AG Rojas is a young director on the rise. He believes that we’re at the beginning of a new time in music videos where directors will be given more control and allowed to take more risks. And he’s more than willing to be the one taking them.
Labels aren’t paying his rent so why should they have final say on the making of his videos? It’s a necessary stance to take in an industry that far too often withholds creative control from directors and turns an otherwise exciting medium into nothing more than a commercial. What people tend to forget is that it is a real ”author-director” work. When you make a music video you write, you prep, you shoot, you cut and then you post your finished work. And in the end music video directors have very few rights and don’t usually get paid.
Since there is so little money involved, and with free content hitting the web on a daily basis, labels and artists have come to realise that the best chance for their videos to be seen and appreciated is to give directors full creative control to fulfil their vision. Only then will it be something truly special and not just another easily forgotten clip that feels as if it was cooked up in a boardroom to cater to a certain demographic.
AG makes the kind of music videos that we like. He’s living proof that having a clear vision and holding your stance, with your middle finger held firmly at the man, is necessary if you’re going to make it in an industry that doesn’t really want to pay you, or let you fulfil your creative vision.
We spoke to AG while he was in-between Los Angeles and a last-minute project in London.
Interview by Karl Henkell for Surface to Air.
S2A: Where are you living at the moment?
AR: I’ve just rented some warehouse space in Downtown LA which will hopefully become a safe place for unsafe ideas and broken people to congregate.
S2A: Apart from Frank Gehry’s Concert Hall, Downtown L.A seems pretty grimey to me. Can you do whatever you like there?
AR: To a degree. A block from skid row there are bars where you can drop $20 on a drink, so it’s all one big cluster of outsiders and insiders.
S2A: Tell me about your video for Jack White’s ‘Sixteen Saltines’. Were you psyched to film a lot of those scenes?
AR: That was definitely one of the wildest, most fun shoots I’ve been on. When you’re given the appropriate amount of resources, you can let your imagination really take control. I always love working with teenagers because you never know what you’re gonna get. It’s somewhat of a risk, but when it works – it’s magic. I put them in situations that are completely foreign and surreal to them, but also fun. I love that they’re gonna have stories to tell for years. Like, “I was in a music video once and I flew.” Hopefully they get laid because of it.
Jack White – “Sixteen Saltines”
S2A: I suppose teenagers act without inhibitions and the results are a lot more natural. Like that scene in Larry Clark’s “Kids” of those 10-year old boys sitting back all casual smoking weed. You couldn’t teach someone how to do that. Is that spontaneity something that you want to capture in your films?
AR: Spontaneity is King in music videos. With the kind of videos I do, we don’t storyboard and my shot lists are very loose. It’s all about being open to changes and to new ideas on set. There are so many crucial moments in my videos that would not have happened if everyone on set and in the cast had not been on the same page as me about embracing spontaneity. There are a lot more tears, blood and hurt feelings this way, but the videos turn out much more special.
S2A: Do you collaborate with other people on your projects?
AR: I think I’ve gained a certain amount of trust from record labels and artists, so the notes are usually pretty minimal. Either way, my number one concern is making sure the video is relevant to the artist’s aesthetic, which means a few calls to make sure that everyone is on the same page. Also, once everyone is on set, things change – though most of the time for the better. An idea you once thought was amazing might look completely wack on the monitor. Having an open mind is crucial in music videos. One thing I don’t collaborate with on videos are brands. Don’t ask me to put your artist in a Mini Cooper.
S2A: Tell us about your creative process. How do your ideas for films usually come about?
AR: It’s always different. With music videos when you’re lucky an image pops into your head after listening to the track a couple of times, but usually it’s after staring at a blank screen for a week. My creative process involves a healthy balance of procrastination and white lies.
S2A: Does narrative take on a life of its own after that initial flash of an idea? Do you believe that the character determines how a story progresses?
AR: For videos, I always try and find performers who share a quality that reflects the character I’ve written. James (the lead in “Hey Jane”) had a son who was the same age that I had written in the treatment, and shared some other elements in his life that were similar to my treatment, so it just made perfect sense to hire him. For something like “I’ll Take Care of You,” we decided to not plan a lot in advance and just follow our boxer, Nisa Rodriguez, for three days in her life. The only structure I gave it was to make sure it had a clear resolution with her winning a fight at the end. So, it all depends on the subject matter.
