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11th September 2019
Pop’s star director
Title of film: Ariana Grande and Social House, Boyfriend
Director: Hannah Lux Davis
Production Company: London Alley Entertainment
Chances are you already know Hannah Lux Davis. You may not think you do, but trust us when we say, you do. For just over a decade the relentless LA native has ascended the ranks of the pop music elite, crafting video after video for everyone from Halsey to Fifth Harmony, Jason Derulo, Nicki Minaj, Rita Ora, Bebe Rexha, Demi Lovato and Anne-Marie… It’s fair to say that in parallel to crafting the visual identities of a significant clique of leading pop artists, Lux Davis has also managed to create space for her own phenomenal talent as an artist to shine

If you like pop, you like Lux Davis, the powerhouse director who has, of late, spent much of her time working in creative lockstep with an up and comer from Boca Raton, FL, by the name of Ariana Grande. From Bang Bang through Focus, Into You, Side to Side, Breathin’, Thank U Next, 7 Rings and most recently, the VMA Award Winning song of the summer, Boyfriend with Social House, Lux Davis has shown a diversity of style and precision of craft that plants her well and truly on the list of top pop directors of all time. 

1.4 had the privilege of speaking with her to find out more (and maybe indulge in some mild stanning…)

Hannah Lux Davis

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into making music videos? Your wiki mentions you worked as a makeup artist after completing two courses at the NY and LA Film Schools…

I have been obsessed with music videos since I was a kid. In high school, I used to shoot and edit my sports team and drill team videos, cutting them to music and make mini music videos and documentaries. Sometimes I’d sit at home and rip and re-cut Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Avril Lavigne videos to new songs to create new versions. It made sense that as soon as I got into film school, I pushed hard to make music videos of my own because that format was something I had already been practicing without realizing. As soon as I graduated, real-life set in and I had to figure out how to make money AND be in the industry. I tried the PA route – it wasn’t for me. I started working as an editor more seriously and edited any project I could get my hands on, but I really wanted to spend more time on set and be present for creative conversations.

I decided to go to Cinema Makeup School where I got to dive into my fascination with detail, contour, color, and makeup artistry as a whole. I got the confidence I needed to put myself out there more as a makeup artist and started getting more time on set, where I wanted to be. Often times, I’d leave set with a hard drive and do the edit as well! I’d be doing these jobs all while contacting bands and managers to try to get people to let me direct their videos and it was working!

A few years later, a video commissioner named Jeff Panzer (the legend) saw me on set and noticed that I was helping in any way possible, even if it wasn’t necessarily in my makeup department. I knew him from a previous project before that I had edited with him but never got to spend much time with him. After some face time on set he decided to let me write a treatment for a Lil Wayne/Drake/Future video. When I submitted, I didn’t think that I had the slightest chance of landing it, but somehow he loved my treatment and decided to give me a shot. That’s when I would say I got my first taste of working with a superstar artist, and from there I just continued to work as hard as possible and prove myself in this field. To this day, I’m very heavy-handed in the glam department and I have a hand in editing all of my projects so it’s cool how all sides really help and influence the other. Editing gave me so much practice as a director!

Jason Derulo, If I’m Lucky

You’ve spoken before about the self-confidence female directors need to own in an industry that’s still dominated by male directors and crew. Compared with when you were starting out, how far do you think gender has increasingly become invisible in the creative industries?

I feel like now more than ever people are realizing that they need a female perspective within the entertainment industry and I think that people are actively seeking out that female voice within the music video, commercial, and feature film space. When I first started out in film, I think being female definitely boosted my visibility within the space because it was almost like a shock factor to some. I think being the only female name in a list full of males helped me resonate with people, or perhaps cause some people to take a better look at the work. I think it helped me not get lost in the mix and stand out. Now, I think that young females directors are way more common and I think it’s so amazing because it lends potential role-models for generations to come. If she can see it, she can be it!

Ariana Grande, Thank You, Next

Your most enduring creative relationship has probably been with Ariana Grande, starting with her feat. on Bang Bang back in 2014 right up to her latest collab with Social House on Boyfriend. What is it about that partnership with Ariana that clicks for you both?

