If you’ve been following the stratospheric careers of Migos, Young Thug, or Lil Uzi Vert, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a music video directed by Millicent Hailes. After making her video debut just last year with three Lil Yachty projects, the British director and former fashion photographer has had a very busy 2018, working with some of the biggest stars in hip-hop and building up an impressive roster of collaborators.
Hailes’ videos stand apart from most hip-hop visuals and contemporary pop videos in general – they combine glossy, colorful setpieces with a dark, brooding atmosphere, heavily influenced by gothic horror and campy fantasy. Think Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, but starring Quavo, Takeoff, and Offset; it’s not unusual for the backup dancers in Hailes’ videos to wear horns, or to cast spells, while the artists themselves are shrouded in fog or strapped to a sadistic dentist’s chair.
In an edited and condensed video with Billboard, Hailes discussed her directorial process, her past collaborations, and what it’s like to be an avant garde director within the world’s most popular music genre.
You have a background in fashion photography. How did you make the leap to commercial video work?
It’s a long story, but I think everything I’ve ever done is accidental and unintentional. I went to London College of Fashion and studied styling and photography, so I got a lovely degree doing that. For a while, I was really interested in styling, too, which I now try and make that a big part of the videos.
After graduating, I worked at a place called SHOWstudio, with Nick Knight, for about a year. From there I left, and then started doing photos in London for a bit. My friend Nadia Lee Cohen, she’s an awesome director and photographer, she and I were like, “Fuck, let’s just go to LA one day. Let’s be crazy and do something out of the ordinary.” So we got on a plane, went over to LA and spent about a month there, and we both fell in love with it. Fell in love with the weather and the heat, and being out and about in order to take photos. The natural diffusion in the sky — it’s lovely, much different to shoot photos there than it is in London.
After we both moved to LA, I realized that I don’t really like taking photos — not seriously, you know? I liked doing them with Nadia, and I did a lot of self-portraits and nudes for a while, which was really fun, but I don’t like being told what to do. I found that difficult with the job – I mean, I guess that’s every youngster, really. It was one of those moments where I was like, “These are my nudes! I wanna do my own shit on my own terms!”
And then a commissioner [from a record label, who reaches out to potential video directors] DMed me, and he was like, “Hey! Cool visuals. Do you want to make a music video?” And that’s something I was not familiar with, or that I had never thought about doing. I was like, “Uh, I guess?” You know, typical Millicent. “I guess I’ll just go do that.”
Had you done prior directing work?
No. I didn’t really know what I was saying “yes” to. I was like, “I guess I’ll just try that and see how that goes.” Because I always think, what’s the worst that can happen? If it goes wrong, I maybe make a fool of myself, but then who cares? You’ll never know if you like it or if you’re good at it if you don’t try it. So I was like, “Okay, I guess I’ll try it.”
For me not knowing anything, I think I did okay [on my first video]. And the commissioner said from there, “I wanna work with you again, but I cannot work with you if you have no producer, if you have no rep or anything,” because that was stressful for him. So he introduced me to my agent, and she signed me right away when I met with her, and then she signed me up with a production company that she managed. From there, it’s been a blast. I just fell into it.
The first video of yours that I saw was one of your Lil Yachty videos, “Peek A Boo.”
Yeah, that was straight after that. The same commissioner was like, “Okay, here’s Lil Yachty!” I did three videos in one trip. “Peek A Boo,” “Lady in Yellow,” and “Bring It Back.” But “Peek A Boo” [featuring Migos] is the first one I did, which was terrifying. Here are the most popular fucking rappers in the world at the moment, and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. Like, “Here you go, have fun.”
Did you intend to work mostly with rappers, or was that who you just ended up getting signed with initially?
I think if I was to choose, I would always choose rappers. It’s not necessarily the music I listen to, but I think guys like that are more interested in making weird and exciting and of-the-time videos. They want to be shocking, which is fun for a director. Like, “Oh, can we just set that on fire?” Yes! “Do you mind if we make it fucking ridiculous, if we wear a million chains?” They’ll literally go around with millions of dollars around their neck. Everything is so over-the-top and amazing, and competitive – they’re all trying to outdo each other. For a photographer or a director, or any visual artist, that’s the best kind of person to shoot. Someone that’s willing to go the extra mile.
