Filmmaker Robert Lopuski opened the door of an Australian mansion in 2011, and heard a booming voice that he instantly recognized.
It was Jay-Z.
The rap legend was standing in the living room of the private mansion, recording a verse for Watch the Throne, his then-in-progress collaborative album with Kanye West.
“I just very gently entered the space and everybody was quiet while Jay recorded,” Lopuski remembers now. “It was one of those surreal moments, where you just stand there, like, ‘Oh, wow.’ You both hear and feel the power of somebody who is just great at this, doing it in a very intimate space.”
Lopuski was at the mansion to make a film about the making of Watch the Throne. Everyone involved with the album had sensed something monumental was taking place while Jay and Kanye were in the early stages of the recording process, and it became very clear the sessions needed to be documented.
Kanye had first come across Lopuski’s work back when the filmmaker took stills on the set of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness” music video, and decided to reshare them on his KanyeUniverseCity blog. This led to Lopuski getting hired to help with the “Power” music video and work on a video profile of director Marco Brambilla for Nowness, which also impressed Kanye. So, when it came time to find a filmmaker to document the WTT sessions, Kanye knew exactly who he wanted.
Once Lopuski got the call, he spent a week filming the sessions in Australia, collecting material that he describes as “chaos footage.” It was raw and unrefined, but he knew right away that he had captured a truly historic moment in time. And editing is his strong suit, so he had confidence he could turn it into something special.
Unfortunately, the 10-minute documentary leaked on the internet before it could be officially released. The short film had reached the final stages of development, but the leak derailed plans, and it ultimately ended up living on blog pages and Vimeo fan re-uploads instead of receiving formal distribution. The fate of the documentary was disappointing to Lopuski, of course, but he finds solace in the fact that the documentary still made a large impact. The leak reached a massive audience and remains an influential artifact for a generation of fans.
The documentary itself, even in an unfinished form, was remarkable. Lopuski was able to capture intimate moments of Kanye and Jay hashing out ideas, recording verses, eating dinner, buying each other gifts, and previewing the album for guests. And he interspersed these personal moments with powerful, larger-than-life imagery of burning castles, cliffs, and forests. The sound effects were abrasive, and it was all tied together by a gritty aesthetic that exuded strength. The footage offered a rare look at the intimate creation process, but Lopuski presented it on a grandiose scale that suited the historic moment.
Despite the leak, the documentary proved to be a pivotal moment in Lopuski’s life. It helped him build a creative bond with Kanye West, which would lead to more collaborations in the years to come. And it informed much of the work Lopuski created in the decade to follow, including a critically-acclaimed film called We’re Gonna Be Lords and an unannounced project that is currently in development (watch his Instagram page for updates).
In celebration of the 10-year anniversary of Watch the Throne, we caught up with Lopuski, who spoke about the experience of documenting two icons at a pivotal moment in time. The interview, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, is below.
How did you get approached to make the Watch the Throne documentary?
I got a call one day from Kanye’s manager at the time, and one of his close friends, Don C. He hit me out of the blue and was like, “We’re in Australia right now. Jay and Kanye are making an album. Are you available to come out and film them?” I kind of did a back-flip. I emailed back, and then we spoke on the phone. It was basically, like, “We’re in a private mansion in Sydney, and we’re making an album. They want to document it. Can you come out and do this?” And when you get a call like that, you do it.
Did Jay-Z and Kanye give you a sense of what they wanted to accomplish with the doc?
Not really. The original intention was, “Could you just come and document this? We need somebody to put this on film.” Virgil and I spoke, Don and I spoke, and obviously Kanye and I spoke. But there wasn’t a big idea at first besides documenting it. When I came, I had some pretty clear ideas for what I wanted the piece to feel like emotionally, but in the process of making it, it started to take on a different shape.
When you get a call for that type of opportunity, it’s gigantic. You think you’re going to come out and have equipment and it’s going to be an amazing level of access, but what I learned very quickly was that the room was small. There were, like, five people in that room. I had to very much so prove my worth—I had to prove my value. So I would be told a lot, “Turn the cameras off,” or, “We can’t film this right now.” Because of that, a lot of it was captured through smaller cameras, cell phones, and flip video cams. The idea of bringing in large cameras, or bringing in a crew and setting up lights, was a complete no-go.
