Chances are, if you’ve seen a glossy, dramatic music video for a woman pop artist in the past few years, director Hannah Lux Davis had something to do with it. The veteran music video director has worked with artists like Demi Lovato, Halsey, Kacey Musgraves, and more, and is known for her super-saturated, neon-lit party scenes which are heavy on the lens flare. But her biggest video collaborator might be Ariana Grande, as she’s directed the pop star’s videos for “Into You,” “Focus,” and “Side to Side,” just to name a few.
So it wasn’t surprising that she was behind Grande’s “thank u, next” video, which dropped this past Friday. Already record-breaking in a time when it’s extremely hard to grab anyone’s attention for a music video, the video spoofed all of the best scenes from Grande’s teen favorites: the Plastics’ drama from Mean Girls, the tooth brushing from Bring It On, Jennifer Garner weeping over her magic dollhouse in 13 Going on 30 (in case you didn’t recognize it!)
Jezebel talked to Davis about how this early ’00s rom-com nostalgia fest got started, why music videos need all the extra hype these days, and extra footage we might get to see some day soon.
JEZEBEL: How did this rom-com mashup concept come about?
HANNAH LUX DAVIS: Ariana and I were working on the music video for “breathin” in her living room in New York, sitting on the floor, and she was so excited to play me this new song “thank u, next.” It wasn’t even finished yet, and it was like missing a verse, [but] we were listening to the song and my first reaction was, holy shit, you went there. It kind of redefined what a breakup song was in a grateful way.
She just wanted to switch gears and work on this new track of hers. She had said something about Mean Girls and we were kind of talking about how we were obsessed with it. It became this thing like, oh my God, what if we did Mean Girls for this music video? And we have a “Burn Book” and instead of it being a burn book, it’s a “thank u, next” book, filling in the book with all your ex-boyfriends and then writing good things about them?
We were going back and forth about other movies we love from that era with female-driven storylines that had breakups in them where the girl just comes out on top. It was just a really quick back and forth of just, oh my God that scene and that movie and that outfit. And it was never supposed to be us recreating these movies; it was always like how can we make it Ariana Grande, how can we put her spin on it. And I think she really let you know, with the song being so specific and personal to her, about where she’s at in her life, and I think that’s what made it so successful.
You’ve worked with her on so many videos and people are really responding to the parts that are the most personal, for example people freaking out over her writing that Big Sean can “still get it.” Was the fact that this was a more personal song for her, or more representative of her actual life, change the way you approached the video?
There’s always pressure when you’re working on a video for an artist like Ariana Grande because all eyes are on her, especially right now. But in terms of the fact that it felt personal to her, I think what that creates is more of a collaboration. For example, for “breathin” she really just let me take the reins and just trusted me to execute an idea, but this one, it’s very much a collaborative process where she’s really involved in everything from locations to the wardrobe.
When you guys were talking about movies to include, did any get left on the cutting room floor?
There weren’t movies that got left on the cutting room floor, but there were definitely scenes that got cut. There were some from 13 Going on 30 that just didn’t feel right or there wasn’t room. Actually, 13 Going on 30 was like the one film that was the hardest to recognize visually because the other ones are very much iconic in terms of the wardrobe or the way that the characters play off each other. 13 Going on 30 was the only one where it was like if you’re not that familiar, or if you weren’t a total fanatic of the film, it would hard to be to pick up on. That’s why that one got a really special place in the video [for] the verse where she talks about her mom and her wedding, kind of a sad part.
We were actually going to open the video on that scene until the day before the shoot. I was kind of placing the [movie] scenes where I thought they would be in the song so we could get an [idea] of pacing. As I was cutting it, I had created this really long intro for that 13 Going on 30 scene, and then I was like this feels kind of clunky, it’s a little confusing here. But I feel like we got most of the scenes. Well, there are actually a lot of scenes that aren’t in the video... yet.
What does that mean?
So there’s going to be another video?
We just don’t know yet. There’s extra footage.
But it could be released?
Yeah, possibly, but we’re waiting to see.
So one of the more iconic moments in the video is when we see that Kris Jenner is the crazed stage mom in the Mean Girls talent show scene. How did that dream cameo come about?
