Directors David Hache and Marc-Edouard Leon, aka Skinny, do not mess about on Twitter. In early October, when I wrote about the styling and aesthetics in their video for Angel Haze’s “Echelon (It’s My Way),” they tweeted me hours later. They hinted at “an exclusive on how everything went down” and promised me it was a great story. Given that they’ve been signed to prestigious production company Partizan for five years and pulled together some insanely colorful and vibrant videos for the likes of Devendra Banhart, Yuksek, and clothing company Wildfox, I ran with it. So here we are.
David and Marc-Edouard, both 31, produce work that spans fashion editorials, commercials and totally batshit art videos. They met at school in Paris as teenagers, bonding over being both half-French and half-American. Marc-Edouard’s dad spent most of his time working in Singapore, so the two boys would set up camp at his empty apartment after school. They watch pirated-cable MTV and made home movies and music videos on a mini DV cam which Marc-Edouard’s father brought back from Asia.
Although David says they were “too American to be French and too French to be American,” they got the best out of both worlds, moving to LA after college. Now, about a decade later, they’re fresh off a director spotlight Q&A and screening of their work at this year’s Los Angeles Music Video Festival. They took the time out to tell me about stumbling across meth labs in Southern California’s underbelly, casting gangbangers for Angel Haze’s video, and gleaning visual inspiration from Terrence Malick and William Eggleston.
Director with Angel Haze on set.[ All the following incredible photos by: Amanda Demme.](http://www.amandademme.com)
Noisey: Hi guys, thanks for reaching out. First off, tell me more about the treatment for Angel Haze’s “Echelon” video.
David Hache: This video was unique because it was there to introduce a new artist. Angel Haze’s fans know what she’s about and she’s done other videos before, but a lot of people will be discovering her through this promo. She wanted it to be cool, obviously, but she didn’t want to look like a manufactured pop star.
She’s a very raw artist who’s sung incredibly personal songs about her experience being abused as a child—she had to stay true to herself. She’s really feminine and beautiful, but she’s also a total tomboy and she’s openly bisexual; there really is no one out there like her these days, which is why we were so drawn to her. We wanted to celebrate that originality.
What steps did you take when deciding who you wanted to cast?
Marc-Edouard: We have a pretty unique approach to casting. We use a lot of non-actors and love to cast real people off the street. For this video, we jumped in my car and drove from downtown LA to Inglewood to Highland Park to every swap meet, pawnshop, and liquor store in between, hoping to find real gangbangers. If we meet faces that we like, we’ll secretly create entire videos around them and we’ll sometimes wait for years, literally, until the right project comes up to call them up. That was the case with a bunch of the people in this video.
We had tried to put Chris “Trouble” Delfosse (the guy that gets chased out of the liquor store) in the video we shot for Moonbootica almost two years ago. He had to pass because we were shooting in rival gang territory and he was risking getting shot on account of his full-body gang tattoos. We’ve worked with a lot of ex-cons and guys on probation and they are a million times more interesting than the average actor since they come from the hood and bring a genuine knowledge of the streets. David: It’s actually quite rare for us to cast music videos or commercials through traditional casting channels alone. When we book a new project, we'll go out for the sole purpose of spotting edgy youthful faces in the crowd. We’ll hit trendy venues, biker bars, raves, goth club, strip clubs, mafia-owned speakeasies.
I think what often makes a person iconic, or at least interesting, is their backstory, which is frequently the case with the people we've cast. As a result, they often become our muses. We have a deep appreciation for the cast of our videos. Working with them could not be more exhilarating and we do our best to make that come across on the screen.
I’ve got to know how you nabbed Brooke Candy and Dog, in particular. What's the story on casting each of them?
Marc-Edouard: I met Brooke when I was shooting a photo story for Grazia France about LA’s emerging underground. We thought she would be amazing in the video because she embodies a similar mix of street edge and high fashion as Angel. They’re both incredibly creative girls that are shaking up the rap world.
David: The video actually doesn’t feature Dog the Bounty Hunter, but K-Nine, “Dog The Impersonator,” who is equally amazing in real life.
Fair enough. Once you had the basic treatment down, how did your stylists enter the picture? How did they pull the looks for the shoot?
Marc-Edouard: In the song’s chorus Angel boasts about starting all the latest trends so the video had to live up to her sass! David dated Kimberley Gordon, the designer for Wildfox Couture, for several years and we’re friends with a lot of young designers in LA. We’re always pulling from them and trying to show our support for their creativity.
I met one of the stars of our video, Robynthebank, on a music video shoot and saw on her Instagram that she was always styled in the coolest looks by Palma Wright. I loved Palma’s brand Mamadoux, so I hit her up out of the blue and asked if she’d be interested in styling the video. Angel’s stylist in London, Julia Brenard, shipped us amazing clothes but we also needed someone here in LA to oversee the global look of the video. It was a great combo because Julia sent Angel super-next-level high fashion threads with a street vibe, and Palma complimented her looks with pieces and accessories from some of our favorite LA designers like UNIF Clothing and Skingraft. Palma then created the looks for the rest of the cast.
David: This shoot was great because Angel’s team was 100% behind her and we were even getting calls saying, “Don’t change her! She needs to be herself!” We hate anything that looks like it was pulled straight from the racks. For us, clothes build character and they need to look like they actually belong to the heroes we portray.
