Music video director Warren Fu is no stranger to taking risks.
Born in Chicago to Taiwanese parents, Fu is responsible for a number of music videos you’ve probably watched dozens of times. His impressive list of collaborators includes The Strokes, The Weeknd, A Tribe Called Quest, Daft Punk, HAIM, and Snoop Dogg among others. Now, he’s taking on a new filmmaking challenge: writing.
His past video work has been described as ‘retro-futurist,’ drawing inspiration from everything from movies to poetry to inanimate objects. There’s no formula to a music video, he says, and that’s the beauty of it. After graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in economics, Fu ended up at Lucasfilm as an art director where he stayed for a few years before finally dropping everything to take a chance on a dream in Los Angeles.
He moved, sent a video pitch to The Strokes, and the rest is history.
Fu will be discussing the process and inspiration behind some of his favorite videos at CAAMFest36: The Weeknd “I Feel It Coming,” A Tribe Called Quest’s “Space Program,” Elo’s “When I Was A Boy,” and Paramore’s “Rose-Colored Boy.”
So how exactly does one go from sensibly studying economics to becoming one of the biggest creatives in the music industry? I chatted with Fu to find out.
How did you first come into the music business?
My first job was as an art director so I originally came from the visual side of things. I did conceptual art for films, picked up some graphic design through a friend, and just sort of absorbed all of that stuff. But I wasn’t completely fulfilled. I felt like there were better art directors than I and that my strengths extended beyond just the visual. I’d always had a strong connection with music, maybe because I played piano growing up. I was interested in the whole cultural side of hip-hop, too: the dancing, the graffiti, and the deejaying. All that stuff was infused into my system.
Hip-hop as a genre has a strong collaboration of visuals and music. It’s really all encompassing. So I first eased into it by doing some album cover art, which was a crossover between what I’d been doing and what I wanted to do more of. I got into it more, I realized it was the perfect art for me because it combined every art form. You can work with choreography, comedy, projection, new technology — it’s really innovative. It’s free and open and it combines all of the senses. That’s why I love it still to this day.
In your mind, what is the role of the music video? How does it inform the music itself?
There are two schools of thought. I know some artists don’t like music videos because they want to leavesomething open to interpretation. Some artists want that. I mean, why not? Other times, a song becomes more powerful when there’s a strong visual attached to it. But music videos can drop theball and curse the song. My goal as a video director is to come up with visual accompaniment that either enhances the song or makes the audience think about it in a different way. That’s powerful. I add another sense to it. Instead of just having an emotional connection to the music, you can also have a visual one.
Were there barriers that you needed to overcome to get to where you are now?
There was a challenge with every step. I always loved art and drawing but I had more traditional immigrant parents who wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer. That was challenge number one. I went to school to study economics… so it took some convincing. They wanted me to make enough money to support myself so I wouldn’t struggle. After college, I applied for an art director position with Lucasfilm, where I made a stable living for a few years. My folks were pleased with that.
But I had an itch to start directing. It was tough to quit the stability of that job at Lucasfilm. I started over from scratch. I quit my job, moved down to Los Angeles, and then had no idea how to break into the industry.
I sent a DVD pitch to The Strokes, to their record label RCA. They wrote me back asking who I was, why I had sent them a pitch, and who my production company was. I had no idea what a production company was at the time. Luckily, that was my foot in the door because their management liked the idea. Next thing you know, I was on the phone with the lead singer. We ended up developing a great friendship and collaborative relationship that’s continued for the last ten years.
So it happens in increments. That was my calling card. I did that first video pretty much for free, actually negative money. But I knew that if I did it right and if I believed in the idea enough, it would give me my next video. And it did.
How does your family feel now?
Asian parents are always going to worry. The first time my mom gave any legitimacy to my career was when Daft Punk won at the Grammys in 2013. The news appeared in the Chinese newspaper and she was like, “I didn’t know that ‘Daft Punk’ meant ‘idiot punk.’” That was the direct translation from Mandarin. I think they’re pretty pleased with how everything turned out. When I first told her I wanted to be a director, she brought up Ang Lee. She asked me if I knew he had struggled financially for years. I told her, ‘Yeah, but look at him now. He’s Ang Lee!’
It’s just one of those things. Culturally, my family tends to be more risk-averse, but there are times when taking risks is a good thing.
Can you share some of your major creative influences?
They range. Inspiration varies pretty drastically depending on the song. Coming up with an idea is the most challenging part of the creative process for a video director. I’m always trying to do something that people haven’t seen before or I try to include an interesting twist. For instance, the first video I did with The Strokes was inspired by an E.E. Cummings poem. I’m not a huge fan or anything; it was something I read in junior high. But it fell into my lap, I connected the dots, and it just worked really well with the song, which is called “You Only Live Once.”
More recently, I pitched an idea to A Tribe Called Quest. Phife Dawg had just passed away so I thought it would be interesting to have kids reenact their roles, like have kid versions of each member, but Q-Tip shot that idea down. He told me the video needed to be revolutionary. He was on this 70s art house vibe so a lot of “The Space Program” was inspired by David Bowie’s film The Man Who Fell to Earth and Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
So inspiration can really be drawn from anywhere?
Yes, it’s all over the place. You’ll stumble upon it for every single project. A good example of a subconscious idea was for Daft Punk’s “Instant Crush” video. I was struggling with an idea for that one for a long time. I just couldn’t come up with anything good. That song has a really catchy, upbeat chorus, but overall has a pretty melancholy feel — a nostalgic joy paired with this feeling of loss.
