Young Thug’s new video for “Wyclef Jean” is a beautiful disaster.
Director Ryan Staake acknowledges the shoot was a mess. Young Thug was 10 hours late. Police got involved more than once. Thug refused to leave his car when he did finally arrive. Label reps and bodyguards were yelling. Censorship got in the way. A hacked Instagram account factored in somehow. Basically, the whole thing was a director’s worst nightmare.
By the time the $100,000 shoot was finished, Staake hadn’t even met Young Thug. But, amazingly, he was able to salvage everything and deliver one of the most creative videos we’ve ever seen—by simply telling his story.
Sometimes reality is better than any script you could ever write.
Still, we’re left with questions. Why was Young Thug so late? Why did he fly a little kid all the way out from Mississippi but not bother to film any scenes himself? And most importantly: How the hell did Staake convince Thug and his team to release this thing?
I called Staake this morning to find out. Read our conversation below.
Young Thug’s known for being a pretty independent guy and doing things on his own terms. Did you have any worries about collaborating with him going in to this?
Honestly, a lot of hip-hop artists I've heard are challenging on projects. I've really lucked out until this one. I worked with J. Cole on a project and Lil Wayne on something and they were relatively punctual compared to this. I really didn't have too much of a sense that it was going to be difficult going into it.
The day before we planned the shoot, I asked that he arrive at the set at 9 a.m. and they told us on our production thread with the label that he wouldn't be able to show up until more like 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. So right off the bat we had to go back and forth and juggle times with them and try to find a middle ground of when he could promise to be on set.
The video starts out with audio of his idea for the shoot. Have you ever received instruction for a video like that before?
That was definitely strange. I've never seen that. It was charming in a way because the audio and the idea he's talking about are both really funny. The delivery and everything about it was exciting to get. The idea that he's talking about is pretty incredible: The kids driving the cop car and the girls on the power wheels.
I saw the opportunity for this bizarre concept to actually happen. I thought there was a one in ten chance they would go for it.
So, was that the full direction you got? Just the audio clip?
I edited some stuff out. But that was the core of it. Just him in a room with his mental process, spilling out his understanding of what he wanted the video to be. And I lightly edited around it to cater to what I was able to shoot.
But there were three treatments for this. The initial one was the idea of lighting the budget on fire, which I was planning to actually do. I was going to withdraw it all in hundreds and build a stack with a core of paper and wood and actually have all these one dollar bills and a few hundreds for close-ups.
The second idea was the one we planned to shoot, which was this idea that we would actually play the audio of him describing what he wanted and visualize what he was describing. But the thing that didn't go according to plan was that he wasn't physically there for that shot.
The third treatment was basically the one that said, "Look, we didn't get anything. We should make this a text-based video interspersed with what we shot and make it a mixed media ode to what a disaster it was."
There was also a middle step where the label wanted to do a re-shoot with him where we held on to the cop car for awhile. That's when I saw the opportunity for this bizarre concept to actually happen. I pitched that as a cheaper option for [the label]. I thought there was a one in ten chance they would go for it.
Did you get any notice ahead of time that he would be late and miss that first shot with the kiddie cars?
A lot of the exact timing is a blur, to be honest. But he was definitely supposed to be there for that shot. We were told that he's almost here and he's going to the trailer and all this stuff, but that turned out to be false information.
Next was the car smashing scene. The video said he flew one of the kids in from Mississippi for that? Do you have any idea why?
I seriously have no idea. The kid was really nice. He was nice and cool and understood what we were trying to do, but I have no idea where that kid came from. I think he's an Instagram star or something. All I know is when we were in the late stages of pre-production, we had planned for two cop kids, then all of a sudden the label was like "Thug wants this kid to be in the video." So that just happened. The kid was great, I was glad he was in there. It's just a curveball that I didn't plan at all.
Did he have any other specific choices or demands like that?
No, everything came from his initial creative seed with the audio file that he sent. Obviously the biggest creative seed that he offered was the idea of not showing up. As shitty as it was at the time and as pissed off as I was, it added a whole dimension to this that's my favorite part of the video (and a lot of people's favorite part of the video). That was the final creative stroke that he offered.
I flew out from New York with three people from my team and put together a very specific video based on what this dude said he wanted and he couldn't even fucking get out of the car to partake.
At one point it said the cops made you stop filming when the windshield cracked, which seemed kind of strange, because wasn't that the point of the whole shot?
I think they knew we wanted to get the moment of it cracking, but we had a kid basically standing on a cracked pane of glass. I just don't think they knew the kid would be so psyched to continue pounding the glass.
There was a "missing clip" titled “label rep screaming at crew.” What was going on there?
(Laughs) VICE had a news crew there. I'm not exactly sure what they were there to film, but there was a lot of tension on set. Obviously, everything was falling apart and everyone's pointing fingers at each other. And the label, I'll just say, was not pleased with the cards that they were dealt and they were kind of taking it out on my team verbally. And that was a subtle jab at them for that. Or maybe not-so-subtle. There was no missing shot of that, it was just a joke. But they were definitely yelling at our crew on set.
