Zev Deans

How Fantasy, Escapism and Expressionist Visuals Make Room for Social Commentary

Director Zev Deans started out making music videos for underground metal bands like Portal, Pallbearer and Liturgy. His rise to a much larger viewership and an affiliation with the Loma Vista label began when he started working with the popular Swedish hard-rock band Ghost, for whom he has made four videos: ”From the Pinnacle to the Pit,” “He Is,” “Square Hammer” and the brand-new “Dance Macabre.”

“Dance Macabre” puts a horror-movie spin on a fantasy of getting invited to an exclusive, sexy party; admission might involve being bitten by vampires, but its two male guests have a great time anyway. Both “Dance Macabre” and his much gorier visual for rapper Denzel Curry’s “Vengeance” (featuring JPEGMAFIA and ZillaKami) show how much Deans is influenced by horror films, but German Expressionist cinema and even avant-garde animation are also part of his heritage.

For St. Vincent’s “Fast Slow Disco,” he went in a different direction, illustrating the song’s title concept by casting singer Annie Clark as the only women at a leather bar where gay men are ecstatically dancing and exploring each other’s bodies. His best video to date may be Curry’s “Clout Cobain,” which casts the rapper as a clown — controlled by a ringmaster pulling money out of his pockets — performing for an apathetic audience of teenagers with facial tattoos lining up to get served Xanax pills and cups of codeine cough syrup. Any resemblance to the present-day music industry and hip-hop scene is purely coincidental.

The video for Denzel Curry’s “Clout Cobain” makes a statement about addiction, exploitation, and the contemporary music industry.

StudioDaily: One thing that “Dance Macabre,” “He Is,” “Clout Cobain” and “Fast Slow Disco” all have in common is that you directed large crowds. How do you go about directing crowds of extras? In “Clout Cobain” and “He Is,” was everyone in on the joke, so to speak?

Zev Deans: A lot of yelling! There was a prop gun on the set for “Clout Cobain,” so I just held it in my hand while I yelled, which was very effective, actually. For a lot of those videos, it was a fan-based crowd. We reached out to fans, which is how we got so many people there for free. They already buy into the tone we were trying to set, so they had fun getting face tattoos and playing along. You watch those videos and they’re really giving a lot of authentic performances. In “Clout Cobain” and “He Is,” especially, they’re perfect. They wouldn’t have been as good had we hired a bunch of extras. They were dedicated, got the vibe and got into it. “He Is” is a satire about fandom, cults and religion — worship of an idol. For me, that video is almost a satire on Ghost fans. It was easy for them to play themselves.

To me, there’s a kind of sacramental quality to the man handing kids pills and lean [a mix of cough syrup and Sprite] in “Clout Cobain.” As you were getting at, it’s about celebrity as a false idol. I was puzzled by the hot dogs he also gives out. What exactly are they supposed to mean?

I wish I’d thought of the hot dogs. That was the art director. We just had hot dogs available. They just sprinkled Xanax on the hot dogs. There was no plan to do that when we started shooting. It just seemed odd. Should I make it sound like I planned it?

Well, I was thinking, “Are you saying junk food is akin to drugs?”

That’s a great way to look at it, but no. It’s a concession stand at a circus. And the circus is a metaphor. So you have this obsession in the rap world now with prescription drugs. They’re a heavily used symbol in hip-hop and pop culture. So putting fans in a trance state makes sense.

All three artists you’ve worked with on Loma Vista are interested in playing around with characters instead of standing on-stage with a guitar and singing songs about their personal lives.

St. Vincent has a character for each album. Denzel plays around with persona. Clout Cobain is a character. Then he transforms into the demon version of himself, which is called Zeltron, when he leaves the body of Clout Cobain. Again, he has these set characters in his lexicon. All Ghost do is play with characters. Their singer plays a new pope every album, or a cardinal on the new one. Visually, they all pay a lot more attention to the notion of theater than most rock musicians or rappers.

