Programs Thu 7.24.2014

A Music Video With a Message: How a Film Independent Fellow Scored a VMA Nomination

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Exciting news! Film Independent Fellow Sheldon Candis is nominated for an MTV Video Music Award for Best Video with a Social Message, for the video he directed of J. Cole’s “Crooked Smile.”

“I really don’t see it as a music video… I call it a ‘musical mini-movie,” said Candis of his transition from narrative features to making a music video. The story was one of the most important aspects of the project to both Candis and J. Cole: “Crooked Smile” re-imagines the tragic death of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a seven-year-old girl who was shot by police during a raid of her aunt’s fiancé’s house in Detroit in 2010.

“I don’t have any interest in doing more of a straightforward music video,” Candis said. “I feel like, at the end of the day, it’s a golden opportunity to tell a story, and in this case, you’re telling a story but you’re also making a social statement.” A music video for “Crooked Smile” may seem like an unexpected platform for that kind of statement—on the surface, the song is about a rapper who has achieved great success, but still hasn’t had his teeth fixed. “But if you really listen to the song and the lyrics,” Candis explained, “‘Crooked Smile’ is actually a metaphor for a broken society.”

“Crooked Smile” is Candis’ first music video; his debut feature LUV premiered at Sundance in 2012. Candis says LUV, “was completely developed, incubated, nurtured, completely through every program that Film Independent has.” (He participated in Film Independent’s 2009 Directing Lab and Fast Track and the 2010 Project Involve lab.) The film earned him the recognition that enabled him to transition to this different kind of project. He got the attention of record companies RocNation and Dreamville, who wanted him to make the video with a personal and socially relevant approach (Candis says RW media, Miller-Wishengrad Post and his own production company Cinephile Academy were instrumental in  making the video happen).

Candis said the music provided a framework for his story: “It’s wonderful,” he said, “because in a sense, the lyrics of the song are the script to the story, and so that’s your guide, your way in. I may write an actual script, but it’s like back to the 1920s; it’s all non-dialogue. You’re just writing emotion.”

But while it worked out for him, Candis wouldn’t advise other filmmakers to pursue music videos: “I think in the current climate of the music industry, I wouldn’t tell any young filmmaker to chase after music videos,” he said. “There was a day and age where it was a great place to be, and there were a lot of great directors cutting their teeth, but it’s unfortunate that the music industry was greedy and didn’t embrace technology, and so the writing was on the wall and they were falling behind the curve.”

crooked smile featCandis shared an incredible story about how his collaboration with J. Cole came to be: He went to LAX for a red-eye flight to New York one night, having spent that day writing his “Crooked Smile” video treatment, and J. Cole was in front of him in the security line. They were on the same flight! Before boarding, Candis approached the rapper, introduced himself, and explained that he’d been writing a treatment. He offered his laptop to J. Cole, so that he might watch the trailer for Candis’s feature film LUV, and as Candis remembers it, J. Cole “gives me this look, and there’s this deafening silence that feels like it lasts for eternity, and he finally takes it, and then he’s watching the trailer in LAX, and I see the light bulb go off. And from that encounter, that moment, that’s where it happened.”

It was important to Candis that his collaborators get the credit they deserve. Beyond the rapper himself, Candis cited the work of his director of photography Philipp Friesenbichler—“a rock star”—his editor Jeff Wishengrad; video commissioners Chaka Pilgrim and Robin Simms; managers Mark Pitts and Wayne Barrow; producers Adam Roy, Ibrahim Hamad, Randi Wilens and Mary Ann Tanedo; composer Nuno Malo, who arranged the “Star-Spangled Banner” for the video; and the one and only Jay-Z executive producing. All, he said, were central to the music video’s success.

It should come as no surprise, considering the passion Candis has for the powerful message of his “Crooked Smile” video, that he said “I believe wholeheartedly that I have a responsibility as a filmmaker… I’m not saying everyone has that responsibility, but I believe that I have a responsibility to entertain but also to educate.” And while he is, of course, thrilled to be nominated, Candis hasn’t lost sight of the most important thing here, and the reason he made the video: “It’s really bittersweet,” he said, “as much as it’s great to be nominated for a VMA, it really is about bringing awareness and really getting [Aiyana’s] story out.” He wanted to share Aiyana’s mother’s Twitter feed—she’s still fighting tirelessly for justice.

And of course, you can vote for “Crooked Smile” to win Best Video with a Social Message at the 2014 VMAs, which air on August 24. Vote for the video here.

Mary Sollosi / Intern Blogger