Alex Lee and Kyle Wightman are BRTHR, a Brooklyn based film production duo who make beautifully shot music videos with the kind of cinematic qualities and hard-earned attention to detail that let you know they mean business. With a dedication to the perfect shot and work that clearly stands out from the crowd, to date they've been called on by artists including Charlie XCX, Jessie Ware, MS MR, Iggy Azalea, Miley Cyrus, Angel Haze and Ta-Ku to create their clips.
While Alex grew up in Japan and Kyle in Long Island, the two met at film school in New York and eventually dropped out to start BRTHR after one of their videos, Tokyo Slo-Mode, took off online and they realised they could make a go of it.
Tokyo Slo-Mode from BRTHR.
The most recent project by the 23 year old duo is an epic, six-and-a-half minute 'bloody feminist revenge fantasy' to accompany The Weeknd's In The Night single. It stars Bella Hadid as a beautiful saviour in a dark, Japanese noir-style thriller and marks a high point in the recent music video scene.
We spoke to Kyle and Alex about making the video, their unique aesthetic, what inspires them and their upcoming projects.
i-D: Hello! What's happening on your side of the world?
Alex: A huge blizzard hit us in New York and we all stayed in our homes. It was a really good time.
You guys are steadily building an incredible catalogue of work. Can you tell us about the birth of BRTHR?
Alex: I grew up in Japan and decided to study film in NY when I turned 18. When I was 19 I made Tokyo Slo-Mode, which went viral after appearing on Reddit. Eventually I got an offer to direct a video - that's when Kyle joined and we decided to call ourselves BRTHR because we thought it was more fun than calling ourselves Alex & Kyle. The name stems from a time we came across a DVD of Takeshi Kitano's movie Brother when we were shooting our first music video. It's about Western Mafia and Japanese Yakuza. It's kind of fitting. We too are gangsters.
Kyle: I was raised on Long Island in a small town. I spent a lot of time messing around with Final Cut, making little videos. Growing up I was inspired by artists like PES, the stop motion animator. His early work is really stripped down and humble. PES showed me you could create anything imaginable. After senior year of high school, I went to Hofstra University on a running scholarship, but later transferred to SVA where I met Alex.
Would you say that coming from such diverse cultures gives you guys a unique perspective?
Alex: Growing up in a place like Japan is stimulating. There's so much going on. I think that definitely influences our work. I barely realised the editing style we developed was spastic until people started talking about it in that way. Japan is very cinematic, you realise that especially when you leave it for a while. I think it's a place that could be very influential to a filmmaker's brain.
Kyle: Although we come from different cultures I find we have always had great deal of common ground in our aesthetic and tastes, so we are able to harmonise and collaborate well in that sense. My upbringing was very quintessential middle class American, which I'm grateful for because that culture comfortably allowed me to have access to a lot of different creative outlets, but still motivated me to pursue something greater than that which I was born into. I was able to indulge a lot of my creativity in small projects and that cultivated the perspective I brought to BRTHR.
Working as co-directors you must be pretty in synch with each other. Have there been times though where there's conflict or challenges you've faced?
Alex: We are both very peaceful people.
Kyle: Alex and I are innately on a very similar wavelength, which I'm grateful for. We were friends first and foremost prior to becoming creative partners, so that comfortable energy really translates into our work dynamic. As a duo, it's actually really helpful to have someone to bounce ideas off of to keep you in check, as well as to challenge you creatively.
Are there any particular films you both feel inspired by?
Alex: We have similar tastes. I'm really inspired by the film Fallen Angels. I think it's the perfect film. I also have a love affair with The Matrix. That was the first film that got me thinking about the process of filmmaking.
Kyle: Enter the Void and Spring Breakers are mine.
All your films and videos have a nostalgic old school yet still somehow futuristic vibe to them. What draws you to this?
