Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez, The Rock, Ice Cube, Brandy, Celine Dion, Eric B. & Rakim and Christina Aguilera... It's not often you get the chance to talk to a director who has worked with so many great artists, but then again not many directors get the chance to work so closely with so many huge talents. Naturally we jumped at the chance to speak to Kevin Bray about his career.
HOUND's latest director signing has created some iconic music video work over the last few decades, and like many other directors was able to turn this great music promo directing experience into an opportunity to direct feature films. Coming out with the notable action-comedy 'All About the Benjamins', starring Ice Cube and Mike Epps in 2002, and 'Walking Tall' a few years later in 2004 starring The Rock.
Bray has also worked extensively directing numerous episodes for TV shows such as 'Suits', 'White Collar', 'Burn Notice', 'The Bernie Mac Show', 'CSI: NY', 'Cold Case', 'In Justice', 'Veronica Mars' and 'The Vampire Diaries' to name a few.
We caught up with the prolific Kevin to give us the scoop on his biggest music videos, his broad array of television directing work and his many upcoming projects.
Congratulations on joining HOUND. Can you talk about any upcoming projects that are in the works?
I just finished two episodes of 'Insecure'. I directed two last year, finished two more this year. That’s the most recent thing. I’m going back to 'Blackish' after that, then to a new show called 'The Mayor' out of ABC. I’m doing a lot in comedy. I’m ending the year year with 'The Americans'.
Commercially, I just did some Microsoft integrations for 'Blackish'. I’m also potentially working with my brother in law on a television version of the movie 'Snatch'.
In development, I have a television show 'The Jack', which is an autobiographical thing about playing in an all-black hockey league during my childhood, in inner-city Detroit. I’m also in development for quite a few other shows.
Most importantly, I now own the rights to the book 'One Night in Mississippi' and am developing that. Laurence Fishburne was just cast as the lead.
You started out making music videos early on in your career. What was the path that led you to this?
I was raised in Detroit and went to the University of Michigan, but became disenchanted with liberal arts education. I ended up living under my brother’s keyboard in NYC. My brother was becoming a successful song writer for Madonna at the time.
In the mid-80’s, I got to go to the set of 'Desperately Seeking Susan' and hung out watching others work on the film. That’s when I knew that was where I wanted to be. Later, I visited the set of a music video and got to see Jeff Stein, who was famous for the video for 'Don't Come Around Here No More' by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. He was the seminal music video director. I ended up PA-ing for him in New York and Los Angeles, where I watched and became inspired by him. He was my inspiration to become a music video director.
After that, I spent time in Paris before going to New York for film school and started my career around 1992.
What are some of your personal favorite promos you helped create? Any memorable stories?
My first real hit cross-pollinated with the downtown New York arts scene and hip-hop scene, which was the first music video for De La Soul, 'Potholes In My Lawn.' It was an incredibly simple, Super 8-shot film, where we were just digging in the dirt using whatever we had in our hands to record the new music. We knew the new video was exciting. MTV, which was new in the marketplace at the time, then started showing the video. After that, I exploded into manydifferent marketplaces and earned lots of attention.
The next big work for me was moving to Los Angeles and doing work for Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and Jennifer Lopez. Of all of them, Whitney was very dear to me. I was able to do some big shows for her. She was the reason I got into long-form filmmaking, because Ice Cube saw a video I created for her and hired me to do the film 'All About the Benjamins'.
Ben Folds Five's 'Brick' which I won an MTV Award for, remains one of my favorite videos. 'Leviticus:Faggot' is also very dear to me, it's my most interesting video.
Commercially, I was one of the top advertising and music video guys in late 90’s. I did do a low-fi commercial series of Puma spots. I’m proud of those pieces, those short films with personality. A few years ago, I did a pretty spot for Palmolive out of Malaysia.
Arguably you were mainly directing during the 'golden era' of music promos in the 1990's. How do you think the music promo game has evolved and changed since this era?
I think it definitely went through a slump. I was very lucky to move into other areas, as it slumped in the early 2000’s. I also think it was kind of reminiscent of when I first started directing rap videos. We had very little resources and had to use our wits to make provocative videos.
What I saw was really great work done on a shoestring budget, because the budget wasn’t there. I remember the director Patrick Daughters. It was remarkable to see him. He seemed from the lineage of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, as if they had a baby, and I remember that was interesting. Really creative work, combined with the accessibility of high-end recording devices for low prices. You could make stuff look gorgeous for low financial output.