I pride myself at being really great collaborator – at the end of the day it’s the artist’s video, not mine – and I approach every single project with respect. I listen to the needs and wants of the artist and Ariana is no exception to that. She’s an artist that has a really strong sense of self that speaks through her work and she has a very specific tone that she’s worked hard for. She’s also respectful of the process, just as I’m respectful of her individual processes, and that makes for a really conducive working environment on all fronts. I genuinely think she’s one of the coolest artists of all time and being able to work with someone who I am such a huge fan of is something that’s crazy special to me and I don’t take for granted.

And related to that, what are the main challenges and considerations of working with an artist of that stature over a period of time when their sonic and visual identity is evolving so rapidly? How do you create a continuity through that work while also enabling more and more of the artist’s personality and voice to come through – e.g. the undertone of humor that runs through Thank U, Next and Boyfriend that feels very much like we’re getting a glimpse into Ariana as a person and not just a performer.

An artist like Ari has so many eyeballs on her. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure that comes with making something that is such a large portion of an artist’s brand or message – It’s important for me to deliver something that’s on par with her level of superstardom. I really take that to heart and I take it very seriously. Something we always aim to do, which will sound easy/obvious is be AUTHENTIC. So naturally, the work we do together is always evolving if we stay authentic to her as an artist. What people may not know, is that whenever we create a video together, it’s truly an “art imitating life” moment. Even as abstract and other-worldly as the videos may get, like in “7 rings”, you’re still getting a good piece of her as a person. Finding that line is what I love about what I do.

Demi Lovato 

Beyond music videos you’re also increasingly working on longer form documentary projects – Demi Lovato’s Simply Complicated for example or your forthcoming ESPN project. How do you adjust your process as a director in those cases where you’re not tied to a meticulously shot listed one day shoot?

Well, for starters, my music videos are *generally* not meticulously shot listed, with good reason (of course that doesn’t count the heavy VFX/pre-viz or narrative shoots). I go into my shoots with a very specific and well-communicated vision, but on the day, I’m always having to make adjustments to deal with various challenges that are thrown my way and are simply unpredictable. Whether it’s a technical issue or an artist spawns a great idea in the middle of a scene, I make sure that I’m able to be flexible and capture the best video possible.

When I approach a documentary, the central goal is to tell a story, and in order to do so, I have to find what the person is trying to say – what their message is. Once I’ve landed on that, I have to figure out what I can shoot to support that and properly articulate this information to an audience. Whether it’s through interviews, verite, or B-roll, I need to make sure that it’s supporting the through-line story. For the types of docs I’ve done, I’ve either gone in not fully knowing where the story may be and have to really work to seek it out, or the story was not what I thought it was. Just like having to roll with the punches on music videos, while approaching a documentary, you have to be prepared to think on your toes and think creatively to make adjustments to capture the piece’s central message. My process, at its core, stays the same in the sense of wanting to put my subject’s best foot forward. I make sure that my number one priority with all of my work is that I’m conveying my subject as authentically as possible.

Behind the scenes: break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored

Overall would you say there’s been an attitudinal shift in the way female artists are depicted in music videos? Not just in terms of the content of the music itself which has definitely become more empowered and empowering than the pop of the 90s / 00s, but also with a shift in the purpose and modes of presenting the female body on film? A move away from the performer as the object of the male gaze towards the performer as an embodiment of confidence and self expression.

While it’s true that videos depicting an artist being sexy just for sexy’s sake have (rightfully) taken a bit of a back seat, I do think that many music videos today show just as much skin and convey just as much sex appeal as the videos of the 90s/00s – but a major difference today is that artists can access their audiences quickly to add context to their visual choices. Through a simple caption posted along with a photo on social media, an artist can let their fans know what they were trying to convey and what their message is. A lot of my videos are for female pop stars who own their identity and want to create beautiful content to empower not only themselves but also their audience – there’s nothing more powerful than a woman owning their sex appeal in whatever form feels most authentic to them. I think now it’s much easier for an artist to present their own interpretation of their video rather than fully leaving it up to the audience.

Would you define yourself as a feminist in any sense and if so what does that mean to you and how does it influence your work?

