How Young Thug's Insane "Wyclef Jean" Video Got Made

We caught up with director Ryan Staake to talk about how he got his pop art documentary made and, more impressively, released.

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Late last night, Young Thug released a masterpiece of a music video. The visuals for "Wyclef Jean" are a documentary, of sorts, featuring text narration explaining, in great detail, why the video you're watching is a disaster. The primary reason is Young Thug's refusal to, first, show up, and second, to appear in a shot upon his arrival. Left to corral the half-shot footage into a music video was Ryan Staake, the video's director (technically "co-director," with Thug) and founder of the Bushwick video production company Pomp&Clout.

Staake, an ex-Apple designer, quickly realized that the events of the shoot would never become a standard video. Instead, he cut the footage, interspersed with his own experience, to create a sort of documentary about Waiting For Young Thug—a narrative that's been at the heart of many stories about Thugger—interspersed into the art itself. The results were compelling, funny, and one of the most unique music videos in recent memory. We still had some questions about how it came together, though, and got the inside scoop from Staake himself. 

Congratulations on the video, it seems like a big hit already.
Yeah man, thanks, I appreciate it. I realized it was out last night at 11 or so, and had a long night of watching people’s reactions to it. I’m glad it’s finally out.

You realized it was out? They didn’t tell you it was going up and just posted it?
Yeah, really we were sending out yesterday around noon requests to the label asking about when they thought it would be coming out, and then all of a sudden I was as surprised by it as, I guess, everyone. It was just out all of a sudden. It speaks a bit to the organization of the industry.

I’m interested in what happened after the shoot. How do you come up with the idea, and then how do you sell that to a label as an official music video?
[TMZ is calling on the other line]

The way this came about once the whole disaster shoot wrapped is pretty interesting. I really put together an entire third treatment in this process because, as the video points out, there was this initial idea of lighting the money on fire. Which I was planning to actually do, I was just going to withdraw it in ones and look into some of the legal ramifications and just go for it.

Then there was the second idea, which was the idea we set out to do. Then there was a third idea, which was another treatment that said we don’t have anything, but what we do have is some good moments, but there wasn’t anything with Thug. I didn’t have enough to make a video. I kind of lightly hypothesized what some of the scenes might be, and how I would describe some of this stuff. In the presentation I even had a page that talked about the media reception of it, and how I thought people would take this. I mocked up a browser window and I actually used and made this fake title that said something like “Young Thug’s Video Came Out And He Wasn’t Even In It.” [Ed note—we went with “Young Thug’s Video For “Wyclef” Jean Isn’t What You’d Expect]. Something to the effect of what people are running with now. We just wanted to give the people reading it a sense of context for what it might be received as.

You were trying to predict the reaction to the video before it was out.
In a sense, yeah, but more to sell it to the client. I’ll try to send you a screenshot of the Complex mock-up for the treatment.

I’d love to see that.
Once they saw that, they initially weren’t into it. They were like, “What the fuck is this guy trying to do? What is this going to be about?” Then I lightly alluded to some of the ideas I wanted to say about it, and they started coming back with some ideas that I felt were were a little more corny, in the sense that they were trying to embellish. Things like “What if he was on a private jet at the time we did the shoot?” Things that I just felt were, first, not necessary. The truth is stranger than fiction in this case, and I just wanted to run with it. So then I pushed back and said that I needed creative freedom because it needed to be in my voice. I don’t want people putting words in my mouth, I want to do it the way I want to do it for it to make sense and be funny. And for it to be, honestly, something worthwhile. I wasn’t interested in doing it if a marketing person was putting their words in my mouth.

There was lot of deliberation on their side. Lyor Cohen from 300 wanted to hop on the phone, so we talked about what I was looking to do and he understood my concerns about people putting words in my mouth and some of the pitfalls I was worried about. And he expressed some of his concerns.

What were his concerns? I have a hard time picturing Lyor telling you, “Yeah, this sounds cool.”
My concerns were that it would be some corny shit, basically. His concerns were basically that I kept saying on the phone that I wanted it to be “truthful” and “real.” I won’t do any direct quotes but he was saying that the idea of being real and documentary on this was unnecessary, we were making entertainment. We found a happy middle

The truth is stranger than fiction in this case, and I just wanted to run with it.

ground where I said, “Look, I know the role of this is entertainment and to make something that people enjoy, but I think the best way to achieve that in this case is to be truthful because I think that’s the most entertaining story. We found a common ground, which is ultimately what this video is.

