Going to hell has been a heaven-sent mission for Tanu Muino. She co-directed the year’s — and maybe the young decade’s — most talked about music video, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” with its controversial star Lil Nas X. That came right on the heels of directing a video for one of 2021’s other half-dozen biggest hits to date, Cardi B’s slightly more down-to-earth “Up,” which doesn’t flirt quite so flagrantly with damnation.
From her ability to land that one-two punch, you might assume Muino has been one of the top directors in the music world for quite some time. Looking back in her filmography, you do see recent clips of note from Katy Perry, Rosalia and Yungblud. But if you’re going back to her credits before that, it’s useful to have some familiarity with the characters of the Ukranian alphabet, because that’s where the Cuban-raised Muino did much of her work to date before catching a major break in America and directing “Small Talk” for Perry in 2019.
Now, thanks to “Montero,” she’s on the “most wanted” list of video departments at major U.S. labels, as well as the hit list of the spiritual descendants of Tipper Gore, who were none too pleased by the twerk-ier parts of Lil Nas X’s spiritual journey in “Montero.”
“It was very fun to find how to make lap dance on devil,” she says, as if that’s a fairly standard thing where she’s from, Zooming in from Odessa to catch Variety up on her suddenly accelerating international career.
“For me, Cardi was so big and so huge, when I got it, I went, ‘Oh my God’ — it was the biggest artist I ever had,” she says. “And while I was in L.A., after I had a two-day shoot of Cardi, I got the proposal from Saul (Levitz, music video commissioner at Columbia Records) to write a treatment for Lil Nas, and I love him, so it was very exciting to happen. It’s only the beginning of the year and it started like this — it’s so cool. What will be next?”
The aforementioned lap dance threatens to overshadow everything else that is visually stunning about the video, for which Muino called largely on a 600-year-old influence.
“The idea came from Lil Nas. He was like, ‘I want to be Adam and I need to have a Coloseum…’ And when I read the brief and heard the song, I don’t know why, but I immediately remembered all these paintings from Bosch in the 15th century, and I said, ‘This is how we need to do it.’ That was my main inspirational for this video, and it was a little bit strange, but so unique. Bosch is not even my favorite painter. But for me, his paintings are very great because they are so big but have a lot of small details, and become architectural, and have unreal creatures mixed with people and animals. I went through all his paintings. and I found Adam, I found hell, I found the last judgment…”
But some of the inspiration came from the personal journey Lil Nas wanted to at least hint at, even if the video is 100 times more laden in spectacle metaphor than the plain-spoken song itself. “I think this song from Nas is very special for him: He’s saying that he was hiding like before and he wants to open himself for the world,” Muino says. “I just was helping to visual-izate and make all this come together and happen.”
It threatened to happen without her, at least in the flesh. On the front end of the shoot, Muino worked with her collaborators for two weeks before Lil Nas was to show up for a two-day shoot, to be followed by five weeks of special effects work and post-production. But when it came time for cameras to finally roll after all that storyboarding and rehearsal, Muino wasn’t initially physically present.
“The first day, I wasn’t there, because I had a fake test of COVID,” she says. “I came to the set and I hadn’t even seen everybody, and it was like, ‘You need to go home.’ I was like, ‘Whaaaat?’ Imagine all this crazy stuff you need to have, and it’s all in my head and I need to tell people how to shoot it. So they pulled me home, and I was directing from Zoom. It was kind of crazy for me and for all the team. That first day was kind of stressful,” she adds, in what might be an understatement. Subsequent tests came back OK. “And then I got two more tests at home and it was negative.
“The second day, when I was there, it was so crazy what we were doing — it was a very good vibe. Nas was having fun on this one, for sure.”
Fun, apparently, despite the bulk of his time on set being spent turning different shades of serpentine gold or satanic red in a chair. “With the makeup, you need to shoot like for an hour and then you need to go like change for five hours,” she says. “It’s stressful, but he handled it amazing. He was in a very good mood.”
Muino admits that her favorite parts of the shoot were still the before and after, when creativity could run most rampant. “I think it’s the magical part, when you just take all these ideas and put them in treatments. The creation was one crazy month or month and a half, talking to all the team every day and discussing the costumes, the shots, the camera. And then after you’re shooting, you’re discussing with the CGI team, Mathematic, each day: ‘What kind of statue do you want? What kind of Coliseum?’ … I’d never experienced something like this, and for me it was amazing.”
The Cardi B video was more in her wheelhouse, sans FX. “It was super different because all the sets were real, built by crazy art directors, and you have all the dancers and the costumes, and we had seven locations. With (‘Montero’), Nas was playing all the parts. It was all green-screen in one place.”
What unites her videos, she says, is her love for the architectural elements she can incorporate, even if in the case of the Lil Nas video it was all fake, digitally generated buildings and set design.
“My super kind of dream is to work with Calatrava,” she says, referring to Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava Valls. “He’s the greatest architect for me and has crazy places he builds, and buildings and bridges and stuff. He is amazing, oh my God. Maybe he will read the article in Variety and he will make some sets for my music video. Oh my gosh! Let me hope.”
She does have a bigger dream even than that, actually. “My biggest inspiration is music, so maybe in the future, I can make a musical with all these artists, like ‘Moulin Rouge’ or something. Baz Lurhmann is one of my favorite directors ever, and so I’m very inspired by his works and what he is doing. I hope I can make it my future.”
The only downside for Muino in making a movie musical might be downsizing her viewing audience. As of April 20, roughly a month after “Montero” debuted on March 21, the video was up to more than 150 million views just on YouTube.
For a clip reel of Muino’s work, including her numerous pre-American credits, click here.
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