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Music Video Direction: Why Musicians Are Hiring Indie Filmmakers

Alex Ross Perry and other indie directors discuss their first experiences behind the camera on a music videos.

Alex Ross Perry

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Alex Ross Perry has the music video directing bug. Last month, the independent film writer-director co-directed his first music video, for the duo Sleigh Bells’ “I Can Only Stare,” sharing duties with the band’s Derek E. Miller. The experience taught him an important lesson: making music videos is fun.

READ MORE: Alex Ross Perry: Indie Filmmakers Can Afford to Shoot Film

“I’m really excited about it, and now I know it’s something that I’m interested in,” Perry told IndieWire in a recent interview. “I would almost aggressively pursue further opportunities to do things like this.”

The song for the video comes from Sleigh Bells’ new album “Jessica Rabbit,” released Friday. The band approached Perry to co-direct the video after seeing his 2015 film “Queen of Earth” and using it as inspiration for their video “It’s Just Us Now,” the first single from “Jessica Rabbit.”

“I was very amused to see the movie that I wasn’t sure anyone had ever seen apparently reached the saturation point where at least one person wanted to do something inspired by it,” Perry said. Perhaps surprisingly, no one had ever asked Perry to direct a music video before Sleigh Bells’ Miller reached out.

Sleigh Bells’ tenth music video, “I Can Only Stare” features singer Alexis Krauss playing three different characters, a concept the duo came up with and pitched to the director. Perry said the amount of collaboration on set during the two-day shoot was almost identical to all of the films he’s made, aside from the fact that the original idea wasn’t his. “They were very generous with explaining to me not just the way that they’ve made their videos but the way videos themselves are made,” he said, “which, of course, I didn’t know.”

The word “video” may be a bit of a misnomer, however, considering that Perry shot “I Can Hardly Stare” on 16mm film, just as he has done for all four of his feature films. Perry said he’s not anti-digital; he’s just always been able to find inexpensive ways to shoot on celluloid by using old cameras that cost very little money to rent. A discount on Kodak film stock even made it cheaper to shoot “I Can Hardly Stare” with film than it would have cost to rent the Alexa digital camera, he said. “It also gave the whole video a look that none of their other videos have, which I think is what a band definitely wants when they’re making their ninth or tenth music video,” he said.

While filmmakers ranging from David Fincher to Michel Gondry have roots in music videos, the format has been less of an incubator for new talent these days (one exception is the filmmaking duo Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — aka “Daniels” — who made their directorial debut at Sundance in January with “Swiss Army Man”). But the transition from feature-length directing to music videos reverses the trend, and Perry isn’t the only one to make the jump recently.

Last month, indie horror director Roxanne Benjamin (“Southbound”) directed Cherry Glazerr’s music video for the song “Nurse Ratched,” her first experience behind the camera on a music video. Benjamin described the timeline of the video as “insanely fast,” having signed on to the project in early October, shooting on October 17, and releasing the finished video on Halloween.

The opportunity came about when Cherry Glazerr singer Clementine Creevy met with Benjamin about starring in an upcoming feature project. (Creevy is also an actress who has appeared in eight episodes of “Transparent”). Unlike the film industry, where agents and producers are constantly matching talent with projects, many music video directing jobs come from artists’ personal networks. “We’re not on any directing lists for this kind of stuff,” Benjamin told IndieWire, adding that she doesn’t have an agent to help find her short-form directing work.

Why aren’t film agents also booking their director clients on music videos? As music videos have migrated from TV to being played almost exclusively on the internet, their budgets have fallen considerably. Unless you’re Paul Thomas Anderson, who recently shot a music video for Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” on 35mm, the pay for directing a music video is likely going to be relatively low. A decent budget for a music video today can cost as much as $100,000, and directors typically receive a fee of 10 percent of the total budget. Many directors even wind up putting some or all of their fee back into the budget of the music video they’re directing, according to Benjamin. “By the time it’s done, you’ve put in your own money and a kidney,” she said.

Genre filmmaker Jason Eisener (“Hobo With a Shotgun”) has directed several music videos for a number of artists, most recently the song “Want to Believe” by Rich Aucoin, and has never taken a fee. “Most of the music videos I’ve done have been on literally no budget,” he said, adding that the one time he did get paid, he put the money back into the budget of the shoot. One of the reasons Eisener enjoys making music videos is the way it enables him to exercise his filmmaking muscles. “It’s a way to show your style and explore larger ideas that you want to play with a little bit, or you’re drawn to helping build the character or persona of the artist, which is really fun too,” he said.

While the format has become less lucrative, this has allowed directors to have more creative freedom, says Ali Brown, vice president and executive producer at Los Angeles-based production company Prettybird. “That freedom is creating a really strong voice among all those music video directors,” she said. “There are a lot of filmmakers that are coming from the long-form world that are trying to figure out how to get into the shorter-form world, and music videos is one of the prime places to do it because it is so open creatively.”

Still, music videos have lost a bit of their luster due to the rise of premium content TV. “That’s what a lot of director’s want — to try to get into TV stuff,” said Michael Karbelnikoff, executive director of production company AllDayEveryDay. “A music video isn’t necessarily the avenue, but anything that gets you in the door, given the competition that we have these days on the directorial side, is worth doing.”

Indeed, music videos continue to serve as calling cards for up-and-coming directors who want to build a body of work. Daniels burst onto the scene with their music video sensation for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What,” which helped them land their first feature directing job for “Swiss Army Man.” “That did translate into getting an indie feature made, and it also helped them get it distributed,” Karbelnikoff said. “A24 really valued what their vision could be going forward.”

READ MORE: Interview: Alex Ross Perry Talks ‘Queen of Earth,’ ‘Winnie The Pooh,’ Unlikable Characters & More

Though Perry has a full slate of upcoming projects, including a new feature film called “Golden Exits,” currently in post-production, and a script for a live-action “Winnie the Pooh” project, he said he’s optimistic about being able to find time to make more music videos in the future. Still, he acknowledges that there are no guarantees additional music video offers will come his way. “If that’s the case, I feel like this is a great video to start and end on,” he said. “Hopefully it’s not, but you never know.”

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