You were able to turn the video into a pretty humorous, lighthearted thing, but I was wondering what the overall feel on set was like that day?
My take on it now is that I'm very pleased with the result and happy with how it turned out, but looking back on my personal mental state on set, I was very angry and pissed off at what was happening. I flew out from New York with three people from my team and put together a very specific video based on what this dude said he wanted and he couldn't even fucking get out of the car to partake. And that was very nerve-racking and annoying.
On top of that, you're looking around at all this lighting gear and trucks and people. It's incredibly fucking wasteful, you know? Just that level of monetary investment. So it was a very angry time. Then at the end I came to terms with it and I don't know if I'd want to be as dramatic to call it an out of body experience, but I stepped back from it and thought, "This is like The Twilight Zone. This is a bizarre moment that I'm involved in right now. I don't know what's going on right now. It's kind of hilarious. It's kind of deeply saddening. It's just all of these emotions at once."
The video explains that Thug showed up 10 hours late, noticed his Instagram was hacked, and his bodyguard was arguing with the cops. But none of those seem like things that necessarily warrant bailing on a $100,000 shoot. Can you add any more insight into what finally made it fall through?
I have very little context, to be honest. The label was trying to talk him into getting out of the car. And I just heard in passing that his security was arguing with the cops. I think it was because they wouldn't pull the car up and the cops had been very strict with us about parking because we had all these trucks in a residential area.
I'm just hypothesizing, but I just imagine he was thinking, "Fuck, I'm already 10 hours late. Now my social media is hacked. I don't even want to bother with this. I'll look stupid on camera. I don't want to do it period." Or maybe he just wasn't feeling it at the time. Something that most people could be lightly talked into, when you're at that level of celebrity, you don't necessarily have to hear that from people. You just do what you want to do and no one questions it. I would imagine it's kind of a mix of those two. But I think what that allowed was totally worth it.
When the shoot was over and everything had fallen apart, what were you thinking as Young Thug drove away and you realized everything had ended in a total disaster?
It was kind of a relief in a way, because the hell was over. But also, there was also almost disbelief. I've definitely had stuff go poorly on set before. I think all filmmakers have. But I've never had it go this poorly. And I was worried about the video's future. It seemed to me at the time that this probably wasn't going to happen. Then there's added complications of financial elements. If the video's not happening, will the label want to pay the remainder of the budget? All that fun stuff.
So there was this closing of one door of problems, a temporary pause, and the opening of new problems. The biggest lesson from this whole thing for me was the power of perseverance and plodding along and making something work in the end. That can allow you to get around some of these curveballs.
The biggest lesson from this whole thing for me was the power of perseverance and plodding along and making something work in the end.
How long did it take you to come up with the eventual plan for the video? And where did that idea come from?
We shot this thing in mid-October. I had a little bit of the idea when we were shooting the stuff with the three cars on the balcony. I was joking around with the DP and the swing camera idea about the idea of adding him in post. Even then I was thinking it would be funny to do a dotted line thing kind of like Pulp Fiction, using that motion that Uma Thurman does when she says "Don't Be A Square" and draws a square in the air.
It wasn't until I got back to New York and there was talk about the possibility of re-shoots and I thought it didn't sound very good. I was looking at the footage and thought there was some good stuff in there and some very bizarre stuff, too. I thought the overall tone was very fun. I saw the potential in the footage to tell this added story that I thought was very rich as a behind-the-scenes horror story.
When I pitched it, in the document that I pitched, I actually had a page devoted to how media might receive this idea. Because it was such a weird idea, I had to think about it in terms of what the label might understand. I realized that they would probably understand the idea of blog headlines. So, I mocked up some screenshots of Complex and showed a headline that was like, "Young Thug Didn't Even Show Up to His Video and It's Still Awesome" or something like that.
So, they approved it, but when you handed it over to Thug and his team, did you think they would ever put it out? What were their reactions?
The first response from someone at Atlantic was incredibly positive. They loved it. I was ready for them to never talk to us again, but they were very positive about it. They were like, "This is cinematic truth." Some other people at the label did not like it at all and were pretty open with that. But I think generally the overall take on it was that it showed a lot of promise. I continued to finish it and they had a couple legal notes here and there for some basic stuff like the "ass to ass line" which I could not legally say it was from Requiem For A Dream, which I think makes it even more seedy—The fact that I can't say it for some reason.
So, I just welcomed weird shit like that in the process. Normally I'd draft a response to the email, like, "You know, it's really important that I be able to say Jennifer Connelly..." But in this case, it was like, "Fuck it. It's another joke. Let's throw it in." Same with the footage that he sent. Normally I would be like, "What? He's sending footage? I don't need this." But in this case, it was a great new joke for it.
That footage of Thug eating Cheetos by the plane was actually one of my favorite parts of the video. Did he send that as an attempt to make up for not showing up?
