Talking to Dave Meyers, the director behind Missy Elliott's 'WTF' music video
'I want to take her energy and my energy in that moment and see where my mind goes.'
Last week Missy Elliot finally and fantastically returned with the video for "WTF (Where They From)." Anticipation has been high for new music from her since February, when Katy Perry ceded a sizable piece of her Super Bowl halftime performance to a mini Elliott set, but the "WTF" video also caps a comeback year for its director, Dave Meyers.
Elliott and Meyers have teamed for 11 videos, starting with 2001's "Get Ur Freak On," and they've produced such highlights as "Gossip Folks," "Work It," and "Pass That Dutch." The two started collaborating just as Meyers' career was starting to catch fire. He started gaining attention in the late 1990s with clips like Kid Rock's "Bawitaba" and Juvenile's "Back That Azz Up," then rode that wave until the mid-aughts, when he was handling videos for the likes of Céline Dion and Janet Jackson. He then started focusing on commercials and directed the remake of The Hitcher, sporadically making music videos (often for his other most frequent partner, P!nk) before stopping altogether in 2012.
This year he's created five music videos for artists ranging from legends like Janet Jackson, mid-career stars like Ciara and Janelle Monae, and newcomer Pia Mia. Having just returned from South Africa where he was filming a commercial, here Meyers explains the roots of his relationship with Elliott, what was different about making "WTF," and finding creative freedom in slashed budgets.
Eric Ducker: When you're in South Africa and you have a video that takes off like this one did, do you realize how big it's getting?
Dave Meyers: It was a trip. I had just left dinner and was headed to watch The Martian and my phone just exploded. Then I realized that they just dropped it, and it was like rocket fuel. By the time the movie was done, there were interviews to be done and people that wanted to talk and jobs that wanted to be booked.
When you got the call from Missy Elliott to do the video, did you know new music from her was in the works?
There was a lot of good energy bubbling in the Missy camp (and obviously in the public world, too) from the Super Bowl. I don't know her exact version of the story, but my guess is that the adoration for her Super Bowl performance led to an enthusiasm on Missy's part to dust off the old, talented side of her artistry. Then Pharrell and Atlantic Records and everybody was just hyped on riding that good juju. Maybe a month later that I got a phone call with the track. We wanted to shoot in July, but the puppets were the first idea, and when we contacted the puppet maker he was like, "Oh yeah, it will be three months to make those." We had to greenlight just the puppets without really knowing how or in which way the overall video was going to be. So we rushed to get those made, and while those were being made, we had a three-month creative journey of filling out the rest of the video, which is the longest I've ever had to think out a video. It was a very enjoyable and exciting process for me and Missy, because usually it's so fast moving. This time we really got to do a lot of chatting and a lot of collaborating and a lot of careful planning and conversations — all the stuff that normally would be greatly consolidated.
"Missy approached me as a peer and as a filmmaker."
I read that the video was originally going to be all puppets. How did the concept change during that three-month period?
The initial burst was the excitement for the puppets, then it kind of dawned on me and Missy, like, "Is that enough?" Obviously there's a big dance appreciation for what Missy is as a brand, and the puppets will dance, but will they dance in an innovative way enough to capture what Missy means to the dance community? She's been gone so long, so for her to re-emerge with just puppets and to not see Missy ... There's so much charisma associated with her and the way she frontlines a dance experience, it seemed like it wasn't quite a Missy experience. We had been talking, and after the VMAs happened, we really went hard on it. I was like, "We have to do what we do." Over a couple days I pitched her all the surreal things I could dream of, then we shot it two weeks later.
Can you take back me back to when you guys first worked together on "Get Ur Freak On"? That was the first video you guys did together, but she already had had a successful collaborative relationship with Hype Williams, who did her first videos like "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" and "Sock it 2 Me."