Now, it seems like what is happening is that, because of streaming, the music industry is booming and moving back to the monetary circumstances from my hayday, where there was more budget for grand and dramatic byzantine music video endeavors.
A standout from that period for me was Whitney Houston's 'It's not right but it's okay'. You had a special relationship with Whitney working on a number of her projects, how did this relationship come about?
I was working quite a bit for J Records with a dear friend, Clive Davis and associate Melinda Kelly, who was an amazing supporter in my career. She was Assistant Commissioner of Music Video at Elektra Records. As she rose through the ranks to become full-time Commissioner, I was also rising, and so she would give me a lot of work. She ended up making the connection between Whitney and I. Whitney had seen my Brandy video and wanted to give me a shot.
So I shot 'Heartbreak Hotel,' where I worked with her whole team and, in spite of that, made a pretty good video. When she liked the video, I convinced her to let her use my team. I took a pivotal moment with 'It’s Not Right But It’s Okay' and got her to use our DP, who had done cosmetic product DP work from Europe. I think she got that video back with production design by James Chinlund, who has now gone on to become a famous production designer on 'Planet of the Apes'.
To refer back to the idea of bringing a downtown aesthetic to a more populous environment, I had James working for me, my European DP and myself, trying to connect to an R&B singer. I would put that video up against any of the high-end trendy European commercial spots that come out every year.
I ended up doing eight videos for Whitney. I traveled to Germany with her, to New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles. We traveled and did a lot. I’m proud to have had that amicable pedestrian relationship with her, where I could come up to her on the street and just say "Hi" to her.
Ben Folds Five 'Brick' from 1997 is a personal favorite music video of ours. Do you remember anything about the treatment and how the collaboration came about? Were you pleased with the end product?
It was a super organic process. It was like magic. I would listen to the song, looking at Charles and Ray Eame’s 'Powers of 10'. There was lots of spirituality involved. It’s a song about abortion. It captures the dynamic of, what does life mean? The ongoing question of, what is abortion and what do you carry with you after that process, as a young person? The application of morals and values revealed itself to me with an abstraction of imagery, that somebody would be in the course of living out the narrative of the song. Instead of showing what happens, I showed what the characters saw going through it. I think when you’re emotionally raw, you do a lot of numb staring, a lot of contemplating.
You see patterns in the video sometimes. Bricklaying, ground laying-- you can take that moment and meditate through something stressful. Images, then, maybe take on more importance based on your circumstances. I was obsessed with the pylons outside of the building we were calling the clinic. It’s funny-- I never thought about this, but we were doing a 'Powers of 10' homage. I then shot that stainless steel metal footing of chairs outside of the clinic, wrapping around to their design. I think that song just emotionally affected me. Those emotions bubbled out of me in the process of directing.
I was definitely pleased with the end product. There’s a song by Mark Morrison, 'The Return of the Mack,' where ‘The Mack’ was always returning. It’s still a big song. We used to play that song every time we thought we did a good video. But I remember that video was good, because Spike Jonze came around with his seal of approval. All the directors I respected gave me the nod for the video. I was pretty proud of that.
Are there any videos you directed that people still reminisce over? Maybe for good or bad reasons?
The De La Soul video gets a lot of attention, as did Ben Folds Five. Basically, all the Whitney Houston videos off the 'My Love is Your Love' album got attention. My Brandy work got a lot of attention.
One video people get hyped about, the Eric B. & Rakim video 'Know the Ledge' from the movie 'Juice' that Tupac was in. Kids bow down when they hear I did that video. That ethos and credo...we had a production company in SoHo and our whole MO was art commerce and urban information coalescing with fine arts to produce a unique and new imagery. Rakim and other greats were hanging out there. That aesthetic used to be counter culture, but that’s become the culture.
You worked on some cool Nike ads with Method Man in 2000. Working with Nike during that era must have been pretty easy right?
We did something for the Nike ads that we can never get away with now. We shot the ads pre-9/11, so we had a crane up on 33rd hanging over the street below. We had Method Man strapped to the side of famous building next to a sign, and we were swinging the crane in and out. Those were kinda cool and remarkable spots. My favorite looking spot was shot on a rooftop at 2nd street, 2nd ave. It was a caged basketball rooftop and used to be the rooftop of Payday, a hot club in lower manhattan. You could go to Payday at 2AM and listen to the best music in the world. We shot basketball shots there.
