The Director Behind Some of the Most Iconic Music Videos of the 2000s

How Dave Meyers has flexed the staying power of his craft to launch several of the biggest hits of the past two decades

Katie Posner

I match the profile of perhaps Dave Meyers’s most notorious type of fan.

As the director began making regular appearances on MTV’s Making the Video in the early 2000s, I hit puberty and set about adjusting my tastes to the pop-culture sights and sounds available to me. Meyers is, in part, responsible for many of them.

I can remember sitting on the island countertop in my parents’ kitchen, neck craned back, unblinking eyes trained on the TV screen where Britney Spears sat perched on a glittering star, tonguing her way through “Lucky.” MTV’s cameras flitted between Spears lip-synching on set and crew members hovering just outside the frame. Meyers appeared on camera almost as much as Spears herself, explaining the video concept and orienting the viewer to whichever scene they were shooting.

Making the Video offered a “private” glimpse at the work that went into videos that would then land on TRL’s countdown for weeks on end. The MTV machine was in full swing, fueled by the piercing howl of teenage girls—myself included—and pop-music enthusiasts, with creators like Meyers toiling inside.

The video for “Lucky” premiered in 2000—the first of three years in Meyers’s career where his work was, to me, inescapable on TV. A sampling of his early-aughts prolificity: Outkast’s “B.O.B”; Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Real”; Enrique Iglesias’s “Be With You” (with a cameo by Shannon Elizabeth); DMX’s “Party Up (Up in Here)”; Kid Rock’s “American Badass” (and the preceding two singles that put the rapper and possible senatorial candidate on the map); Mya’s “Free”; Ja Rule and Ashanti’s “Always On Time”; and No Doubt’s “Hey Baby.” He’s also responsible for handfuls of music videos with Missy Elliott, Jay-Z, Dave Matthews Band, Creed, Pink, Janet Jackson, Celine Dion, Korn—it’s a lot.

Browsing the core years of his music-video domination is an experience similar to skimming BuzzFeed posts targeted to the mid-Millennial set—“Only ’00s Teens Will Remember These Ancient Cellphones”; “45 Songs That Were Definitely on Your 7th-Grade Pump-Up Mix”; “These Co-Workers Recreated Janet’s ‘All for You’ Choreography and I’m SCREAMING.”

Later in the 2000s, Meyers slowed the pace of his music-video production to focus on commercial work—he’s responsible for the iconic iPod silhouette campaign, among others—and tackle a feature-length movie that would become the middling horror flick The Hitcher. In 2015, his music videos began to garner more attention again: The huge response to Missy Elliott’s “WTF (Where They From)” was an especially pleasant surprise.

Earlier this year, Meyers co-directed the video for “Humble” with Kendrick Lamar and Dave Free, a.k.a. the Little Homies. As they and the rest of Lamar’s team watched the video explode online, and largely positive feedback poured in, thoughts turned to its award-show prospects. Despite Meyers’s decades-long career directing some of pop and hip-hop’s biggest stars, his experience with major networks has soured him on what should be a proud moment for a creator. “[With] movies, the director still goes up and gets the award; the producers still get the Best Film award,” Meyers told me. “In videos, that’s not how it works. The people that make the videos, that created the videos, that came up with the ideas for the videos—they barely get a ticket at the award show.”

And in the teenybopper heyday of TRL and Making the Video, when Meyers was at least recognized on the street, if not the stage, creative direction and skill weren’t top priorities for mainstream fans. “‘What did you guys think of the video?’ ‘Oh my god, he’s so hot!’" Meyers jokingly recalled. “That doesn’t tell me anything. How do I get better as a filmmaker if that’s your response?”

In that respect, the last several years have been a boon in audience feedback. YouTube comments and views have proved to be useful gauges for a video’s success. And despite dips in budgets in years past, the art of matching a visual narrative to lyrics has demonstrated some staying power. Over the last 20 years, Meyers has adapted to the consumption habits of his audience, on top of the demands of artists and their handlers, as fandom and the business of entertainment have shifted dramatically. In 2017, he’s already racked up a tally of well-received videos for Elliott, Lamar, SZA, and other buzzy artists.

