Photos by Abby Ross
I've been tracking Warren Fu's career for about seven years now. His work first piqued my interest with his ambitious video for Julian Casablancas's "11th Dimension," but his rep as a director to watch was cemented the following year with his video for "Bang Bang Bang" for Mark Ronson & The Business Intl, (it included musical cameos by MNDR and Q-Tip). It was playful and a little kitschy, it was damn cool. His visuals pulled heavily from the colors and clean lines of the 70s and 80s—there were split screens and animations that elevated the whole shebang—so it felt familiar, but also fresh. It was his fourth ever video.
Since then he's gone on to direct The Killers, Haim, Depeche Mode, Weezer, and Snoop, to name a few. But his two longest standing relationships lie with The Strokes (since 2007) and Daft Punk, and on "Instant Crush" he brought Casablancas and DP together in the same frame. As part of Daft Arts, Fu has had a hand in every Daft Punk visual since Tron, not to mention helping out with their coveted merch, creating advertising posters you don't just want to have on your wall, but live in too (scroll through them all here). Oh and then there was that Grammys set he helped conceive back in 2014 when Daft Punk swept the decks with "Get Lucky" and Random Access Memories. (By the way—that's his handwriting on the album cover.)
Fu's work hits the mark time and again because his attention to detail is exacting, obsessive. In part this comes from wanting to create the best piece of art he's capable of, but also Fu isn't just a director, he's a bomb illustrator and an editor too. He's also pretty handy with a paintbrush (watch him in time-lapse action here). All of which means that because he can do it all, he often does—and doesn't get much sleep because of it!
Ironically the Chicago-born, LA-raised multitasker studied economics at Berkeley, but in his final semester, when a friend told him about an internship at Lucasfilm, just across the Bay, Fu chanced it and applied. It was just around this time that the second spate of Star Wars films were being cranked out and Fu swiftly ascended the ranks from copy-room intern to art director.
Fast-forward to earlier this year when rumblings that The Strokes were going to be dropping a clutch of new songs (you may recall that we broke the news that they were back writing and recording together back in our 2014 Casablancas cover story), we knew Fu would be the first port of call for the visuals.
A few weeks back Noisey premiered the video for "Threat of Joy"—The Strokes' first original vid since the Fu-directed "Under the Cover of Darkness" some five years ago (2013's "All the Time" was comprised of old tour footage). In some ways it's an uncharacteristically surreal effort peppered with red herrings, blink and they'll pass you by missives, and a rather surprising Bollywood-inspired closing scene. In fact the band's first choice for a video was "Oblivius," but this was not meant to be, and frankly it's no bad thing: "Threat of Joy" is hands down the best tune on there, the perfect kind of laconic pop.
Below are tons of behind the scenes pics from the shoot, plus an extensive interview with Fu where we discuss his career, what went on with "Threat of Joy," working with The Strokes, and Daft Punk, and whether he can manage any of the dance moves from Haim's "If I Could Change Your Mind."
Noisey: How did you initially get involved with The Strokes and what was the experience like? What made you want to keep working with them?
Warren Fu: I pitched a video idea for "You Only Live Once" back in 2006, but later found out they had just shot the video. Fortunately, Julian liked the idea enough to get some additional funds to make our alternate version. Here I am, still working with the guys 10 years later. Most music you hear from 10-15 years ago has not aged well, yet their music has, and that is a testament to their taste and talents.
You’ve had a longstanding relationship with the band and particularly Julian, how would you describe your role with Cult Records when it launched?
I think his vision for Cult was to bring more interesting art to the masses and change the status quo of the corporate-run, watered-down, mainstream. I was to be the visual component of the label. As more artists have signed on, we hired Liz Hirsch to take on more of the art and design while I focus more on the directing side of things.
How has your creative relationship evolved over the years?
I suppose there’s more of a shorthand in the way we communicate now. I think anyone that has worked closely with Julian picks up with their own pile of unusual slang, such as “S-the-D,” “Subtle McNuggets,” and “Rainbow Guitars.”
A lot people want to know what happened to the "Oblivius" footage? What’s your take on it? Will a video for this song ever see the light of day?
I can safely say people will never see what we had planned for "Oblivius." We had been planning it for a few months. I had it storyboarded, sets sketched out, actors cast… but alas, in the end, twas’nt meant to be.
It feels like there are a lot of hidden messages in this video… What are you guys trying to say here?
Without going into too much detail, one main theme alludes to the fact that there are dark forces everywhere, and these forces are mostly driven by greed. As much as we try to carry on with our lives in bliss that presence is always there, hiding right under our tables.
Why is “Threat of Joy” so good?
The song sounds like The Strokes at their laid-back best. That weird intro monologue at the beginning sets this kind of loose, irreverent tone for the song. I’ve always wanted to use the word irreverent, and now I have. In fact, there’s a slew of smart words I have in my arsenal. They are all great. Truly fantastic, all of them. You know, people always come up to me and tell me I’ve got the best words and the biggest hands. They say “Warren, you’ve got the best words and the biggest hands.”
