Meet the Man Behind Lil Jon & DJ Snake's "Turn Down for What" Video
I talked to Daniel Kwan, co-director and star of the most absurd music video of 2014.
Actor and co-director Daniel Kwan, of the directing duo The Daniels There were three questions I had after watching "Turn Down for What" for the first time. One, how did the special effects team so realistically depict their protagonist smashing stuff with his penis; two, who are the complete freakazoids that directed this thing; and three, what does it all mean?
The video, directed by the LA-based filmmaking duo known as The Daniels, tells the story of what happens when otherwise reasonable people are coaxed into writhing, hysterical dance moves by a beat they just can't seem to resist. It stars director Daniel Kwan and his possessed, dancing penis, as patient zero in a twerking epidemic that eventually infects his entire apartment building. Alongside co-director Daniel Scheinhert, they've made music videos for stars like Foster the People, Passion Pit, and Tenacious D, and until "Turn Down for What" they spent a year away from music videos working on new material for television and beginning their first feature-length project.
Having shown "Turn Down for What" to the entire VICE office and all of my roommates, I realized that interviewing the director and protagonist might be a good way to get him to be friends with me. So I tracked him down and we talked about Brazilian facial butt-smash dances, racist YouTube commenters, and the nitty gritty details of how he broke a 2x4 with his penis while shooting this thing. Maybe he'll come dancing with me in New York some day and he can show off that adorable teapot dance he does so well. Eh?
Hi Daniel, how are you feeling today?
I did some pretty epic karaoke last night, so I lost my voice…
What did you sing in karaoke last night? This is on the record, by the way.
Oh, great [laughs]. We've already begun. One song I usually go really hard on is Natalie Imbrglia's "Torn"—that's a really good one because everyone knows it—and then somewhere near the end I always throw in… you know in The Little Mermaid when she sings the whole section about her cave—you know that song? That one gets everyone. It's a surprising reaction because it's kind of a slow song. I'm a terrible singer but what I'm really good at is hyping everyone else up—so I'm literally singing every song.
Is that like a metaphor for your career as well? Do you prefer to be the hype man?
I guess so. I mean, there are two kinds of directors. There are those that have a singular vision—they know exactly what they want; they know what kind of work they want to be doing; and they find people who can support them. Then there's the kind of director who is just amazing at finding good people to work with who can collaborate to make something bigger and better than they could do by themselves. I think me and my directing partner Daniel are probably more on that side. So I guess you could say we're hype men.
Was it nice to just break shit and focus on eye-candy rather than focus on concept or story line?
Generally we come from a concept and we try to push that as far as we can and that's usually the glue that holds it together. It's usually a really dumb concept that we try to treat with utter sincerity, you know, in a way that makes people feel like, Really, they spent this much time on this idea? For some reason I think that cognitive dissonance is really funny to us.
So you're the star of the video, right? I want to get a sense of who you are in relationship to that person.
Well, I'm sorry—I'm going to be so disappointing, because that person in that video is the exact opposite of who I really am. It's funny because even when I'm watching the video with someone right next to me, some people don't realize it's me—I have close friends of mine who just know me as a sort of awkward rambly dude who has really dumb ideas. The goal was for me to be the exact opposite of what I am. In the end, the whole video is about this kind of liberation—everyone gets their chance to shake it all out.
For a while Daniel and I had been wanting to explore male sexuality in a really weird way. For some reason our brains came up with this image, and this other universe where dudes are so pumped up on their own dicks—and they're so into their testosterone—that the way that they show that is by breaking shit with their dicks. So, whatever happens, that would just be a funny logical progression. I mean, even right now if you go online and look at crazy YouTube videos—daggering, that's like a crazy awesome ridiculous over the top hyper-sexualized dance craze—and then there's also that dance in Brazil called Surra de Bunda—
I was gonna ask you about the facial butt smash dance, actually.
Oh I see, you're already familiar. You're well versed in the facial butt smash. I just think that is the funniest thing I've ever seen—just the fact that for guys, the idea of having an ass in your face is just generally a turn-on, but when you watch these videos, you watch these poor dudes getting their faces fucked up by these butts. They look so uncomfortable and it actually looks like head trauma is involved in these videos. It's so upsetting but at the same time it's really satisfying to see a dude get what they deserve in some ways.
I dunno—I feel like me and Daniel have a lot of masculinity guilt. We're generally very soft. There was a recent article about the "Michael Cera" generation—you know, these guys who are really soft-spoken funny awkward dudes who are really sensitive. That's totally me.
They got you, huh?
That's exactly what I am. It's because my mom ate too much tofu or something when I was in her—there's all these theories. But yeah, there's a little more estrogen in the pool of men, so we always like to explore that. We've always wanted to make a video where we essentially try to skirt that line between giving a dude a boner and then killing it.