For nearly two hours on a Monday in July, Meyers and I sat side by side in some (surprisingly comfortable) arena seats overlooking the set of an upcoming video and talked about the frustrations and epiphanies he’s stumbled upon over the course of his career. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Catherine Green: So I’ve read the one-liner origin story—about how a chance encounter with the director Gus Van Sant led you to your destiny in music videos. Can you fill in the details for me?

Dave Meyers: Yeah, there’s a bit more to that. (Laughs.) Basically I came out of film school with a pretty solid sense of wanting to do films. I had written five scripts, I was taking meetings, I was fully immersed in the movie side. I had shot a music video in high school to a Slick Rick song, “Children’s Story,” so I sort of had a dormant music-video love that I don’t think I understood. [It was] kind of a perfect storm of meeting Gus and him saying do music videos, me turning on F. Gary Gray’s work, which was TLC’s “Waterfalls” and “Natural Born Killaz” with Ice Cube and Dre—it tapped into my early days when I did the music video for Slick Rick. And I set my sights on directing a spec music video, which then led me to get signed.

I was working as a temp, which is like a temporary assistant. You get a call the morning of, and they’re like, “Hey, be here at Paramount at 9 a.m.” I could type really fast so I ended up becoming a popular temp. This was back in the time long before the current era of digital stuff—we had to use VHS tapes. But they’re expensive to a guy who made less than $10,000 a year. And so I worked at Paramount and they would recycle, so there’d be 80 Star Trek tapes that they didn’t need anymore, and I would grab all that stuff. I had a friend who worked at a dub house—he’d make all the reels for me, and then I would use the mail system at Paramount to send it all out. Then I would use the phones at the studio system, ‘cause back then it wasn't just a universal charge for long distance. It was about 70 phone calls a week, and they were pretty much a whole year long of nos.

I was really good at letter writing. I used to work at a nonprofit organization, Independent Features Project/West [now called Film Independent]—they do the Spirit Awards. The big boss was Dawn Hudson—she now runs the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences]. They were fantastic at getting on people’s good side. So I used that letter-writing understanding and the language that I learned to write respectful letters to the community of music. And most of it went on deaf ears, but there was one guy, Coolio’s manager Paul Stewart, who saw the letter, watched my Slick Rick high-school thing, and was like, “Holy shit, we gotta give this guy a video.” I think it was about a year before I heard from him, and then it was another half a year before he gave me a video that nobody ever saw. But nevertheless, the action of giving me the video made some other people I was talking to give me videos, and then the culmination of that eventually got me signed.

Green: Give me a ballpark of what kind of video budget you were working with when you were just starting to build a portfolio and reputation.

Meyers: At the very beginning, most videos averaged $200,000 to $300,000—and I was getting $30,000 videos. It’s funny, ‘cause now there’s tons of $30,000 videos, so young directors have lots of opportunities. When I was coming up, because it was all about fitting in, most studios, even for beginning artists, they would get the $200,000 and they would get a [familiar director]. So it was very hard to find $30,000 videos to even build a reel. Kid Rock I think was my biggest budget, $150,000. And then quickly it got to the $200,000-to-$500,000 range. After I sort of hit the ceiling of attention, I started very quickly getting $500,000 to a million for everything, and I spent about two years at that level.

Green: Early in your career when you were still hustling on a low budget, what other workarounds did you come up with to get what you needed?

Meyers: I’m always getting favors. In the early videos, I was just shopping—knocking on doors, trying to get freebies and favors anywhere I could. It’s kind of my equivalent to hip-hop guys selling stuff out of their trunk. I had young ambition, so the amount of nos that I heard didn’t sway me. Right now, it would sway me. At least now there’s an occasional yes, and big high-profile yeses that go along with all the nos.

There’s logical reasons why I got the “Humble” video, and Kendrick would ultimately have to speak to that. But spiritually sometimes I think about it and I’m like, “Well, I am that guy in music videos.” There’s a lot of other directors that showboat and do what they do, and are fly. And I’m very grounded, always have been grounded. But was I chosen cosmically, because I put out that energy and maybe Kendrick absorbed it? These are the things I think about at night.

