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12th February 2019
Freestyling in Detroit
Title of film: Benjamin Earl Turner, Ja Rule
Director: Abteen Bagheri
Production Company: Somesuch
No label, no budget, no bad ideas and no repeat set-ups - Abteen Bagheri's video for Benjamin Earl Turner is 'a barrage of subversive images' that plays with hip hop tropes and takes us on a crazy ride around Detroit

We’d never heard of Benjamin Earl Turner until your video for his single Ja Rule off his debut EP Fuck just landed. He’s funny, he’s smart, he’s something else and your video captures that vibe perfectly.

It’s not slick like your commercial film work, it’s raw as hell. It’s GREAT.

Thank you. Working with Ben is a unique experience.

I think for a while no one knew where to place me. Because I didn’t stick to one thing. I was always testing the waters. The commercial I just shot is a musical. And the one before that is comedy. And the one before that is science fiction. And now there’s this, which might be comparable to some of my earlier hip-hop videos or documentaries.

My favorite filmmakers tackled every genre. But it was never really a conscious decision to be this way. People would ask, what is it exactly you want to do? And I’d think, I don’t know…I’m exploring. What do you need? I’m from Hollywood. Sometimes I joke that there are three or four directors named Abteen Bagheri. You look at some of my works and you wonder, how are these the same guy? But there’s always something of me in them. I like that.

How did the project come about?

Serendipity.

I’d basically “retired” from music videos by 25. That sounds ridiculous to say. Just started and retired a few years later. Took 4 years off. It was an easy decision to go make money making commercials for brands, rather than lose money making commercials for record labels, which is essentially what videos are. Of course, I love the form. And working with artists. But it was hard to participate. Then, after four years of commercials, I yearned to make something with no outside influence. But also to make a response to all the music videos I’d been seeing. I’d have to find a way to make something with my friends.

Our cinematographer Michael Ragen and I were already in Detroit, shooting a series of commercials for Ford. And my good friend from Stanford, Galaan Dafa, is friends with Benjamin and lives in Detroit. Galaan and I are always sharing music. He was living in Harlem when he told me about ASAP Rocky, before I directed his video. And Galaan goes, I’m not just saying this because he’s my friend, but I think Ben is ready. I listened to his music and immediately agreed. This guy is undoubtedly talented. Skilled. Passionate. Whatever word you need to describe someone who is amazing at his craft. He was it.

I shared the music with Mike and asked him if he’s up to stay an extra week and shoot a music video. Mike was in. It would be our first music video together. And then Somesuch listened. And liked it too. They gave us a bit of money to make it on the back of the commercial we were shooting. We’re grateful for Somesuch. That’s the best company for a reason. Never afraid to take risks.

How did you come up with the scenarios? Was it a collaborative process?

Before we started, Tim Nash, co-founder of Somesuch, called and asked if I was really going to do this with no treatment or concept. I said the concept is us in Detroit for one week. I could sense some doubt, which was logical, but he supported it…I don’t want to get in the way of that… Before we shot, Saskia Whinney, Head of Music Videos, emailed me saying she’d love to read the treatment. There was never a treatment. There was a shared iPhone note between me, Michael Ragen, Ben, Rich Hutchins (our producer), and Galaan. And ideas slowly evolved. Bulldozer. Bulldozer driving down the road. Bulldozer full of money. Rich is a miracle worker. Bulldozer full of money was ultimately a joke. Then suddenly, he was asking what street we want the bulldozer on. On the day, I grabbed a jug of orange juice from the car and gave it to Ben. It was a bit like freestyling. Adaptive image-making. We operated in a world of no bad ideas and freedom.

One of my favorite videos of all time is Spike Jonze’s video for FatLip – “What’s Up FatLip?” It feels so free. It feels like an artist and a director having a good time. I always thought I’d love to do something like that, but what artist is going to trust me enough to just hang out and fuck around?

Ben and I met a couple times before the shoot to get to know each other. And we shared similar taste. He explained to me the concept behind his albums FUCK and ERASURE, based on Percival Everett’s novel. That FUCK was to be a relatable satire, and that ERASURE would be a full LP that would erase that. I thought that was a bold plan for a debut. It was clear the video needed to feel irreverent. Early on, I created a rule for our video. We would never repeat a setup. What’s hard to watch in a lot of music videos is the constant cutting back and forth between five setups. You can watch 40 seconds of a video and you’ve seen it all. The concept was that we’d never repeat. So we needed a lot of footage. It needed to feel like a barrage of subversive images. Setups that took hip-hop tropes and turned them on their heads. It was a response to other music videos. A video for our new attention spans.

We remained open to new ideas. Mike wanted to make a scene out of stuff we found at the army surplus store. Ben said, I got access to two cats at my homie’s house. He wanted his friend Imani to do his hair in her apartment. We drove by the police with a rapper in a hot tub in Rich’s dad’s truck. In the winter. With a Mercedes logo on the back. The police nodded at us. Detroit is a filmmaker’s utopia in that sense. It’s magical and a bit lawless. Pine Knob, a ski hill just outside of Detroit let us film for free because they said in all the decades they’ve been open, no one has ever asked. I tested old ideas I’d pitched but never got to shoot. An old school Lexus hand-wrapped in plastic. We shot over six days, but never a full shoot day. We made sure to always shoot the sunset. On one of the days, we were driving on the freeway as the sun was setting and Rich said, next exit, there’s a guy who lives with a goat. We said, well guess it’s time to exit then…

There’s roughly three dozen set-ups perhaps more – what was the shoot like and where?

