Video Director Phil Mucci Discusses Working With Stone Sour, Huntress + Monster Magnet
2013 was a great year for video director Phil Mucci, as his work on Stone Sour's 'Do Me a Favor' and Huntress' 'Zenith' promos landed not only on Loudwire's 10 Best Rock and Metal Videos lists, but other site's Top 10 lists as well. Beginning several years back with High on Fire's 'Fertile Green,' Opeth's 'The Devil's Orchard' and Pig Destroyer's 'The Diplomat,' Mucci's videos began to take on a more distinctive animated style.
Loudwire had a chance to talk to the director about his burgeoning career and he opened up about his love of metal, what it's like to work with artists like Stone Sour, Huntress and Monster Magnet and the major influences on his directing style. He also spoke about the current climate in the music video world and offered some advice for aspiring directors. Check out our interview with video director Phil Mucci below.
I know you've worked with artists from all genres, but it seems that you have really made a home in the hard rock and metal world of late. Can you talk a little about your own metal background?
I was a total nerd in my youth, as I am to this day; my dad loved classical music, so I developed a real taste for that first, then movie soundtracks. Metal came in my early teens, when I started to get exposed to it by friends at school. First it was Ozzy and Iron Maiden, which led me to Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. It was the Reagan era, so by the time I got to high school, I was all about rebellion. I got into punk and thrash then, Suicidal Tendencies, S.O.D., and Slayer -- I got into Slayer big time! That led me to more black metal -- I bought the first two Mercyful Fate albums on vinyl! That was really just the beginning of the modern metal scene, so from there it took off and I’ve been listening ever since. Lately I zone out to a lot of stoner/doom stuff while I’m working -- Electric Wizard, Windhand, YOB, Cough, that sort of stuff. But to this day, I still think there are a lot of similarities between intense “classical” music and metal. Listen to Gustav Holst’s 'Mars, the Bringer of War' and tell me that isn’t a sick riff.
In terms of what drew me to the current metal artists, it sort of worked the other way around. My first two short films were hybrids of the horror genre, so when I was starting out in music videos, those were what people saw. I basically got categorized from the outset as “dark”, so the only videos I got offered were for similarly “dark” acts, which was fine with me. It’s very difficult to break through, so whatever works; what really did it for me was developing a strong relationship with Rick Ernst at Roadrunner Records. He was one of the first people to take a chance on me as an unknown director. Roadrunner really breathed down my neck on the first couple projects, but by the time we got to Opeth, Rick basically offered me the gig if I could come up with a concept that Mikael liked. My good friend Dan Simpson at Flux Paradox in San Francisco showed the Opeth video to High on Fire, along with my short films, and they asked me if I’d like to do a video for them. I was already a fan, so of course I said, "Hell yeah!”
With Pig Destroyer into High On Fire and Opeth and more recently with Stone Sour and Huntress, your videos began to take on a certain style of their own -- kind of a cross between Frank Miller's 'Sin City' and the black light posters of the '70s. Can you talk about some of the visual artists who have influenced your style?
Thanks! Yeah – it was definitely an evolution. Again, it all kind of started with Opeth. Before that, I was shooting with larger budgets -- the Korn video I did for 'Oildale' had eight times the budget of Opeth -- and always with performance playing a central role. Those videos had different demands -- they’re more akin to commercials, where the label, management, and band all have a say in the final edit. Most music videos live in that world, so Opeth was a breath of fresh air. I had a much smaller budget, but I didn’t have to shoot the band, and more or less had creative freedom.
The concept I got approved was one that I wasn’t even sure how I was going to pull off! But that’s how you grow -- you take on new challenges -- and when you’re given creative freedom, the money doesn’t matter so much. You just jump off the deep end and try to figure it out before you drown! And I almost drowned on that one -- it was stressful as hell, since I was learning on the job. But it was totally worth it; I learned so much on that gig that my work grew by leaps and bounds from that point onwards.
If I had to credit a main inspiration for the style as it pertains to the character animation, it would definitely be Ralph Bakshi. I’d always been a fan, and then I watched a lecture he gave about how he developed his rotoscoping style by seeing how Walt Disney had used it in 'Cinderella' -- shooting live actors and drawing animation on top of them, frame by frame. In the lecture, Bakshi basically said it was a technique that modern computers made easier, and he encouraged filmmakers to get out there and try it. So I did!
Other major influences would be the work of Richard Corben, Moebius, and a lot of the 'Heavy Metal' magazine artists, as well as the seminal animated feature film of the same name from 1981. I think it’s hard to be totally conscious of your influences once you reach a certain point. It becomes sort of “everything” you’ve ever been exposed to, but I’d say the work of filmmakers Mario Bava, Ray Harryhausen, Roger Corman, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, and Dario Argento have all had an influence on my music video work.
You came up through the ranks, working with other videographers before going out on your own. What was the first video where you felt like you had "made it" or had reached a level where you were on footing with some of your peers?