Green: So you’ve got a reputation for being grounded while shooting?

Meyers: Well, I just am. Some people have commented—Puffy was the funniest. He was like, “Damn! You really a nice dude!” He said it in shock, like I wasn’t supposed to be. It made me insecure actually. Other artists—I know the repeat visits are probably because I’m low-key. And their machines are so intense. I just sort of always got a smile on like, “We’re here now—let’s have some fun.” It’s not a calculated thing. It’s just who I am.

That’s why I went back to videos [after focusing on commercials]. Because I haven’t gotten to do Star Wars, and I haven’t gotten to do the movies that I’m capable of doing. This is an outlet for me. The commercials were becoming a little challenging, ‘cause there’s so much interference and so many compromises. When I first came up, making music videos was not only a creative outlet; it was also my means of making money. Now that I have a commercial career, this is no longer a means of making money. Just, what’s the dopest video I can put together right now? With the elements I’m being given, what’s the best I can do? And expressing that has been really fulfilling.

Green: What was the impetus for getting into commercials? Were you just handed a really sweet offer, or what?

Meyers: I was exhausted. You have three hours to sleep, and every shoot you show up and it’s like, “Oh my god, things are changing.” And I had won every award—there wasn’t much left in videos for me to feel a sense of accomplishment.

Green: Tell me about some of the more systemic flaws or issues you see creeping up in music videos. It seems like a couple years ago, one of those would’ve been lower budgets.

Meyers: Financially, everything has come down. Budgets in commercials have been coming down because they’re less of a priority; they’re a fraction of what they were even six years ago. So they’re putting money toward other kinds of things—VR, other types of headline stuff that can get the brand some attention.

The business-run mentality of creativity is where the problems begin. The only people that really seem to get it right are Marvel, and I think that that’s exciting—when you see a brand like Marvel understand their brand and protect their brand. They’re not protecting “what’s the safest choice?” They’re protecting “what’s the relevant choice?” What are fans gonna care about? What’s gonna keep this alive in the long run? And they’re doing it in such brilliant way—it’s what musicians do. Marvel is doing what Katy Perry does, or what Kendrick does, but they’re doing it across all their superheroes. It’s rare that that kind of brand intelligence is applied to movies.

Suddenly what audiences have to say and what critics have to say is meaningful again. And I remember hearing this a couple years ago: “Oh, we only make horror films; we only make this ...” That started to change into “We gotta make good films.” That’s the best thing for creativity, that it suddenly matters to be good.

I couldn’t even tell you that what I’m saying is gonna be relevant a year from now; it’s changing so fast. But it does feel like creativity has been democratized. So if you’re a young kid, or you’re an old veteran, you’re basically equals now. And it’s really about who’s got the hotness. And that’s what I’ve been dealing with coming back to videos; that is a kick in the ass a little bit, trying to make sure that the shit’s not been seen before.

Green: In practical terms, what does “co-directing” actually look like on set for you? “Humble,” for instance, was co-directed by you and the Little Homies.

Meyers: Co-directing isn’t really what you think it is. Any time I’ve shared co-direction, it’s always usually an acknowledgement that the artist is there and present in the creativity. So I’m in a sense collaborating with him in the creation of the idea. Nobody usually gets in my way of the directing of it. In Kendrick’s case, he has a behind-the-scenes guy, Dave [Free], who is sitting with me and helping me understand the vernacular, that gets certain things that I need to get. A lot of the extras are part of Kendrick’s camp—we don’t cast them. He just knows the family and the world. They put “Little Homies” on everything that they do, kinda like a brand. Missy did that. They want their crowd to know that they have their imprint on it.

Usually, it’s harmony. We all have the same goal—I wouldn’t want it any other way. In a weird way, usually the co-directions, when credited, they’re usually reflections of a better behind-the-scenes environment for me.

Green: Tell me about the title cards in your videos. It seems like they’ve shown up more frequently in the last few years.

Meyers: It’s just a way to put your name on it. Again, in my particular case, I’m not doing this for money. What I’m doing it for is, “Hey, I’m giving you the best of my creativity and I’d like you to know that it came from me.”

