As early as her junior year of high school, Hannah Lux Davis knew she wanted to make music videos.
Attending film school instead of college, and graduating from The Los Angeles Film School in 2006, Davis began working as an on-set makeup artist before quickly transitioning to directing, citing a music video for Twin Atlantic back in 2010 as her first paid gig as a director. In the decade since that entry point, Davis has worked with countless pop stars and become one of the most sought-after directors in the industry. But, despite her impressive pedigree, it’s her work with Ariana Grande during the height of Grande’s critical and commercial success that has catapulted Davis to a new level.
Working collaboratively with Ariana to create the kind of cultural moments that make the industry stop and stare, Davis is the director responsible for co-creating the worlds of “Thank U, Next,” “7 Rings,” “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” and most recently, Grande’s massive Charlie’s Angels video with Lana Del Rey and Miley Cyrus for “Don’t Call Me Angel.”
In the wake of all this head-turning success, I spoke with Hannah on the phone about the iconic 1994 video that got her interested in the industry in the first place, her best advice for young directors, and what it is about pop as a whole that makes the genre’s videos so special. Read a condensed, edited version of our conversation below.
I wanted to start off asking about the first music video you remember seeing or feeling the power of, the first one that really impacted you?
It was “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden, and it was very disturbing video, with barbies burning on a barbecue, people’s faces melting — it was just a very graphic and kind of playful video that sparked something in me. I was like, ‘Wow, this is very ballsy.’ And even as a little kid, I could feel that it was risky and interesting, and I hadn’t seen anything like it before. I remember thinking ‘what is this format that can just play on TV like this?’ That’s the first memory I have of a video that I remember watching and being really affected by.
The first time I remember an event around a music video release I was in high school — I was a teenager during that TRL heyday — and it was Britney Spears’ video for “Toxic.” Do you remember when that one came out? It was such an event. I was with a bunch of friends and we watched some TV and it was this big moment where we were like ‘what is she going to do next?’ The music video was the place where you’d tune in to see what your favorite artists were going to do next.
When did you first begin wanting to work on videos, and working on videos yourself?
I was a junior in high school when I discovered the power of editing video to music, and it was something I became hooked on right away. I did this silly project in high school where somebody’s running away from something and I cut it to music. I remember having a lot of fun with that, then I realized it was a music video. I knew I wanted to make music videos so I went to film school after high school. Instead of making a short film and doing that sort of thing, I found a band in LA to make videos for and I paid for them. I searched for bands on Pure Volume and Myspace and asked to make music videos for them if they’d let me. The rest is history.
What advice do you have for young directors who are trying to break into the industry?
I’d say take any opportunity you can, and shoot anything you can, direct anything you can, even get into photography because that gives you practice working with a team of people, working with somebody in front of your lens and how to direct them, and coach them and how they should move and emote. And also, editing! I think it’s so important for a director to not only understand editing but to actually be able to get in there on Premiere — or whatever program — and work the keys, figure out how to edit. Because that’s something that helped me tremendously in the beginning of my career, that I was also an editor.
I want to discuss your work with Ariana Grande, which has obviously been resonating so much culturally over the last couple years. But I wanted to start by asking about the “Side To Side” video because I think that’s the first one of yours I saw. I was so blown away by it, and by the female gaze of that clip. I’d love to talk about the ideation of that visual, especially given the explicit lyrics.
It’s funny, I’d worked with Ariana on a couple videos by then, and we’d finally gotten to the point where it was just me and her talking. No middle people, just her and I over text or on the phone. I’d put together this treatment sent it to her. I had visuals, I wrote the whole thing, it was this full presentation. I sent it to her and she just goes ‘Hannah… no.’ And then she writes back one thing: ‘spin bikes.’ And the whole thing really blew up from there. She was growing so much during that phase and I think that video really turned heads, it shows how much she was so in control of her world. With that one, it was a visual that really grabs people. The setting and the light-up floor, and the choreography — all of it was so fine-tuned.
And I’d be remiss not to say anything about Nicky Minaj, because her and Nicky together was a great moment, just to see the two of them interact the way. It was very vulnerable because they were pretty much just in swimsuits. It was a cool girl power moment with the two of them together. And that was 2016, so it was still like the beginning of a lot of girl power stuff. It hadn’t fully taken over the world like it has today.