Yeah I pretty much always say that about you! What was the biggest challenge with making this video?
I found out we weren’t doing Oblivius and switching to "Threat of Joy" 48 hours before the shoot. So they day before, everyone was asking me what the hell was going on in the video and I didn’t have the answers yet. I finished writing the new concept at 4 AM the day of. I gotta give the crew a special thanks for rolling with the changes and making everything happen so smoothly considering the challenges.
When I first heard "Threat of Joy," I pictured random, surreal moments happening behind the scenes of another shoot on a soundstage. A bit of Michael Jackson’s "Liberian Girl" meets Fellini’s 8 1/2. But two days before the shoot when I found out we weren’t doing "Oblivius," I realized the concept needed something to hold the random moments together. So my video producer and I brainstormed ideas and thought “What if the footage from the canceled 'Oblivius' video is actually the “McGuffin” that is being chased throughout the entire "Threat of Joy" video? I think the end result was a bit more Hitchcock with maybe tiny hints of a Scooby-Doo caper.
What were the music videos that made a massive impression on you as a kid?
There were a few music videos that really stood out to me growing up. Michael Jackson’s "Smooth Criminal" for the seamless integration of music, choreography and camera movement. If you watch MJ through the entire video, every single move and gesture is so slick, from the jukebox coin toss down to flipping over the guy at the pool table.
On the other end of the tonal spectrum is Smashing Pumpkins’ "1979." It’s the sum of all those loose little moments in that video that adds up to an overall feeling that’s hard describe. The word saudade probably captures it best. As much as you try to hold on to that feeling, it’s fleeting. I guess you can say I’m often trying capture the feeling of either of those videos.
You’ve worked with everyone from Snoop to Daft Punk to The Killers to Weezer. I know it’s probably impossible to say but what’s your favorite video out of the bunch and why?
Most of the things I work on have some part I wish I had done differently, so it’s easier for me to name a few favorite moments instead of an entire video. The end of "Instant Crush," when the warehouse catches on fire, Julian salutes the sky, and the wax figures melt together is one moment that I think connected. The intro to Mark Ronson’s "Bang Bang Bang" was fun. And then, maybe the handclap bridge in the Haim video was a nice marriage of Fatima’s choreography and editing.
You first started working with Daft Punk six years ago circa Tron—what’s your role with the band now?
There’s great creative brotherhood with Thomas, Guy Man, their manager Paul, and their creative director Cedric, and we plan to continue this collaboration on future projects. So whenever the “News Team Assemble” conch is blown I’ll slide down the firepole into the Daftmobile… or whatever vehicle they want to ride around in at that moment. We shall see what the future brings.
When I first started writing about your videos I kept calling them retro futurist which is a term I know you hate now, but it was this aesthetic that appealed to a lot of artists you worked with, no? Where are you going with your work now? Are you trying to move away from being pegged to a specific aesthetic?
I personally dislike style labels because they are usually overlook the feeling of what I’m aiming for. Maybe I’m not always successful at it, but emotional connection is almost always my goal, whether it be using humor, nostalgia, euphoria, heartbreak, fear, etc. I view aesthetic as just the outer shell, just one of the many ingredients used help capture a feeling.
You direct, edit, design sets, illustrate, make great ramen, is there anything you’re crap at apart from being a reluctant to sit down and do your taxes?
You’ve pretty much nailed all I’m capable of doing, and I’m fairly abysmal at everything else. I feel like my math skills have deteriorated to the level of a five year old.
What part of your job do you find the most enjoyable? And what do you do when you're stumped for inspiration?
The best part about directing music videos is when you have an idea that starts off in a vague, cloudy vision in your subconscious, and then a few days later you see that idea in real life being captured on camera. Nothing better than seeing your dreams materialize.
On the flip side, there’s nothing worse than being stumped for ideas. The only way to really get over the hump is just keep working and “molding the clay,” even if it means smashing it all down starting over. But I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, there are always going to be perfect ideas that pop into your head naturally, almost too easy, and then there will be ones that you struggle and toil over.
Last week Daft Punk posted a bunch more vintage magazine ads advertising their merch—which you were creatively involved with, right? When are you going to make the ads actual posters that we can all buy?
There’s been a lot of requests for prints and I think that they will be available soon. It would be fun to make a meta ad advertising the ads.
How much of the HAIM choreography can you do from "If I Could Change Your Mind"?
A few months after the video came out I actually ran into Alana Haim at the Lyric Theater in LA and that song happened to come on. Our eyes met and widened. We attempted to reenact the moves for a moment, then I realized I actually don’t know the moves and she looked like she had forgotten them. I slowly backed away from the situation and disappeared into the crowd. I have not left my house since then, but thanks for reopening an old wound.
With The Babadook, Goodnight Mommy, It Follows, and THE VVITCH, I feel like there’s a scary movie renaissance happening as of late in the spirit of the all time greats, such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining. It’s pretty inspiring. If there’s a good story out there, I too, would like to live deliciously…
Kim Taylor Bennett can't wait for Fu's horror opus. She's on Twitter.