There was a quote from Ghost singer Tobias Forge that I like: “I don’t feel very powerful as Tobias Forge, but I feel a lot more powerful as the leader of Ghost.”

That’s what happens when you put a mask on. You can do things you wouldn’t do if you had to be judged as yourself. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free pass to have this other persona — which allows us to get into a lot more trouble with our videos than we would otherwise, because there’s more room for fantasy and escapism.

Denzel Curry’s “Vengeance” video pays homage to the films of Japanese director Takashi Miike and gives Manhattan’s Chinatown a nightmarish new look.

The video for “Clout Cobain” uses fantasy and the clown persona to say something very serious about addiction, the music industry and artists’ lack of control over their own culture. “Vengeance” picks up where it leaves off, but heads towards cartoonishly gory imagery. There seems to be a specific reference to [prolific Japanese director] Takashi Miike’s Audition.

[Miike’s] Ichi the Killer as well. Denzel’s facial scars are a complete remake of Ichi’s. That video was just us having fun. Mark Maturah is Denzel’s manager. He’s a great guy. He said “We’re trying to shoot this down-and-dirty performance video of three rappers in the mean streets of New York.” I thought “OK, we just did ‘Clout Cobain.’ His fans are gonna want narrative, something close to the caliber of that.” Denzel and I just thought about how the song is called “Vengeance,” how we could tie it into that and the theme of the previous video. We put it together very quickly. I love Chinatown. I wanted to have these guys explore it and create this demon realm. We first discussed the possibility of a video on a Tuesday and we shot it the next Monday. There was little time to plan anything.

One thing I liked about it is that even though Denzel lives in Miami and JPEGMAFIA is from Baltimore, it’s a very New York video. A lot of parts of Chinatown are maze-like. There are many restaurants there with chickens and ducks on hooks in their windows. You just put human hands there instead. Even though it’s a nightmarish fantasy, it still captures the neighborhood’s atmosphere.

ZillaKami actually lives in Chinatown, although I didn’t know that at first. I love Chinatown. I pride myself on not having to go into Manhattan ever, unless I want to, but that’s the only place there I really love. I also love the Chinatown in Flushing, Queens. “Vengeance” has a dirty but still futuristic atmosphere. I wanted to take the places that do exist in Chinatown but turn them on their perverse, grotesque heads. The acupuncture studio is a torture chamber. The butcher shop is for human meat. It just looks beautiful, with the neon lights and the Enter the Void-style color correction we did on it.

Ghost’s song “Dance Macabre” sounds like ’80s arena rock. The video feels like Flashdance done as a horror movie. Were you taking your visual cues from the feel of the music?

“Dance Macabre” was an interesting story. [The original treatment] didn’t involve dance at all, but it was about these two guys who want to go to a party. They get in, and they discover this sexual, Satanic, almost Illuminati party. So the framework was in place almost before I touched it. Tobias and I talked about how we wanted to approach it. We agreed that we wanted this Top of the Pops dance number feel to it. It’s a catchy, fun song called “Dance Macabre,” so there should be dancing in it. We just made the idea ours.

Silent cinema, particularly German Expressionism, is a touchstone for your work, especially Ghost’s “From the Pinnacle to the Pit” and “Square Hammer” and Portal’s “Curtain.” What attracts you to that period?

Well, Fritz Lang is just amazing, in terms of political commentary and a sort of surrealist futurism. He understood the future in terms of class, economy, technology and the problems that can exist with it and then he fused it all with the occult. There’s so much going on in those films. The other thing, for me, is that they’re all handmade. There’s something in each shot which encapsulates what was going on at the time in art, like Dada or Brutalism, but he was able to put it in a political context without it ever feeling heavy-handed. Aesthetically and conceptually, there’s so much there I wanted to play with, with Ghost going in a more art-deco direction. With Portal, it was a mix of [Georges] Méliès and the Brothers Quay. I was a visual artist before I was a filmmaker. I love making everything by hand. My favorite films are from an era when everything was analog. I still consider Alien the scariest movie ever made. Whether they know it or not, there’s something deeply impactful on a subconscious level that happens when the viewer knows something is made by hand, even if its poorly done. There’s an endearing warmth to it. I haven’t done handmade miniatures in a while; I’ve been dealing exclusively with people on location, but I know I’ll eventually return to the style of those earlier videos.