What was your vision before you got there, and how did it change once you were in Australia?
The thing that’s interesting to me about documentaries is not actually trying to tell the story of a space. Like, “I’m Bill from Idaho. I’m a pig farmer and here is my pig farm.” I really think that’s a trap, in a way. For me, the interesting thing about documentaries is you can use real-life space, or docu-space, and then sculpt whatever else the imagery or the tonality of that space has to be, in order to communicate an emotional idea.
Going into filming these guys, I knew they had a deep history, and as a fan of both of them, I knew a lot of the details of that history. I knew there was this deep, alchemic bond between these two collaborators that were now operating together at this platform. There’s a way to look at hip-hop in general and see it as being bombastic and larger than life, but for me, I was like, “Man, I bet you there’s a smallness here. I bet there’s a nuance between how they operate and how they engage with one another.” So, emotionally, I wanted to capture the quiet moments. I wanted to capture the smallness of it from a documentary standpoint and then sculpturally create a piece that had larger feelings of alchemy or regality or tectonic elemental aspects. I wanted the documentary to have the real-life space to be small and almost ephemeral, but the sculpture of the piece to be elemental.
“A lot of it was captured through smaller cameras, cell phones, and flip video cams. The idea of bringing in large cameras, or bringing in a crew and setting up lights, was a complete no-go.”
You said something changed once you got there—what was it?
I think it’s just the process of filmmaking. You have an idea in your mind of what the film could or should be, and then as soon as you turn a camera on, it’s a completely different thing. In the case of this experience, we were shooting chaos footage, which is the best way I could describe it. The audio sounded crazy, the visual was underexposed, and the cameras had to be ducked in and out of unideal visual spaces. So what I thought was going to be a much cleaner and fluid process of documenting them became a little more raw. It became rough and raw. When I exited shooting, I remember thinking, “This is some of the worst footage I’ve ever shot,” but I completely understood it emotionally. It was a really interesting challenge as a filmmaker, because you’re like, “Okay, this footage is chaos, but I know we captured something here and I know what that thing feels like.” What you end up making post-shoot becomes different than what you intended to make going in.
What was it like landing in Australia and going to the mansion on Day 1?
I flew in, and got driven to some kind of private mansion. I came into a literal dream-type moment. You hear somebody quite loud in the distance and you’re like, “I recognize that voice.” A door opens up and in the main living room area, I hear Jay booming a verse into a mic. It’s super quiet, because he’s recording. I just very gently enter the space and everybody’s there quietly as Jay is recording a verse for the album. It was one of those surreal moments, where you just stand there, like, ‘Oh, wow.’ You both hear and feel the power of somebody who is just great at this, doing it in a very intimate space.
Yeah, I think a lot of people were surprised to see them making the album in an Australian mansion instead of a recording studio.
To me, this is one of the really interesting things about Kanye. As an artist, he’s a guy who works in his own intimate space. All the way from the Jersey City days back in the ’90s to literally what he’s doing right now in Atlanta. It’s like a super passionate kid making work; I don’t know how else to explain it. He’s in Atlanta right now on a cot, in a visitor’s locker room, recording his next album. That’s kind of how he rolls.
You were able to capture really intimate moments, like Jay-Z sketching through a verse in the living room. How did you get them to trust you?
The process was becoming a fly on the wall first, and then becoming somebody that’s handshaking at the table. I was in a room with a small number of people, and I just started to make myself known. I would start talking to the guys, and I would offer opinions. Kanye would ask me questions and I’d respond in a particular way. I just started to let everybody know that I was on the right level. I let them know that I understood what they were up to, and that I had a sensitivity of what I wanted to do with the footage. Then we’d have dinner. Everyone breaks bread, so you’re sitting and eating with people. You start to build rapport.
From a technical side, you were using little flip-cams, so they’d forget a camera was there. How did that decision get made?
