2016 marks the 35th anniversary of MTV. And a lot has happened in the world of music videos since then (and not just the absence of music videos on MTV):
The world domination of EDM
Donihue is a Next Wave director. Although his all-time favorite music video is Aha’sTake On Me, he’s no retro ‘80s act. He’s current without being trendy. He’s hip without hipster pretensions.
And although he often sets moving images to a throbbing dance beat, his creations are anything but superficial. They shock. They excite. And at their best, Donihue’s mini musical epics demand social change. Especially in Soldier which has already reached a million YouTube views just a week after its release. While tackling the topic of sex trafficking.
Kelly Hughes: Do you think a video like Soldier has the power to influence social change?
David Donihue: As a young man I was an idiot. I didn’t think anything anyone created could influence any single person’s behavior. I believed all stories and films were creativity and expression. And no one was that easily influenced. I would say this as I slugged my Jim Beam while reading my Bukowski.
KH: What changed your attitude?
DD: I had written Parzania. About the genocide in Gujarat, India. And I’m about to go introduce the film at MOMA in New York. And I see the CNN clips about all the protests over the film in India. And I got a call about this professor, who was defending the film, getting kidnapped. And I’m in the lobby. And someone from the Human Rights Commission is hugging me, telling me that the film hit right when the people needed it. And I realized that whether I liked it or not, everything you create will induce a reaction.
KH: Do you set out to do social statements?
DD: I set out to be honest. And feel blessed when it moves mountains. Or even tiny dirt mounds. Any movement is amazing. With Soldier, I knew the details of how much, how many times, and why they don’t leave. Stockholm Syndrome. What could prompt girls in that situation, most of whom are 13, 14, 15 years old, into running the moment they get a chance.
KH: In Soldier, one of the young women being held captive refuses to leave when she gets the chance.
DD: The knee jerk instinct while doing it was to expose the Stockholm Syndrome aspect of the real life stories. In case anyone in the young audience was facing that. I could give a shit if it made someone want to draft a useless bill. Or give another legislator high horse material. I just want the kids to tell these guys to fuck off and run out that door. I suspect that some will.
KH: What are you doing in music videos that other directors aren’t right now?
DD: My music videos are mini-movies. 90 minutes of story and character and emotion packed into five minutes flat. I call them mini-movies because “short films” brings to mind a genre set in apartments about interpersonal relationships. That sort of thing. But to me, a mini-movie as a music video is something different. It’s big. With defined characters. And surprises and twists. It feels like a trailer. But satisfies like a film. Where you can feel as if you’ve just consumed the soul of a feature by the end of the super short run time.
KH: Do music videos distract you from making feature films?
DD: They feel like features when we make them, so it doesn’t feel like a distraction as much as an addition and movement in the same direction as the other narratives. We honestly see them as the same and at the moment are headed into more features and “talkies” per se, so it all just feels the same. What’s funny is you see dialogue in half the music videos we do and can tell oh yeah, these guys come from features.
KH: How do you come up with stories for your music videos?
DD: I write short stories and poetry constantly. And then you hear a song and all the ideas gel together. Some are designed around the song, like Elephante’s Age Of Innocence. Others were treatments that grew in me over a couple years and took massive research to patiently fill out the concept until I knew I had the right platform for it. Which was the case with Blasterjaxx and Breathe Carolina’s Soldier and Thomas Gold, Harrison and Hiio’s Take Me Home. These were stories brewing in me for some time that just happened to be perfect for the track. I have hundreds of concepts I’m sitting on at all hours, so something ends up working whenever you hear something new.
KH: What styles of music have you made videos for?
DD: Everything from International Pop to Indie Rock to a ton of EDM. And recently a WWII epic for Ukrainian Concert Pianist (and Grammy Winner) Ruslan Sirota. Which is easily the most aggressive Ukrainian concert pianist video ever made. Obviously joking, but I’m sure it’s true. We blew up a ton of stuff on that set.
KH: How often do the music artists appear in them?
DD: We’re story driven most of the time. But still at least half of the time they appear. The bigger ones like to. We often hide them as characters. Like Moguai can be seen playing five different parts in five different eras during Hold On.
KH: How do you cast your music videos?
DD: Everywhere from major agencies to scouring Second City and Upright Citizen Brigade. You’re always looking around you. I work a lot with comic genius Aiden Roth (from Elephante’s I Want You) as well as music video superstar Al Burke (of LMFAO music video fame). And TV stars like Aaron Perilo from True Blood. We just did Soldier with legendary action star Patrick Kilpatrick. And the nearly 70 year old actor looked at me point blank and was like “I’ve been in over 150 films and you’re like the third director to cast me as a nice guy.” I was like, “I only did it because I thought you’d beat me up if you didn’t get the lead.” And he was like, “Yeah, I would have.”
KH: Do you think modern music videos are too superficial?
DD: I think all eras of all media and communication have always had the same percentage of superficiality. There will always be bubble gum and always be steak. And moments in the day where both appease the human appetite. I’d say my goal has always been to have it taste like fast popping bubble gum and digest like steak. I also had a goal to not use idiotic food metaphors in interviews and seemed to have just failed at that one.
KH: Who would be your dream artist to make a music video for, and why?
DD: The Shaggs. Because they were awesome. Buy me my time machine and I’m going back to the ‘60s and shooting The Shaggs. Many of my other dream projects have already come true so I see no reason not to pursue whatever I’m into.
KH: How have your music video sets grown? Production value, crew, etc.?
DD: When I did Marc Ford (from Black Crowes fame)’s Blue Skies it was just me and my friend on a Canon DSLR 7D. It was suppose to be this low key thing after having directed a big feature. I felt like being creative. And Marc liked my story so we shot it for fun. That was two years ago. When I saw audiences reacting passionately, I took the genre 100 times more seriously overnight and decided we needed to go all out, the way we do with movies. Now we have a staff of around 80 between cast and crew to pull off things like Soldier. It’s fast. And we lay down a ton of scenes per day. But everyone is always awesome to be around. So the growth has been really sort of awesome. Not exhausting or draining like some would think. I have Justin Kelley and Nick Anton to thank for that. My producers care just as much about having a warm set as I do.
KH: When you make your next feature film, what will you incorporate from your music video experience?
DD: I see them as the same and so they will always both be heading in similar directions I would imagine.
KH: Do you ever feel overwhelmed with the current media situation? The glut of outlets and product? The huge amount of young people entering the field every day? Constant new technology?
DD: I started with nothing more than me and borrowed gear while sleeping in phone booths as a teenager. Or crashing out on some radio station’s floor. There was nothing that could ever stop me from doing my art, even when young life was turmoil. Frustration and career jealousy is for people who don’t know how to love through their art. It’s for the lazy and passionless. I always just made movies and so I guess I skipped the frustrations of those trying to break in. New tech makes it easier to get them made. And I’m inspired to see what the next round of punker kids with cameras give birth to. Not by any means intimidated by it. I work with a lot of them daily. If anything, you get stoked when you hear them saying, “I saw your work in my film studies class and you’re my hero.” That stuff means a lot. I love the camaraderie of well intended filmmakers. I also love ghetto film. No matter how slick my stuff has gotten, I always identify with the video punks sleeping in their cars.