Well I definitely don’t feel like I’ve “made it” in any conventional way, but I’d say there were two turning points, back to back, with regards to music videos. The first would be that video for Korn's 'Oildale.' It had the biggest budget of any music video I’ve ever done, and I had a huge, top-notch crew at my command. But that’s just material stuff; the main thing was that I was telling what I felt was a real story about the current state of America, in a real place with real people. That video is about 3/4 documentary, to be honest. There’s only two actors in it. I was there a week before we started shooting, going door to door, meeting people, asking if we could shoot on their property. It was a great experience. I learned a lot and met some amazing folks.
The other turning point was when the Opeth video got released. Up until that point, none of my videos had garnered much press at all. But with Opeth all that changed. Suddenly there were “reviews” of the work I’d done, and since I had put so much labor and creative effort into it, it really felt rewarding. In the end, that was more important to me than having a big budget and crew. I felt more like a filmmaker. When High on Fire was released, the reaction was even more surprising, and that launched me onto my current path – but Opeth was definitely the turning point.
Working with an artist like, for instance, Corey Taylor, who you know is well versed in comics and graphic novels and loves that stuff as opposed to an act who doesn't come from that background, does it make it easier or harder to achieve the final video vision?
Corey Taylor is basically a super-prolific, multitalented genius, so it’s hard to compare him to other acts, to be honest. My work for him was like none of my other projects in that he basically entrusted me with HIS story. My treatment for 'Do Me a Favor' was just the Cliff Notes to his larger story. He was working on the graphic novel at the same time, so I didn’t have a lot of that to go off, but Corey was super cool about it.
I’d say what Corey brings to the table is the confidence of a guy who’s making stuff all the time. He hires the right people to interpret his ideas, and let’s them do their thing. That’s a total badass where I come from. Not a lot of people have the strength not to micromanage. In that regard, he was one of the easiest, most supportive guys I’ve ever had the privilege to work with.
Jill Janus from Huntress is another. She doesn’t come from the comics and graphic novel background that Corey does, but she’d seen my videos up to that point, and really responded to High on Fire’s 'Fertile Green.' I’d actually reached out to Huntress months before through my agent, after I’d seen their 'Eight of Swords' video, but their label wasn’t very responsive. Then Jill and her manager Jackie Kajzer reached out to me directly, and it was on! Like Corey, Jill has a keen sense of who she is, and by extension, how I could contribute to the Huntress legacy. I mean, she reached out to me before she even recorded 'Starbound Beast,' so it was a real honor. When other artists invest that kind of confidence in your work, it really brings out your best. Dave Wyndorf from Monster Magnet knows that too, and the video we’re cooking up together for 'The Duke' is gonna be off the hook!
How much has the phone been ringing off the hook after the exposure your videos for Huntress and Stone Sour have received this past year?
It’s been awesome, honestly. I do all the post on the videos myself, which means they take quite a while to complete, so I have to turn down a lot of projects, which sucks, but it’s a good problem to have. Lately I’ve worked directly with bands and their management, and they’ve been willing to wait for me to become available, which is amazing. I’ve been able to stay booked many months in advance for a while. My executive producer / lead actor Ian Mackay and I actually started our own production company, Diabolik, to run the music videos through, since we produce them all ourselves anyway. We’re not rolling in loot, that’s for sure; it’s still a struggle, but I feel like we’ve turned another corner, for sure. Perseverance is definitely the name of the game in this biz.
You've not only worked as a video director but also as a photographer over the years. Who have been some of your favorite subjects to work with?
Fortunately, I’ve gotten to photograph a lot of great people. Halestorm, My Chemical Romance, The White Stripes, Ludacris, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, (and so many more) were all awesome to work with. It’s a totally nerdy story, nothing wild – but one of the best times I had shooting a musician was the day I got to shoot with Questlove at my loft in Brooklyn, without the rest of The Roots.
He’s a really charming , smart, mellow dude, and he knew so much about music history from all types of genres. The classic Shuggie Otis album Inspiration Information had just been reissued, and he told me story after story about Shuggie before and since the album’s original release. We basically geeked out on music all day. Honestly, I think my only contribution was that I turned him on to Sigur Ros, who he’d never heard before.
These videos of late have a very cinematic feel to them and I know you've directed short films in the past. Would there be any thought to potentially directing some sort of music film with great visuals and music from some of today's acts, a la 'Heavy Metal' or 'The Wall' from our youth?
Actually yes, there’s been plenty of talk about it. Various bands have approached me, and other potential interested “parties." But talk is very cheap, and movies are very expensive! Doing the work that I do is creatively very fulfilling, but financially it’s a break even situation. Taking time out to do a film right now isn’t really in the cards, but we’ve definitely got plans, and more than one potential project in early stages of development. But writing takes time, and so do my video projects -- literally 14 hrs a day, 7 days a week -- so it will be a while before I can afford to take the time off to do it.