For instance, I’d want to interview Jay. They’d say, “No, we’re not going to do an interview.” I’m like, “Okay, maybe tomorrow.” And they’d be like, “Yeah, maybe tomorrow.” It was a lot of that. So, we’d just be at dinner and I would be talking to Jay. Instead of doing a formal interview, I would ask him if he was open to a more casual conversation and record it on my phone, rather than a big camera. I would just keep it on my leg and ask him questions. He would talk openly and freely. Capturing the doc was about answering this question: How do I become a part of the conversational space of what’s happening, and just try and have the right equipment to document it. That’s the best way I could describe it—as opposed to getting a clapper board, “Okay, action. Question is etc.” If things are happening, just capture it in any way possible.
“After dinner, they were playing a song, and Jay was working on a verse. He came over and tapped me and tried a verse out on me. I did not expect that to happen.”
How do you remember the energy of that week?
It was pretty special and electric. There were times where Jay would do a thing that I thought was really cool, where he would ask, “Where are we?” And they would play down five or six nearly finished tracks. And they would just play them and swap them around as if they were on a CD. They’d say, “Let’s do this one first and that one third.” They would just vibe out to it. That was a very cool experience, just to see those guys working in that way. Because as they were making the thing, they were also feeling the thing. We were exploring the form as well as making the form.
How much were you with them each day? Were you all living in the mansion?
I knew from a filmmaker opportunity standpoint that you don’t want to squander your time. It’s like, even if you’re going to play basketball, I’m coming with you and I’m filming you playing basketball. Whatever’s happening, I want to be around. This was my first foray with these guys, too, so I have no idea what their rhythms are.
One of my favorite scenes is when they’re out on a grass field and it looks like they’re meeting in the morning after recording. It just seemed like a natural moment.
Totally. The gentleness and smallness of moments between them were part of the design going in. I knew that if you’re going to have a relationship with anybody—whether it’s a creative collaborator or a friend—there’s going to be a shorthand. To say nothing of the fact that Kanye’s released albums which call Jay his big brother, and even has a song called “Big Brother.” This is a long-running relationship.
You juxtaposed those gentle moments with powerful nature b-roll. Can you talk about that decision?
This goes back to the idea of Don Quixote’s sculpture. Are we actually in the castle on the cliff of a mountain in Scotland? We’re not—but it feels like that emotionally. Sculpturally, outside of the real-life moments, it’s about interjecting and contrasting imagery in such a way that feels like the type of thing you want it to feel like. A castle on fire, birds flocking around, the decaying remains of older buildings—this all felt very Throne to me. It felt very emotionally elemental. Elemental is the best word I could use, because this relationship and what they were doing had depth. It felt very much of the earth, so I wanted there to be that contrast. I wanted there to be that interplay between the tectonic, emotional element of it, and then the gentle, quiet moments of their space.
We’ve all heard stories about Kanye asking for feedback on his music from anyone who happens to be in the studio. Did you talk about the music with him in the moment? Or did you try to stay quiet while they were working?
When I started working with these guys, the hat that I took was a filmmaker more so than being a creative collaborator. To me, this wasn’t my space. This was their space—I was just a guest invited in to film it and shape it visually.
One of the most magical moments for me, musically, happened when we were at dinner and I was talking about whatever they were working on. Then, after dinner, they were playing the song, and Jay was working on a verse. He came over and tapped me and tried a verse out on me. I did not expect that to happen. I was playing with a camera and he did that. I just looked up and Jay’s spitting a verse to me, and I’m like, “This is unbelievable.” It just felt larger than life. It was just one of those special, magical moments, and it caught me so off guard that I wasn’t even able to fully engage with him—like, hearing his words or vibing with him. Then he looked at me, and I just smiled.
I think when you work with talent, especially talent of this level, and they start to trust you, those special moments happen. You start to become exposed, and it’s a part of the process of making a thing, even if it’s minor.
What was the biggest challenge during the process?
The biggest lesson as a filmmaker came from the reality that we had chaos footage. We had really raw visual and audio material that on most jobs would likely get thrown out. But because I understood the space emotionally, I was able to take footage that people would not use and actually communicate everything it needed to. This was such an expansive learning experience for me as a filmmaker, because how do you take the stuff that’s not working, and make it not only work, but fully communicate? It sounds simpler than it actually is. It’s quite a challenge.
