Welcome to Ways of Seeing, where two artists sit down to discuss the nuances of their work, trade industry secrets, and catch up on their latest projects. The only catch? One of them is on staff at W magazine. In this week’s edition, visuals editor Michael Beckert chats with Nicolás Méndez, the enigmatic director behind Spain-based film collective CANADA. Most recently having worked on Dua Lipa’s music videos for her latest album Future Nostalgia, Méndez and his team has also created work for Rosalía, Tame Impala, and Miu Miu.
Where did you grow up?
I’m from Madrid, and studied art history there. At the same time, I did this one-year course in screenwriting. When I was 21 and still in college, I started to write really shitty TV shows. You had to write every single day, because it was a daily show and totally fictional. It was really strange, but I learned a lot. It was a strong year. When I finished college, I started working as a screenwriter for other television shows. That lasted for five or six years. In the meantime, I did a short film. A friend of mine had a small label with all these Spanish bands. He gave me some money to make a music video. Then I made another, and another. Suddenly, after a few years of writing and making these very, very small music videos, I decided maybe I want to be a director. I stopped writing.
How old were you when you committed to directing?
Probably 25 or 26. I already had my small career as a television writer, but I always thought I was going to make movies. That’s what drove me at the beginning to write, then to learn how to direct, and to ultimately make my short film. Suddenly a classic commercial production company in Spain named Albiñana Films called me and offered me a position on their roster. I was really starving at the moment. I had feature projects, like documentaries and things like that. They said, “Commercials, commercials.” “Okay, I’ll do commercials.” I’ve been doing commercials for 15 years now!
They treated me very well. I was there for two years or something. Then I felt I could do better and I moved. After a few years, some other director friends and I got this company together, CANADA. This is a director-driven company. It’s been 11 years, I think, already.
I’m curious to understand how it’s organized—there’s CANADA the director duo, which is you and Lope Serrano. But at the same time, CANADA is also this production company that represents a bunch of directors?
Do you also serve as an executive producer on the other CANADA projects?
We put this company together—three directors, and one 20-year-old girl right out of school who was producing. We were trying to reach out directly to clients. This was 2008, the middle of the big crisis. It was a fucked up time. After three years of really starving, we started to have some success out of Spain. The interest for CANADA grew throughout the industry. Suddenly we were starting to receive projects from all over the world—offers to join other production companies and things like that. We did, and we started to get bigger as a production company. We called the collaboration CANADA, because all the directors worked on the project together. But what happens, eventually, is that you start working on projects together and if you get more work, as we did, you cannot always finish the project together. Then another thing comes in. You do that one, then you do the next one. Eventually we got into a rhythm where all three of us would write the treatment, but only one director would execute the project. For context, CANADA was originally three directors. Then one left and we are only two now: myself and Lope. Another friend of ours, who is in an executive position, joined. Eventually we started to bring on other directors, because we couldn’t attend to all the projects that we were receiving. So CANADA evolved into a proper production company, not just an artist duo. The director monomer CANADA remained, but at the same time, the production company started to build up as its own thing.
To tell you the truth, Lope and I work very separately, because we’ve been doing it like that for a long time already. We’ve only done a few things completely together. Shooting with someone else is really difficult.
Why the name CANADA?
One explanation is that we like the country. It’s weird, but we like it because it’s part American, but it’s also European, and mostly French. We really grew up with American culture, and also love French culture. Also, it’s a very civilized country, but at the same time, it’s super large and unexplored. There’s a lot of nature. The word, fit perfectly, because it was three friends, directors, that shared the jobs that they did. We always shared things that we did with each other. I lived in Madrid, they lived in Barcelona. We used to send each other the DVDs, “Look what I did.” We have very similar tastes. CANADA has three syllables. In each one of them, there is one common letter, which is A. But there’s also a new letter in each syllable, one that is not the same. It felt really appropriate, because we have a lot of things in common, but also things that made us different.
The first video of yours that I wanted to talk about is the TKN video for Rosalía and Travis Scott, which you shot with Stuart Winecoff. You seem to like working with large groups of people in all of your videos. In TKN, there are tons children. I’m curious to know, what is your attraction to the idea of a crowd of people? Is that something that excites you visually?
I never thought about groups of people being something I was attracted to. Maybe. Sometimes I think I don’t have an eye for sets or set design or photography. I always look for action. What happens in this shot? This is what’s important for me. I’ve always been fascinated by musicals. When I was little, my father also loved musicals, American musicals. I watched a lot of them, and I still enjoy them very much. When I see people doing things together at the same time, it’s the best. For this Rosalía video, there was only one day of rehearsal. It was amazing and charming, the choreographer, the way she related to the kids, and the way she spoke to them was… oh, it was amazing.
I’m curious to know how you came up with the concept for this video. Does Rosalia come to you with a concept, or is the other way around?
It’s always a conversation with Rosalía and Pili, her sister, who is always with her. They always have a point of view of what the song is about, what it should reflect. In this particular case, they came to the office one Sunday morning. No one was here, and we talked for three hours about it. They were really strong about this idea of family—they talked about this mafia thing, an imaginary Italian family. When I left the meeting, it stuck—the idea of family mixed with the name Tekken, which was this fighter video game. It became about a family in the same sense of a gang. I came up with this idea. It’s super simple: having her as the big mama, a big mother of a herd of kids. I wanted it to be very, very animalistic. That’s why the choreography is a bit like that. It’s very strong. Some of the scenes were even more animal-driven, but they thought it was too much.