We just got an email from the label on our rambling four month thread that was like, "Thug's going to send you this drive. What's the address?" We sent the address and didn't hear anything until a drive shows up. We checked it out and saw all this footage. There was a lot. They shot it at this airport with him, the plane, and the Lamborghini.
At the time, as welcoming as I was of new footage for the video, I was kind of annoyed that he would think he could just send this drive. So, I wanted to lightly jab at it and make fun of it, while also celebrating some of the bizarre elements of it. Like the Cheetos.
Did any of that part fit in with his original plan for the video?
No, not at all. That was completely new. Completely left-field. I had no idea what was going to be on it.
Did you ever hear what Young Thug’s response was to the final cut of the video?
I don't know specifically from him, but we're actually getting an Instagram video together to post today. So, I can only assume that he's seen it and at least gave it a nod of approval. But I don't know if he's pissed off at me but thinks it'll get views or if he thinks it's a genius thing that we did together. Again, the circumstances are bizarre, but I'm incredibly thankful of him for having the initial audio file, the weird curveballs with the kid from Mississippi, and then ultimately the final gesture of creative brilliance of simply not showing up. What that ultimately allowed us to make was pretty special. I couldn't have done it without him. Er—I guess I couldn't have done it with him.
When you shared this on social media, you said “This one’s for the directors.” Do you think other directors will relate to this? Is this kind of thing not as uncommon as we might think?
Totally. It's incredibly common, surprisingly. Just in the 15 hours since it's been out, I've had multiple directors reach out to me and be like, "Holy shit, this exact same thing happened to me. Thank you for salvaging it. Thanks for exposing this."
I think it's definitely a trend. I think it's a bizarre thing to ask someone to do a job and not give them the most basic element of just arriving on set, relatively on time. Directing and filmmaking in general is a very stressful pursuit, and I think anything that can be done to minimize that stress—like people showing up roughly on time is definitely helpful for the final product and for the team involved. I think it should be avoided, the idea of being ten hours late or a no-show. Especially because we already did it on this one so hopefully people won't reuse our idea and plan it all out now.
Music videos and entertainment are just a distraction in a hugely complex, terrifying world of wars, climate change, starvation, new presidents, and all this shit. And it just felt very small and unnecessary at the time.
Now that it's out, even though the process was kind of ridiculous, what do you think of the video overall?
I actually really like it a lot. I think it's an engaging video and it keeps people involved throughout. I never really thought people would read a whole video, but they did. I really liked the whole range of ways that I was able to play with some jokes: The sketch drawing, the lyric bouncing ball thing, or the missing footage. I think that no way of telling a joke got too stale. Aside from maybe the titles being overused, but I didn't have much to work with. But I really do like the video. I'm very pleased with it and very happy with how it turned out and thankful for everyone involved.
It's just something I could never plan and that's what I like about it. A lot of times in filmmaking, people (including myself) tend to plan everything out in incredible detail down to CG mockups of camera moves and detailed storyboards. That's helpful, but there's a huge gain in embracing the unknown and the spontaneity and making reality your third co-director. Letting the cards fall where they may and adapting along the way, I think really interesting stuff can happen.
I’ve seen a lot of people surprised by the $100,000 price tag. Can you let us in on why the cost was so high? Is that pretty par for the course?
I'm glad it's a high number, because it makes the waste of the video seem even more egregious. It's definitely on the high-end of budgets. It's one of the highest budgets I've shot for a music video. I think for an artist of that range, it's kind of the appropriate spot where it should be.
In terms of the expenses where all that goes, I totally understand that people outside of production would think that's way more than it should cost. Especially when you see what's actually in the video. There's a lot of production value and a lot of things that were supposed to happen that did not happen, like cameras gliding out across the pool as Young Thug pops into place. A lot of this stuff was underutilized on set.
The pure support and manpower that you have to hire on to this really adds up. You have a director, a DP, a whole camera department, assistant camera operators, camera assistants, a gaffing team, grip team, electric, catering, twenty women, wardrobe, makeup, people to do makeup, the props, etc. The budget goes very quickly.
At the very end of the video you said the moral of the story is that none of this matters and we're still watching. Do you sometimes feel like it doesn’t matter what’s happening in the video as long as it’s a good song? What was your thinking behind that comment?
At the end of the day, the role of a video is to get someone to sit through and watch it. The label's benefit is that people watch it, hopefully like the song, and buy the song. And the label gets their YouTube (or Vevo) ad revenue. That's their goal. That's the product of the video if you want to break it down to raw business.
In that sense, I meant none of this matters because all this shit that we had on set really wasn't necessary. I was able to get you to watch the video with something that could be made in PowerPoint.
There's also the nihilistic approach that I was pissed off at the time I wrote that—about how nothing matters and this is all bullshit. Music videos and entertainment are just a distraction in a hugely complex, terrifying world of wars, climate change, starvation, new presidents, and all this shit. And it just felt very small and unnecessary at the time.
Also, there's the idea that none of this mattered to Young Thug in the end, too. We got all this stuff on set for him and he didn't even want to show up.