Emil Nava Talks Directing Eminem & Ed Sheeran's 'River' Video, a 'Once in a Lifetime' Experience
"It was definitely the craziest and most amazing shoot of my life."
Emil Nava's unorthodox directing style has him on a journey to stray away from the traditional music video fans are used to seeing. Last year, the 32-year-old received the life-changing call that he would have the opportunity to write an idea for the video to Eminem and Ed Sheeran's heartbreaking Revival standout, "River."
After shooting Sheeran in the beautiful countryside of his hometown, it was time to pack up for two strenuous days in Los Angeles to finally meet up with Em and get to work shortly after Christmas. "The main thing [Eminem and Ed Sheeran] were asking for was being unique," says Nava over the phone. "What ended up happening was the first idea I pitched really. I thought it would be amazing to look at a song as a story and a narrative."
Emil employs a much different strategy than most directors, working off of an emotion rather than sticking strictly to a storyboard. "I left school when I was 16 and started making tea and coffee on video sets," explains the soon-to-be father. "Everything I've ever learned has always been on an emotion and a feeling."
Billboard caught up with the rising director to get his thoughts on the rewarding experience of teaming up with a hip-hop legend, turning the song's heavy subject matter into a multi-layered documentary-styled visual, changing the medium of standard music videos and everything behind the scenes of the "River" video shoot, which eventually saw a Valentine's Day (Feb. 14) release.
What was the creative process behind the "River" video coming together with Eminem and Ed Sheeran?
It was a really exciting process; I've worked with Ed Sheeran many times. I think I've done over ten videos with Ed. Eminem is just someone I've wanted to work with my whole career. When I got the call of possibly writing an idea [for the video] it was very exciting.
I think the song was an amazing story and felt like a real narrative. With my approach I guess I've never really felt like I've seen a documentary about a song before and that's what it became.
Did Eminem have an idea of what he already wanted or you had total creative control?
[Eminem and Sheeran] were really open to ideas. They wanted it to be something that felt really unique. It's always tough when you're coming up with a video for an artist that has such a long legacy of amazing videos. It's like you have so many things you can't do, because Em has done some notable videos that have gone down in history.
The main thing they were asking for was being unique. What ended up happening was the first idea I pitched really. I thought it would be amazing to look at a song as a story and a narrative.
How much input did Eminem have throughout the creative process?
[Eminem] had a lot of input. It was a real collaboration. We wanted to make sure that we told the story of the song in the right way. There was no point where we tried to do anything visually that had no reason. We wanted everything to have a meaning and point to the narrative. We spoke a lot about the different formats and shot on mobile phones, webcams and other cameras.
Another we discussed was having these moments in stunning slow motion so that even in the middle of these frenetic point-of-view shots we had these iconic and surreal hyper-slow motion shots. We wanted to create emotions with the visuals, as well as in the documentary style.
How intense was filming the abortion scene between Eminem and the woman where you made use of a mirror camera angle?
That was a part of the film that really developed on the shoot. Actually, that was all improvised. We discussed the scene in full and we knew what the narrative was and we were very much trying to show the story in a different way. That moment is supposed to be her on the phone FaceTiming her friends and then Eminem walks in and she drops the phone and it gets caught against the covers. It's like you're not meant to be watching it.
What was the time frame and location of getting the shoot done?
It was a very quick turnaround, as with all music videos. I was in London over Christmas, we got the idea together and I shot Ed in his hometown of Suffolk. He asked if we could shoot out there, which I've done before, and it's amazing -- the location is right in this English countryside. So we shot the first day out there.
Then we headed back to Los Angeles and we shot two days [there]. It was a real journey because it wasn't like we were all there quickly shooting. We really had time to delve into the story. I feel like you can't shoot that stuff quick because you have to develop the narrative.
So it was your idea to use the diary and video confessional style of recording in the video?
Yeah, we wanted to make it feel like a documentary and we were discussing the subject matter of the song. We spoke about putting a unique perspective on the story. I asked if we could do these interviews that were really me doing one with Ed, one with Em and one with the female actress.
There was lots of different things we spoke about around the song and I think this was another way to have a point of view rather than the traditional music video style that we see time and time again. I kind of wanted to undo the music video visuals.
You're saying this was something new for you?
Yeah, definitely. In my work recently I've been exploring this style where I'm trying to kind of break the norm of the visuals and scratch the surface of visuals. I'm a big fan of multi-format and viewing things in different ways. I feel like especially with the way visuals are with the world these days, everything is viewed on a different platform and different camera. I love that approach.
Was it tough to find a visual concept that matched the song's heavy subject matter?
One thing I really want to do with the visual was have the viewer feel the way I felt when listening to the song. It's such a powerful song. I wanted a video that really pushed that emotion and didn't work against it. I just wanted to push the emotional feeling the song had into the visual.
What did you want to convey with the final scene when Eminem is sitting down saying, "What this song means to me is something I felt that I needed to get off my chest."
That felt like a moment in the in the video where he is kind of performing up on the wall and she's watching him. I think the concept in the film at that point she is watching him almost deliver the song to her. It's almost like she is standing in this pouring rain and watching this song being delivered. At that point in the interview session she felt like it kind of stopped that visual and she was watching the song unfold for her.
I know you don't use a storyboard and have an unorthodox style of directing, was that the case here as well?
Yeah, that is actually. I love to feel -- I never went to film school. I left school when I was 16 and started making tea and coffee on video sets. Everything I've ever learned has always been on an emotion and a feeling. I can only really work like that.
There has always been crazy shoots because I have an idea or insane shot list that I write as I'm joking on the shoot and this shot list was 18 pages, like a book. I kind of write down what I would love to get, but the problem is I don't want to push an artist into a place. I want to be on the set and be like, "This is what I was thinking, what were you thinking?"
I want it to be like an open conversation on set so it feels like were making it together. It's Eminem's song and I want to do it justice. Sometimes with a storyboard you lock yourself in to such a precise way of working. I think the most magic that could ever come out of a shoot are those impromptu moments where you are like, "F--k it let's try that." Suddenly, that's the magic.
I definitely think Eminem's had enough of me now. [Laughs] On the shoots I can be very alive. We had a lot going on. We built that whole set and it was raining in that room. Everything was real and we didn't have any CGI. It was one-hundred percent in camera. It was definitely the craziest and most amazing shoot of my life, for sure. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Have you gone back and watched the "River" video yet?
I feel like I watched it so many times as a crazy man in the edits. I worked with Eminem a lot on edit notes. It was a big edit because we were breaking the music a lot. I watched it the day it came out on YouTube because I'm always nervous it's not going to look right. It's great it has gone out to the world and it feels like it's going over well.
What is something you took from crafting the "River" video that you plan to use going forward?
I think just constantly trying to change the medium of music videos. I love that Eminem gave me the opportunity to make something that felt bigger than the music video. It felt like it was multi-layered and I came out of it with much more than I came out from some other music videos I've done. I feel like I got more than the music and visuals. It just felt like some real storytelling and music mixed together, which I just loved.