Alex Prager’s animated voice and easy laugh hardly evoke melodrama. But her images of despairing heroines and scowling villains tell a different tale: Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a woman with a keen awareness of the thin line between comedy and tragedy. Or, as she puts it, “I’m absolutely trying to laugh while I’m crying.” In addition to her work in fine art, Prager has collaborated over the past several years with fashion magazines like W, i-D, and Dazed and Confused. This past winter the New York Times commissioned Prager to make a series of short films with villainous turns by Hollywood heavy hitters like Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst and Brad Pitt. This April, her show Compulsion opens simultaneously in London, New York and Los Angeles, featuring new photographs and a five minute short film titled Le Petit Mort (direct translation: The Little Death, or French for “orgasm”). We spoke with the self-taught art star about working with Lara Stone for Mercedes-Benz and her obsession with fuller-figured women.
If you know you’ve got a certain model or actress to work with, will that person be the inspiration for the narrative? For instance, did you see Lara Stone and immediately think, “She should be swept up in a tornado,” or does the story come first?
With Lara I had the tornado idea first. Mercedes-Benz said I could do whatever I wanted, and my first idea was to have the girl and the car going up in a tornado. But then Mercedes said they didn’t want the car going up in a tornado, which I understand, so we just threw Lara up there.
When you’re casting, is there a certain quality you always look for?
I tend to go for more character-driven faces and body shapes. Except for the lead, I always want the lead to be kind of classic, feminine, hour-glass figure.
Do you find that a challenge when you’re working in fashion, where the women are more, shall we say, streamlined?
I do find that a challenge! I’m not really interested in those types of super-skinny bodies for my own work. With my own pictures I’m trying to make an altered reality and when you have a body that is not the normal body for most people it pulls you too far away from being able to relate to the image. Lara Stone was an exception because she does have a bit more of a figure than most models. But generally it would not be my first choice shooting a model over an actress.
Even though your fine art films are not about fashion, the costumes play a leading role, and it’s often vintage clothing. Do you have a costume designer you work with?
The costumes are pretty much all me. I have a pretty specific idea of what I’m looking for in terms of shape and texture and color. I also work with a costumer who is an old friend of mine named Callan Stokes. We’ll go to costume houses and I’ll give her direct references and we’ll go and put outfits together. Usually if I’m doing one or two people in a shoot I’ll do it all myself, but if it’s closer to fifty people I’ll bring Callan in because she really knows my aesthetic by now.
Do you personally dress in vintage clothes?
I am into it all, but I definitely have a love for vintage clothing. Sometimes I’ll buy contemporary clothing, but it just sits in my closet. Ninety percent of what I actually walk out in is vintage.
Do you have a favorite era?
No. In my photographs it’s never one specific era, it’s just all about colors or textures that work best for an image. It tends to be floating around the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. But in my new series a little bit more of the ‘80s. I think the world we live in now is mixing all these decades all the time. People here in LA drive vintage cars and people still wear clothes that they bought in the ‘70s. We don’t just throw everything away when we’re coming into a new decade.
Color is so important in your films and images. In your film Despair, you cast Bryce Dallas Howard. Was there some significance to casting a redhead?
With that specific casting I was looking for a pale redhead who would wear a sea green dress. That was in my head long before everything was figured out.
So you start with color?
Yeah, I do. Like, if I know I’m going to be shooting outside in Los Angeles, I know exactly the different kinds of sky I’ll be dealing with. And then I’ll usually pick an orange or a red or a yellow to go against the hue of the sky, because emotionally it changes the picture completely. But the music is equally important to the color. The composer I work with is a really old friend named Ali Helnwein, and he’s always made this dark classical music. We collaborate really closely. I’ll give him a bunch of temp tracks for each scene and then I’ll sit with him each day for a few hours going over everything together.
You got to work with some of the best people in Hollywood for the New York Times story. Did they come up with their own characters, or did you?
I know! That was every dream actor I’d ever want to work with in one project! Initially the Times said I could do what I wanted as long as it was “villain”-based. And at first I didn’t want to take existing villains and put my twist on them — I wanted to create villains. So that’s how the Mia Wasikowska character who smashes all the mirrors came about; she wasn’t based on anything. But the Times thought it would be fun to ask the actors if they had ideas of villains they’d always wanted to play. And some of the actors came back with great examples. For instance, Gary Oldman gave me the puppet character and I created a scene around it. And George Clooney came back with his Napoleon character, which he said he’s always wanted to play.
After you did that project, did you suddenly have more access to the Hollywood actors you’d like to work with?
Yeah! I got great feedback. I had some agents asking if I wanted to do features. It was amazing because I never thought of myself as a moving picture director before. I was always thinking of myself as a photographer for the rest of my life, but that project gave me new ideas. I don’t know. We’ll see what happens!
Is there a character in a movie that you personally relate to or identify with?
Well, not to sound dark, but the woman from The Red Shoes. I know she goes and kills herself at the end, so not that part at all, but I can relate to the emotion. I don’t know if you’ve ever done this, but you know how when you’re a teenager and you have a break up or something and you’re just crying and crying, and you’re so depressed, but then you happen to look at yourself in the mirror crying and you’re mesmerized by how dramatic you look? There’s one part of me that feels these depressing emotions, but at the same time there’s part of me that can observe and watch them. And you know, when you’re feeling that sad, it’s easy laugh at yourself too.