On the Job Training: Part Three
John Lloyd Miller
by Eric Ducker
By the late 1980s, MTV had established itself as a star (and profit) making force within the music industry. Record labels knew they had to feed it new material to fill its hours of programming. Still, rap music lagged behind when it came to budget and airtime distribution. Then in 1988, MTV debuted Yo! MTV Raps, and a year later BET premiered Rap City. These shows provided a national platform for artists from around the country, but most of their videos were still made for relatively little money and didn’t have much hope for breakout success.
The upside of this situation was that rap videos became a way for innovative young directors to get started in the industry, or at least to figure out what they were doing. In the decades that have passed, some of these directors have gone on to helm films for major studios, some remain behind scenes, and some have moved on.
MTV didn’t start running the name of a video’s director in the credits until 1992, and BET soon began to do the same. And though there are databases that try to track who directed each video, they are often incomplete. The following interviews highlight a few of these directors and get the stories behind some of their classic videos.
JOHN LLOYD MILLER
John Lloyd Miller is best known as a director of country music videos who racked up credits with the genre’s biggest starts during the 1990s. But, at the beginning of his career in the late 1980s when he was fresh out of USC film school, he worked with a broad span of artists. “The different record companies thought of me as a different guy depending on which artist’s video I had done for them. So at one record company I was a rock guy and at another record company I was an R&B guy,” he says. “I accidentally backed myself into doing a country thing, I had never listened to country music before, and then all of a sudden in Nashville they thought I was a country director.” In those early years, Miller even directed a couple of effects-heavy rap videos.
Eazy-E “Eazy-er Said Than Dunn”
The Fat Boy featuring Chubby Checker “The Twist (Yo, Twist!)”
EAZY-E, “EAZY-ER SAID THAN DUNN”
How did “Eazy-er Said Than Dunn” come to you?
I did a video for the Fat Boys with Chubby Checker called “The Twist,” and it had a fairly big budget. That was an interesting bunch of characters. I couldn’t communicate with them very well; it was like talking to triplets that have their own language or something. They’d mumble stuff to each other and then the manager would have to tell me what they just said. They weren’t involved in the concept at all, the management was really controlling what they did and how they did it. It was a real mainstream MTV hit, and it was a goofy video. It was supposed to be goofy though, as that’s what the Fat Boys were about.
A producer in L.A. called, I think he had done other videos for NWA, but he didn’t want to direct this one, and Eazy wanted me. I remember going out to L.A. and they said, “Eazy hasn’t seen the concept yet.” So they drove me to Compton. We met Eazy literally on the street. He was in the back of this van and I’m in this SUV and we pull up next to his van. The windows roll down and I pass the paper across like it’s some kind of drug deal and then the window goes back up and I have to sit there while he reads it. Then the window goes down and he says, “Yeah, he’s cool,” and then the window goes back up again and the van drives away.
What was your original treatment?
Even back then there was a template for what a rap video was supposed to look like. It was handheld, wide-angle lens, people getting their face right in the camera and scantily clad girls dancing around. There were all these clichés in these videos, and when they first called me they wanted a bunch of them, but I tried to turn it a little bit. There was this concept wrapped around going into this club, and the club turning into another environment. That’s how the video still starts, but once we started filming in the other environment at MacArthur Park, Eazy comes up and goes, “Can we do a scene where I dunk a basketball?” I got the feeling he was sensitive about not being that tall and he knew I could do anything on film, so he wanted to show himself dunking a basketball. (We never got around to shooting it; we had it set, but ran out of time.) And we had to show him throwing dice. At one point we’re walking through MacArthur Park and Eazy and MC Ren start having a million ideas. The whole journey through the park was me trying to tone down the corniness. I think Eazy was thinking the same thing I was, which was, “Let’s not do everything they do in every rap video right now, let’s do something different.” I liked that he had ideas, but most of his ideas of what we should do involved jokes. I liked the idea of jokes because I liked the idea of this big, bad scary group NWA being on screen not being big, bad and scary. It became collaborative, but I didn’t want it to become the Three Stooges wander around L.A. With Eazy and Ren, it was just idea after idea, which would have been cool if they had these ideas a week before we shot, rather than in the middle of the day we were shooting.
Looking at the video now, how do you feel about it?
