Last month, I had the pleasure of talking with artist, NYU film major, and up-and-coming director, Tyler Mitchell. At only 19, Mitchell has directed or been the director of photography for over 10 short films, the most recent of which being his music video for “Hell/Heroina” by Kevin Abstract. In a industry where spending millions on a music video is commonplace, Mitchell casts away the norms and proves you don’t need obscene amounts of money to make art.
This music video has some pretty dark themes- Kevin Abstract gets beat up by four people holding metal baseball bats and shovels, and one of the last scenes he’s sitting on a bathroom floor shooting up drugs- so what was the concept behind all that?
So I came up with the concept all in one sitting. I was just playing the song on repeat, and I remember- the first time we met, he came to me with a concept. He came to me with a short film he wanted to do where he himself, well the main character, shot up heroin at the end, and I was like, “Jesus, that’s really dark, have you ever even done that stuff in your life?” and he was like, “No, but I love those themes, and that’s what I want to do, and, I know friends who have.” And he seemed to be really interested by it, and I guess that was just simmering in from that time. That was one of the first texts he sent to me, this long paragraph, and then at the end, the main character shot up heroin. So like, that’s where that kind of came from. And I threw it in the video because I really liked how the transition to the second part of the song was “Heroin”. That was the name of the song, so I was like, this is an appropriate time. And the beating up part- that was just me kind of thinking what would happen if this song were happening right now. I feel if Kevin were performing this song, it would be so dark, and anger-inducing that a crowd, or lack there of, wouldn’t even be able to handle it, if that makes sense.
Yeah, that makes perfect sense. Ok, so you used a variety of different methods, such as lighting and layering effects, to change the overall aesthetic of the video. Can you take me through the technical side of your creative process?
Oh wow, you’re making me sound so smart (laughs). The technical side of my creative process is really important to me. Just cause I’m really big on visuals, I’m really big on doing everything in camera, and doing everything practical right there, but then I love the effects as well- like I love that. I don’t know if this is a process, but I went to my friend, Tyler, who does a bunch of VFX, I go to NYU. So I went to my friend Tyler who’s a great classmate and friend, and just talked to him about this idea that I had. I said, “Is it possible, to go into computer screens and then transition out of them, and have a video playing within a video? It’s like a World Star template and shit.” And he was like, “Yeah” and I was like, “Good, but I don’t want it to be overt at all. I want it to be obvious that we’re transitioning, but I want the transitions to be real subtle. And how can we shoot this?” So he came on set and made sure we shot it in a way [that was possible]. Like basically the whole process, was doing each take to precision, and marking off the TVs, and marking off the computers so that he was able to do the transitions and put picture into picture on the TVs, I don’t know if you noticed that- the concert scene-
Yeah, that was really awesome.
So definitely technical- good lighting, VFX- all that stuff is really important to me. Cause I love music videos where it incorporates all that, like Hiro Murai and I was like, I want to do that, but I want it to be subtle.
You guys launched a pretty successful Kickstarter campaign to raise money for production. What are some of the challenges of making high quality, but low budget, music video?
Oh my God, so many challenges. Well first, we basically went over budget, by a little bit. We essentially met the budget, but my producer was down my back on every single thing that we did and we bought, and it was extremely tight. The Kickstarter campaign was a nail-biting 30 days, or however many it took to reach our goal, but I’m glad we got there, and to… Wait could you repeat the question (laughs)?
Absolutely, what where some of the challenges of making a high quality but low budget music video?
Oh yeah, there were plenty. The challenges, were basically on the front end. Again, my producer was down my back about everything, and that was because we were trying to cut corners every way we could. And in cutting corners it kind of made some other things about the production a little bit harder. Like, I had this whole idea to fly out most of his collective, Alive Since Forever, I don’t know if you know who they are-
Oh yeah (nods head).
Yeah, so I wanted to fly out the whole collective, and, instead we couldn’t do that. We had to basically only bring in the members of the collective who could come in via train on their own money. So that was one way creatively. But also just, challenging challenging challenging? We had to cut so many corners. Like we were stuffing lighting rigs in our tiny little van because that’s all we could afford. Everything was harder on the front end, but we were basically cutting corners everywhere that we could. I’m kind of glad we did it that way because it made the whole experience. Keeping it high quality, but low budget- I love that shit. Cause, I don’t know, it’s just more fun that way, instead of having millions of dollars and wasting them (laughs).
Did you run into any major problems during the shoot?
(Laughs) Um, some small problems, I wouldn’t say major ones though. Basically we did 90% of the video in one day. Except for the last shot, which we did in an apartment the next day. But we shot all the Palisade stuff, all that stuff you saw in the basement with the graffiti, all the introduction stuff, we shot all that in this one place, Palisades in Brooklyn, and uh, it was a hectic one-day shoot. We were so afraid we wouldn’t make the day of scheduling cause, just cause of a few problems. And I don’t wanna call anyone out, but lunch was late- I’m not gonna say anything beyond that. Lunch, you have to feed your crew, and that was another thing, we were so tight on money that we had to get pizza, which is such not a thing I want to do to my crew and I hate treating them like that, cause they’re working for me for free. But we had to do it, cause my producer was trying to keep the budget in mind, and then that came late, so the crew was already losing morale, and that set the shoot behind, about an hour and a half almost. And Palisades was really adamant about us being completely out of the building by 5:00, because they had a show that night. Obviously that presented a big challenge, but not huge. Not like “a shit show, this is going wrong”, it was just like, “we don’t know if we’re going to finish all the shots we need to”, but we did. There was one other thing where… this wasn’t like a “shit went wrong”, but another little incident happened where I completely forgot to bring hard drives to the shoot.
