she loves within the hour. Imagine hoping that she likes the set you built.
“It was a surreal hour,” says Rebekah. “We had to hide…” “We get ourselves in some awkward situations,” says Amy. “We got trapped in a marquee with her, when we weren’t supposed to be there. So we crouched on the ground like naughty kids.”
“We were like, what are we going to do? Go low! Just go low!” Lord Whitney went low, and Nicki and her dancers, “Who were incredible, by the way,” went to work. And in an hour their work was done, and Nicki Minaj was gone. “And we went: Wow! That happened!”
But Lord Whitney didn’t tell many people that happened. With so many people to please in the chain of production, they leaned cautious, got on with their other work, and waited to see how much of what they made made the video. Nicki Minaj had rejected the L.A. version; Paris couldn’t step up. In Leeds, she’d performed with a cold, fuelled by Nando’s; would she be happy with the set? Would she be happy with her own performance? Would she just drop the whole thing?
The whole thing dropped at the end of May, and stills from the video dropped straight onto Lord Whitney’s Instagram; Nicki Minaj, aka The Harajuku Barbie, aka Nicki The Ninja, aka Nicki The Boss, standing in a pink-and-blue neon- lit doorway on a Japanese street, the entrance to a treasure trove of dancers and decorations. And the stills Nicki Minaj chose to promote the video were all of herself standing on the set Lord Whitney made; and most of the video, when they saw it, featured Nicki Minaj and the set Lord Whitney made.
“When we showed the stills to some people they were like, ‘That’s an amazing location,'” says Amy. “We have to tell them: it’s not a location, we built that! We built that for Nicki Minaj in a studio in Leeds!”
“It was because we’re in Leeds that we could do it,” says Rebekah. “We had a great reserve of people to call on. If we were trying to pull that off in London it would have been hard. There wouldn’t have been a company in London that could have fulfilled the neon order in time, working through the night.”
“We are pretty rooted in Leeds,” says Amy. “We employ staff now. And what we’re finding as we’re building up contacts is that people in London like the fact that we can both design and produce, because a lot of the time an art director in London will have to outsource the build part and it adds more people to the chain. We’re only a few hours away so we can just put everything in a van and drive.”
“We’ve got an amazing studio here as well,” says Rebekah. “There’s no way we could have that in London, not to the level we’d be happy with. It works for some people; we’ve got friends in London who thrive. But we like getting back on the M1 and coming home to our studio that has a treehouse inside it, we like being able to source props in all our secret locations in Yorkshire and have it be a pleasure; not spend all day stuck in traffic in London.”
Their studio isn’t Lord Whitney’s only playground in Leeds. Last Christmas they had the run of the Town Hall cellars and built a forest there, with creatures, The Wood Beneath The World; an immersive theatre experience that has lingered and grown in the memories of the folk who explored it. This Christmas they’re making a permanent-as-possible mark on Whitelock’s, a pub older than old woods, with as tight an association to the city as the river that was bridged to start building Briggate.
“We don’t know how much we want to give away,” says Rebekah, and we had to promise not to tell too much. But from December the top bar at Whitelock’s will become part of the pub again after being somewhat forgotten over the years, but also have a life of its own, and an identity of its own, as an independent place that, if all goes well, will celebrate its 300th birthday when Whitelock’s celebrates its 600th.
“It’s going to be as different as we can get away with,” says Rebekah. “We’ve had the okay to strip everything out in here,” says Amy. “None of it is original, it’s mostly eighties reproductions, so nothing needs to be kept. It’s a blank canvas.”
“Ed Mason, who owns it, and the guys here are really keen on quality, running through the beers and spirits on sale to the quality of the materials we’ll be using. We’ve been researching materials and want to tie this room to the front bar as much as possible, to stay true to what Whitelock’s already is, while doing something completely different.”
“They could have just extended the front bar and made the whole place the same, but they didn’t want that,” says Amy. “The front bar takes care of this being the oldest pub in Leeds. With the top bar, we want to make it into something that isn’t already in Leeds.”
What exactly it will look like, and what exactly it will be, hasn’t been exactly worked out yet, which is exactly to plan.
“We’re not people who will get everything down on paper and hand it over to a contractor, like traditional interior designers,” says Amy. “That’s not how we work. We come up with a concept, design it up to a point, and then come in along the way and work in collaboration with the contractor. We’re hands on; we struggle not to be.”
“IT’S GOING TO BE AS DIFFERENT AS WE CAN GET AWAY WITH”
“We often describe what we do by saying we build worlds,” says Rebekah. “No matter what it’s for. So whether it’s Whitelock’s or a shop window or a festival or a music video, it’s all about creating this world and feeling completely immersed in it, down to the smallest detail that only one person might ever notice.