It’s as corny as possible, but it was kind of intended to be as corny as possible. Most of it was shot at MacArthur Park in L.A., but there’s this shot where Eazy is rapping on top of this moving car and he’s rapping at this cop car that’s driving next to him. That cop pulled us over right after that shot. We didn’t have permits. He was threatening to take us all to jail.
How did you get out of it?
I just smooth talked him. There was a lot of smooth talking going on. I was in one car with a camera. We didn’t look like a film production; we looked like a bunch of terrorists downtown. We had a whole line of these low riders, and Eazy got in the one with a sunroof and got up on top. The cop was not happy with us.
You sort of felt bullet proof back in those days, like you could do anything. Now that I’ve done so many of these things, you’ve got to get permits and play by the rules. I think that’s why back then the quality of the videos was all over the place. You’d see really cool interesting things and then you’d see really horrible, banal, derivative things. Now everything is at the same level, not really good and not really bad. Everybody thinks they’re an expert—at the record companies, at the outlets that play them—everybody thinks they know what a music video should be, so they limit what they can be. In those days, they could be anything. If Eazy had said, “I want to ride a giraffe through MacArthur Park,” we would have figured out a way to do it. No record company person would have said, “We don’t want that, we can’t have our artist on a giraffe.” Thank goodness Eazy didn’t say that though.
All the effects stuff in the video, were those techniques you were already working with at the time?
Yeah, this is the pre-digital days. I think the video that Eazy saw that got him interested in me was the Fat Boys video. The Fat Boys video has a part in it where they come jumping through this giant TV screen into this party. It’s an analog effect that looks cheesy now, and he wanted to do something like that. The part in the beginning [of “Eazy-er Said Than Dunn”] where they go from the club and into the park, that’s all green screen. Everything else in there is all old school ADO effects, like when the image repeats itself a bunch of times. There’s a part in there where there are two Eazys on the screen at the same time rapping to each other, and that was his idea. I don’t know why he wanted to have two Eazys, but he wanted to have two. That’s not a particularly hard effect to create. He was into that stuff. I think if it was up to him, the whole video would have been those effects. My feeling at the time was that you have to sprinkle those throughout, if you do too much it’s like putting too much spice in the soup.
What else do remember from that shoot?
One thing I forgot until I started watching it just now was that one of my best friends from film school is Jay Roach, who directed Austin Powers and Meet the Parents and a ton of stuff. Now he’s one of the biggest guys in L.A. On this shoot, he was the B cameraman in MacArthur Park. He wasn’t Jay Roach the famous director yet, he was looking for work, and I called him and said, “Look, I could use another camera.” He was wandering around MacArthur Park shooting Eazy, getting ordered around by Eazy’s underlings. Jay Roach made $250 to work for the day.
I also remember that when we were down at MacArthur Park at one point Eazy and Ren pointed to this guy who was a ways off, a big, tall skinny guy. He looked like a kid really. They said, “See that kid, he’s going to be huge, he’s going to be gigantic.” And unless I’m hallucinating about this, that was Snoop. I said, “Bring him over, let’s get him in.” And they were like, “Nah man, he’s too shy.” But he was hanging around the perimeter, not being in the shot, being behind the camera.
Why do you think you didn’t work with NWA again?
Because that was Eazy’s record. For whatever the internal reasons are, when you work with an artist who is part of a band, when he goes back to doing videos with the band, you usually don’t get the call because the band thinks you’ll play favorites—now I’m Eazy’s guy because I made Eazy’s video. [In “Eazy-er Said Than Dunn”] I’m featuring him in every shot because that’s what I’m supposed to do. I’m sure Dre and the rest of them were like, “Why’d I even show up?” So I never got another call from them, but I ended up making like another 200 videos, so it’s all right. I made plenty.
When I think back on this video, it was really driven by the artist. If anybody wants to blame me, they can blame me. It’s a creature of its time and it’s a creature of what Eazy was trying to do. We didn’t have this conversation overtly, but the sense I got was that he was trying to differentiate himself from straight ahead NWA stuff and all the stuff that was happening in the rap world. It was all such in your face “I’m the baddest guy on the planet” stuff, and even though that was what he’s rapping, he was a really playful kid at the time. I don’t think his main interest was threatening everybody. He had a smile there, too. I think that gets reflected in the video, as dated and old school as it looks.