Kyle: So many films nowadays look the same to us: really glossy, clean and robotic. We idolise directors who do things differently. Having a distinct mood and style is most important to us, and I feel like we found our zone with a gritty retro-future vibe. The videos we did for Ben Khan and then Dazed & Confused sort of struck a chord in us and we applied that to our video for The Weeknd.
In The Night has had over 23 million views already. How did this project come about and what was it like working on it?
Alex: The Weeknd's creative director, La Mar, hit us up almost a year and a half ago. Abel (The Weeknd) and La Mar honestly let us go crazy. We went a little over budget and they were just like, go for it. We were all in it together to win it. We were inspired by Michael Jackson videos and Prince's Purple Rain. We wanted to bring back the grand scale vibe in music videos.
I saw Abel come to your first DJ gigs Alex!
Alex: It was nuts! I had a really modest DJ gig at this bar in NY and we were texting about working again, then he was just like, "I'll stop by to hang out". A few hours later there were four Escalades blocking the road and Abel, La Mar, some of his friends and body guards came through. People were bugged out. He's a cool dude. We have a mutual respect, which is the best when you're collaborating.
Bella Hadid also stars in the music video and is an aspiring director too.
Kyle: She's such a sweet girl. We were really impressed by her attitude throughout the shoot. We shot until 7am one days and she may have been the chirpiest one on set. We didn't talk about that but I'm sure she'd be good behind the camera since she knows what it's like to be in front of it. We'd be interested to see what she does.
What's on your playlist rotation?
Alex: I've lately been listening to tracks I feel like I'd play when I DJ. So a lot of remixes and hip hop, plus some house and experimental. There's so much talent on Soundcloud. Here are some notably talented musicians I listen to: Jim-E Stack, Groundislava, Shlohmo, Tokyo Hands, Gillepsy, Bruce Smear, Gesaffelstein, Suicide year, Cedaa, etc.
You've collaborated with Miley Cyrus and were linked up via social media. Is social media a huge thing for you and your work?
Alex: Reddit helped Tokyo Slo-Mode go viral. That was the beginning. Then Vimeo staff picked some of our work. That means a minimum of 30K quality viewers, including industry professionals. That's how we were discovered. Social Media is absolutely essential in getting your work seen now. Instagram is the same way for models and photographers and Soundcloud for musicians. This is why it's an exciting time to be an artist right now. The audience is so broad, your work could literally reach places you wouldnt have even imagined.
You've worked with a really diverse range of artists, how do you approach the projects?
Kyle: We approach every project with a fresh mindset. We never recycle ideas or anything. We never want to do the same thing so we are constantly looking for opportunities to try something new. That's why we work with a diverse range of musical genres.
Any particularly funny or memorable moments from your projects thus far?
Alex: Filming Iggy Azalea rap on an elephant in India was absolutely surreal and weird. A-Trak canned one of our videos haha. So yeah, that was memorable too. Funny story, we had an exhibition/q&a in Brooklyn last year and we screened that video and people friggin loved it. Also, I remember the time we tried to fit a motorcycle helmet on Abel's head. It wasn't easy.
What are some of your favourite music videos?
Alex: The Daniel Wolfe music video for The Shoes starring Jake Gyllenhaal is nuts. MIA's Bad Girls is unreal. Megaforce, Dougal Wilson, Andrew Thomas Huang and CANADA are all some of my faves too.
Are there any other young directors we should be checking out?
Alex: Two of my friends, Anton Tammi and Johannes Greve Muskat are doing cool stuff and they're young. We were thinking of starting some sort of collective.
Who would you dream to collaborate with and why?
Alex: Frank Ocean, Drake, Jeremih, Shlohmo, and Kanye. Just sounds like it'd be a fun time.
Lastly, are there any upcoming projects that you are working on?
Kyle: We're in touch with The Weeknd about collab-ing again. We're working on director's cuts for the Facebook and Smirnoff ads we did, as well as a Drums video we shot a long time ago that we never got to finish. We're going to do all in our power to make them great.
Text Darren Luk
Photography Mr Iozo