Oh, that would be a problem.
And that’s kind of big because we had to dump the footage, but, the call time was at like 6:00 AM, so I wasn’t even thinking straight when we started the day. To get to Brooklyn we woke up around 4:30, and I just left the hard drives. I had to send my producer and get them. There were some other things, but those were two of the biggest ones.
How did you and Ian find each other? Did you know each other beforehand?
The short of it is: The Internet. The long of it is: He was following me on Twitter and I didn’t know who he was (laughs). One of my friends, Zuri, who goes to NYU as well, was like, “Yeah, have you heard of that guy Kevin Abstract?” and I was like, “No, I’ve seen his name, I think he follows me on Twitter, but I don’t know about him.” And she was like, “You guys should meet,” and basically we started talking over the Internet. I actually didn’t even meet him until the night before the shoot.
Yeah, I know it’s crazy- So it was cool- the Internet, basically, and Twitter, and my friend Zuri who kind of nudged us together a little bit. But basically that, and when his album came out, MTV1987, I just had it on repeat.
Yeah, that was so good.
And considering Ian [Kevin Abstract] lives in Texas, why did you choose New York? Just because you were there?
Yeah, basically cause I was- (laughs). Basically, but I wasn’t opposed to going to Texas. The first idea for the video was “let’s go to Texas”, and “let’s make a road trip out of it, and bring our shit down there”. But as we, my producer, and just logistics, we realized “it’s easier to do it up here”. Cause the team I work with and the wonderful resources we have here in New York City- people were willing to work for me for free, which was amazing. My crew was so fast, and so good, I don’t know if we would have found that in Texas.
What was the dynamic on set and off set during the shoot?
The dynamic was crazy. It was a crazy weekend, cause I feel like me and Ian almost became best friends over three days (laughs). He got to New York Thursday night- also the flight booking situation was terrible, because we had basically put him on a dirt cheap flight, so he had three transfers, or connections or whatever, and got there super late at night, and then we had to wake up and shoot. I had no time to really spend with him. But the dynamic off set was just like- we clicked immediately. He stayed at my place, at my dorm at here NYU- and we stayed up stupidly, the night before watching There Will Be Blood and other movies, and sharing our favorite movies and music with each other until like 2:00 AM, and had to wake up at 4:00. We immediately became really close, and then on set, it was just really professional. Again, like I said, our crew was great and was working so fast, and then he- I could tell, the first shot, before the first take, he was really nervous, because I didn’t tell him what was going to happen. I didn’t tell him, “Ok, so we’re going to have all this crazy equipment and these crazy lights and shit and this nice camera.” I just told him “We’re going to do this music video.” And he got there, and our team is setting up the first shot of the video that you see, which is this mirror shot, with lighting flickering, and haze and shit. And he was just like, “I’m so nervous, I’ve never done anything like this, like what is this”, cause I think his last music video was just him just walking around—
It was in Walmart (laughs).
So how did you get into filmmaking?
I started off skateboarding. I was 13 when I started skateboarding, and, it actually was photography first. My friend got this really nice Cannon DSLR, and I just started messing with it. He was always filming our friends skateboarding and shit at the park in Atlanta, and I took the camera, and I was like, “I want to learn how to do this”. I started with photography, and then I was like, “Photography’s being, not commercialized, but commoditized”. It’s like, everyone can do it. Everyone has an iPhone now, and photography just didn’t interest me as much, so I started working with film, and videos, and moving pictures and shit like that, and just made montages of my friends skateboarding and then moved on to music videos and films.
Awesome, so who would you say some of your influences are?
Music video-wise? Or like movie-wise? Because I feel like those are two separate things.
Either way? Yeah sure. Definitely Hiro Murai, like I was saying, he does all of Childish Gambino’s stuff. Childish Gambino period, influenced me. Hiro Murai, Paul Thomas Anderson, who’s just great- best American director living right now. Steve McQueen… Yeah, I love Drive, but I wouldn’t say Nicolas Winding Refn influenced me because his other movies, don’t speak to me, but Drive is great. Anything I find on the Internet, really.
And as far as music goes, what are some of your favorite genres?
Music… um, I guess you could call it Art Rap. Art Hip-Hop. Shit that’s not like— Fine. Childish Gambino (laughs). But Art Rap. Kid Cudi, like when I was growing up, um… Let me just scroll through… Tyler The Creator, Childish Gambino, Flying Lotus- those are most of the names you’ll see. Kevin Abstract, honestly, I play him. It’s weird that he influences me as well. Frank Ocean- it’s mostly Hip-Hop and R&B, but then outside that I do like BADBADNOTGOOD and New-Age Jazz shit too, which is weird.
Yeah, New-Age Jazz is awesome.
New-Age Jazz is sick, and old Jazz bores the fuck out of me.
(Laughs) So what are your plans looking forward? Just general.
Generally… I want to keep working with Kevin. I want to- I’m actually writing a script right now that I want to direct as a narrative film. I definitely want to make the jump to narratives in a hard, serious way. And Kevin does too, so without saying anything too much on that, we might be working together on something bigger than a music video, but who knows.