It's almost like trying to turn someone on, just to upset them, almost like Antichrist. He does that in the worst way possible and I hate it. I hate that movie and I love that movie at the same time, and we want to do that in a more comedic way.
Well, I was actually gonna ask you how you were influenced by the Major Lazer music video for "Pon di Floor"—there's that same kind of scary sexuality.
I mean, that's classic. A lot of those videos that Eric Wareheim has done—he also did the "Parisian Goldfish" video for Flying Lotus, which is incredible—those are videos that we watched over and over again when we first started out. I think it scared us, the idea of ever having to do something like that, because we didn't feel like we had the right to do something like that. But I think being away from music videos for this year has given us… well I think we've just thrown all of that away. Those videos were a big influence for us early on—we just never got a chance to really exercise that muscle until now.
So you finally got it out of your system?
Yeah, dude. I mean, what the characters are going through when they see the dude's dick dancing, and then they start dancing themselves… [it's the same with] Eric Wareheim's videos, where we're disgusted and amazed but then we want to do it ourselves.
How did you decide that you would be the star of the video?
I never wanted to be in the video. I really don't like acting and directing at the same time—it's not a fun way to approach a shoot because then you're like constantly split and you never actually get to concentrate on anything. But the other Daniel basically forced me because he was like, "I don't think we'll ever be able to find anyone who can do the shit that you do," which is probably true. It's not even a skill thing—my dance moves aren't good, they're just weird. But beyond that, the shoot pushed my body to the edge.
Tell me about the special effects.
I had a cup on—that's how I was breaking everything. I was actually smashing my dick on things and I actually broke them. There's this huge bruise around my dick on my thighs from where the cup was cutting into me, but I had bruises everywhere on my body because all of those falls you see—I was actually busting through dry wall, wood, all that stuff—my production designer Jason is incredible. He loves making things beautiful and then destroying them. He built all these walls and platforms and things for me to smash through. So that was awful.
And how did you cast everyone else? Were they just friends?
Well, the Indian girl that you see is a really close friend of ours who we never get to see that often because she lives in New York. Her name's Sunita, and she's a part of this really awesome alternative comedy dance troupe—they're like these three girls…. they kind of play with female sexuality as well—like, one moment you're kind of interested because the moves are pretty good, and then the next moment they just try to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible with what they're doing with their body.
If you read YouTube comments there's all sorts of things about sexuality and race—half of them are, "Oh, great, he's Asian." There's one comment that literally just says "ha ha… he's Asian… ha ha ha." That's the whole comment, and then there's a couple people whoa actually thumbs-up'd it, like that's a thing that actually matters.
Then if you go on Reddit there's all these comments about Sunita, and how she's like this "Indian chick," and there's all this conversation about whether Indian chicks are hot, whether they have big asses like that, and there's all these wars happening about that kind of thing. It's interesting that people… I guess they're not used to it. They're not ready for it. They have no idea.
Yeah a roommate of mine said one of his favorite things was that the cast was just a bunch of normal-ass people.
I mean that's probably a big part of it too—the fact that we do just look like normal people. The mother, who is incredible, was the first person we auditioned, and we just instantly knew that she was the one. Because she was so insane—so down to do whatever.
What we did to make [her breasts pump]—and actually a lot of YouTube commenters figured this out—was cut holes in the back of her shirt and we had little punching gloves, like little boob-shaped punching gloves. And the whole party scene—most of those people were just our friends. They're people we know like to go hard. Like, "OK, you guys wanna go hard? Come over for an hour." That's another thing you don't see in music videos—it's always like a very manicured party, there's still a precision to it, and it was important for us to actually capture the spirit of the song, "Turn Down for What."
So what's next? Is it time to turn down for serious drama?
Actually we've been on a work bender. Since this last project we've already shot two more. We did a music video a couple weeks ago about a bunch of nudists—a nudist colony—getting hunted down by rednecks, but instead of shooting bullets they shoot clothes. So it's like a shirts-versus-skins-type thing. Now we just wrapped a very serious short film that's just about a breakup between two people. It's very different from "Turn Down for What." I think that's how we keep our brains excited—constantly giving ourselves new challenges. We had no fucking clue that this stupid thing would blow up, and actually, honestly, it's opening up doors—
Exactly. I expected people to be like, "I thought those guys had class"—you know? Or at least they think we had some respectable line we wouldn't cross, and with this we were afraid of how people were gonna react. I mean, our managers are getting phone calls from everyone in the industry now asking for meetings, and that just doesn't make sense to us. The fact that people like you want to interview us about this is crazy. Max Pearl wishes he could dance like that. Some day. -@maxpearl