She's very nurturing of creative talent, and she's very demanding of visionary-ness. My introduction to her was one of a kind. Most artists I just meet them on set, or there's a complimentary phone call of some sorts, but with Missy I got wind about three or four months before I met her that she was "watching me," which was kind of exciting to hear. Then I got phone call that she wanted to meet and have dinner. I was like, "That's so elegant and civilized." And it was exciting, because as a director, it doesn't seem like the artists are necessarily your friends. You're sort of just there to provide images and thank you very much. And Missy approached me as a peer and as a filmmaker. We sat and we had dinner and we talked about life and things we like in the world. I didn't even know what the record was, it was really just, "I'm an artist who likes you," and of course I liked her. Then she invited me to see Crouching Tiger [, Hidden Dragon], and I was like, "Oh my god, I'm at the movies with Missy watching Crouching Tiger."
Do you know if there a particular video you had done that made her start watching you?
I don't know. I always wondered that myself, and I don't think I ever actually asked the question. Sometimes you get superstitious. And in another way, I don't want to know. I want to take her energy and my energy in that moment with whatever song she's approaching me with and see where my mind goes.
At the end of the 1990s and the start of the century you were going really hard with music videos, then you tapered off, and then you stopped completely after 2012. Now this year, you've done five. Why the change?
I suppose tapered off is the right term, but I intentionally left. I had hit the ceiling on videos very hard. I had won countless awards and done creatively everything I could think of. And two new doors opened up: a movie door and a commercial door. I did the iPod silhouette campaign and I won every award with that. Then I got like 10 years of commercials lined up, and I'm still going, I'm still full-time in commercials. Simultaneously I did a movie and then I signed onto another huge movie, but it fell apart. The movie acclimation, it's there, I know a lot of people in movies, I've done tons of meetings, but it's a little bit different of an animal that hasn't quite aligned. There are two movies now that are in active development that might happen next year. But both those doors are where my journey went.
Then last year I sort of missed music videos, to be honest with you. The budgets have been reduced so much over the last 10 years, due to all the stuff that everyone already knows, so I was gun shy for a while about what I could actually create at a half or a third or even a fourth of the budgets that I used to get as a standard. Last year I started to say that I don't care about budget, it's about being clever, it's about being connected with the music. Just give me a camera and remove everything that costs money around me, and let me just go out there and see what my vision looks like naked. That's what I started on this year and then I quickly evolved and I started figuring out creating images that I like at a much lower [budget] level. And then that matured.
Leading up to Missy, I did a few with that premise and really enjoyed them. Once you accept "I'm not making any money today, let me just have some fun," I started having better results. Back in the day I actually ate off what I made [with music videos], and now I eat off of other avenues and revenue streams. To approach videos from a pure creative standpoint might even make my work better. I'm really excited about my opportunities, and I think Missy is an indication, internally; it's one of my favorite Missy videos, and it was made with less money.
Was there anything specific about Janelle Monae's "Yoga" that got you back into videos?
That came through the backdoor from a record label commissioner who I first met on Outkast's "Bombs Over Baghdad" I had started to communicate to the people that I had become friends with over the years that I would love to do a video. A lot of them were like, "Well, we don't have anything with your kind of money or budgets." I had been hearing that kind of thing for years, so I just reached out to the ones that would trust me, and that was the first one. It just sort of made sense.
I wondered if Janelle wanted to do something different. In my mind, Janelle was wearing suits and that kind of branding. She was approaching me like she wanted to wear jeans and tank top and get a little more grounded. I wanted to get that attitude out of her, because I'd never seen her like that. It was a different type of creative exercise than what I chase down with Missy. That led to Ciara, who I've known since Missy's "Lose Control," we've almost collaborated three or four times, then she was like, "I really want you to do this record." So we did ["Dance Like We're Making Love"] and it was beautiful. I thought I was really able to stretch what you understood her to be as an artist, and in a weird way, it stretched even how people see me. They see me more a little bit how Missy is, so to do something sexy and beautiful and sultry with a beautiful woman that can really dance, it was a multi-step process.
This year you also did a video for Pia Mia and you've got a clip with South Korean artist CL in the works. Is your approach to doing a video for an emerging artist different than one for an established one?
With a new artist, whether they are brand new to the world or brand new to me, I really try to meet them, talk to them, or somehow understand where they're trying to go. It's a little hard, so sometimes [you have to] close your eyes and listen to the song to guess what their vibe is and hope they live up to that when you meet them.