With Lil Nas X’s new single, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” ascending to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart earlier this week.
Plenty of credit for his second career No. 1 single can be given to its eye-popping music video, and all the chatter it’s caused over the past two weeks.
The clip finds the “Old Town Road” star playing both Adam and the snake in the Garden of Eden, getting judged by versions of himself in the Colosseum, descending to hell via elaborate pole dance and gyrating on Satan upon his arrival. That last sequence has been criticized as demonic by conservative media, defended as groundbreaking queer art on social media, and lampooned on Saturday Night Live; meanwhile, the views keep accumulating, with the videos reaching 105 million YouTube views in less than two weeks.
As the “Montero” video has become a cultural lightning rod, Tanu Muino, who co-directed the video with Lil Nas X, has enjoyed watching the world process their shared vision. The Ukrainian music video director — who also helmed the clip for Cardi B’s No. 1 single “Up,” as well as recent visuals for Katy Perry and Rosalía — received the opportunity to work on the “Montero” video in late January, with only a few weeks to bring a sprawling, classically inspired world to life in February. “It was my first time being a co-director,” Muino tells Billboard, “but now I can tell it’s so cool, because you can make something together with very talented people like Nas.”
Below, Muino discusses how the “Montero” video came together, the influence of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, being accused of being an Illuminati member, and having to direct the now-iconic lap dance scene over Zoom. (Note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
This was your first time working with Lil Nas X. How did you come to collaborate with him?
I was in L.A. at Columbia Records, and I met Saul [Levitz], his [music video] commissioner, who he has so many great artists, like Rosalía and Lil Nas. Last year I made [the “Juro Que” video] for Rosalía, and I was like, “I need to make one with Lil Nas X!” I was in L.A. in January making Cardi B’s video, and heard from Columbia: “Do you want to write a treatment on Lil Nas’ video?” I was like, “Of course!”
When I saw the “Holiday” video, I was showing the video to all my friends, like, “I can never do something like this, it’s so hard.” In each video, Nas is [reaching] a new level, a crazy new level. So I was thinking, if it was [after] “Holiday,” what could he want next? Then I see him, and he’s so sweet, oh my God. And he loved my treatment.
How did the concept of that treatment come together, with all these different set pieces and re-imaginings of various mythological and religious imagery? What were those conversations like?
He wrote something very clear; not a lot of text, but you read it and can imagine all the story. He had this concept — because it was his own story, and he wanted to open [himself] up in this video and song — so it was very clear. For me, it was up to us to create this whole world together, and make it like the glue, and to visualize all these parts and this world.
It’s unbelievable how many ideas are bursting out of this video, especially considering its length.
Yeah, it was a lot of ideas, and the track was only three minutes, so to put it all together in those three minutes was very hard. What I was thinking about at first were Bosch paintings — because he had this painting [The Garden of Earthly Delights] that’s this great triptych of heaven, hell, and the last judgment. From this, I came to imagine all these worlds together. In all my videos I love to use great architecture, and in his paintings we see such unique pieces. Also he created a lot of colorful details and his own creatures, animals that never existed, so for me he was a big inspiration.
But also, I wanted to take Bosch and put it in nowadays. You need to collaborate, and Nas has this unique style. Anytime he’s going out on some awards or red carpet, his looks are so good. So I was thinking to take Bosch and make it fashion, make it sparkle, mix it up and make it something in between.
Can you describe the work that went into perfecting the various costumes and hairstyles?
All these details were made by Nas’ amazing art director, Hodo [Musa], who’s just next-level. I think I had only one look in my mind: When I was a kid, I was watching MTV nonstop, and in my mind I had this look of Britney [Spears] and Justin [Timberlake] in an all-denim look, and that was in my mind all the time. [Laughs.] I saw the judges in the video in denim, inspired by this picture. Because it’s so unique and I had never seen it before. Needed that in that part. Everybody remembers that look!
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The lap dance that Nas gives to the devil in the video has certainly caused a loud reaction since its release. Did you have an inkling that the sequence would produce this type of controversy, or are you surprised by it?
When you do a lap dance on the devil — we were thinking it was like the cherry on top. People do lap dances [in videos], people wear devil costumes, but to make these two parts together, nobody’s done that. So I was thinking about [the reaction], but when it go out, it was bigger than I imagined. Everybody was talking, like, “Oh my God.” For me, it was expected, but not this big of a reaction.
Did you see the SNL cold open?
Yeah, when they danced on [God]? Yeah. “Happy Easter!” I love it.
Nas has talked about being pushed out of his comfort zone while filming, particularly during the strip tease. How did you help him get there?
I was in rehearsal with him, and he was so nervous, but by the last day of rehearsal he was ready, very cool, and open to making it happen. But it was a funny story: on the first day of shooting, I wasn’t on the set. So I directed this part from home, and it was so hard, I can’t even tell you.
Wait — the first day of filming, you weren’t on the set? And that was the pole dance scene?
It was the pole dance scene and the devil scene. [Ed. Note: Muino had received a false positive COVID test and directed remotely for the first day of filming out of safety precautions.]
So you were literally like, “Nice to meet you over Zoom. Nas, please give the devil a lap dance. I’ll be here at home, watching and giving notes.”
[Laughs.] Yeah, I had seen people when we had rehearsed, but yeah. For me it was a good experience, because I was seeing only [what was being captured on screen], so I could have clear notes. I was speaking to them directly, and then they needed to come closer to the microphone and say something to me.
They put my picture on the big screen and [my voice] through a loudspeaker, and I would see only what the camera could see, and I was talking to them through a microphone. So it was very hard for me, but we made it happen. All the team was very supportive. Also, we tried to make this scene very intimate, with only a few people [on set], so he could feel comfortable. But it was very hard and a very funny story for me. I had never done anything like that — trying to make a video from Zoom.
Since the video came out, Nas has talked about his different influences for the pole dance sequence, and how he had a conversation with FKA Twigs about the “Cellophane” video and wanted to incorporate that. Was that just part of his vision?
Yeah. Of course I saw the [“Cellophane”] video. It’s a unique piece, and I think in our industry everybody knows this video. But it was never my inspiration for this one. As I said, my inspiration was from paintings, like Bosch paintings. And also, Dante’s Inferno, with different [circles] of hell — so it was not only the pole going down, it was like, if you want to go into hell you need each part of it, from lighter ones to the hard, dark parts.
I wonder what Dante would think of the “Montero” video.
Yeah, me too! I wonder what Dante or Bosch — I wish I could text them. [Laughs.] “What do you think about this one!”
What are the most memorable reactions you’ve gotten to the video thus far?
Of course, a lot of people were saying that we need to go to hell now. But I’m so curious — they tell us to go to hell after watching this video, but we’re going to know what to do in hell now. It’s fun! People were also telling us that we were part of the Illuminati, and trying to recruit for the Illuminati, so that was fun, too.
Some were horrible — I remember some guy writing me, “My three-year-old sister saw this video and was crying for a week. She can’t stop crying!” It’s like, “Oh my God. Why did you show your three-year-old sister this video?”
The “Montero” video has been both praised for its expression of uninhibited queerness… and slammed for demonic imagery. What would you hope a viewer ultimately takes away from it?
There’s been a lot of talk about the pole and the lap dance, but overall, the video is telling the story of Nas — how he decided to open himself, and to say you can be whoever you want to be. If you see in your head and in your dreams that you can show yourself — you can be Adam, the snake, a prisoner, your own judge. You don’t need to be afraid to be open and show what you have inside. I think this is the main story.
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