Have you shot anything on film?

I would love to, but it’s very expensive. Considering what we can do now digitally, I don’t know why I would do it. But I’d like to try it for my first feature.

So you plan to make a narrative feature?

I have a stack of about 17 half-written scripts. Yes, many. I have one in mind I would do first. None of the scripts are completed. Among other projects, I’m basically Loma Vista’s bitch, whether I’m doing music videos, lyric videos or other projects, so it is hard to make the time to write at the moment. But features are where I want to head.

Zev Deans directed the short film “Biotic” as a tie-in to the marketing campaign promoting last year’s Alien: Covenant.

What was the first project where you felt like you suddenly made a major leap?

The Alien thing [Deans made a xenomorph-themed short film, “Biotic,” in conjunction with Fox’s promotion of Alien: Covenant last year] was the first time I had a real crew. I showed up on set, and they’d already been working for hours. I was supposed to just sit down in front of a monitor and make decisions. They asked me what coffee I wanted, and I felt like a king. It was a very surreal experience for me. I didn’t feel comfortable. I’m used to producing everything myself, sending all the emails, driving around and picking up everything, losing sleep the night before because I keep remembering details, a general restlessness. But now I’ve grown to like this new paradigm of just being a director and editor.

What ideas do you have for features?

The one I can talk about is a satire of all the Dracula movies that have ever been made, in the style of [1970s Japanese horror classic] Hausu. I’ve visited Transylvania the last two summers in a row for a film festival and fell in love with it. There’s a burgeoning film community in Romania right now, doing a lot of really exciting work. I want to shoot interiors in Detroit, exteriors in Romania and use a lot of miniatures. It’s called Dracula, Fuck You. That’s all I’d like to say about that at the moment. In development, I’ve got scary ones, politically driven ones, funny ones. As a director, I don’t want to stay in one genre.

Earlier, I brought up my interpretation of the hot dogs in “Clout Cobain.” There’s a woman on YouTube who has made two videos about how it’s part of the Satanic Freemason Illuminati conspiracy. Do you often get people coming up with interpretations you didn’t intend?

All the time, and I love it. The Satanic one was the best by far.

How’d you find out about that one?

First off, I was surprised by the reception “Clout Cobain” got. He’s a great rapper, but he was very unknown before that video. I was aware of reaction videos and had seen a few in the past. In the metal community, they’re not as rampant. The day that “Clout Cobain” came out, there were 30 reaction videos in 24 hours. I watched every single one. It was really exciting to me. When I watched the Satanic one, it was like Christmas came early. I’ve infused occult imagery and conspiratorial symbology in my videos, but I did nothing like that in this video. To see someone take that video and read it that way when it had nothing to do with it was hilarious to me. That was a joy to watch. The reaction videos were wonderful because I try to tell a story and give it a deeper meaning. I’m always trying to enrich these projects and maybe encourage people to see the films that influenced me. In metal, it seems like no one picked up on this and people just want to hear the song and half the time they’re disappointed it’s not just a video of the band playing in a warehouse. When the Denzel Curry video came out, everyone was obsessed with what it was about and they were all getting into the subtext. They were all putting their own interpretations out and adding things I hadn’t thought of.

For years now, there hasn’t been much substance to mainstream hip-hop. Denzel comes along and raps about actual problems and comments on things that are happening, like addiction and rappers dying of prescription drug overdoses. It’s exciting to see the fans pick up on that. But the most exciting thing was that Christian woman getting completely riled up about something that didn’t even have to do with what she was looking for. The Freemason thing is funny to me because at its core, it’s just a bunch of harmless old men. And this desperate notion that people in power actually have a plan and know what they’re doing on this grand collaborative scale — it’s all reaching.

