Chris Milk is one very lucky fellow. He's also a very talented one as well.
Milk, in a very short amount of time, has gradually become one of the leading music video artists of our time, starting out big by directing Kanye West's breathtakingly powerful clip for "Jesus Walks" and then moving on to work on clips from everyone to Modest Mouse to Courtney Love, Green Day & U2's one-off collaboration to the most abstract, heart-ripping (literally) clip for Gnarls Barkley's "Who's Gonna Save My Soul?". Like Jonathan Glazer and Mark Romanek before him, there isn't a "trademark" to Milk's vision: just nothing but high-quality work that reflects the needs of the song, not the record label. Alternately funny and dramatic, touching and exciting, Milk -- sitting down with Evcat in an interview that has taken close to year to happen -- finally spills on the inspiration behind some of his classic clips, how he used to pretend to be an industry client just to get copies of his favorite promo clips, and wishes to one day have people ascribe meaning to music videos in the same way they do their favorite songs ...
>>First thing is first: Gnarls Barkley's "Who's Gonna Save My Soul". I must say, this clip seems to be a tipping point for you, as it melds both your surrealistic comic sensibilities with the gritty, emotional gravitas that fills up your videography. What was your inspiration, and -- ultimately -- what do you hope people take out of this?
Thanks for saying that. It stems mostly out of the personal experiences I’ve had in relationships. I’m more drawn to these sort of stories and would love to tell them more often. Dark, comedic, surreal, this is the type of material I respond to in features, and it’s the kind of music videos I love to write. I’ve actually written a lot more of these but they’ve never been produced. Some of my favorite Kanye videos are sitting in a notebook and will never happen. This Gnarls video I’ve pitched to 3 or 4 bands over the years. I’m actually glad they all said no because I think it was predestined to happen with this song. The emotion and musical tonality line up too perfectly. It had to be this track. As far as the “take away” I don’t really like to think in those terms. All I can do is make something I personally find compelling, put it out there, and maybe it works for other people. I’ve certainly had occasions when it hasn’t worked for anyone. My ex-girlfriend for instance did not care for this Gnarls video at all.
>>When a video director breaks big into the market, it often feels that they go from being popular to damn near ubiquitious overnight, taking on any and all comers, spreading themselves creatively thin in the process (Mark Webb immediately comes to mind). Yet you have been very selective in both your commercials and videos -- what, ultimately, draws you in to working with a particular artist? How has your creative process changed over time?
What’s funny is that when I was trying to get my first video I wrote on any track they would send me. I wrote on some of the most embarrassing music you can think of. None of them would give me a video. I used to write constantly every week, never went out on the weekend, just sat home and struggled to come up with concepts to music I didn’t like. It was over a year and a half of this before I got my first video. By dumb luck and the good graces of God it was for a band that I loved, the Chemical Brothers. Kanye West saw that video and was determined that I do his first video with a budget off his first album. When Kanye broke big I did in a way as well. That was my third video. I had the luxury that most videos directors don’t get of getting to be choosy early.
I decided a while ago though I had little desire to be prolific. I would much rather do a small body of work that I’m proud of than be the guy who does thousands of music videos and works with every artist. Not that there is anything wrong with that, I respect it, it’s just not me. I can’t work that way. I do one project at a time, and obsess over it until it’s finished. I live small. I drive a 96 Volvo turbo wagon. I have very little overhead. I don’t have kids in private school or a Ferrari payment. I can do the few projects I’m really interested in a year, and still be fine.
The artists I’m drawn to are the ones that value music videos as a viable art form in its own right. We are creating something new together. Yes it has the song, but ultimately it’s creatively a new work. Sometimes there are artists that I love, but I just can’t figure out a visual component for the song. So I end up turning it down. Those kill me.
And by the way, I think Mark Webb is really talented. It’s not easy to be consistent with work spanning such a wide range of artists, and I think he has been. Plus his movie is top notch.
>>What videos/directors do you draw inspiration from?
When I was in film school I used to call DP agents pretending I was a potential client to get 3/4 video copies of the clips I was obsessed with. Most of them were by Mark Romanek, David Fincher, or Spike Jonze.
>>Much has been made of your multiple collaborations with Kanye, and -- of course -- there's the fact that he made three different versions of his "Jesus Walks" video, though yours, ultimately, is considered the definitive version. Is it strange to see multiple versions of clips like that floating around -- does it somehow detract from the ownership of your work? (I feel this question particularly interesting for video directors, as we very much live in the age of YouTube/viral media now)
Not really. The "Jesus Walks" saga is a long one that I won’t recount here. But I’ll tell you that Kanye’s intention was never to have all three videos released.
Seeing someone else’s interpretation of a video you had in your head happens all the time. Usually though you lost the job to someone else. Personally I find it fascinating to see someone else’s interpretation. You can get so locked inside your own head with an idea that it’s refreshing to see another angle on it. The more the merrier.
I have a sort of fundamental philosophical problem with music videos though. I’m actually not a big fan of the finite nature of them, like “this is the ultimate definitive sequence of images to accompany this song. There shall be no others”. I think one reason raw music at its core is so powerful is because it intertwines with people and their lives. They sing along to it in the car, it emotionally scores that one summer they had, it allows an interaction and an involvement on the part of the listener. They can make it their own.
Music videos don’t have that. It’s always “here’s the video, shut up, watch it, now go about your life”. I would like to find a way that people can invest in a music video the way they invest in a song. We’ll see though, I’m working on some ideas.
>>Finally, so far in your career, what's been your biggest regret, and -- conversely -- what's been your proudest accomplishment?
Biggest regret is working hard on a music video for 4 months, that by my own rules I shouldn’t have been doing in the first place, nearly perishing in the process, only to have the record company re-edit and animate over the whole thing, then ban me from the label for taking my name off it.
Proudest accomplishment, really I just feel incredibly lucky that I get to make music videos for a living. Five years ago my goal was to just do one before I died.
Visit Chris Milk's website.