Hannah Lux Davis talks breaking into the industry, surprising Drake on set and texting Nicki Minaj.
I'm Out, The Night is Still Young, Focus
Hannah Lux Davis is the director calling action on the set of all your favourite videos. From Ciara to Miley, Drake to Tinashe, Hannah's there from the earliest conceptual stages to the final edit. Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande are some of her closer collaborators; they'll text ideas back and forth. When we spoke, Hannah was putting the finishing touches on Ariana's latest video, Focus.
In conversation with i-D, Hannah illuminated the ins and outs of an insular world, talks her relationship with Nicki and women dominating the industry.
i-D: You've worked with some of the most visible people in the world, but, unlike a film director, the music video director is quite hidden. Does that dichotomy feel strange from your position?
Hannah: Yeah, it's weird. Lately I've been thinking to myself "Ariana Grande and I are texting constantly, that's crazy." I don't think it's something I'll ever take lightly. Even today, when I show up to a set I'm still in awe because I haven't been doing this very long--though I've been trying to do it forever.
I read you started your career as a makeup artist then made the transition to director.
That's kind of true. I always knew I wanted to direct. I went to film school, and when I graduated I started as a P.A. on video sets. I quickly realised that wasn't going to be the way I'd meet people, move up and grow. Makeup was something that had always intrigued me, so it seemed natural to pursue that as a way to get onto sets. Once I started doing make-up for videos, I finally got involved in creative conversations and began to understand how the whole industry worked. Because of makeup I met a lot of the people I work with as a director today.
With music videos, there's a third party—the label—involved in the process. That's something narrative directors don't have to worry about. How does that complicate the process?
The process of making a music video is actually a big mystery for a lot of people in the industry! Even TV or film people will ask "So, how do you guys do that?" [laughs] When you're working with an artist and a major label, there are all these extra steps.
The record label works with a video commissioner to decide what they're looking for in the video and how much they'll spend. From there, an email is sent out to the directors they're interested in that contains the song, a time and place for the shoot, and a creative brief. Some people have reps that get these emails for them—I do—but others don't.
So, you've gotten the brief from the label. What now?
Once a director gets that brief they'll start to make a treatment: that's a pretty PDF with lots of gorgeous pictures that paint the picture of what the video will look and feel like. There's no magical formula as to how a treatment comes together. When I started I was really naive; I had no idea how to write a treatment or what that even looked like. Now, I'm constantly writing treatments, so it's become part of my muscle memory. I know what triggers me to think creatively. I need to be at my laptop in a coffee shop. The commissioner sends the best treatments to the management and the artist: they make the final choice.
What about artists you have a closer relationship with—say, Nicki Minaj?
For Nicki Minaj, there's only been a couple times where I've had to submit a treatment. Usually with her, we'll talk on the phone, or she'll text me some ideas she has and I'll form a treatment based on that. Same with Ariana Grande and Paris Hilton. We'll work out a concept together.
How do you build those close creative relationship?
I like to grab artist's numbers or email as soon as possible, so we can start chatting and they can realise I've got their back. The first time I work with an artist you never know what you're going to get. The second or third time around the artist opens up a little more and I know how they like to shoot. You build more trust.
A lot of the people you've built those partnerships with are women.
Right now there's this huge female empowerment movement, especially in music where women are just dominating. There's definitely something to be said about having a female's perspective to capture a female artist at their best. That goes for everything from movement to fashion right down down to the glam. What I love to do, especially for glam, is just go online and search for images of these artists—because they've gotten their makeup done a million times—so I can say "for this shot, let's do similar makeup to how she had it at that award show three years ago." Not to bring up tired looks from the past, but to reference when she's looked her absolute best.
I guess you're innately aware of those things because it's what you'd want from someone shooting you.
Yeah! But I'm not saying "I know how girls are" because every woman is different, and I respect that. I've always been told I shoot women in a tasteful way. I can find that fine line between sexy and contrived. I always say, I want the guys to want to fuck them and I want the girls to want to be friends with them. I'm not saying guys can't do that, but I'm bringing this female perspective to the table: I know what girls will think is cool.
None of this is to say you haven't made cool videos for men too—your breakout video was for Drake, Future and Lil Wayne, right?
Yeah, Love Me. That was an interesting job because I was meeting all these rappers and it was my first time working with an artist that everybody in the world had heard of. I was so nervous. And Drake didn't realise there was a female director. Someone was talking to him like "hey, our director's over here," I saw it happening from afar; he was like "We've got a female director?" he was like, confused. But it was fine, and it did end up being my breakout video.
It's interesting that people still anticipate a man walking on to set. Could the public discussion about the wage gap in Hollywood and the lack of female directors be had about music video?
Absolutely, it's all very similar. Amy Schumer said it best when she was asked about being a female comic. She said "it's all hard, it's all fucking hard." It's not a matter of male or female: the role of a director in music videos is really tricky. Filmmaking is a passion, it's an art. Women are already so emotionally driven and so passionate that combining those two passions can be tricky. But if anything, it makes us even more vulnerable to create. I know that sounds really douchy...
I know what you mean. Whenever I'm talking to someone, I'm reluctant to ask about being a woman in that field, because it does feel counterproductive to say 'a female director' or, like you said, 'a female comedian'.
Yeah! It's all the fucking same, it's all hard! From time to time, there's a bit of judgement when I come onto set if I'm working with a crew I don't know. There's a little more pressure to prove yourself. But I've always been in situations where I've been the girl doing the thing that's a little different.
What would you say to a filmmaker who's in the same place as you were a few years ago?
You should always reach out to artists and bands. It's so important to make connections. Even if there's a band that have no money, borrow a camera and shoot them a video! Keep creating. You're not going to learn anything thinking about it or talking about it. You just have to do it.
A lot of directors go to film school and get told to write short films, thinking they're going to graduate and direct a feature straight away. They probably won't, and people can get discouraged by that. What worked for me is music videos: that was the best way to open doors further down the line. Now that I've worked with people like Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande, I have representation in film and TV because people have seen my work. Never close yourself of the opportunities, because everything will lead to something else.