The shoot was spontaneous and pure. It was heavily improvised. It was about finding beauty in the mundane. Calling audibles. We trusted Ben as a performer and he trusted us, but at first, some of the weirder ideas took some explaining. We met up during pre-production of our other shoot and tried a rehearsal take of the song. Ben sounded exactly like the record. His voice even cracked in the same places. I was like, holy shit, this guy is the best performer I’ve ever worked with. It helped that he was charismatic too. We experimented with different frame rates and different playback speeds.

On set, we moved fast. Sometimes only one take and we moved to the next idea. Sometimes we took our time and played around. Thankfully, Ben was always money. If we got kicked out, we had to use that part in the edit. Of course, we had no permits. We ran into a casino and concealed our camera the best we could. I gave him an oxygen mask. Blue Velvet. Walmart. An IV bag filled with blue Faygo with flying pig slippers.

It was about throwing away images. Here’s a white cyc. But we’re using it the “wrong” way. And Ben’s just going to walk away from it. Here’s something wild you’ve never seen before, but we’re only going to show you it for three seconds.

The process was absolutely guerilla. It was liberating. The crew was always tiny and nearly invisible. It reminded me of how I used to make films before I was a professional. On any given day, we had a loose idea of some things we wanted to film, but we scouted as we shot and uncovered more as we went. It was the same method we used on my first video for ASAP Rocky’s “Peso” in Harlem, but with more days.

Did it come together in the edit or did you have to do pick up shots?

The edit was a puzzle. Of course, because the actual shoot was so loosely planned. And I knew I didn’t want to repeat. We shot bitcoins in my apartment because that’s where they were. But everything else was captured in Detroit.

The edit took a while. We shot until the 22nd of December, so luckily I had Christmas and New Year’s to work without anyone calling. Our editor, Sergei works without making selects. He’s a madman.

Very cool animation game of Benjamin. How did that come about and who designed it?

During the edit, there was a joke that Ben is like Super Mario. He’s running around underground in tunnels and collecting coins. The animation came about because there were two small holes in the edit, where I had to go back to one of the setups I’d discarded. Mike had the idea to do some animation. Over lunch in LA, he casually said, I guess I could animate some stuff on my iPad.

Within a couple hours, he said fuck why did I agree to this? He had to teach himself to animate. He was doing it frame by frame. I sat next to him for encouragement. Just 20 more frames, Mike. It ended up working beautifully. We were blessed that everyone involved was super passionate about the project. We all believed in Ben.

Was it an easy or mental production – what was the most challenging part?

It was smooth. It was cold, but otherwise it was the most fun I’ve had on set in a long time. Ben really suffered for the art. Rapping underwater, in a hot tub on the cold streets, coming out of a manhole. But when it was all over, it was all a dream.

Did cryptocurrency Monero really sponsor the video?

Bitcoin and Monero are decentralized, open source projects. There is no owner or company behind them. They work on a ‘permissionless’ philosophy, that’s why we could use their logos. If you look closely, we have Bitcoin and Monero references throughout the video. Ben is even wearing a hoodie that says “I am Satoshi.” His Gundam is Monero themed. His Mario character is collecting Bitcoin underground. We used this all as a signifier–a symbol for decentralized art. No middleman. Peer to peer. Artist to artist. Censorship resistant. That came from me, and Ben, and Michael being super interested in these ideas.

We were building on trust and love, and most often you’re building on the opposite. Building on fear. We improvised. We went on feeling and intuition. That’s a rare opportunity. Because you need that trust. From a production company. Or record label. Or artist. Or a network of peers. And Bitcoin is about distributed trust. Faith in a mathematical system (like the universe). And it’s not controlled by any one entity or government or corporation. That’s powerful. We live in a global society without borders (online). The future is a more free Internet.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Technology is democratizing art. In many ways, the entertainment industry suffers the most from centralization. All big movies are sequels. Record labels used to decide who’s going to be famous. We want to promote freedom of expression. I’d encourage you all to research Bitcoin and Monero. And then re-watch our video and look for all the symbols. Hint: It starts with Ben leaving money (cash) on the table (stool). And if you’re interested, watch our podcast with me and Ben on YouTube.com/MoneroTalk, where we discuss some of these ideas. If there’s a revolution coming, it will be born on the Internet. And the revolution will not be centralized.

LINKS

Somesuch

Benjamin Earl Turner

Credits

Director: Abteen Bagheri
Cinematographer: Michael Ragen
Producer: Rich Hutchins
Point Forward: Galaan Dafa
Editor: Sergei Eisenstein
Colorist: Darin Wooldridge
Animation: Michael Ragen
Film Processing: Fotokem
Produced by Somesuch
Shot in Detroit