I remember being half asleep when an image finally popped into my head of this old Danish fairytale called The Steadfast Tin Soldier, which is about a tin soldier that falls in love with a paper ballerina. She can’t move or talk and it has this bittersweet ending. He gets to be with her but it ends with them falling into a fire and melting together. I brought the story up to Daft Punk and they loved it. The bittersweet of the story matched the song and that image of melting but being together resonated, too. We ended up doing a twist on it for that particular video, using museum statues instead of toy figures.
Is that how it usually works? Does the artist typically approach you with an idea and thenyou interpret it into a more solidified video concept?
It varies artist-to-artist. Sometimes artists don’t even want to be involved. They just want me to come up with something. But sometimes they’re more specific. I just worked with the Scottish band CHVRCHΞS and their lead singer wrote a bunch of loose film treatments that I then flushed out. I think for me, the main thing is that the song has to resonate with me emotionally. Early on in my career, I did a few videos where the song didn’t really connect with me in any way and the videos weren’t great because of it. And I don’t mean ‘emotionally’ like crying, it could mean adrenaline-inducing hype songs or bittersweet like the “Instant Crush” song.
What advice might you give to a young Asian American creative in the industry?
Make sure that you connect with the art, the music, or the work in some way. That will show. There were projects I worked on that I wasn’t passionate about and it definitely showed in the end product. It doesn’t matter if the artist is popular or mainstream, it’s more that you have to connect with that particular piece of music. You’ll get attention if you do things you’re passionate about. Take some risks, not just in your art, but also in your life. It will reflect in the work you do. It’s an artist’s role in society to push the envelope in order to move culture in new directions, to new ways of thinking.
Do you think there’s value in being picky about the projects you sign onto?
You can’t be too picky when you’re starting out. Although, you do have to believe in it, I think.
You’ve worked with quite a few talents at this point. Do you have a favorite collaborator?
There are so many great collaborators…
Sorry to make you choose favorites!
Yeah, I mean they’re all great for different reasons. Julian Casablancas from The Strokes and I, we have a brotherhood. We’re both very passionate artists and when we get along it’s awesome. But just like brothers, it can be tense when we disagree. That’s what makes us close friends in a way. The other one is with Daft Punk. That one’s a little less autonomous because it’s more of a jam session between the two guys in the band, their manager, the creative director, and myself. So that’s fun in a different way because I have a little less control and everyone has their strengths to chip in ideas. Everything we’ve worked on has been great because of that collaboration.
Is there a particular video that holds up well for you when you watch it back?
Randomly, I think the video that I’m probably the most proud of was with ELO, a classic band from the 70s that’s signed with Columbia Records, where many of the other artists I’ve worked with are signed. It was just a random one-off. They reached out to me about their song “When I Was a Boy.” The first time I listened to it, I instantly fell in love because it felt nostalgic. That was the first time I recycled an idea, too.
As in, you’d originally come up with that idea for something else?
I originally pitched it to The Killers and it didn’t work out. The idea was to make a single, linear, one-take video — a slow-motion timeline of life. With ELO, that was the first time my producer suggested I use the left-to-right timeline idea. After thinking about it, I agreed that it was the perfect song to do that with. Usually I come up with an idea for a song once I’ve listened to it. I don’t have a database of ideas. A lot of directors have a bunch in their back pocket, but I tend to listen to a song fresh to see what comes up.
That ELO video, though, was the first time I’d used an idea I’d had before. It came out really nice. It was the first time I’d done something where there wasn’t something out of place. There’s often a mistake, or a decision I made with the edit, or something that didn’t go right on set that makes me cringe. There’s not a single change I’d make to that video. So I’m looking forward to showing that one at CAAMFest.
What do you hope for the audience when they watch your work?
I want them to have the same emotional connection that I have. And again, I don’t necessarily mean like crying or being sad. I’m talking about if it’s a funny video; I want them to feel the same humor that I felt when I was making it. You just want people to connect with it in some way. The thing that I think all directors try to avoid is indifference, for somebody to watch something and feel nothing. That’s the worst.
Can you share some of the upcoming projects that you’re working on?
I’m excited about doing some writing. I talk about taking a break from everything and moving into non-music video related things all of the time. The problem is that often a really cool project will come along and then I get sidetracked. So I’m looking forward to coming up with my own stuff and doing some of my own writing. I’d love to come up with a narrative and work backwards with musicians to score it. It’s a flip. I’m usually reverse scoring a music video. I’m just curious to see what’s possible when something’s all mine. It’s important to find out what it is you want to say as an artist.
So you’re a short while into your hiatus from collaborations. How’s it going?
Yeah, it’s been sort of a whirlwind of creative direction and directing. I did a commercial recently. I also designed a stage for HAIM at Coachella. Oh, and I do have a last collaboration with an artist… but I can’t really talk about it yet!
You’re coming CAAMFest this year. What are you excited about?
Yeah, I’ve never been before. I’m doing the Anatomy of a Music Video. I’m going to be breaking down the creative process of how I make a music video from its initial stages to how I come up with an idea pre-production, from the back-and-forth a song gets between director and artist to post-production edits. We’ll be looking at some of my work, I think, including a break down of the video for A Tribe Called Quest’s song “The Space Program.” We’ll also see some of my work with The Weeknd, HAIM, and the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO). I’m really looking forward to sharing my experience with up-and-coming filmmakers and the general Asian American community.
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Anatomy of a Music Video With Warren Fu at CAAMFest36
New People Cinema
May 12, 2018 2:40 pm