I'm not one to label just anybody as a "visionary genius". But in the case of director and photographer Phil Mucci, I think this description is an understatement.
Phil arrived in New York City with no more than $800 and a photography degree from Syracuse University. Starting out as a freelance photo-assistant, he quickly rose to the ranks of an award-winning photographer specializing in shooting music, celebrity and fashion. In 2005 Phil took his craft to the next level – filmmaking. He shot his first film around this time, a horror short titled "The Listening Dead". It was named "Best Horror Short of 2007" by Rue Morgue Magazine, and it's still playing festivals around the world. His music video for Huntress' "Zenith" is currently up for a Revolver Golden Gods Award. You can vote for it here.
I was very lucky to be able to talk to Phil about his experience as a filmmaker, and about some of the exciting projects he has in the works! You can read more about Phil Mucci on his website. From here on in I'll let Phil do the talking...
HMS: What first attracted you to photography? Were there any photographers, or artists of any kind for that matter, that influenced you in your early years as an artist?
Phil Mucci: The funny thing is – I actually wasn’t drawn to photography first. In high school I was a straight-A student, obsessed with drawing, painting, writing and girls, of course. As a total nerd, I tried to blend in by partying with the “cool” kids, since that’s who all the pretty girls hung out with, and it turned out I liked to party! My plan when I got out was to attend NYU Film School in NYC, but when my parents discovered I was partying and smoking weed, they refused to allow it, since NYU was right on Washington Square Park “where all the drug dealers are”. Since I was a good student, my parents offered to cover my college tuition, with the understanding that I’d pay them back for the last two years. Of course, this was an amazing deal, so I couldn’t really turn it down. So I went to Syracuse University, to the Newhouse School of Public Communications to study “writing for radio, television, and film”.
When I got to SU, I immediately signed up for the only two undergraduate creative writing workshop courses they offered. They were highly competitive to get into, but I did both my freshman year. They were some of the best courses I ever took – not courses at all, but literally workshops where everyone’s writing was discussed and analyzed with the professors, who were published authors, Douglas Unger and Tobias Wolfe. I loved it. But at the end of both semesters, both professors told me that I could already write, so I should reconsider “studying” writing for media as a major since, in their opinion, it tended to constrict writers by making them work within established rules and formats that calcified creativity and took years to “unlearn”. I took their advice to heart, and having always been interested in photography as a medium, and seeing it as a skill I’d need to master to make films, I switched my major to photo-illustration. What I didn’t realize at the time was that it was actually a euphemism for “advertising photography”!
As far as influences go, I didn’t really know any photographers by name at that point. My main influences were filmmakers. Like so many people my age, Star Wars was a huge influence – it floored me as a kid – and that, more than any other single thing, really shaped my creative path in life. To this day, I vividly remember seeing “written and directed by George Lucas” at the end of Star Wars and thinking “that’s what I wanna do!” In my teens I became obsessed with other directors like Sam Raimi, The Coen Brothers, Paul Verhoeven, David Lynch, Ken Russell and Alex Cox, who were doing some amazing stuff.
HMS: Was filmmaking always the ultimate goal when you started out as a photographer?
Phil Mucci: Totally. But once I started studying photography, I really got into it. I understood that photography and film were all about recording light as it revealed subjects in “reality”, but that the nature of that light could effect our perceptions of that subject. I found this endlessly fascinating, so I spent literally years honing my craft, first in school, then working for other photographers. Several well known photographers had made the move from stills to music videos, so I figured it was just a matter of time. I soon realized that it would take years to develop a name for myself to the point where I could make that move, so the plan became to make enough money as a photographer to be able to finance my own short film at some point. It took a lot longer than I expected – over 10 years! – but I finally did it with my first short film, The Listening Dead, which went on to play film festivals all over the world. After that, there was no turning back.
HMS: Give us an idea of how you initiate the creative process when taking on a music video like “Fertile Green”, “Zenith” or “All Those Delicate Cuts”. Is it primarily just you and the band hashing out the concept and script before you delve into the storyboarding and principal photography?