I think pop videos are so boring nowadays. It’s like pop girls just wanna be overly sexualized and fucking shiny and weird and boring. But rap videos, it’s just more raw, and true of who they are, I suppose. It’s way cooler. I’m so stoked that I’m in that realm. Again, I just fell into it, but I wouldn’t wish to be doing videos for any other genre. I’m confident that this is my niche now.
Some of the videos you’ve done, they’re not even videos I would necessarily associate with hip-hop. Like the video for “Up,” with Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert, there’s very much an Alice in Wonderland vibe to it. Or something out of Pan’s Labyrinth.
Pan’s Labyrinth is one of my favorite films. I love those guys, Thug and Uzi, because they’re just really down to make something different. And I was so excited to have the girls in that video have this cool, crazy styling — make everything a bit evil, I suppose. I do try and bring a little something different, especially with the girls. I want them to feel like they’re taking on different characters.
All of the dancers were super excited. For some of them, I completely took their eyebrows away, and at first they were really upset because they’re not used to that look. But I was like, “Come on, how many fucking times a day are you dancing, and someone’s giving you fake eyelashes and eyebrows? Let’s just maybe try something different.” And then after a bit of resistance, they were fine. They were down with it.
Because you have a background in fashion, do the costume designs come early in the concept? What stage are you planning those?
Yes, very early on. I usually listen to the song once or twice, and then I have my mood board and a little folder, and then I just shove all of these images into the folder that represent the song. From there I come up with the general backbone of the visuals. Then that’s when the styling takes place, no matter if it’s for the artist or the background artists.
It’s always very integrated within the concept, just because it’s so boring to see the same old tired look. You have such a great opportunity to do something really cool, so I almost think, why would we just go back to the basic look we see all the time? With these artists, maybe we can give them something different. Like that one Young Thug video for “Dirty Shoes,” that was really exciting.
The one with all the glass panes and storm clouds.
Yeah, yeah. That one, I was super proud of, with the styling. Young Thug’s stylist, Bobby, he picks out this whole rack of amazing outfits. So I would go in and see what he picked, and pick out some of my favorites, and from there, Thug would be like, “Okay, from what Bobby’s whittled down, and from what you’ve whittled down, this is what I wanna wear.”
When it comes to styling, it’s always nice to see what everybody thinks, and how that would translate with the audience. Because still, for some reason, it’s shocking for people to see Thug in a skirt. So it was really having that conversation like, “I would love you to wear this skirt layered over the trousers, and I think you should do it in the box, because when you’re in the box, you’re more of a visual artist, so why not have you in this outfit there?” It’s trying to be really careful about what you’re doing and where that’s being seen.
The big deal with that is that it was called “Dirty Shoes,” and at the end all we see is this pair of shoes. So I wanted the shoes to be some kind of iconic shoe, and that’s why I went with — and made a very strong case in point to have — his Tabis in there. They are, to me anyway, the most iconic artistic shoe. It has a shit ton of history, and Margiela has made that his signature, and reworked it, and now this is the new season’s ones, so I couldn’t think of anything more fitting to be the shoe. We literally put them on a pedestal in the video. Little details like that, it’s what I get really excited about.
Have you ever had a time where there’s been major pushback from an artist who says, “This is too weird, do we want to go that far?”
All the time. It’s like everything in life — you’re like, “I want to do something crazy,” and then it’s scary, you know? I love all these amazing outfits, but in my life I’ll just wear my jeans and a black hoodie, because I don’t actually want anyone to look at me. So I get it, it’s scary. Sometimes the artist will be like, “Let’s keep it back down, let’s not make the outfit bigger than the artist.” I understand that.
