Interview: Music Video Director Dave Meyers

The man behind some of pop music’s most iconic videos talks about his craft

July 1, 2015

Dave Meyers’ frenetic imagination has conjured some of this era’s most recognizable music videos. Active since the ‘90s, his resume consists of over 200 projects with a genre-spanning list of artists from Jay-Z to Mick Jagger.

A chance meeting with Good Will Hunting filmmaker Gus Van Sant inspired Meyers to pursue videos and he landed his first MTV slot in 1997 with underground Oakland duo The Whoridas. The Californian director’s most iconic work includes eleven of Missy Elliott’s career defining videos as well as visuals for Outkast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad” and “So Fresh, So Clean.” He won a best video Grammy Award in 2005 for Elliott’s “Lose Control” and has also received eleven MTV Awards.

Meyers recently took a three-year sabbatical to pursue film and advertising, but is now diving back into music. During more than an hour of conversation, we discussed a fraction of his filmography and thoughts on industry issues such as lower budgets and product placement. He discussed early interactions with Kanye West, shooting with Nas, making 44 videos in one year and a whole lot more.

Nas feat. Ginuwine - You Owe Me

Do you take the context of a song in consideration when creating the video? For example you shot the Nas’ song “You Owe Me” with Ginuwine, which many fans considered a sell out track.

Some movies come out good, some come out bad. At the starting gate, you always think you’re doing something good. In that case, Nas wanted to have a little bit of the crispy visuals that were associated my videos at the time. That was an ironic video, because I would have far preferred to do the militant Nas record and probably would have won him all kinds of awards because that’s closer to who I am. The video we ended up doing together was almost like a video that Hype [Williams] might have done better with, I don’t know. That particular experience, sometimes in the rush of it… all the thoughtfulness towards a brand is not as considered even by the artist themselves. It’s like, “Hey, we’re available on Tuesday, let’s shoot, here’s the budget, let’s go.” What did seem necessary at that time for a lot of rap videos was an interesting presentation of women, not necessary the booty shaking stuff that we’ve evolved into, but at that time just more high fashion with a street edge, so there was lots of videos attempting that.

You’ve been shooting rap videos since the late ‘90s. Did you ever feel intimidated as a white guy working with these artists?

I never really felt a racial issue. It was more filmmaking and what I was highlighting. The urban community is not one broad stroke. It’s actually many different types of nuances. What Lil Wayne wanted was very different from what Jay-Z wanted, which was different from what Ice Cube wanted. That’s the same for Dave Matthews, Aerosmith, Mick Jagger. Shakira is different from J-Lo.

So really it was just navigating that, which it still is, whether it is urban or pop or whatever it is. It was actually a little bit of a growing curve for me to do more typically stereotyped “white music.” With urban music, I’d seen every video since the dawn of videos and I knew all of the references. I’d made rap videos when I was in high school to Slick Rick. Obviously there are cultural differences, but as far as depicting them on film they felt a sense of respect from me. So I don’t think there were really any issues other than: “Am I making something hot or not?”

I’ve read commentary that interprets certain perspectives about race and sexuality in your videos. Are those things you actively think about when creating?

What I can say is: With music videos, the script is somewhat dictated to me by the artist and the music they write and I come up with the visual ideas that accompany that. So yes, I’m a member of whatever historical analysis is reviewed, but it’s a community that was moving at the time. I think my influence, if anything, was making urban music “accessible.” That’s what Jay-Z liked, that’s what Missy [Elliott] liked. I won lots of awards with those people and touched the world with the way that I was able to make them accessible. Other directors were not able to do that, even though they make great videos within their community.

So that was what I saw from the outside looking in. That’s what I saw my imprint to be. When I was living it, it was just that I was having fun. Each video was like, “Oh Missy, let’s pull your head off, oh Missy let’s do this.” “Jay, can we do something like this?” “Nah, Dave I want to do a party.” “OK, we’ll do a party.” It was just sort of a riff session between artists, what they were about at that time and how I was able to respond to that. So it’s certainly not a conscious thing.

The book Unruly Media by Carol Vernallis said that your video for Outkast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad” incorporated stereotypical images of race like gospel singers in purple robes, dancing Blaxploitation heroines as well as orangutans and chimpanzees, possibly as a way of giving stereotypes new meaning.