Phil Mucci: It’s different for each project, but it always starts with the song, obviously, and the impressions I get from the pace, transitions, and overall tone. Then the band will tell me what they’re looking for, what the song means to them, etc., and I let that sink in for a while. Once I have a concept I like that I think fits, we usually get on the phone and go over it, then I write it all down in a minimal treatment so everyone has an idea of where we’re headed, and so the project can be budgeted. But, to be clear, it wasn’t always like this. I’m now in a position as a director that I would have envied just a few years ago.
Typically with music videos, especially when you’re starting out, you’re just one of many directors competing for the job. You don’t get to talk to the band at all before you start writing. The label sends out a “brief” which describes what they’re looking for, what budget they have, and when they need stuff by. The directors are then left up to their own devices to decipher the brief, and not only come up with a cool idea, but present it in a way that gets the attention of people you’ve never met or spoken to before. And a good treatment isn’t just a written idea – it has illustrations and often video as well, so they can literally take days to complete – none of which you get paid for doing, by the way. It’s honestly a miserable, thankless process, and in hindsight, one of the worst ways to get a good video made. The bulk of the videos out there are done this way, and that’s why most of them seem like commercials for the band, not individual pieces of unique artwork or “films”.
I haven’t actually competed for a music video in that way for two years now. And honestly, if a label approaches me for a treatment to “maybe” hire me for a project, I tend to pass on it. I just don’t have time to do all that work for free anymore. Luckily I’ve established enough of a name for myself that bands come to me directly, and we get to establish an understanding before any ideas are discussed. This is crucial, I think, because bands don’t generally understand the limitations of time and budget in video production, so by working directly with me at the outset, they get the most bang for the buck.
Some projects come with a real story already in place – like Stone Sour’s “Do Me A Favor”, in which case my job is to condense the material to fit into 5 minutes or less. But I much prefer the gigs that allow me more creative freedom, within the bounds of the material. High on Fire is a good example of a hybrid; there was an album concept that Matt Pike had, and the song “Fertile Green” was about a specific scene in the overall story, but it wasn’t enough to fill out the video, so I added a lot of my own ideas to help tell a more complete story within the context of the piece. “Creative freedom” sounds like an absolute, but for me it always seems to work best within certain boundaries, so you can focus your ideas around a single purpose, rather than just throwing whatever comes to mind into the mix.
HMS: I love that you use a lot of practical effects and techniques in your work like miniatures, stop-motion animation, real props and costumes and projecting patterns onto the actors to name a few. It must be such a labor-intensive affair. Do you work with a large crew?
Phil Mucci: Thanks! I don’t, actually. My crew is very small – bare bones, really. The bulk of my budget goes to the actual principal photography – usually one or two days with the actors and/or band. Bory Tan has been my costume designer for all my recent videos, and she goes the extra mile for us every time. Same goes for Christina Guerra, my makeup artist. But almost all of those practical FX are shot later, usually in my small apartment! Lately I’ve been able to start hiring other artists to help me with certain aspects of the visual FX, which has been great. Chris Speed has been building models and miniatures for my last few projects – most notably the flying saucer in Huntress’s “Zenith” video – and he’s amazing. On Das Muerte I was able to get renowned horror illustrator Nick “the Hat” Gucker to contribute the final “money shot” of the skinned G-Man. But most of the psychedelic stuff, atmospherics, and background photography is done by me, often with the help of my executive producer, lead actor and brother-in-arms, Ian Mackay. And it IS very labor intensive – that’s one of the reasons my videos take so long to complete. But there’s no way to fake the kind of results you get when you do that sort of stuff. I have a real love for the craft of filmmaking – both old and new – and I’m drawn to the look of anything that feels “handmade”. To me it adds a level of artistry to whatever you’re doing. It’s really an outmoded way of thinking, though; everything nowadays works so hard to look “realistic” that it loses a lot of style. I think one of the reasons people respond so much to Wes Anderson’s work on that level is that he’s one of the only prominent directors utilizing these old techniques in his films nowadays, without any pretense to realism, purely for aesthetic reasons that have nothing to do with budget.