Could you give us a couple of anecdotes from the shoot itself?
David: Everything happened super-fast. We’re extremely specific, down to the smallest detail. From the outside it probably looked like a circus, but actually everything was very under control.
One of the thugs came to set in a low-rider on hydraulics and had told us his main skill was “choking bitches,” so we were a little concerned about that, but he turned out to be a sweetheart. The video was shot in one day in Highland Park, which was his hood, and a few of his homies were cheering him from the street. We worked with the most amazing cast and crew.
Also it’s not hard to keep everyone’s energy going when you have two of the greatest stunt guys you’ve ever seen doing tricks on bikes and quads. The noise was deafening so we had to blast the music in order for Angel to sing on sync but it was spectacular to watch.
Marc-Edouard: I think this video had the quickest turnaround from inception to release that I’ve ever experienced. We were shooting it a week after getting the track and it was released the week after. Just that alone is an amazing feeling because of how fast your imagination turns into reality. It’s like you’re creating a perfect little capsule of what your aesthetic was at a given time and place.
Let’s go back in time for a minute, then. How did you end up making the Bollywood-style, Natalie Portman-featuring video for Devendra Banhart?
Marc-Edouard: I had the chance to meet Devendra while writing an article about LA’s revival of folk and mysticism. David and I both do photography and I also write for magazines so we often become friends with artists outside our video work. I showed Devendra one of our videos and he really liked it. He hit us up a few days later asking if we’d be interested in directing his next promo.
David: We were working as a trio at the time, with our good friend Dori Oskowitz who’s an awesome director. We read the song’s lyrics, which are like a fabulous fairytale, and the concept of the video almost came to us immediately: we had this totally weird obsession with a popular Indian show from the 80s that was based on the Ramayana and we thought it would be amazing to pay homage to it. [Watch it here]
A few days into the prep, Devendra told us that Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings wanted to be in the video so we made Natalie a fierce princess and Kat became Kali The Destroyer. We had a total budget of $5000—we literally scavenged through the garbage bins of LA’s major studio lots for reusable props and set pieces. Anything that could be spray-painted gold to look like it belonged in an ancient palace was good!
This was in the early days of YouTube and we made one of the first videos to go viral and hit several million views with no major push. The promo was featured on all sorts of year-end Best Of lists, and got us signed to our childhood dream production company: Partizan!
What about the Yuksek video, for “Always On The Run”?
Marc-Edouard: We directed it in a rough and desolate place in the middle of the California desert, called Slab City. It’s an off-the-grid squatter haven located on an abandoned artillery-training base right off the Mexican border. The residents are total outlaws, in the best and worst sense of the word. Most of them sleep in makeshift trailers and shacks, and even abandoned school buses, with noelectricity, no running water, no toilets, no sewers, and no trash pickup service.They live in conditions of poverty that seem unimaginable in the US but they are proud of their lifestyle.
We’ve spent a lot of time there hanging out with the locals and getting inspired by the surroundings. It’s a fascinating community, but it can be dangerous. Once, while filming our “Nobody’s Gonna Love You” video for CeeLo, we climbed into a boarded abandoned house when a skinhead covered in white supremacist tattoos came running at us, threatening to shoot us unless we got off his property. On the way out, we realized that the floor in one of the rooms was covered in chemical bottles connected by tubes. We had walked into a meth lab. This kind of existence is a reality in Southern California and we thought that by bringing it to life we could show an unseen facet of America.
Who and what inspires you visually when making music videos?
David: Marco and I have over 10,000 visual references each that we’ve accumulated over the years and every time we start a new project we run through them for ideas. We’re very interested in how socio-economic events affect people on a human level and we are moreover very attune to youth culture.
We also travel a lot. We’ve shot videos and commercials in five continents in the last year alone and we’re always keeping an eye out for new and interesting things. We’ve directed videos about gangbangers in East Los Angeles, squatters in Slab City, bikers off the Mexican border, boxers and snake charmers in Bangkok. We really love to create exciting worlds and as such our influences change from project to project.
Marc-Edouard: By the time we finish a film, it’s almost impossible to figure out what the main spark was. Our video for CeeLo’s song “No One’s Gonna Love You,” for example, was inspired by the experience of going on road trips across America, but it also drew its story from some of our favorite films like Badlands, Wild At Heart, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Gerry, True Romance, Natural Born Killers, and Five Easy Pieces. The imagery was inspired by the photography of William Eggleston and Mary Ellen Mark and the cinematography of Terrence Malick, while the themes drew from current news about foreclosures.
David: Now that the internet has become the main outlet for videos, there’s a real opportunity to push the boundaries and stretch the form in unexpected directions. For us, this means bringing to life stories you’re not used to seeing and directing edgier subject matter. Artists now come to us really expecting us to push the limit because our work is known for being young, fun, and sexy. Yet at the end of the day, if you don’t stir any feelings in your viewer and no one cares about the characters, then you won’t leave a very lasting impression. We always try to balance transgression with heart and emotion.
Here are a bunch more amazing pics from the shoot thanks to photographer Amanda Demme. We couldn't not publish them.
Tshepo is trying not to get too emotional about the fact that Dog the Bounty Hunter wasn’t actually in “Echelon.” She’s on Twitter - @NeuThings.