When did you come up with the idea? Were you just looking at the footage and realizing you had the bones for a pop art documentary?
I had an inkling of this idea on set, when we were shooting the night scene. That’s where I was joking around with my Director of Photography and AC on the project. We were joking, "If he was here, this is where he would be, right?" We ended up shooting some stuff as if he was there. And later I was thinking about it once everything fully fell apart, I realized I could, if I wanted to, just insert a shitty 3D model and make fun of the fact that he wasn’t physically there. Once I really had time to sit and look at the footage once I got back to New York, I realized there is basically nothing here. There were a few fun scenes. “Fun scenes” isn’t even the right way to put it. There were women sucking on a sausage, and the opening scene, and the cop car baseball bats scenes. There just wasn’t the depth that I would need for a real video.

Before I pitched them the idea of doing the current version, the text-based version, they were interested in possibly doing a reshoot with Thug. Maybe get him on a cop car or something. But I just tried to pitch them heavy on this text idea and treatment, because it was an opportunity to do something unique with this. We were trying to keep these two pots on the stove to go either way if we needed to, we were holding onto that damn cop car in a garage in L.A. for a while. When we realized they were down to go fully the route we went down—I’m sure the cop car is in a junkyard now—we realized we could get rid of all the things we were holding onto for the backup idea.

Then you just start cutting it into what you have now when you realized it could work?
I worked with one of our in-house editors/intern, Eric Degliomini, he chopped up what I had initially. I told him, “I know that I don’t have a video here, but do what you can with the footage. I just want to see what we have, laid out, to get a sense of what’s there.” He cut it up and showed the blocking of it, how it might break down. That just reconfirmed that we didn’t have a video there. Then when I received word from the label that they were down to see what I had in mind, I jumped in and fully edited it myself and did a lot of the VFX of the smiley face and the dotted line and things like that. Then worked with our other in-house VFX artist to do the more in-depth CG stuff, like the foreign car at the beginning and the go-kart as well. The final touches. The act of editing on this was a very creatively involved process. It wasn’t just editing, it was editing and writing.

There are a lot of visual jokes in there.
Yeah, exactly. It was a very drawn out process because of that.

When was the video shot?
This was shot in October, believe it or not. I think the 14th, or something like that. So it’s been festering for about three months or so.

​I thought there was maybe a 1 in 10 chance that [Thug and his team] were going to go for this.

When you were coming up with the very initial idea for the video, it seems like the way it was set up was unusual. Is it normal to receive a video of a person describing what they want their video to look like?
It’s very unusual. I thought that video was recorded in a conference room with maybe label creative directors. That’s what I thought that video was. I recently found out, via Twitter actually, one of the voices in the room is the voice of this other director who was maybe supposed to do the video, initially. This guy John Colombo. He did the “juxtaposition”—that’s him saying that— I totally would have put that in the video if I’d known that, I would have said, “This is the previous director,” or something like that. Once I found out I credited him on Vimeo, but that’s just another bizarre nugget of this story.

So that recording is from Thug meeting up with another director, to describe what his music video should look like. This director is no longer involved in the project, and they send that mp3 to you?
As far as I can tell, which sounds incredibly shady when you lay it all out like that. I cannot 100% be sure that is exactly what happened, but from Twitter with this guy reaching out to me and everything, that is him. And I would only assume that that was recorded for him to direct and take creative notes, and then they just slurped it and sent it to me.

That’s amazing. This is obviously different than what you initially planned on putting out, how do you feel about it now?
I love it. I honestly think it’s multiple times better than it would have been if it had been done the way it was planned. I can only thank Young Thug for not showing up. It allowed something bizarre and unique to happen that people are enjoying and responding well to.

I felt at times it was this weird Trojan Horse opportunity, because the label is in a tough spot. They had blown all this money, and I got to wheel in this weird video about what I hope has multiple levels of meaning— the ideas of celebrity, and waste, and entertainment, and these multiple ideas are rolled into one, and it still stands on its own as a video. But I feel really good about it. In many ways it’s the most personal video I’ve ever put out.

You are the main character.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I am. Which is bizarre to me. I’m a quiet guy, I tend to direct and hunker down and edit stuff and do my own thing. It’s new to me, being in this role on a project, where I’m directing a project and also a prominent character in it.

Do you know if Young Thug has seen the video?
I honestly don’t know. I assume that he has, in post it was circulating around to his camp. But I haven’t heard any direct notes, like “oh, this is great” or “fuck you.” I know that we were supposed to send him an IG video that he can post, he’s going to be posting it shortly. I don’t know if he likes it. I don’t know. But a lot of people are calling him a genius, so I’d guess he’d like it.

Would you work with Young Thug again?
Yeah, I think so [Laughs]. I’d like to actually meet him.

I was legitimately pissed off on set. I’m not going to lie about that. I was very mad him, very mad at the system, very mad at everything for making the task of directing—which is already incredibly challenging and emotionally stressful—20 times worse. But, all said and done, him doing that allowed for this video to come out. He and his team’s receptiveness to the idea of this was pretty staggering. I thought there was maybe a 1 in 10 chance that they were going to go for this. I think the fact that they did speaks a lot to their understanding of what I was trying to do and seeing the value of it.

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