Green: You’ve mentioned in past interviews that it’s increasingly difficult even to get a free ticket to an award show where one of your videos might be in the running. Is that still an issue? Any improvement?

Meyers: Well, since that sentiment, I haven’t gone to an award show. This year might be different. There’s possibilities that I’ll be nominated—who knows?

Green: It’s okay if you don’t want to jinx it.

Meyers: If I’m lucky enough to be a part of a moment where Kendrick’s gonna get acknowledged, I’d like to be there with Kendrick. And if he wants me there or he’s inviting me to be there, it can help. That would be rewarding to me and fulfilling, to watch him have his moment. Whether I’m included in it or not really doesn’t matter to me. But to sort of earn the right to participate in that moment with him is exciting. So that would drive me to an award show. If it’s separated, and I’m over there in the nosebleeds, I might not go. I might just watch it from TV.

I don’t hold a grudge; it’s just the way it is. I’m not alone, they’re not isolating me, it’s just, again, bad politics on the way that filmmaking is respected in videos.

I don’t know. If it was respected, we’d get points on the YouTube clicks. I’m worth 4 or 5 billion hits, and that’s probably several million dollars that I would get in residuals if I was part of that. And that’s how movies work. They’re underpaying directors anyway, so it’s sort of like, “Here, here’s a carrot,” you know? If it’s a fucking huge, massive hit, you get a little bump.

Green: So I’m asking this as a creative person who sometimes struggles with tapping into a source—have you ever found yourself in a rut?

Meyers: No, in the sense that I always have ideas, I always have ambition, and I always seem to have opportunities.

What I go through is sort of a mild version of writer’s block. It’s more about time spent. If I put enough time into one thing I will figure it out.

In videos, sometimes it’s a cold call, meaning that you get the track but you don’t talk with the artists, and it’s a guessing game. I don’t know what the hell they want to do. And if they don’t give you a seed of something, then you’re just taking a crapshoot of what you want. In the opportunities where people communicate, I usually get there. Maybe not the first [idea], maybe not the second one, maybe not the third one. But if there’s a will to want to work, then that’s fine.

Ambition is everything. Talent is not everything. Being able to take high risks and stand out while you’re young is critical—in this culture, it’s everything.

Green: I’m interested in that element of ambition when it comes to your wanting to get into movies. What’s the appeal to you? Is it the opportunity for more storytelling? Is it the length of time to play with? Is it that you wouldn't have to focus a piece of work around a pop star?

Meyers: Oh, no, that I don’t mind. If someone told me, “Hey, you want 50 years of doing music videos at proper budgets?” I’d be like, “Aw yeah, it’s incredible doing this stuff!” It’s more digestible, and that might actually be the saving of music videos. With movies—having someone give you two hours of their time is much harder than three minutes.

With all spiritual and actual thanks to Kendrick, I seem to have the opportunity to branch out. I’ve done two more videos for him. All I want is to give thanks. And beyond the thankfulness of it all, it’s a wonderful relationship. I had that with Missy. So I did 15 years of videos with Missy as a result. I have that with Pink. And to have that with someone as brilliant as Kendrick, it gets me excited.

But that’s in his court. I’ll be available; it’s just—it’s a matter of the road he’s traveling. I’m just one little, tiny footnote in his larger scheme of brilliant poetry and innovation. So he needs to keep his edge, and hopefully I ... That keeps me up at night, too. I gotta stay edgy for him, I gotta give him the best shit I can dream up, and hopefully that’s good enough to stay in his family.

Green: We’ve talked a little bit about what younger filmmakers and directors are up against. What advice would you give them? What would you tell them to prepare themselves for?

Meyers: Times are so much more amenable to them. The birth of influencers is evidence of that—people making $60,000 a month are using their iPhones to shoot little comedy skits. It’s just young people doing what they do. And advertisers want that audience. So I think that the most important thing is to just do it. Find your voice, and then push your voice. And then be humble enough to hear the feedback. If nobody’s checking for what you’re doing, try again. And keep trying.