Well, I think if you’re Ariana Grande, you can talk to anybody and they will take your call [Laughs]. I think Ariana was just like, yo, what if we got Kris Jenner. And she got her! Because she is the cool mom and everyone knows that. That was definitely a no-brainer for us, if it wasn’t like actually Amy Poehler.
Did you two pretty much have a long list of your dream asks when it came to cameos?
We really wanted Jennifer Coolidge because Ariana had already had a dialogue with her in the past. Ariana does that really great impression of her. Shooting those scenes with Jennifer Coolidge was unreal. We were on set pretty much freaking out. We couldn’t believe that we were shooting this iconic scene with such an iconic woman in a set that felt very similar. But the process of shooting was really fast, so it was like: who is the most iconic for me to want who isn’t the main character? Obviously we would be thrilled if Reese Witherspoon was in it, but it didn’t necessarily call for that. That might be too on the nose. It was some of the other characters, like the “army pants and flip flops” girl, that made it feel so authentic. For Aaron Samuels, one of Ariana Grande’s management knew him and we were able to work that connection, and then we tried to get Warner from Legally Blonde, but he was unavailable.
There are so many blink and you might miss it moments and there’s that scene where Ariana Grande is playing Elle Woods and she is reading a book on “immigration and refugee law and policy,” which feels like a very specific and maybe even political inclusion. Did you two have a conversation on why to include that?
To be honest, no, we didn’t have a conversation about that. [Laughs] But I did see the stack of books and think, This one might stir the pot a little bit, let’s put this one in her hands. Everywhere in the video, there’s Easter eggs. If you look at everything she’s reading, everything she’s touching, the signage, it’s all purposeful and with intention. Our art department is also incredibly smart. I met with the art department on this project sooner than I would meet with our department on any project.
There was a lot of build-up to this video, a lot of teasing. And I’m interested in your thoughts in general, with things like music video trailers and all the build-up artists have to do, if you feel like music videos have to be even more of an event these days.
Oh yeah. For a while, videos were such afterthoughts and now labels are understanding that music videos help a record and I think it’s getting people excited again. Taylor Swift does this, and Katy Perry, and Beyoncé—there still are artists who do event ties into music videos, and I think it’s fantastic because I grew up in an era where every music video was an event. I grew up with TRL and every single video had to have the hype; it had to be a moment. And lately, now all music videos are like, oh here’s another one, here’s another one.
Because I feel like music videos with a lot of cameos are sort of becoming more popular these days, like “Nice For What” or “Girls Like You” for example. Are you thinking about making these sort of meme-able, shareable moments in your videos when you’re directing them?
You do think about it. You want to create a good video first and foremost, but you do want to think about what’s going to get people excited. We want a great video, but we also want views. And Ariana is really good at that, she has really good instincts of what her fans are going to be into. There were moments in the edit [when] she was looking through the footage and [would] say we have to put that in and I wouldn’t have picked it.
There was that moment of her doing that silly dance behind the dollhouse in the 13 Going on 30 section, where she lifts her arms up and she does this little shake, and for whatever reason my eye just wouldn’t have gone there. But she said to put that in and [when] we played it for her team they all reacted to that. I think if you just aim to make something ridiculous and crazy and throw cameos and people with followers everywhere, it becomes as inauthentic clusterfuck. But I think if it’s intentional and there’s purpose, then I think you can be very successful.
You did the video for Anne-Marie’s song “2002,” which recreates videos like “...Baby One More Time” and ’NSYNC’s “Bye, Bye, Bye.” And I was also just thinking about Charli XCX and Troye Sivan’s “1999" video where they parody ’90s pop culture. What is it about this era that so many artists are looking back to it for music videos?
There’s something to be said about the fact that you get to a certain age and then you think back to your childhood and you just try and wrap your head around it. You [ask] why was I so into that? Why did that make so much sense? And so when you get to a certain age where you can act on things that maybe you couldn’t have at the age when you were watching it, you’re just trying to understand what it was that you love so much about it. I think artists like to find moments that feel good, and I think we’re all in a place and time right now where we just want to remember the good times and go back to a place where we all just felt good.