Filmmaker Jenn Brown on Making A Music Video For Janet Cull’s “Highway of Tears”

Cull and Brown chose “Highway of Tears,” a powerful song about the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada.

This year, The Nickel Independent Film Festival collaborated with MusicNL to offer a Music Video Incubator. The initiative paired filmmaking teams with local musicians and gave them two weeks to produce a music video. All of the Music Video Incubator films premiered at the Nickel last week.

Director Jenn Brown was paired with musician Janet Cull to create a music video for a song from Cull’s most recent album Real Tough Love. Together, Cull and Brown chose “Highway of Tears,” a powerful song about the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada.

“I was really concerned about doing it right and not overstepping any boundaries. It was very important to be respectful and mindful while creating something that would complement the song’s subject matter,” Brown said.

“In order to respect the subject matter, respect Janet as a performer, and make something we could stand behind, we decided to make the video really simple and let the song speak for itself.”

Brown worked with a small crew and very little gear because she wanted to be able to trek through the woods to find good locations. They shot the entire video in one day, near Cull’s house in Gooseberry Cove.

“We used all natural light, we had only so many hours in the day and the weather changed drastically, we had to deal with that. It was a DIY, collaborative process, that’s the kind of film I like to work on,” Brown said.

The video alternates between footage of Cull singing on an overgrown path in the woods or wandering along the shoreline with shots of the dramatic landscape in that area.

“We tried to use a lot of scope; we wanted close up shots to create intimacy and we also wanted to feel that grand sweeping landscape, the thick forest, those high intense cliffs and the ocean, which hopefully creates some visceral feelings of uncertainty,” Brown said.

Brown used a drone to capture the striking coastline and to get some swooping shots of the highway from above. In the editing room she was awed by the colour of the ocean in some of the drone shots, but she made a difficult stylistic choice to convert all the footage to black and white. The black and white footage of water sucking in and out of craggy inlets is deeply unsettling, in the context of the song it evokes helicopters and search parties.

“A big concern of mine about using the drone was that I didn’t want it to look like a tourism commercial, I didn’t want it to be a beautiful thing,” Brown said, ”… we got rid of all those beautiful bright, saturated, sunny day colours because they weren’t serving the song.”

Cull’s face is incredibly emotive and the tight close ups of her singing are some of the most effective shots in the video. Although many musicians lip-synch while filming a music video, Cull insisted on really singing through out the entire shoot.

“She was literally belting it in the woods for the whole day, this subject matter is so important to her, it was just raw emotion coming out,” Brown said.

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