That’s definitely over-analyzing. I think with that, Outkast represents Atlanta. The premise was that Andre [3000] really wanted to highlight the hood. To me, that sounds like a white perspective of what was going on. It doesn’t sound like a true cultural renaissance. That was actually considered the video of the decade in a poll that was done when the ‘90s ended. To quantify it like that is really… I mean everybody is open to whatever opinions they want, but the truth on the ground was Outkast wanted to present the culture in a very big and electric way. What we did was hardly stereotypical. We did body paint on women, the church were doing something associated with a rap video, which is not something you see a union of too often.

The pulse of the piece was integrating certain staple urban cultural things like bouncing cars, things like that, people from the hood having a celebratory vibe, and then integrating it into an experience that anybody in the world could watch and feel was a movement. It felt like a movement to me and that’s what we were after, just this perpetual fluidity of excitement that was happening in the streets of Atlanta. I think we were one of the first to be able to capture the broad scope of what was going on there.

How do video cameos usually work? Missy Elliott’s videos in particular had so many. Timbaland, Ginuwine, Aaliyah, her friends always showed up.

That was a high priority of Missy’s at the time. I think that there’s a currency in showing support in that way, particularly in the urban community. I’ve always thought it would be nice if the rock community or some of the other communities stuck together in the same way, cause I think as a fan it makes it so much more fun when you see everybody supporting each other like that.

Missy Elliott - Pass That Dutch

You have a cameo in the “Pass That Dutch” video at the 1:20 mark.

Yeah, Missy insisted on that. I was just going about shooting it and I had an extra grabbing her and pulling her into the thing and she didn’t want anybody touching her, so she told me I had to. She trusted me, and had me do it. It was the first time I had ever been asked to be in a video and I sort of got very nervous and I couldn’t focus on anything but that for the next 20 minutes.

I get the feeling your relationship with Missy Elliott is very collaborative.

Yes, Missy has a lot of trust in my visual sense. She’s always brought me into the fold of what she likes, and we play in the sandbox well together. It seems we’ve begun starting to talk again. I guess she’s in the studio and even as we’ve started to talk again, it seems the things she references I get excited by, the things I reference she gets excited by. We just have a sort of shorthand that works. Pink and I have had that, and there’s been windows where I’ve had that with other artists. Jay-Z, J-Lo.

Missy Elliott - Work It

During the “Work It” video, were those bees on Missy Elliott’s face? How was shooting that?

Yes, we had bees on the set for the rest of the day and it was the first time I’ve worked with a beekeeper. I was told it was all humane and all that kind of stuff, but I didn’t quite understand what I was getting into until the guy showed up and created the bee beard. [laughs]

Kanye has a brief cameo in Jay-Z’s “IZZO (H.O.V.A)“ at the 3:22 point, which you shot.

Yeah, he had produced that track and asked if I would film him getting a tattoo. So I went to Jay-Z and I said, “Who is this guy?” and he’s like, “Yeah, yeah, you can film him.” Obviously it was all history probably a year later when he emerged with his first single. I think that he was very, very focused on being the superstar that he became. He was able to say it before it happened. He’s a fascinating case study for anybody looking at a pioneer. I could go on and on about him.

You’ve shot several videos for like Jay-Z. What’s the most common reason why the relationship ends after a few years?

It’s the same reason why I might switch a director of photography. It basically stems from growth. I was part of Jay-Z’s life at a time where he was single and wanted to do a lot of party records, and I was trying to get him to do some edgy stuff, but he wasn’t hearing it at the time. There’s a familiarity of like, “Oh, Dave was my guy who did that thing for me at that time.” There’s no bad blood, it’s just sort of the evolution of a creative.

Limp Bizkit - Boiler

What do you think has been your most underappreciated video?

My Limp Bizkit “Boiler“ video. I think that was probably one of my favorite videos that I have ever done. I completely wrote that concept with no feedback from Fred [Durst] or anything, so it’s like it was my tribute to Pink Floyd, but with modern twists. It came out one week before 9/11 so it just got pulled right off the air.

When you shot Outkast’s “Bombs over Baghdad,” it was sent to India so each frame could be painted to create the bright colouring?

