Anytime a director sets out to create a rap video set in a locale associated with urban culture and portraying tropes of partying and violence, there’s a danger of them falling into that well worn and clichéd road which glamorises ‘thug life’. However, in the hands of a skilled director such as John Merizalde – who has impressed us here at DN more than once – the story that you think you know can take on a whole new dimension which makes it fresh once again. So is the case in John’s black & white video for new Memphis rapper Jon Waltz’s track Bang, whose creation he gives us an insight into below.
I was approached a few months ago to do a low budget video for this 18 year old rapper from Memphis – Jon Waltz. I had never heard of him, so initially I was a little weary. The brief intrigued me though; the artist didn’t want to be in the video whatsoever. He wanted something cinematic. Once I heard the track, I was in. Thematically and narratively, the video is pretty literal to the song. A girl, a party, a gunshot. It’s an archetypal story we’ve seen played out before, so the exciting part for me was the execution – Trying to create this poetic, moody piece, which is what the track evoked for me. I think one of the first things the artist and I agreed on was black and white photography, so we just went from there.
Originally we planned on shooting in Atlanta, a location familiar to myself and the artist, but the budget just didn’t allow it. I had recently moved to LA and made friends with this amazing producer/director and music video connoisseur – Chris Black. He came on as producer and was able to pull out all the stops to help us execute this story in LA instead. For authenticity’s sake, we decided to set the story in South Central, in an area where drive-by shootings are a reality. In fact during our scout, we came across a post-funeral gathering for someone that had been recently murdered in a drive-by gang shooting.
It’s always a challenge stepping into a subculture as an outsider and trying to find truth without just reaching for stereotypes.
From the beginning I was aware that this is a topic that could easily come off as exploitative. Chris and I definitely wanted to take special care that this story wasn’t just a glamorization, as many hood videos can be. It’s always a challenge stepping into a subculture as an outsider and trying to find truth without just reaching for stereotypes. Yeah this was a rap video, but we wanted to do something different. With the nature of our shoot, being low budget run-and-gun, there was definitely a vérité element. Most of the cast are just local neighborhood kids, save our two leads. It was important to me to capture a “real” feeling, while still fitting a dreamy narrative experience. For example, all the party shots are from a real party we crashed nearby. Obviously there were no permits or police involved, which definitely added an exciting element to the shoot.
I had drawn out a rough shot list, but only as a guide. Once you’re on the chaos of a set like this, you just roll with what you have. There’s a few thought-out set pieces, but most of the shots/actions were improvised on set. That’s always the fun part on set. It was a very small crew, most being old friends of mine that moved from Atlanta. We were very lucky to get our hands on a RED Epic and an amazing Steadicam operator for free. We shot for 2 days. Much to the dismay of my DP Jake Ures, we had very little time, crew, or grip/lighting gear to work with. Despite that, I think he did a pretty amazing job photographing the emotion and intensity of the story. The turn around was very quick, with editing/color being done by my longtime and talented collaborators Chad Sarahina and David Torcivia. The video was shot in color but converted to b&w. I’m sure David will put out a blog post soon on the whole process.
Ultimately I’m proud with what we achieved. I’ve always been intrigued with narrative music videos and it’s always exciting to be able to experiment with the form. I look forward to the next one.. Hopefully the budget will be bigger!