HMS: Jill Janus of Huntress has been very vocal about how great an experience it was to work with you on the video for “Zenith”, and how you both had a creative connection. Tell us a bit about that project and how you and Huntress worked together to create the concept.
Phil Mucci: Man, Jill has been so amazing – so supportive and such an incredible ally. A lot of people as driven as Jill totally suck, but she’s such an exception. I’ve worked in the music industry for 15 years, and I’ve never met anyone like her. She’s a singular force of nature. We connected on an artistic level before we even met. After I’d seen the Eight of Swords video, I asked my agent to reach out to them, but their label didn’t seem that interested. Then a few months later, Jill and her manager Jackie Kajzer contacted me by email to tell me how much they loved my High on Fire video. It’s like it was meant to happen.
I spoke to Jill and Blake on the phone, and they didn’t even know which song they wanted a video for, since Starbound Beast hadn’t even been recorded yet. They just knew they wanted to work with me. It was the first time I’d been approached to make a video so early in the process, so obviously I got a boner. People like Jill really know how to get the best out of their collaborators. Part of it is respect, but the most important things are communication and generosity. You need to inspire your collaborator with your ideas, but allow them to take them and run with them. Jill sent me all the lyrics she’d written for Starbound Beast first, which I studied and pulled some ideas from. Once they had rough mixes on the songs, “Zenith” was chosen for the video, so Jill and I talked through what the song meant to her and how we could bring it to life. I took some characters from other songs on the album and came up with a rough treatment and illustrations of the main highlights: the Starbound Beast, the Earthbound Colossus, Nova Witches, and the flying saucers. It was intentionally loose, as I wanted to allow some room for the video to grow organically from whatever material we shot. We knew we didn’t want to tell a rigid narrative – we all agreed we wanted something that kept pace with the track and rewarded viewers more and more as it went along.
After the shoot, Huntress went on tour and I was left to my own devices. I volunteered to watch Jill’s new puppy while they were gone, so Annie kept an eye on me while I worked on Zenith in post. Little did I realize, she was Jill’s familiar! I got more inspired as I worked on the project, and added a lot of the crazier moments in the climax. When Jill and Blake finally saw it, they flipped out over that stuff the most, which was awesome, since I was really trying to surprise them and blow them away. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand – you get way better work out of artists if you let them do their thing.
HMS: I was thrilled to hear that you are currently directing a video for Monster Magnet (“The Duke” from their album Last Patrol). They’ve been one of my favorite bands since their debut album “Spine Of God”. What has it been like collaborating with Dave Wyndorf?
Phil Mucci: I feel so lucky – Dave is another guy who just gets it. He’s been incredible – seriously, a really great collaborator – hilarious, super smart, very engaged, remarkably well versed in history, and just steeped in the art of pop culture. I was so psyched when I got the email from his manager, Steve Davis. Monster Magnet had always been one of those bands that I fantasized about working with – you know, the sort of “wouldn’t it be cool if…” kinda things. And I really responded on a personal level to the new album, Last Patrol; to me it was about the journey we’re all on, and the wisdom that comes at a price, so I was thrilled beyond words to be a part of it.