It was important to me to color each frame because the budget was very high. It was the highest budget I had at the time, which was a result of another director going to do it, then backing out at the last minute. So the budget was already approved and I got slotted in there and the treatment 100% changed when I got to Atlanta. Andre sat down and threw out what the other director had done and explained the idea of just running through the hood and driving the bouncing cars and going to a club. I was worried when I was making it that the money being spent wasn’t going to be reflected in the overall vision. I kind of held up the process for six weeks to get the coloring done, but in the end Big Boi and Dre were like, “this is beautiful, thank you.” They were very earnestly appreciative of how far I’d tried to push it and then the video ended up looking like what it cost and it became very meaningful for my journey forward.

Rihanna - Where Have You Been

That kind of vivid coloring was one of your calling cards at the time.

Yeah it was, but then everybody started doing it and I’ve evolved more into what my Rihanna video looks like, which is a little more moody, but even that is pretty status quo these days. So I’m wondering if the colorful thing might come back but edgier. It’s weird because having lived through enough of the business you start to see how society affects things. The actual things that you’re drawn to as a culture change. That was definitely a colorful time.

During the early 2000s, you were doing dozens of videos year after year. How was that?

I did 44 in one year. It was the time of my life. That year was one of my most amazing years. As an evolved artist, I don’t know that I would want to do that now. I didn’t feel it at the time, but quality affected quantity. Nevertheless, at that time I did 40 in one year, I think that was the time when I did some of my best work. I think that’s the year that I won 7 VMAs. Everybody that went up on stage kept thanking me. How do you ever regret that? That’s a life memory that I cherish, but I’m into different things now, so I don’t know if I’d want to repeat that.

As you grow as an artist, you become more critical, which is sometimes self-consuming. That’s why you see older artists go crazy. I’m trying to keep myself from going crazy. I see that with the musicians that get older, they’re trying to carry the burden of staying relevant while at the same time staying relevant creatively. Sometimes you evolve creatively into a place that’s more mature, and you’ve suddenly lost your 20 year old audience. It’s a weird see-saw.

Were there any directors during the years when you were making your name that inspired or pushed you?

My biggest inspiration during that period was Mark Romanek. I think that what he provided was that nice balance between an artistic video and relevance to the audience. What I felt, a lot of times, is that directors were too heavy on the arty side. Or they were too pop, without any substance, and they lost their individual identity or artistic contribution. Almost every video was a contribution of really provocative takes on visuals, branding and was also satisfying as a fan of that music. He was the generation ahead, but of the peers that were doing work that I was paying attention to, it would be Paul Hunter. There were like six or seven of us, but Paul and I overlapped the most. He was the only other director that was jumping genres. I definitely felt like there’s a healthy climate when you’re working with great minds, competitors alongside you. It sort of creates a climate where everybody has to be on their game and that’s not necessarily true these days because as the budgets drop the leading decision on who they use for directors is, “Oh, who can do it for this money?” Sometimes you don’t get well delivered ideas that way.

Katy Perry - Firework

Because the budget is often limited in modern music videos sometimes they rely on product placement for extra money. How have you found that?

I’ve always struggled with product placement in videos because it’s never well placed.

It’s so obvious.

Well, that’s a result of the artist being in whatever bind that they’re in and I’ve become downwind of it. In other words, an artist comes with the package already saying “Hey, I need to highlight this car or these headphones or whatever and you’ve got to do three seconds on the headphones in order to get the money and blah blah, you won’t get your budget approved for the video if you don’t do that.” If the artist wants to fight it, I’ll fight along with them and occasionally an artist will push back. Certainly, back in the day, they’d push back and say, “There’s no way, it’s awful.”

If it were done where the brand approached me and I approached the artist, then I think it could be done in a way that the placement would not be so offensive. An example of that would be the Katy Perry “Firework” video that was fully funded by Deutsche Telekom. You don’t have three seconds of a cell phone in there. It was very smart brand integration, where you wouldn’t even know it unless you really looked at the big picture. The only requirement was that Katy have a collective non-pedestaled experience with 200 people that were being selected by Deutsche Telekom through a campaign that they were starting. My only requirement was to shoot it in Eastern Europe somewhere, so I choose Budapest.

