On Monday night, a video for Young Thug's Jeffery standout "Wyclef Jean" was uploaded to the rapper's YouTube channel that doesn't really feature the rapper at all. Instead, the video is a bizarre examination of a video shoot gone wrong, from the perspective of Ryan Staake and his team at Brooklyn production company Pomp&Clout. What could have been a disaster became a visual that is difficult to look away from, and the video has been widely praised on the internet for its creativity.
Ryan Staake spoke to The FADER over the phone on Tuesday to explain how he made a Young Thug video without Young Thug and why he feels like this piece speaks to music video directors everywhere.
How did 300 first approach you about shooting the video?
I was initially asked to do a treatment for the project, and I wrote the idea with the “burning the budget” concept, which I was actually planning to do. Then they quickly pivoted and were more interested in going with the route where me and Young Thug would co-direct this idea that he had come up with.
When I got that audio file, I told them I was down with the co-direction idea and told them that I wanted to incorporate the audio in the video and make that central to it. So, right off the bat, of being referential to the process. But the intended route was that he was supposed to be there in that first shot where the scene builds. The first shot of the video is pretty much what I’d intended until he says, “And I wanna be in one of the cars,” and then we see the dotted lines. Everything after that is the pivoted route.
What was going through your head on set as the day goes on and the idea that you began with seems like it’s falling apart?
It started out with things working pretty well — as well they can on a shoot like that. The intro build was fine, but then the scene nosedived when he wasn’t there to be in the shot. I still thought I could make it work without him in it at that point. It wasn’t until the scenes with the girls driving the powerwheels and the BBQ scene, where he was definitely supposed to be prominent, where it was like, “OK, this is not working. This is a disaster.”
The icing on the cake was when we set up the nighttime shot with the three cars. We heard that he had just pulled up, then they were trying to get him out of the car, the Instagram hacking became evident, and they were like, “OK, he’s leaving.” It was so bizarre that it was almost funny at that point. I was admiring the insanity and not really able to do much else about it. I was joking around with my DP and we did that shot where it looks like Thug is being drawn with a dotted line about the cars. That was the first whisper in my mind about playing off the fact that he wasn’t here. As annoyed as I was when that happened, I think him doing that made this video something exciting and unique that I wouldn’t have otherwise thought to do.
So, the shoot wraps and there’s no footage of Thug. At what point did you know you were going to take the video in a completely different direction?
Really, in post-production when we were looking at the footage we had, and there was discussion with the label of doing a straightforward performance re-shoot. We had some trouble aligning on the budgetary realities of that, and we were also nervous about Thug’s track record of not showing up on time. In looking at the footage, I had this back-up idea based on behind-the-scenes films like Francis Ford Coppola’s Heart of Darkness about the making of Apocalypse Now.
I put together a treatment to explain what I wanted to do and they were generally receptive to that up front, but they were a little worried about the creative freedom possibilities of what I might write. So, I had a call with Lyor Cohen and we talked about his worries about what might be written from his side and my concerns about the video being dulled down and came to some middle ground on it. I did what I wanted to do and there were a few people at the label who loved it off the bat and a few people who were very, very not into it, I guess you could say. But, in the end, they were like, “Let’s go for this.”
Do you have any idea if Thug saw the video before it was released, or if he’s seen it now?
I can only imagine that he did because it’s on his YouTube channel. Wyclef tweeted it, so I know he liked it. But I don’t actually know if he saw it and loved or he was like, “Fuck this guy but let’s put it out anyway.” It’s a weird sensation because I was very pissed off at the time, but now I’m really thankful that he wasn’t on time because I think it ended up being something that people are really responding to.
From your perspective as a director, why do you think this video works so well?
I’m trying to figure it out. I knew in the music video world it would be popular because because there’s this unspoken bitterness from directors towards labels walking all over us and artists not showing up. There’s a bruise there. I guess the general viewing public might be more into the fact that I was kind of fucked over, whether intentionally or not, and I was able to make something out of it that was better than it would have been initially. It was a very good feeling for me to make and I hope that that has translated to the people watching it.
There’s also so many videos that are really similar to each other, especially in hip-hop, and I think seeing something jarring and bizarre is refreshing to people. There’s an inherent lying to video content of any kind. Not in a bad way, but we’re by nature lying about what’s outside of the frame. I think that there’s something really nice about allowing to see behind the curtain like, “Do you see what a shit show this was?” That can be refreshing at times.