I always want to make the videos bigger and bigger and bigger — like Elton John, you know? I just wish everyone would dress like Elton John. I have to remember that’s not possible sometimes. And that’s okay, because it’s not my video at the end of the day.
What was it like to co-direct the “Ice Tray” video with Quavo from Migos?
It was fun! He was on form that day. He came in earlier than everybody else, than the other Migos, and he sat down in the chair and was like, making a joke, “I’m corporate Quavo today.” I thought that was fucking amazing.
He mapped out that whole video, what he wanted, what he wanted to see, so we got it all together for him. And when he came onto set, we had it all ready to be like, “This is what you said you wanted, and this is Millicent’s interpretation of that. How do you feel?” He was very much kept in the loop.
I’m also egotistical, obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t be in this job, so it was really important for me to interpret what he wanted. For example, there was one scene where he wanted to be in the dentist’s and be fitted for a grill, and it was up to me to make that somewhat interesting or different. Like, we’re not literally in the dentist’s office. So I had one chair in the middle of the studio and blacked everything out, just have one spotlight on him, just to try and say something while not trying to be too obvious.
Another question I have about the style of your videos: the color schemes always pop out to me, in a way that feels more deliberate and methodical than most videos nowadays, which tend to be all about monochromatic color-blocking or just stuffing as much color into the shot at once. How do you go about choosing those color schemes?
I think it’s me being mildly OCD about colors. Some look naturally great together, like red and blue, and I just love the combination a lot. I love super dark videos where it has some kind of ominous feeling, and then we have a flashing red light or flashing blue light. It fits the style of videos that I’m doing for hip-hop artists – aggressive colors fit really well, and it’s nice to pair with sexy movements, or with different camera angles.
I find it really interesting to play with light and color and the way we feel when we look at certain colors, and then the way we feel when there’s a contrasting camera movement on top of it. It’s nice to consider maybe a calming, cool color, like blue, that is mixed in with a very hectic video edit. Or a very aggressive or passionate color, like red, that comes in with a more soothing camera movement. So I do try and bear that in mind, how colors make us feel, and how that pairs with the edit, or visuals and sound of the music. I’m happy that you see that.
And then there are some colors I avoid. I hate yellow, I can’t even bear it.
Wait, but then how was shooting that one Lil Yachty video that’s all about the color yellow?
[Laughs.] There wasn’t really any way around that, so you just have to embrace it. But I don’t really want to do more color-blocking videos after that, because I feel like it’s done. At least it wasn’t pink color-blocking or something. It was at least interesting to do a color-block video that wasn’t fucking baby pink or baby blue color-block, that shit that we see all the time whenever people think they’re being profound and different. But also, for Lil Yachty, that was the material that he gave me. It was what he wanted. That’s fine.
I did want to ask, just because you’ve done some work with Chris Brown, and I was wondering how that came about, given the current reputation surrounding him, his history of domestic abuse and the current #MeToo movement.
The best way to talk about that is to say, as I said before, the type of music that I listen to is not necessarily hip-hop music. I do, I love it, it’s just that that genre of music brings me to a whole different type of person. Which is amazing and great when it’s people like Yachty, who are lovely and very respectful. But for some reason, hip-hop has collected a group of others that feel like their behavior fits a kind of vibe, or that genre, if that makes sense. Like that fucking Tekashi69, Chris Brown, Kodak Black, XXX…I mean, of course there’s other genres of music where things happen too. But it’s just way more publicized and way more talked about in hip-hop.
And so, people may praise this bad behavior, or it’s pushed under the carpet, because it’s like, “Oh, you know, that goes hand-in-hand with that type of music.” But as a woman and a human being, I find that very difficult to digest sometimes, because the music could be great and the song could be amazing, but you have to think like, “By listening to that, aren’t I supporting this person?” Some people would just say, “No. I’m in it for the music, and what they do personally is up to them.” And it could be the same as me. I could be doing my work and making great videos, but in real life I could be a fucking piece of shit. But that has no bearing on someone who likes my videos. To them, I just make cool visuals.
