Despite a tender age of 24, music video director AG Rojas has caught the eye prior to his much-commented upon video for Jack White’s recent single ‘Sixteen Saltines’. He was responsible for the divisive, fish-eye heavy breakout clip of the Odd Future crew – ‘Earl‘ – which, like ‘Saltines’, took immense care in depicting teenagers up to no-good. The lo-fi aesthetics of that early effort are now long gone, as evidenced by his sublimely rendered treatment for the late Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘I’ll Take Care of You‘, which boasted a Million Dollar Baby-shot-by-James Gray vibe. His masterwork to date is the ten minute epic ‘Hey Jane’ for Spiritualized. Though not for the faint hearted, and a touch reliant on shock-tactics from the start, it has an intensity rare in short films, and even rarer in promo clips.
Still reeling from the delectable savagery of the ‘Sixteen Saltines’ video, I recently went on Twitter to nonchalantly compliment Rojas, comparing him in the process to Romain Gavras. Rojas replied, correcting me on my assumption that he was American (he’s not; born in Spain, he’s been living in L.A since he was seven) and thanking me for the kind words. I grabbed the opportunity to ask for an interview and a few emails later, here we are…
PPH (in bold): How did you come up with all the transgressive stunts performed in the ‘Sixteen Saltines’ video?
AG Rojas (in regular): I enjoy conjuring up images of youth involved in precarious situations. It’s not always based on something I lived through or influenced by any specific reference – just my corrupt imagination.
This year, it seems that the best, or at least most visually striking videos (M.I.A’s ‘Bad Girls‘, Woodkid’s work for Lana Del Rey and others) have been shot by European directors and all feature some kind of post-modern teenage nihilism. Is that just a coincidence or some kind of a scene, a style that you feel close to?
Well, I don’t think it’s an aesthetic or theme that is rare in music videos. For me, energy is always the most vital element for a music video. There are few things more vibrant and full of life, however dark or dormant, than youth.
The other reason I compared you to Gavras is that, in a way, ‘Sixteen Saltines’ reminded me of Justice’s video for ‘Stress‘. The whole “boredom make you do crazy things” concept as you put it on your site, and the ending with kids putting a car on fire (though in yours there’s a rock star in it). Is that a real conscious influence?
I think ‘Stress’ is obviously a huge influence on a lot of young music video directors. In my case, not necessarily because of the aesthetic or violence, but more so because it shows you how great a music video can be when a director is given complete (or, almost complete) creative control over the visuals, and takes advantage of this by creating something provocative.
What’s your influences film-wise and music video-wise? ‘Sixteen Saltines’ is a bit David Lynch meets Larry Clark, isn’t it?
I pitched ‘Sixteen Saltines’ as Larry Clark meets Roy Andersson. In the same way I love Harmony Korine [of Gummo and Trash Humpers infamy] and Michael Haneke. It’s a balance of visual aggression and subtlety.
‘Earl’, the clip you directed for Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt, has reached the 10 million views mark and served as the orignal landmark of their aesthetic. How did you get in touch with the Odd Future crew before their overnight fame? It seems that in a recent interview for Pitchfork, you hinted that they took to much credit from it. Do you feel that way?
We all rolled in the same circles, and once I heard Earl’s music, I recognized something special there and wanted to capture that moment. I don’t think they take too much credit. The video wouldn’t exist without the track, and it wouldn’t have been as successful without Earl’s skill and complete commitment to my vision.
Your work tends to be quite narrative-driven, do you see your videos as short films rather than just promo shots for the artist? Do you have plans for a feature film in the future?
There are enough performance videos being made. There is room every once in a while for experimentation. I’ve always gravitated towards narrative filmmaking, and music videos are a great place to hone your skills as a storyteller.
The fight scene in the motel in ‘Hey Jane’ feels so real, it’s pretty hard to watch. How many takes did it take to achieve this rawness? What’s the meaning behind the kid dropping the gun and going back to play video games?
My DP Michael Ragen, our stunt coordinator and I discussed my treatment and what I had in mind. Then we refined it and made sure the energy and composition of the scene matched the intensity of the track. We did the take somewhere around 15 to 20 times. As for the video game, I’m obsessed with small practical details happening at the same time as extraordinary moments. It’s open to interpretation.
The photography in your recent videos is very cinematographic and gritty at the same time. How do you achieve that?
I’ve worked with Michael to really define our aesthetic and to always create images that are as cinematic and natural as possible.
What’s your background?
When I was seventeen I was accepted into the BFA Film Production program at Art Center College of Design. I dropped out a year and a half later and began directing music videos two years after that. After this, I began working for several production companies at various capacities – mostly as a researcher and writer. All the while I was directing, until I finally was signed to Caviar Content as a director.
And what do your have lined up for your next projects?
Commercials, short films, and hopefully features down the line. I have a short film, Crown, which is playing festivals and should be released in late summer.
You can watch the rest of AG Rojas’ work on his website.