so you’ve gone viral: director ryan staake on life after his ‘wyclef jean’ video

How to turn the worst workday ever into a piece of internet infamy.

by Darren Luk
Mar 14 2017, 3:52am

At the beginning of the year, Ryan Staake became the recipient of a rare level of internet attention when he turned a bad day at work into something very special. Getting called in to direct a Young Thug video should have been a huge win for the Brooklyn based director, but when the star failed to turn up, Ryan was left with a bunch of expensive extras, nice cars and cops. Of course, we're talking about Wyclef Jean. Pushing ahead without the rapper, the director instead created a window into the world of a stressed-out director on a budget. It was a huge success.

So what happens after a mistake becomes the biggest break of your career? As it turns out, his very impressive working life has been partially built on strange, but good, luck and his innate ability to make the best of a bad situation. With music videos for Vince Staples, Father and ScHoolboy Q crowding his resume, we called him up to talk about accepting chaos and maybe glean a little career advice.

We're a couple of months on from the Wyclef Jean clip, but it's still very much in our collective conscious. How are you feeling with all this hype surrounding you?
It's been pretty wild. I've been focusing on monetising my brand, and letting a fleeting brush with fame go to my head while casually alienating those who have supported me in my journey. Just kidding — it's been really exciting to see everyone get into this video, and very cathartic. I don't know if people truly understand how sad and angry I was while making this thing, I'm just glad it's out!

That's what's so cool though, it's as much about you as it is about Young Thug. You rarely see the process from the director's standpoint.
I do think this is probably the most personal video I've made. I was somehow able to hijack it and refocus it on myself and my experience. Part of this was out of necessity… as a storyteller, you need characters, and I didn't really have any for the video, so I had to kind of turn myself into the character.

Have there been other situations where you've turned disasters into opportunities?
I've never had this big of a disaster, this was a first. But I did initially get into video via sampling existing films and adding VFX/edits to kind of bend the footage to my will, so I think this approach of imparting an unintended story on footage has been deeply ingrained in my process for some time.

A while ago you tweeted about how it was "Hard to distinguish between people actually liking something vs liking it because it's achieved critical mass of others liking it." Is that a question that plagues you in relation to your own work?
Damn, I need to be careful what I put on social media. I definitely have feelings of doubt in my work, I think anyone that doesn't have a hint of that is either lying to themselves or a robot. I think this Tweet was more about questioning trends, specifically visual trends: Do people really like fresh trends for their appreciation of their content, or do they like the trends because enough cool people also like them? I think there's a definite herd mentality at play. We move to a new trend, graze for a while, then move on once it's picked clean.

Now that you've had this huge viral hit, are you feeling the pressure to follow it up?
Yes, totally. It also doesn't help that I basically stumbled into the situation that yielded the video. I also had a couple rappers reach out asking for videos that they "didn't really have to be on set very long for" which was funny. I'm just focusing on making things that get me excited, and hope that excitement extends to the viewers as well.

Falling into projects is kind of your thing though, going back to your first commissioned video for Diplo. How did it all come about?
Diplo actually first saw my work on MySpace, back when it was a thing people used, and asked me to do the tour visuals for Major Lazer's debut. After doing the visuals, I was put on a mailing list with a bunch of late 2000s blog house DJs and producers, and someone accidentally sent the email out as cc instead of bcc, so I got 400+ emails of a bunch of heavy hitters in that world. I hit up Boys Noize and A-Trak and did a video for each of them.

It goes to show how random big breaks can be. You also worked with Madonna, right?
I actually have not worked with her, I pitched on a video for her but she didn't go with my idea. We got to hang out in her recording studio though, we spent the time looking through Youtube videos of voguing and crunking. She had these really nice smelling scented-humidifiers set up, it felt like heaven, and I wanted to break into the intro of Like A Prayer the whole time.

After a pretty a-typical career so far, what advice do you give young filmmakers?
Look at the path the majority of filmmakers are walking, turn five degrees to the right or left of that, and sprint off in that direction... metaphorically.



Text Darren Luk

music videos
Wyclef Jean
Ryan Staake