After you had collected all the footage, what was your plan of attack to finish the documentary in the editing process?
This is kind of the craft of filmmaking. Everybody does this differently, but for me, I was trying to understand the full film. I couldn’t, at first. It felt a little outside of reach. So I would start with a moment. I would be like, “How did this moment feel? Or how should this moment feel?” Then I would craft that and end up with a little 15-second snippet. Then I would craft another little moment. So on the timeline, I would have buckets, almost. Here’s a dinner scene; here’s a recording scene; etc. Then I would start bringing them together and see which ones felt best in the weave. Did it make the most sense to go from dinner to Jay, or from the hallway to outside? Then you build connective tissue between that.
“We had really raw visual and audio material that on most jobs would likely get thrown out. But because I understood the space emotionally, I was able to take footage that people would not use and actually communicate everything it needed to.”
You mainly took this on as a one-man team, although I know there was some additional footage from Mike Carson and Mike Waxx. Why did you go that route instead of involving a large crew?
It’s just the intimacy of the room. You’re not allowed to have people in that room, and you scale appropriately. I even spoke to Don about that. I was like, “Do we rent lights? Do we have grid people come? Do we actually try and shape this thing?” That just wasn’t what was happening in that room. So, to suddenly set up HMIs out the windows and make it a full-on production, there’s no doubt I would’ve been told to turn all of it off and send everybody home. That was not the vibe.
But yeah, you just make it. It’s funny, there’s a documentary filmmaker who I think is tremendous named D.A. Pennebaker. He made a bunch of musical docs, including one on Bob Dylan in the sixties, which is very ahead of its time. Don’t Look Back. That entire thing was just Pennebaker and Dylan, and you can feel the intimacy. You feel the freeform nature of both the language of the film and the language of the artist. You’re brought into an incredibly small space, as opposed to a sports thing you would see on ESPN, where you know that there’s a stage and full lights and people sitting down who have had makeup.
There is something really special and alchemic about choosing cinéma vérité as the approach to work with artists, because at the end of the day an artist, regardless of where they are in the hierarchy of the scale, they have to be alone and small and working on a little thing until that little thing becomes a bigger thing that is able to manifest into something else. To me, that’s really exciting. That’s wonderful to enter into the space of process for an artist.
Obviously, the release of this documentary didn’t go as planned. What’s it like to have the release plans ruined because of a leak?
It sucked. There’s no long answer to that. It’s not amazing. The one thing that I think, though, is that it had an impact on fans. People still remember this piece. It kind of did everything it needed to do in that space—both for the guys and for anybody who is a fan of the album. I still look back at it and think, “Man, this piece is dope as fuck.”
What did you take from this experience that you brought to other projects?
It goes back to the whole working in a room thing. The way they were making this album, it was just a few guys in a room—essentially a living room with open mics. I think that’s been very impactful for me creatively. It’s like, “Well, what do you have? What can we use? Go.” You know, it’s like, “What are the materials you have in front of you? What are your resources? Use them.” If you’re going to make a tremendous album or design a clothing line or make a film, what do you have? Just use that, and go. Because the talent, energy, and pulse of it will come through. You will be able to capture it. It’s a personal thing, a reflective thing. The thing that you’re communicating is you, as opposed to big equipment or elaborate processing or gigantic budgets. They had access to all of this stuff, but the fact that they were making it in a living room with mics is interesting.
When you look back on that whole experience, do you have a standout memory or favorite moment?
When I get that call to come out to Australia. I had to take two or three connecting flights, and each one of those flights was really bumpy and rocky. It was a flight with full turbulence and people on the plane were completely nervous. I remember thinking on the flight over that there’s no way this plane is going to crash. Me going to Australia was so in the cards, and working with these guys felt so much a part of what I was going to do, that any of the other turbulence of the moment was irrelevant. I think that’s a very special feeling—where you’re heading into a space and it doesn’t matter what’s happening around you. This is so fated.
What have you been working on since then?
