You know when you hear a new song that causes you to take notice of the title so you can mentally add it to your music collection? There is something so satisfying about discovering something you’ve never heard before, and then you watch the music video. A good video can resurrect those initial feelings you had and even give you a greater love for the song. One man helping us re-discover our favorite artists and their stories is Director Shane Drake whose videos over the years have spanned the genres of country, pop, rock and rap.
Drake has worked with such artists as Lil Wayne, Paramore, Mike Posner, Taylor Swift, Timbaland, Kelly Clarkson and Fall Out Boy, and has garnered a number of nominations plus a win in 2006 during the MTV VMA’s for “Video Of the Year” for Panic! At The Disco’s I Write Sins Not Tragedies. I recently chatted with Drake on his career in the music industry, his favorite videos from other directors and his upcoming projects.
Long before Drake was directing, however, he was a young high school grad in northern California considering biology as a major. “Most of my childhood was in Red Bluff, a super small town. In that time and area, if you were born with any kind of creative artistry, it becomes very hard to express yourself,” shared Drake. “So in those areas, the only way you do better is you become a doctor or a lawyer. There's no notion of you becoming a director in a small town like that.”
Choosing to do pre-med, he graduated in 2000 and quickly realized he didn’t want to spend eight more years in a field he wasn’t passionate about, and turned to biochemistry. As a creative person, the office job and work environment didn’t line-up with who he was or wanted to be. Fast forward to seminary at Princeton (an interesting choice coming from a science background), Drake became entrenched in the acting community in Philadelphia. Trying his hand at being an actor in New York, he found that it wasn’t for him either.
“My fate wasn't really going to be in my hands. I was an actor. You can be the best actor on the planet, but if the stars don't all align, and if you're not at the right place at the right time with the right person with the right mood, you may never be seen, no matter how hard you try,” laughs Drake. “There are so many great actors that have just never been noticed, and plenty of terrible ones that have! […] I just couldn't live my life with that as my fate.”
It was around this time that Drake began to become aware of directing as the path for him. The DIY approach to film-making and the individuality of the craft took him back to California to begin shooting short films in 2001. It wasn’t long before he caught the attention of a music video director who offered to mentor him. “I am the poster child for the MTV generation. [...] But it never dawned on me that directing those things was a job, until I met a music video director and had the passion to direct. The two just kind of met,” shared Drake. “He sort of taught me how the business works, how to do sort of inexpensive videos for up-and-coming bands, getting your foot in the door, how to make relationships with labels and managers, and he really taught me a lot of the fundamentals of just basic industry stuff.”
Finally, Red Van Pictures was born, his first production company based out of Los Angeles. As any new business owner, Drake hustled to do it all, everything from production, directing, editing and securing bands. Eventually building up a reputation and getting to know bigger artists, he started working on a video with Panic! At The Disco for I Write Sins Not Tragedies in which he won a VMA. Today, Drake’s portfolio is a testament to his hard work and patience in growing and perfecting his craft. And when it comes to going from point A to B, from discussing a video to finalizing it on film, Drake described how it all works.
“We’ll basically have some sort of general idea of what they're looking for. Other times it’s wide open, and basically, we’re left with us and the song for about a week—sometimes less, sometimes more—but usually about a week,” said Drake. “It’s just a matter of finding the inspiration with that song, with the lyrics, the whole intention of the music [and how it] sort of speaks to you. […] It’s really a pretty solo process actually, the treatment process, before a video’s booked. It’s really, just me and the music, [sic] and I go to movies or read magazines or scour the internet for photos; the process to find that creative spark is always different and always changing.”
“Once an idea does spark and I write that, I submit [it to] the label. Then, they keep in contact with the top two or three directors that have written a treatment that they think is a cool vibe, and then from there we usually start getting on a phone call with the band. It dictates whether you have an immediate good rapport with them on the phone, just as humans and as individuals,” stressed Drake.
Last year, Drake won a CMA Video of the Year award for Tim McGraw & Taylor Swift's collaboration featuring Keith Urban for Highway Don’t Care. In the opening sequence a distraught woman jumps into her car, fidgeting with the keys and wiping tears from her face, she anxiously checks her phone in hopes of a message from him. As the scenes continue, we get a glimpse into her pain and shots of a man checking his phone lead us to assume he is the one who is not texting her. And as we near the end of this tragic story, Drake throws us a curveball and reveals the real identity of the man behind the phone. It’s a great example of how he not only focuses on the lyrics of a song but makes sure to bring viewers into the story as well. I’ll let you watch the video below to find out.
When it comes to varying budgets, we discussed how big of a role money plays in the direction of a video and how it affects the creative process. Can too much money actually be a disadvantage when it comes to film-making? “I worked everything from a $500 budget to a $400,000 budget. And, basically, it’s all about how hungry you are, how creative you are, how willing are you to really get down and dirty and think through creative ways to pull off the mix and to pull off ideas. That's a factor that's needed regardless of what your budget is,” urged Drake. “But I think there is something that happens with an excessive amount of money that allows you to fall into a bit of a pattern. […] I think it becomes easy to fall into a little bit of a rut of having the same kind of look and the same kind of vibe.”
Having grown up in an era when VH1 and MTV actually played music videos for hours upon end (instead of Teen Mom reruns), Drake definitely has a number of videos that really stood out to him and inspired him in his career. Describing various videos for Radiohead and Rabbit in Your Headlights by Unkle, you could easily hear Drake’s enthusiasm for his craft.
“I think every video that Radiohead did for the first three albums of their career. I would look up those videos and study them over and over and over again. I think that there was a…there was a time when there was such thing as an avant-garde music video director,” said Drake. “The reason they were avant-garde was because there was a time where there were budgets, but there were still directors that were working under the radar, without those big budgets. So everyone was looking at these huge, glossy things, but there was sort of this under swell of videos that were just mind blowing. And I think that the Radiohead videos really kind of tackled that.”
As we ended our chat, Drake shared his advice for budding directors looking to break into the industry. Emphasizing that today’s digital, information-sharing world has less holding us back, he urged people to shoot whenever they could. Whether on your iPhone or a $100 camera, familiarize yourself with the craft through any form possible; and if you’re not immediately good at it, just continue to practice.
“The people that are making it now are people that weren’t waiting for a handout, weren't waiting for something to fall down on that day. They found something, they grabbed a camera and they shot something,” explained Drake. “I think that's what you'd find about a lot of filmmakers that started, is that a lot of people like the idea of directing or shooting, but they keep it there in their mind as something that sounds cool as opposed to, ‘Okay, grab a recording device and go shoot something.’”
Looking at what projects Drake has coming up, it’s clear that he abides by his own advice as well and keeps on hustling to stay on top of his game. “I just finished a promo music video for the show Better Call Saul, and that just came out on AMC. We just shot with this artist, Junior Browns, who is kind of like a Johnny Cash-era, old-country singer. [Has] that kind of cool low gruff voice that you don't hear that often. And we shot this really bizarre music video that Vince Gilligan is using as a promo for more material for the Better Call Saul show coming up in February,” shared Drake. “I'm up for a video of the year at the CMA's this year up in Nashville [for Bartender by Lady Antebellum] with Tony Hale from Veep and Kate Upton. And I just signed onto a movie project called After Exile that I am working on with some producers and developing, they’ll hopefully start shooting next year.”
One final note: U2, if you’re reading this, you’re on his list of bands he’d like to direct for (despite your recent record release backlash). So go ahead and give him a call.