The thing is, I originally came out to LA to direct my first feature; but that was in 2008, when the sky was falling, and things didn’t work out. Doing music videos was basically the result of me scrambling to get work as a director when that deal fell through, and when most of the people I’d just met in LA -- including my agent and manager -- lost their jobs in the recession. Luckily I’ve been able to establish somewhat of a reputation -- even if it’s only in hard rock and metal, which I love, but which notoriously have the smallest budgets.
I think the upside of all of it is that since I’m working with less money, I’ve been forced to learn how to do more of the work myself, so I’ve actually acquired a lot of the skill-set needed to make a low budget feature. Having worked to build a reputation in two fields now, I can honestly say that adversity breeds creativity, and many times the things you think are holding you back, are actually doorways to new modes of thinking . The fact that I’m able to be a filmmaker, and get my stuff seen online and in film festivals – even if it’s just music videos or shorts – is all that matters to me right now. You have to understand that, as a photographer, I went for the commercial cash in a big way, and I paid a heavy creative and emotional price for it that effected all aspects of my life, so I’m actually okay with being poor but fulfilled right now.
We've just gotten a great video that you did for Das Muerte and I know you're working with Monster Magnet on a new clip at the moment as well. I wanted to give you a chance to speak about either experience and working with those two bands.
Thank you! Das Muerte is a sick indie band from Boston, only on their second EP, and they basically let me go nuts. They wanted me to bring the character of Das Muerte to life -- an underworld kingpin who skins his enemies alive -- in a film noir, black and white style. The rest of the 'All Those Delicate Cuts' video was up to me, so I was totally psyched to sign on. It was an amazing effort on the part of the entire crew. Everyone gave it their all, and I couldn’t be prouder of the results.
Getting the email from Steve Davis about Monster Magnet was definitely a career highlight. I’ve been a fan for years, and 'Last Patrol' was, for me, a very introspective, relatable album. I totally get where Dave’s coming from, having gone through my own series of highs and lows, looking back and sort of gathering the wisdom of all the shit you’ve gone through. At first we communicated through email, and Dave laid out all the things that had inspired him to write 'The Duke,' and what it meant to him. It was like a window into his amazing brain, and there was so much to absorb that it took me a while to form a solid concept. Then we got on the phone to discuss my ideas, and it was like Dave and I had been friends for years. Seriously, the guy is so unassuming, generous, thoughtful, and empathetic in all the right ways.
He kept saying, “It’s your movie,” which is seriously the greatest thing he could have ever said. I have no illusions about how the world sees what I do, but I personally consider all my videos short films, so to hear that from another artist that I respect as much as Dave, it pretty much meant the world to me. We’ve thrown everything we’ve got at his project, really pulling out all the stops, so hopefully people dig it!
And to wrap up, I wanted to ask about the greatest challenge of being a video director and if you have any advice to those reading this interview that might be considering it as a career.
Everybody makes their own way -- there aren’t really any rules, especially now. The field is wide open because the budgets aren’t what they used to be. But there’s a big difference between me and the vast majority of directors working in music videos -- at least it seems that way to me -- so I can only really speak to what I’m doing. A lot of directors are trying to show their commercial chops to land better paying advertising gigs -- which is actually a very smart move. There’s so little money in doing what I do that it doesn’t promise much of a future. If I had a wife and kids, I wouldn’t be able to afford to do it at all. So my first piece of advice would be -- don’t have any illusions. Filmmaking has been, and to some extent always will be, a rich person’s game. If you don’t come from money, you’re going to have to earn it some way.
The truth about Hollywood is that no one is going to pay you for your ideas when you’re starting out; I’ve developed five feature film projects in the last five years, and none of them got off the ground. I put months of time into each of them and didn’t get paid at all for my work -- so that’s the reality nobody talks about much. Starting out in music videos is the same; I wrote 35 treatments before I got my first “official” video. Treatments aren’t just a written version of your idea, they’re presentations, with imagery, and in many cases video. A good treatment takes days to complete, and you don’t get paid a dime for them, so it’s something to keep in mind. When you’re starting out, it’s best to keep your day job!
That said, there are more opportunities now than ever. If you seriously want to make some music videos, nobody will hire you until you’ve made a music video - a classic Catch 22. Luckily there’s a new site that didn’t exist when I was starting out, so it’s a bit easier now to get your foot in the door. It’s called Radar Music Videos (http://www.radarmusicvideos.com), and they put bands in direct contact with directors who submit their ideas for upcoming video projects. The band picks their favorite idea, and a first-time music video director is born! The budgets are low, but like I said -- you’ve either got money or you’re a film nerd like me who’s learned how to do almost everything from conception to completion yourself, so anything is better than nothing. The key is to keep making stuff -- always -- and to get some money to do it if you don’t have your own. Create by any means necessary!