I got a great email from Dave, which I saved; it was an explanation of the track “The Duke”, as well as a virtual super-nova of ideas blasting off of it in every direction. It had everything from dinosaurs to World War II, witchcraft, extraterrestrials, Satan, you name it. He took the lid off his brain and showed me how his unique circuitry linked all these concepts together. It was sick! It took me a while to absorb it all and figure out a way to translate those ideas into a narrative. When I finally got on the phone with Dave to discuss it, he was so cool. He just kept saying “it’s your film” – which is pretty much the greatest thing you could ever hear as a director. I have no illusions about the perceived disposability of music videos these days, but I couldn’t maintain my sanity if I looked at them the same way. To me, they ARE films – especially now that I’ve reached a level where people like Dave are coming to me for my ideas, not just for my salesmanship. I told him how I wanted to make a real sci-fi epic out of the “The Duke”, one that took aim at some of the political and cultural issues he addressed on the album. We talked for over an hour – not just about the video, but about civilization, horror movies, the military industrial complex, the nature of the universe – you name it! I get a sense he’s like that with everyone, but it was a great conversation – and one that proved to me what a thoughtful and confident artist he was, and how much he respected my work. It was really inspiring, which I’m sure was Dave’s plan, because it motivated me to pull out all the stops on “The Duke”.
HMS: Give us an example of something that’s really inspiring you right now, whether it’s a technique or the work of another artist, anything really. What’s something that you’ve seen recently that’s made you think “Yes! I could do or use something like that in one of my pieces…”
Phil Mucci: I’m really fascinated by the whole apocalyptic zeitgeist going on right now. Not so much the zombie apocalypse trend, though I do think there’s some great allegorical stuff to be mined there, but more the sort of inherent death-wish of mankind overall. It’s definitely in the air. Technological progress has happened so fast that our societies haven’t evolved enough to fully grasp it, so we cherry-pick from science, which is proof of our short-sightedness. We love science when it gives us new iPhones or flies us to London, but we ignore science when it tells us we’re dooming ourselves to certain extinction. We’re more connected now than ever, but we use that ability to exploit each other rather than to find common ground. A truly global corporate governance is emerging that serves the rapacious greed of a few, at the cost of everyone else. I’m a humanist and optimist at heart, but there are historical precedents of what happens to societies that foster the kind of gross inequality we’ve got going on right now. They collapse. Only this time, we’re going to take a huge part of the eco-system with us. It’s very easy to be cynical, but being a heavy metal fan, I find all of this inevitable doom utterly inspiring.
Lately I’ve been watching a lot of stuff from the Cold War era about nuclear catastrophe. It’s remarkable how there’s even more countries with nukes now, yet the threat of nuclear devastation is seldom discussed anymore. One film that really fired me up was Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970). It’s a ballsy, take no prisoners look at something we’re actually approaching – artificial intelligence – and how it’s employed to eliminate the threat of human error in a world where thousands of nuclear weapons are poised to end mankind. It also manages to touch on the importance of privacy in a functioning democracy, with a very prescient look at how unlimited surveillance destroys freedom and turns republics into regimes. After the NSA revelations, I was shocked by the clueless “what do I care? I’m not doing anything wrong” response. This film takes a huge steaming dump on that infantile attitude.
HMS: Both your short horror films were very well received, and deservedly so. Are there any other films or personal projects in the works. Plans for a feature-length film perhaps?
Phil Mucci: I actually came out to LA to direct my first feature film after the success of my two shorts. But that was back in 2008, just when the recession hit, so that project became the first of five that I developed that never saw the light of day. And you don’t get paid a dime to develop feature films, at least not at my level. Directing music videos was the result of me scrambling to find paying work as a director after all the people I’d met in the film biz – including my manager and agent – lost their jobs in the recession. Doing the work that I do now is very fulfilling creatively, but financially it’s a break even situation. Taking time out to do a film isn’t really in the cards yet, but we’ve definitely got plans, and more than one potential project in early stages of development. But writing takes time, and so do my video projects – literally 14 hrs a day, 7 days a week – so it will be a while before I can afford to take the time off to do it. But rest assured that when I do, it will definitely be the type of movie HMS will want to cover!
HMS: Thank you Phil for taking the time to answer questions for Horror Metal Sounds. We’re honored to showcase your incredible body of work! Click on the link below to see more of Phil's work.
Click here to enter the mind of Phil Mucci...
Richard Leggatt, HMS
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