Tupac Music Video Director J. Kevin Swain On How To Raise A Director

May 30, 2017  |  

Credit: J. Kevin Swain

Grammy & Emmy-nominated director J. Kevin Swain has directed countless music videos, documentaries, reality TV, and live awards shows; worked with a plethora of music artists from the legendary rapper Tupac Shakur to the the late Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys; in addition to traveling to just about every continent on the globe.

Directing was not a career path that the S. Central, LA, native dreamed of, but all of his childhood experiences with music– watching “Soul Train,” his first concert film of the late legend Joe Cocker, playing close attention at concerts, setting up speakers for assembly at school– led him to directing concerts and performances.

Today’s youth have a strong advantage. They can can direct a film or short story right from their phone with Apps that can get their work out to the masses in minutes. But are they using this technology to the best of their advantage? J. Kevin Swain knows that directing is a skill that can empower kids to look at their surroundings differently, allowing them to tell stories of the realities of their lives as well as what it could be. It’s a skill that is becoming more and more lucrative as the demand for diverse content grows, and companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu scramble for the next “Insecure,” “Chewing Gum,” or “The Get Down.” And let’s not forget director Jordan Peele’s social thriller, “Get Out” which raked in profits of $250 million while costing less than $5 million to make.

If you’re a young’n thinking of getting into the film industry, or a parent with a kid you think may have the skills for directing and storytelling, listen up as J. Kevin Swain talks about the future of directing with Generation Z at the helm!

First, what’s the role of a director?

J. Kevin Swain: The role is multifaceted. Some are there to tell stories while others are there to enlighten the experience, like at award shows and concerts. Music videos and commercials are there to sell products and endear people. For kids, I would narrow it to telling stories.

When did you pick up your first camera?

Swain: I directed a performance video in 1988 for the music video “We Want Eazy” for Eazy-E featuring NWA. My first narrative was Tupac’s “California Love” in ’94.

How has directing benefited you?

Swain: Wow. Number one is travel and seeing a world outside of S. Central, LA. When you travel outside for directing, location scouting allows you to have conversations with people and experience the culture in ways that you wouldn’t if you were a tourist. Also, directing the Soul Train documentary I was able to give props to the brilliant Don Cornelius while he was still alive.

What’s a good age for a kid to start directing?
Swain: Now! You don’t have to wait to finish high school or film school. Do it right now. It’s so easy with technology at your fingertips.

How can directing benefit kids?
Swain: Leadership. Everyone is listening to your words and your vision to move the project forward. Also, stepping behind a lens gives you a different perspective on your environment. One of my favorite video shoots was directing Tupac’s “California Love” because it was a real reflection of the Los Angeles that I grew up in. You may come to understand how beautiful or how dire your environment is compared to others.

What type of kids make good directors?
Swain: Great storytellers. Vivid imagination. Attention to detail. I really enjoy foreign films like the Brazilian film “City Of God” (Cidade de Deus) or Pedro Almodovar’s “Habla Con Ella”(Speak To Her). Both of these films give great insight to other cultures. The only thing different in the storytelling is the language. Stories of love and survival are universal.

Why do we need young directors?
Swain: It’s preservation of the culture. How can you have Liz Taylor as Cleopatra? How can the Queen of the Nile be a white woman? These are great films, but we should tell our stories from our unique perspective. I think Ryan Coogler who did “Fruitvale Station” and the upcoming “Black Panther” has a brilliant career ahead of him.

Do you need to go to film school?
Swain: Not at all. I didn’t go to film school. I first started at 22 years old as a production assistant. That meant running for everything. You want it, I’ll get it. I used to run for Red Foxx. But I was on set soaking up the knowledge, absorbing it all.

How else can kids learn?
Swain: Be a go-fer. It’s a great way to learn. Ask questions. Watch all kinds of different films from “Love Jones,” to “Citizen Kane.” Study Spike Lee and Fellini. It’s so easy with the Internet and your phone. You can stay home and study films every day of the week. Mentors are also very important to call about advice and direction. For me that was Don Cornelius and Suzanne De Passe. Just watching them work influenced my career. I mentor all the time because it’s the best way to help this next generation move forward.

Erickka Sy Savané is a freelance writer and married mom of two young girls. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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