I do try and give people a chance if they are kind and respectful to me. Then I think, okay, I’ll give them a chance in a work sense. I don’t want to be friends with Chris Brown, ever. But work is different. If you’re gonna come with me and you’re gonna be respectful on my set and you’re gonna be nice, that’s different, then we can make some visuals. But if you start talking and being rude and disrespectful, or bring out that whole fucking persona that you have, then that’s a hard no.
And it’s like, you know, you have photojournalists that would go and take a photo of Donald Trump. Doesn’t mean that you like him or agree with his policies. That’s just your job, to go and take photographs of him. I photographed Chris Brown, but that was a job. I was paid to do that. And I did a video and he was there and that was a job. Never did I sit there and chat it up with him, because I have better things to do with my time.
I see where you’re coming from. I guess what I would ask you is, some people might see your work with this person….to bring it back to the Donald Trump comparison, there can be a magazine photoshoot of him because there’s some sort of story about him in the magazine, but is that the same thing as creating a video specifically to promote his work?
I know exactly what you mean. When I did that video, it was a Remy Ma video, not his. And I really like Remy Ma, I like the way she raps, she was lovely and very pleasant to be around, and he was a featured artist, so it wasn’t even about him in my eyes. It was about her and what she wants from her visuals. He just happens to be singing in the background. I was asked to ride on a video for Chris Brown after that video, and I passed on it, because I wouldn’t do a project solely for Chris Brown, for him, to benefit him.
But I understand what you’re saying. It’s just very difficult. It’s hard being in this world, in the hip-hop world, you’re going to come across some characters. I just keep my personal life very separate from people like that, because I don’t need that negativity in my life, and I try and be very respectful and kind to people, and I try and pass on jobs that I feel are going to be detrimental to my soul and my morals.
How long do your shoots usually take, and where do you do most of your filming?
Usually a shoot day is 12 hours. But on a hip-hop shoot that’s very difficult, because usually the artist is late. It could be 4 hours late, it could be 8 hours late, it could be the next day late. And they’re there for as long as they want to be there. So I try and get everything done, as much without them done as possible, at the beginning – insert shots, etcetera, without them there. That way, when the artists turn up at the end, all that’s left to shoot is the thing I need from them, their performance.
Thug has actually been the best one for that. He’ll turn up and he’ll be the best busy bee, a really good worker, a really nice guy, really respectful and responsive and will tell you that everything is cool and he’s having a nice time. He’s probably the best I’ve worked with, and he’ll stay until the very end, over the time time he said he’d be there, because he wants to make a good video. But yeah, shoots could be 12 hours, it could be 16, it could be over, it totally depends.
Who are some of your favorite video directors working today?
I love the guys at Kid. Studio, based in Toronto. I DM’d their editor, Red, I was like, “Hey, would you ever want to edit not with Kid.? Would you ever do stuff for yourself, or for other clients?” And he said, “Yeah!” So I work with Red now, from Kid., on the majority of my videos, which is really cool. I’m so stoked on that. I always try and be really happy for, really nice to other directors I like, just because it’s such a small community, and it’s just really nice to support each other. So they’re definitely the guys that I think are amazing.
There’s another guy called Shomi Patwary who is an awesome director. I freakishly DM him as well and just tell him how cool he is.
Can you give a little hint to what other projects you’re working on?
I don’t know if I can say the artist, but I’m basically getting awarded a cool video today. That’ll be shooting in the next week or so. Next weekend, I’m doing two back-to-back videos for a new artist’s album that’s coming out, and I love doing crazy direction for them. I’ve just got a couple of things in the works. I just did a video that came out for two Norwegian boys, which was the first video that isn’t a hip-hop video.
How did that come about?
That was more like, fuck it, I love hip-hop and I love doing those videos, but every now and then it’s nice to sprinkle in something different, just to keep you on your toes. I don’t want to fall into the same pattern and the same habit, whether I’m transitioning into another genre or doing something else. It’s really fun to do something different, and those kids are really lovely. I’m very happy with it, but now I could do some more hip-hop after it.