One of the other shots that I was really taken aback by was the shot of the kids on the telephone wires.
Yeah, that’s the best one for me too.
It looks to me as though that wasn’t done in post-production. That looks like real life. Was that the case? Were those kids really up there?
No, it’s post. It’s impossible—it’s very hard to shoot in a day, and it’s illegal to put a kid more than one meter off the ground or something. If you want a shot with a kid on top of a table, you need a stuntman, a stunt coordinator on set. You might even need to wire the kid. All for legal reasons.
So did you just composite the shot, then?
Yeah, we shot both layers at the same time. We did the telephone post first and then we had the shot of the post on the monitor. Then we set up a chroma, a blue screen. We built a small wooden post that was similar in size to the actual telephone post. We put it at the same angle and everything, and the kids held onto it, but it was only one meter off the ground. It was the highest it could be.
When you’re working on a project like this, how long is it from start to finish, when you get the commission to when you wrap, or when you deliver the product?
Everyone works in a different way, I guess. For me, it takes a lot of energy and a lot of work, a lot of time. I always say when I finish it, that it’s the last one I’ll make. I always say I will never do it again, and then after a year or something, I do another one, because it’s also very fulfilling.
I was fascinated by the giant trucks that you incorporated into both of your other videos for Rosalía, Pienso En Tu Mirá and Malamente. Why did you go in that direction for both of the videos?
We shot both of the videos at the same time, in five days. The truck thing is something that came from Rosalía, really. We had a meeting here and they told me about landscapes. They wanted to do something very Spanish, with the imagery and symbolism of Spain. Rosalía and Pili were talking about where they live and where they grew up, where there are a lot of big parking lots for trucks and truck drivers.
Can you talk to me a bit more about the concept of having this blood emerge from someone’s chest? I know that the lyric from Pienso En Tu Mirá itself is about—sadly I don’t speak Spanish, for the record—but it means: “You’re looking directly at me and it’s causing me pain.”
“Thinking about you is like a bullet in my chest.” I think it’s related to jealousy, to toxic love. I started to think about possession and I came to think about vampires. Vampires are the extreme form of possession and love. It’s like being bitten by a vampire, I guess. I think in Pienso En Tu Mirá, there is actually someone biting her neck. But there’s also this idea of jealousy and suffering, I had this idea of a man bleeding because he’s suffering when he’s extremely jealous. There are these strong men, but they are feeling pain in their chests.
We used real truck drivers and their trucks. Usually they have the names of their wives or girlfriends written on them. So that especially relates to this idea of possession, which is partially what the song is about.
When these men are bleeding in the video, they’re sitting still as if they’re posing for a portrait. Was that intentional? Are you inspired by a lot of photographers?
I’m inspired all the time, by so many things—photographers, painters. I always have the same people in the back of my head: Stanley Kubrick, Jonathan Glazer. To tell you the truth, when it comes to the moment, it’s hard for me to stick to the plan. I look back to what I prepared before I shot and then, in the new process, I lose all the references and all the shit that I started with. I look at it as inspiration, but then I forget about it, which I think is good.
Do you get nervous before you go to set? Or do you feel like, by now, you’re just very confident?
I’m nervous. When there is something unknown for me, if I’m going to do something that I’ve never done before, then I get a little nervous. Also, it makes me nervous when we have a really tight schedule, or you feel you don’t have the confidence or you don’t have the ability to know for sure you are going to get what you want.
Do you sit down when you’re directing?
I can’t sit. There are some directors that sit down on the monitor and they do their thing. I don’t sit, never, in the whole day. I’m walking around and doing things—sometimes like an AD, organizing shit. I like to be next to the camera. If not, sometimes I hold the camera myself. But I really like to be with the actors and with the people in there, not on the monitor. Sometimes I tell myself, “This time, I’m going to be more calm. I’m going to sit down on the monitor and tell the AD what I want and then wait and see.” But I can’t. I’m too excited. I love it so much. I want to put it together. And sometimes, because when you are preparing a shot, it’s like a painting. I don’t want to be in front of the monitor. I want to be painting it.
I’m curious to know what’s the biggest disaster you’ve ever had happen on set or during a project?
I shoot a lot on film. I went to a shoot in Reykjavík, Iceland. We had to shoot all over. We were shooting on our plane for, maybe, three days. Then when we came back, someone put the film in the scanner and everything was totally gone.
Oh my god…No!
Yeah. Everything gone. It was a commercial—a big fuck-up. We reshot it in Madrid.
What has been the biggest challenge of your career?
Right now, really. I’ve struggled to make a narrative film for a couple of years. I have a script and people seem to like it, and there are people who want to be on board, but it is expensive. It’s more expensive than it should be for someone like me, for a first feature film, and it’s taking a lot of effort. That’s a challenge. The commercials and the music videos, they feel more organic, because you don’t go looking for them. They come to you. But narrative is different.
Is there a film you keep returning to, wanting to reference it, or watch it again and again?
It depends. I always have directors I look up to, but it comes in waves, also. Three weeks or so ago, I rewatched a lot of David Lean movies: I saw Ryan’s Daughter and Lawrence of Arabia, all in a week. Also some other ones, like Brief Encounter, or Passionate Friends, which I love. It’s the taste, the writing, the point of view on life—he’s very academic and orthodox, in a way. I love the way he uses cinematographic image as a language. I feel inspired by other people that are more free when they work, like Harmony Korine. When it comes to framing, though, it’s always Stanley Kubrick.
Related: Rosalía Is the Future of Pop Music