I definitely define myself as a feminist. I believe in equality for all. It influences my work because I love helping women tell their story and I want them to look to me as someone who has their back in every step of the process. I feel this in my approach to working with talent on set all the way through my final steps in post. There’s a sense of partnership when I work with these artists and I like to think that we can have very real, candid conversations because I get it!

Nicki Minaj, The Night Is Still Young

If you’re ok to talk about it – what has been the most challenging music video you’ve worked on to date and why?

“Thank U, Next” was definitely the most challenging project, to this date. There were so many things that I had to pull off in the right way for this to be successful. These movies basically defined my teenage years and I respect Ariana so much, I wanted to make sure that I nailed the tone of the movies but let Ariana’s personality shine. It was a delicate balance! To add to it all, I knew from the moment I heard the song and talked through it with Ariana that it was going to be a monumental moment in her career. I took that VERY seriously and wanted to make sure I felt the weight of that while making every micro decision that went into making this for her.

As something of a rarity for a director (certainly in the US)  you’re very closely involved in the edit process – how important is it for you to shepherd your projects through all stages of production? And are you equally as involved in the grade and beauty retouch given color and glam form such an integral part of your look.

So, as I said above, I’m an editor myself. That being said, I do like to collaborate with other editors for my videos – I think it’s important to have external input to check yourself and add someone else’s talent to the final product. I am very heavy-handed in my edits though and I like to actually touch the footage to even be able to communicate about it. I’m so ingrained in every single frame of everything I deliver that I can recall an edit from a point in a song and I could tell you what shot is being played, who’s on camera, what came before, what came after, what I cleaned up, etc. My videos are only halfway done when we call wrap on set. Finishing a video in post can make or break the outcome and I love to be involved in every part.

Artists like Ariana and Taylor are increasingly choosing to launch their new videos with YouTube premieres, and Thank U, Next actually broke the record for most concurrent viewers of a live stream when it was released. Why do you think fans are responding so positively to this way of releasing new videos in an age where we’re so used to being solitary consumers on our cell phones or laptops?

 These types of premieres make an event out of watching the video for the first time. It becomes a pop culture moment when you can enjoy it with other people – it can be part of cultural conversation. “Thank U, Next” was especially exciting because it released in the daytime in the United States and people are constantly telling me where they were when they first saw the video and who they were with.  I love that it wasn’t a middle of the night premiere where many people would’ve watched solo at home.

If you could direct a music video for any artist – living or dead – who would it be and why?

I would love to direct a video for Nirvana. They’re absolute legends and Cobain was such a force in culture. Many of my first projects were with rock bands, so rock music just holds such a special place in my heart. I’m also from Seattle, so that hometown pride would be awesome. Bringing it full circle with such an icon would be an absolute dream.

 

LINKS:

LONDON ALLEY ENTERTAINMENT

HANNAH LUX DAVIS

 

Credits

Ariana Grande and Social House, Boyfriend

 

Director: Hannah Lux Davis

Production company: London Alley Entertainment

Executive Producers: Luga Podesta, Brandon Bonfiglio & Andrew Lerios

Producer: Brandon Bonfiglio

 

 

Ariana Grande, Thank You, Next

 

Director: Hannah Lux Davis

Production company: London Alley Entertainment

Executive Producers: Luga Podesta, Brandon Bonfiglio & Andrew Lerios

Producer: Brandon Bonfiglio

Director of Photography: Chris Probst

Production Designer: John Richoux

Editors: Hannah Lux Davis & Taylor Tracy

Colourist: Bryan Smaller

VFX: Hoody FX

 

 

Halsey, Nightmare

 

Director: Hannah Lux Davis

Production company: London Alley Entertainment

Executive Producers: Luga Podesta, Brandon Bonfiglio

Producer: Brandon Bonfiglio

Director of Photography: Erik Henriksson

Production Designer: John Richoux

Editors: Emma Backman

Colourist: Bryan Smaller

VFX: Gloria FX

 

Ariana Grande, 7 Rings

 

Director: Hannah Lux Davis

Production company: London Alley Entertainment

Executive Producers: Luga Podesta, Brandon Bonfiglio & Andrew Leri

Producer: Brandon Bonfiglio

Director of Photography: Chris Probst

Production Designer: John Richoux

Editors: Taylor Tracy

Colourist: Bryan Smaller

VFX: Hoody FX