It was different for me to be challenged to not be obvious with the product placement. I think I did six or seven drafts before Deutsche Telekom signed it off. Katy’s also very precious with her videos, so I don’t think you’ll ever see her holding a cell phone for three seconds. But I also think the artists that do cave might be stuck in a situation where that’s the nature of their deal. It’s easy to be the queen and say, “I won’t do that.” It’s harder to be a hustler trying to come up and have that be your only invitation.

How was working on Outkast’s “So Fresh, So Clean“?

Andre and Big Boi have a very strong tie to the church and the church impact on the community. What I think Big Boi told me at the time was that church is like a fashion show and when they go to church, that’s where everybody brings out the hottest fashions. That’s where everybody goes to be seen. I thought that was a really fresh, interesting idea. You get ready for the day and you get all done up so you can meet at church instead of the club. Andre in a beauty salon was just the beginnings of his eccentric personality coming out and I think Big Boi is very part of the sort of smooth, playa kind of persona, so his little shoes and jacket, his suaveness was his contribution.

Is listening to songs on repeat so you can learn what lyrics to interpret visually part of your process?

It is. Sometimes I question whether I should be ignoring the song and just come up with a vision that the song adapts to. I’ve thought about it, but I do seem to be beholden to the spirit of the song and I feel perhaps that’s associated with why I’ve had success with bands.

I was like, “Oh my god, did I compromise without knowing it?”

I thought that was the characteristic of a lot of your videos. If Missy said something outlandish, you’d represent that visually.

Yeah, I definitely do think that way. There is a part of me that tries to avoid “see say,” but there’s another part of me that’s like “well, it’s in their script.” In a way, I’m trying to create the house for those lyrics. Sometimes if it’s in the lyrics, it’s permission for me to do something crazy. The artist might shoot it down if it’s just an abstract thought. But if it’s in their lyrics and I can kind of tie it to them, it helps me sell a great visual experience to an artist that might otherwise not be that into it.

What you don’t see is the treatments that I’ve written. I’ve written some way left of center stuff, and what I get is silence. They don’t call back. I almost think I’m going to lose the video and then I try to reach out, talk to them and… Artists have an impression of what they’d like to see. There are a few that really like the adventure of what I come up with. Limp Bizkit were like that with me, which is why I have a fond place for that video. I wrote what I thought he wanted from the song that he had sent me and Fred [Durst] called me back and was like, “This is fucking shit, where’s the Dave Meyers that I want? Write your shit, don’t write some shit you’ve seen me do.”

They told it to me in such a blunt way that I was like, “Oh my god, did I compromise without knowing it?” So I stayed up all night and wrote. Pink Floyd’s The Wall was one of my favorite films and I was like, “Well, maybe he’ll let me do aliens on the wall, shit coming out of girl’s mouths, buildings exploding, weird, demented shit, and animation in the middle. I sent him that treatment and he was like, “Yeah, this is it. What’s it cost? Let’s do it.” So once in a while an artist allows me that privilege and I love that. It is usually a balance of that. Or it’s some kind of collaboration. Or in the worst-case scenario, it’s something that’s dictated to me at the point at which I can’t get out of the video and I just have to shoot what they want me to shoot. That has happened a couple of times.

For people coming up, it’s the best time ever.

Do you think music videos have worth in 2015 or are they in danger of becoming content for content’s sake?

They certainly have regained value for me. I took a three or four year break there and focused on commercials. What I’ve learned with the reach of a music video, especially to its fans, is there’s nothing quite like it other than maybe Jurassic Park. [laughs] It’s a very strong connection that artists still maintain with their fans, even more so than ever, because of the way the Internet is.

I think the health of the creative community is in a progressive place, even though the economic health is always and continues to be in question. It can be kind of scary I think, particularly for anybody that’s been around for a while. New people coming up, that’s all they know. For people coming up, it’s the best time ever. Based on what I saw when I was coming up, there was like one video every once in a while that was cheap and you were lucky to be able to get it. Whereas now most of them are cheap, so if you’re coming out of film school with a very interesting edge or you’ve got an iPhone and editing equipment, you can really create. It’s a world community of creativity, which I find to be inspiring as an artist despite it being challenging as a father. [laughs]

On a different note