Staying with the hip hop connection you directed the comedy film 'All About The Benjamins' with Ice Cube and Mike Epps. Was this a natural transition moving on from music videos?
It was and it wasn’t. I think it was pure spunk. My whole career has been a sequence of diving in to unknown waters and depths and just winging it. Even the nature of making music videos is synonymous with that, because so many rugs get pulled out from under you in the process. You gain an innate ability to improvise. Improvisation actually often yields cooler results. With All About the Benjamins, I had no idea how to direct on that scale, but I had an aesthetic and internal engine that had a specific point of view. I had something going for me.
At the time, we had to hire a cameraman. We went on a search for the hottest latest shots, etc., met with cool guys who didn’t end up working out. In a sense of self-preservation, we wanted an empathetic compatriot who was not going to let their ego crush the project. We ended up hiring Glen McPherson, who was shooting a ton of movies at the time with Paul Anderson, the action movie director. Glen is a Canadian guy, and we had a phone call with him and the producer. He was really sweet on the phone, but he didn’t have the trendy vibe we were looking for. But he called us next day and said, you know, I hate to say this, but I’m coming to see you tomorrow.
So this dude flew from Los Angeles to Miami. Now, we had a really loaded social schedule. We finally met in the afternoon the next day, where he was so sweet, and almost out of guilt we ended up hiring him. Then we went on to make 'Benjamins' with him.
During filming, I wanted a shot in the movie that didn’t make sense cinematically, but the image was cool, and he had to interpolate what I was doing and make it work in sequence. He told me years later that he was so excited by that, he was motivated to make it work. That was our dynamic. We went on to make 'Walking Tall' and several shows.
More recently you have been able to carve a career directing countless TV episodes for some of the biggest shows on TV. Do you prefer this type of work? Is there more freedom and creativity?
I’m hoping for the best. I had done really morose, dramatic television, like 'Cold Case'. Now I'm doing half-hour comedy, I’m loving that. 'Blackish' is populous, but 'Insecure' is weird, less candid, rootsy, cool comedy. I love doing that now, love finding that in myself. 'Insecure' is closest to my real inner sensibility of being sardonic and sarcastic, with all that I’ve gone through. That’s my sweet spot. I’m very comfortable.
Also, though, I felt the same when I did 'The Americans' last year, which was also intimidating. It’s always more intimidating when it’s something I love. It was a real challenge, which turned out to be a fulfilling experience. After having directed that show, to get the response I did from the guys who make the show, that they loved it, that was cool.
Working frequently in TV do you have any aspirations to become a showrunner, or to take full creative control over a project like 'Suits' in the future?
Yeah, on Suits, I was a Production Director. I don’t really write, so I can’t imagine a writer-showrunner position ever, but a Production Director or EP though is definite. Making shows is similar to making the marathon version of a movie, establishing a world, continuity of the world. I like doing that.
Getting to HOUND, it’s like the vibe of that Rod Stewart song, 'Ooh La La,' the feeling of “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.” For me, for commercials, when I watch spots knowing what I know now, I know I’d have a shorthand and ease and real excitement with making little films. Sometimes I see spots and think, I could have directed that.
Also, you get a job, pitch a job, and are shooting weeks later. There’s no pussyfooting around waiting for the word “go,” like in film or TV. I love the speed. I have tools too, right now I have the biggest toolbox I ever had. Things that scared me before are commonplace for me now. It’s interesting to try and execute spots with what I know from TV and movies.
What is next?
I’d like to be a turning-people-down, high-end narrative and talent-based commercial director, meaning that if you need to do something that looks like a movie, come to me, or if you’re working with a talent level that needs an experienced director, you can come to me and I can make them comfortable and ultimately give them a good product. That would be my goal.
Something I’m not regretting is that I didn’t have that commercial career, but it’s a pleasant idea to think that I could make that a solid tool in my toolbox of filmmaking. That’s of the goals.
Second, I’m very much into developing my own television show, bringing the show to fruition. The autobiographical thing isn’t close to fruition but has a lot of attention.
Finally, I want to re-invest my energy in the movie career that was beginning of all this for me. I’m really trying to make movies that are things dear to me, as opposed to stepping stones to the next level or another goal. I have a very hardy and successful TV career, which is getting better and better. If make movies, they have to be movies I really care about.