“When we did The Wood Beneath The World we had a soundtrack for the whole experience, and one of the really important things was the smell. People forget about the other senses, and they are important. We had certain fragrances in certain places and people have said that’s one of the things that has stayed with them.”
The Wood Beneath The World grew from Lord Whitney’s Lore of The North project, a choose-your-own-adventure book that toured the myths, legends and all-important beasts of Yorkshire, that has influenced Lord Whitney’s work since.
“We were sure we would uncover some amazing tales in that project, but the breadth of what we found was unreal,” says Rebekah. “We could have done a year of work on Lore of The North, so we’ll keep departing back to it.”
“We worked with a psychologist of folklore called Stephen Sayers, and he really instilled something in us that is rooted in folklore, but also rooted in life and people’s need to believe in something,” says Amy. “And about the difference between children and adults. It’s something we’re really passionate about, that as an adult you never really have that sense of disbelief anymore. One of the things we wanted to do with The Wood Beneath The World was to give adults that sense of stepping into something totally new, without a pre- judged or stereotyped way of thinking.”
“When we spoke to Stephen he talked about how as adults we don’t experience that thrill, that pure elation you can have as a child,” says Rebekah. “And we said to him that, working as creatives, we do still get that feeling.
“When we spoke to some of our friends who are musicians they said they get it as well. Stephen agreed that a lot of creative people still keep that part of their brain alive and kicking, and that folklore and stories are one of the ways of keeping that alive in people. It’s something that is very true to Lord Whitney and what we are about, and what we believe in.”
“It always comes back to allowing people to come into a place and take a step back from what they would normally expect. It’ll be nice for people who stumble through Whitelock’s from the old bar to the top bar to stop at the door and be like: ‘What the hell is this?'”
Lord Whitney’s wish to keep the homely pleasures of their studio by the beck in Leeds is not the same as wanting to limit their horizons. When you casually drop that you designed a production for Nicki Minaj and filmed it in Leeds people might not believe you, because although you can see more of Nicki Minaj, aka The Harajuku Barbie, aka Nicki The Ninja, aka Nicki The Boss, on Instagram than you might of your best friends, it feels less likely than ever that she should tread the same Leeds pavements we do; Nicki Minaj on Kirkstall Road is up there, as folklore, with the day Liv Tyler walked down The Headrow. But people do that; that happens. And being based in Leeds doesn’t mean you have to ignore the calls from that video’s director, Hannah Lux Davis, to go out to L.A.
“We’re just trying to figure out how the hell that happens,” says Rebekah. “Maybe just credit card it. Get on a plane. It would be great to work with Hannah again, and we love doing music videos; it’s something we’ve always wanted to move into.”
“We just art directed the video for Joy by Will Young,” says Amy. “We’d worked with the director for that before, Dan Henshaw, and Will’s last few videos have been with directors we really like. It was another crazy last minute thing, but it was a really nice treatment and really good fun.
“Music videos suit our style, and allow us to build our these sets that don’t make any sense but look really cool for a reason. And we get paid for it.”
“It’s how we started off doing things after uni,” says Rebekah. “Hanging out with mates’ bands, helping with props for music videos or album launches at the Brudenell, gig posters and things like that. It’s nice now to revisit that. Only for a change, with Nicki Minaj, we had a massive budget.”
What didn’t change was being able to return, at the end of it, to the treehouse in the studio by the river where they dream. Unless they’re too tired.
“The treehouse has become a bit of a sleeping den in the past few months,” says Amy. “It has been an intense time. The other week we did six shoots at seven locations in seven days. We’ve got a futon up there now where we’ve sent a few destroyed interns for a quick sleep. We have staff naps. It’s not that we’re slave drivers…”
“I’m one of the people that’s been sleeping up there!” says Rebekah. “Amy’s had a good few kips.” “Our brains are so frazzled at the moment. We can talk about what’s just happened, what’s happening tomorrow, and that’s about it,” says Rebekah.
So what’s happening tomorrow? “Ah, easy one. We’re working on the Whitelock’s project all tomorrow. A Whitelock’s day.” And what’s just happened? “Well, we worked with a monkey. That was quite exciting. It was alive and kicking and quite angry at being on set. And we made a Rube Goldberg machine. That was probably one of the hardest jobs we’ve ever done.”
“If we were building a set of a Rube Goldberg machine, it would have been fine,” says Amy. “But it also had to fit on a desk, not be in shot from certain angles, and all be made from office stationery.”
“And just for notes, Rube Goldbergs are really easy when they’re massive. When they’re small: they’re horrible. Don’t ever try to do them small, because small things are hard.”
With that, we left Lord Whitney to tomorrow. To establish a new small thing in a corner of a pub in Leeds, that will take 300 years of history, and double them. No problem.
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 29