How do you handle working on videos that reach such a huge scale? Like “Side To Side” became that way, but also “Thank U, Next,” itself or other visuals from Ariana’s current era, does it change it for you to know the amount of attention that’s coming?
I take every single one of these jobs super seriously. I don’t take it lightly that these are big moments for these artists, and that I’m very much a collaborator and an extension of them. I’m never coming into a project thinking ‘what do I need to make?’ It’s always very much like what, what are we trying to say for them? How can I elevate them, make them look amazing, and feel amazing, how do we get their message across in a way that feels true and authentic to them and also move the needle forward for them in their career?
And if we can make a fantastic video for me, great! I’m happy to be an extension of them, but, it really comes down to what feels good to that artist and what feels true to them. I think that’s something that Ariana does so well because she knows her brand and her audience so well — and she has really great taste. When you have an artist who is that dialed in, you really have to roll with them. There’d be things that I would suggest and she’s like ‘no, no, no, we have to do it like this.’ And I’m so glad that she’s able to be so open and collaborative. I respect her tremendously and vice versa.
When we’re able to find something that feels true to the artist, that’s when it clicks. That’s when the audience knows it’s right. But definitely, “Thank U, Next” and “Break Up With Your Girlfriend” and “7 Rings,” all of these videos and then the Charlie’s Angels collab, I know that they’re big moments for her and, and I’m just so happy to be along for the ride.
I think the really cool thing about the “Thank U, Next” video was that it channeled so many of these iconic rom-coms, and these movies are so often undervalued, even when they are so culturally significant. So I think, especially for the women watching, it felt like someone is finally acknowledging how much influence these stories had on our lives and on culture.
Yes, and they came out at a time when we didn’t talk about stuff like that, and that’s a really, really good point. Nobody’s ever really mentioned it the way you just did, but those films were really culturally impactful. We all knew it, but we didn’t know why, and it was never really talked about. And I think bringing those stories into a 2018 landscape, really showed that, along with the power of believing in yourself, and standing up for yourself, and the power in numbers, like women coming together, Whether it be like Elle Woods finding her passion, following her ex, like something so frivolous was such a big moment for her. And she was able to find out who she is and her passion. I think showing stories of people prevailing and coming out the other side better people translated really well in today’s climate.
For the “Don’t Call Me Angel” video, what were the challenges of working with three distinct stars who all have such different styles?
It comes down to working with these artists who have honed in on their world — all of those girls have — and their worlds are very different. That actually made it easier, that they all kind of had their own world. We wanted to play into this Charlie’s Angels theme — women on a mission coming together in some fashion. Lana was kind of more of the wild card for me, because I hadn’t worked with her before. Putting three powerhouse women together, scheduling-wise, is no joke. Anybody who wrangles talent like that probably was like, ‘Yup, that one was hard.’ It was definitely a challenge. But it all came together quite beautifully.
When it comes to working in pop music specifically, what is it that draws you to that genre? What do you think makes that genre special to work in with videos? Because it does feel like there’s something special about a pop music video, like the Britney one you mentioned.
Pop music in general is very mainstream: it’s very likable, it’s very happy, it’s up… and that’s where they put a lot of money. The money draws exciting visuals, and I think all of that combines with a pop star, somebody who is so beautiful and so mesmerizing, who can dance, and who’s just a really great performer. A lot of those people live in that pop world, because it’s a genre where they can execute their talent. Like they can dance, they can sing, they can strut, they can act, and it’s a really great genre. And I love pop music. I think that’s the other thing, like I love pop music and that’s what I love to listen to, I grew up listening to, there’s nostalgia in it, and at the end of the day, I’m a big sucker for pop music. And I think it’s so important for the director to love the music they’re directing videos for.
What do you think is the single most important creative element for a director?
I think being nimble and open, and being able to think quickly on your feet. Because in this industry, things move so quickly. Things change so quickly. And being able to just take a new variable or obstacle and be able to figure out another angle of how we can shoot something or handle something. A lot of what this job is — and I’m specifically talking in the music video industry — is being able to handle a lot of different styles of people and personalities, and how to communicate your idea in a way that everybody understands. Because at the end of the day it’s all about communication. And I think that being able to communicate your idea, and being able to stay sane in the midst of utter chaos, is the real key.