At their smartest, I think that’s why people believe in conspiracy theories about the Illuminati. But they should just cut out the middleman and say capitalism and powerful politicians run the world. Barbara Bush has no connection to Aleister Crowley [as is alleged in the “Clout Cobain is Satanic” video]. I also found it hilarious when she cut from the circular spiral on the ringmaster’s necklace in your video to a photo of Anton LaVey in his house, probably in the late ’60s, with a circular spiral high on the wall behind him, like that means anything.

All press is good press. It’s a gift. Someone’s worried about my work, and they’re telling other people to be worried about it, and then I get more views, so it’s a perfect system.

The video for “He Is” by Ghost compares organized religion and music fandom.

For me, there’s a connection between “Clout Cobain” and “He Is” in that they’re both about celebrity as a form of control. They both depict forms of communion: drugs in “Clout Cobain,” literal wafers in “He Is.” They’re completely different styles of music, but it’s similar imagery.

The “He Is” video is a satire of organized religion, but a satire of Ghost fans too. “Clout Cobain” is a satire of the music industry, but also fans. So they’re both kinda about the same thing, the same relationship between the artist and audience. With the drugs, tattoos and the gyrating towards the audience, the artist is this golden calf who is irrationally worshipped. In both videos, it’s the same exact subject matter. I never thought of them as a pair, so thank you for connecting them. They’re both about the frenzy and pitfalls of worship, whether in religion or pop culture.

The “Clout Cobain” video also reminds me of the video for The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face.” He performs at the beginning of the song, and the audience is numb, but then he catches on fire and the audience gets very enthusiastic. Obviously, it’s a reference to Michael Jackson and the song sounds a lot like Jackson, but it’s akin to the way the audience in “Clout Cobain” finally reacts when Curry shoots himself.

My one regret with that video is that at the end, I didn’t have someone take a picture of Denzel’s dead body with their phone. The whole time you have this dynamic where he’s being forced to perform as a spectacle. The audience is not listening to his message, they’re staring at his shoes.

At the same time, the video didn’t succeed in making “Clout Cobain” a top 40 hit, but you’ve made four videos for Ghost, who have two top 10 albums and have gotten to #1 on American rock radio. So you are a part of what you’re critiquing. Loma Vista is distributed by Universal. You’ve helped make Ghost into stars. How do you feel about that?

The fact that I’m a sociopath with no sense of empathy who thinks I can just do what I want and reap the pleasures that exist in the human realm helps me sleep at night. The consequences are not really my problem.

No, seriously, that’s a great question. I don’t think I’ve had time to process how quickly things have moved in the past two years. I’ve been destitute and broke for the majority of my career. I had a very glamorous art gallery job, but I lost my mind and quit. Then I did odd jobs for eight years. I was used to being poor, and I didn’t direct videos to make money. I started out just making videos for my friends. Now, a lot of people see what I do.

Rather than making a spectacle of gay sexuality, Deans sees the “Fast Slow Disco” video he directed for St. Vincent as a “vision of sincere warmth.”

In terms of being part of the problem, people do a lot of things in this world to make money. It took me a long time to make a living doing what I want to do. What I got lucky with was working with artists like Denzel, who want to say something with the power and platform they’re given. “Clout Cobain” critiques prescription drug abuse, fame, and even the artist himself. To have the opportunity to make this kind of commentary or play with the occult in this kind of campy way with Ghost or do a video that humanizes a very alienated part of the population with St. Vincent — I feel like you forget you’re staring at a bunch of leathered-up bears in “Fast Slow Disco” and it becomes this vision of sincere warmth, beyond any caricature of a marginalized subculture.

It’s a very fun vision of gay male sexuality. Even when people make narrative films about gay men, they tend to be full of angst about coming out and homophobia.

Even viewers who might have felt alienated by that, by the end it’s not exploitative or a spectacle. It’s tender and real. It transcends all the stereotypes you’d think you’d get with “50 gay bears in a club.” The whole point was to show something very honest. So yes, as far as being part of the problem, I’m sure I’ll get there, but right now I’m working with artists who have something to say.