S2A: How did the idea for Spiritualized “Hey Jane” come about?
AR: I spent a couple of days listening to the track, and had a recurring image of a transvestite walking down a street. After a couple of conversations with Tim Nash (one of the executive producers along with Jasper Thomlinson and Michael Sagol), it seemed like the right direction was to make an almost documentary-like film about a transvestite and the environments she inhabits. Instead of making her a caricature though, I grounded her in real life so the viewer would hopefully feel some empathy as her world turns violent. After I pitched it, I had a call with Jason (from Spiritualized), and then a couple of weeks later my producer Anna Rau and I were on a plane to Atlanta.
Spiritualized – “Hey Jane”
S2A: I felt a lot of empathy with the kid who is confronted with that harsh world at a young age. It’s bitter-sweet, but I guess in the end it’s lucky that he knew how to use a gun. James was very convincing in his role as lead in the clip. Is he a transvestite in real-life?
AR: Yeah he is. He spends 90% of the time as a man, and the other 10% performing as a woman.
S2A: Are people fine with doing whatever you tell them to do on camera?
AR: Once the camera is on, and everyone is looking at you, it’s hard to force yourself to step out of that moment. There is a certain amount of unspoken pressure put on the actors every time they’re on set. They don’t want to be responsible for wasting everyone’s time, so it’s usually not hard for them to adapt to the weird situations I invent.
S2A: What was the off-screen atmosphere like during the filming of the hotel room fight in the “Hey Jane” clip? Are there any shots of him like smiling at the camera while pretending to strangle her or is that sort of humour not really called for?
AR: There was some smiling after every take. Mostly from me cause it was funny to see the actor who plays the antagonist dry heaving from exhaustion after each fight.
S2A: In New York last year, we unexpectedly had to deal with our generator exploding on set of Kid Cudi’s “Mr Rager”. Was crazy, flames and all! What’s the most challenging situation that you’ve had to deal with on set?
AR: It’s always something different. That’s the beauty of music videos. Shit goes wrong and you have to come up with solutions on the spot or it’s game over. We’ve had everything from casting kids who we didn’t know were autistic until they got on set, we’ve had people have seizures from nerves, prostitutes yelling at us in the projects, artists showing up 10 hours late, pitbulls almost getting off-leash and attacking the crew, homeless dudes peeing on our set while we’re shooting, stealing shots in the freezing ocean at night, assistant cameramen getting high on set with the talent, driving into the wrong gang territories while location scouting in Las Vegas, crew members getting into car accidents and having to be replaced mid-shoot, prepping entire videos in 24 hours, going into the projects in New York with a GoPro and stealing shots, and one time our picture car blew up on the freeway while my producer was driving it.
S2A: You learn to deal with anything I guess! What difference do you see between the short-film format as opposed to say a “Hey Jane” feature film?
AR: I’ve always seen music videos as a place to learn how to tell stories and hone your skills. “Hey Jane” is an example of this in the sense that my friends and I were able to write, prep and shoot what would be 1/9th of a feature in a couple of weeks. There is obviously a lot less pressure between doing a music video and a feature, which is liberating. I think we’re at the beginning of a new time in music videos where directors will be given more control and allowed to take more risks. I mean, labels should give us at least that much since they’re not paying our fucking rent.
S2A: What was the last film you were really into?
AR: I just watched Lynne Ramsay’s new film, “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” on a plane to London. Amazing edit and performances, but almost gratuitously depressing. Still loved it.
S2A: I’ve heard mixed reviews about that movie; there’s just something about Tilda Swinton’s cold vacant stare that holds me back from actually watching it. What was the first film you ever made?
AR: A few friends and I had some beers and revisited our first films a couple of weeks ago. Mine is a terrible 15-minute short film about two high school students who poison each other’s ham sandwiches with ecstasy. There are a lot of weird dutch angles, freeze frames, and a long credit sequence with just my name on it.
S2A: What are you listening to at the moment?
AR: ALL HELL by Daughn Gibson – on repeat.
S2A: Any upcoming projects?
AR: Just working on a few commercials at the moment, pitching on videos as always, and getting ready to start developing a feature film (like everyone else).
Check out more of AG ROJAS’ work on Vimeo.
and at Caviar Content
Cover Image: Dead Mike Ragen
‘MEET’ is a series of interviews with friends of S2A where we catch up on their lives, their current projects, their creativity, inspiration and whatever else happens to be on their minds!