After that project came out, the next big film project that came out and had a splash was two years later. I made a small doc called We’re Gonna Be Lords that the Vimeo staff picked for Best of the Month and shortlisted for Best of the Year. A lot of the things that I learned making this project informed how I made that project. Watch the Throne and We’re Gonna Be Lords feel like siblings in a way from a filmmaking perspective. And I’m working on one now that isn’t music-based—it’s kind of about somebody else—but it’s expanding upon the learnings of those two even further, and it’s been really fucking challenging. I think what’s exciting to me as a filmmaker is forcing yourself to grow and trying out a new space. By new space, I mean I haven’t been here before, and I haven’t played with architecture in this way or story in this way.
Outside of that, I haven’t really made a lot of things. I did make a few films during the Watch the Throne Tour. I was invited to be a part of the tour, so we shot a bunch of projects. The VOYR stuff. My favorite of the lot is one called “Church,” which was the closest to what I was trying to do post-WTT on tour. The VOYR project was pretty accelerated as far as scheduling. We would shoot for two days, edit for two days, and then it would come out. We had to constantly produce content. Every week, you had to have a finished film, so that was a little bit more challenging than it needed to be, but this was pre-Instagram. This was the earliest iteration of what it’s like if you were to have access all the time to an artist. Social media nowadays is essentially what this is, but this was pre-Instagram ubiquity and pre-Instagram Story and influencer movement. We were trying to use equipment and manpower to craft and create fully-formed film ideas, and shoot them and finish them in four days. It was quite accelerated.
Those VOYR videos felt like the tour vlogs that artists were putting out around that time, but elevated. They felt like films. Was that the idea?
That’s the thing. It’s the same exact approach that you were seeing other artists do. At that time, vlogs were the biggest thing. And there would be videos with artists on tour, and it would be a minute of raw footage. We were basically doing the same exact thing, except trying to make the WTT documentary in four days. To say that it was accelerated and challenging is an understatement. We set up a full-on machine. From the moment something was shot, there would be an assistant that would take those cards and rush them to another guy who would then download the footage and sequence it on a timeline. Shooting would end, I would then go into an edit room and begin editing, pass it on to another guy, and crash for the night. We’d wake up, do sound, pick up the camera, and run back out onto the tour, all the while traveling from wherever; Chicago to Miami to New York. It was a really accelerated, crazy project.
So you probably slept, like, 2 hours the whole time?
Yeah, it was one of those. [Laughs]. And at this point, my relationship with ’Ye was pretty firm. We were now in full communication all the time, so you also have to give space for that.
Kanye is known for being very hands-on with all of his visuals. How did your creative dynamic work with the WTT doc and VOYR stuff? Did you guys have a lot of back-and-forth?
He is an active collaborator. He is somebody who wants to be involved. The more that you can have an actual dialogue with the people you’re working with, it tends to help the work move through the mechanisms that it has to move through. As opposed to shooting a thing, disappearing, then coming back to show you the thing. I think that’s harder.
How did this documentary impact your career?
There were a few bigger artists in the world of hip-hop and R&B who reached out and wanted me to do similar things. For me, the biggest win was becoming involved in Kanye’s camp. It became the real stamp of people saying, “Oh, this is what he can do.” We ended up working together on a bunch of stuff. The doc became a deeper handshake with both Kanye and Jay.
What are things you’ve done since then that you’d recommend people check out now?
Check out We’re Gonna Be Lords and follow me on that Vimeo page, and you’re going to see another one that I’m working on now that should be coming out soon. There’s a project that we’re working on that’s going to come soon, which is definitely an extension of the learnings from those two films. I’m also part of a directing collective called King She. So it’s Kingshe.tv. We don’t have the site up yet but we’re going to start populating it. [You can also follow Lopuski on Instagram and see more of his work on his website.]
I saw you recently edited an Olympics advertisement. What have you been involved with on the commercial side of things?
Professionally, my day job is an editor. In 2018, I won the AICP Award for Best Commercial Editor. My work is now a permanent part of the Museum of Modern Art, which is a massive thing. This year alone I won two Clio [Awards], two ADC Awards, two Golden Cubes, a Graphite
Pencil. In the commercial and advertising space, to put it simply, I’ve been an award-winning editor is the easiest reduction of what I’ve been up to, but everything from Adidas to Nike to Samsung to Lexus, the list goes on. It’s my current professional space. [See more of Lopuski’s commercial work here.]