For their documentary about music superstar Lil Nas X, filmmakers Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel didn’t want to make a typical concert documentary.
With Lil Nas X: Long live Montero, The filmmakers hoped to provide a viewing experience that gave insight into the staging of his first tour while also following Lil Nas X’s personal journey, including his decision to discuss his sexuality with both his family and his fans.
His music, including “Montero (Cal Me By Your Name)” and “Industry Baby,” has become a lightning rod for the culture war, with protests outside several of his concert halls and television appearances drawing the attention of right-wing news pundits. (The film’s TIFF premiere was postponed after a bomb threat was received at Roy Thomson Hall.) Still, its shows sold out and the musician, whose first name is Montero Lamar Hill, received critical acclaim.
Before landing in Toronto, López Estrada, known for his narrative work about Blindspotting And Raya and the Last Dragonand Manuel, who has long worked as a non-fiction cinematographer, spoke to him THR on not dwelling on the success of the musician’s viral first hit, “Old Town Road,” and their unconventional talking head setup: “I just felt like it was important for us to be just as familiar with it be like with everyone else, through his appearance, through his music, through his social media.”
How was this document created?
CARLOS LÒPEZ ESTRADA They prepared this tour and started figuring out what exactly this documentary would be. [Lil Nas X, creative director Hodo Musa, and Sony Music execs] knew that the show was called Long Live Montero and they knew that they wanted it to feel very theatrical and that it should have some kind of narrative and that it really shouldn’t feel like a simple music concert where you just show up and someone plays Songs, but he really wants them to be high concept concepts. I joined in and we locked ourselves in a room and listened to all the songs [on the album]. We designed it almost like a movie, trying to figure out what kind of story could tie all these things together. They said we had this incredible documentary filmmaker named Zac [Manuel]; We want him to follow Montero. Zac worked closely with him for several days and followed him. I would work on documenting the show, the music and the fans, and then we somehow came together and brought those two ingredients together to make this film.
ZAC MANUEL They were looking for someone to document the touring experience, someone who could work with limited space but also really get to know the artist on a personal level and have conversations from an intimate perspective. I came maybe a week or two before Montero and the team actually left on the trip. On the morning of our third day we went to his house and that was the first time we were actually able to have a good conversation without all the hustle and bustle of travel business going on. That was the moment it clicked that there was a deeper story here.
How did you understand Lil Nas X before working on this doc?
MANUAL I remember the first time I told my best friend that I was doing this film about Lil Nas. I really met or got to know him like everyone else – through social media. I really grew to love his music because a lot of my work revolves around black masculinity, queerness and identity. As an artist, he really explored these things with a lot of depth, confidence and a lot of courage.
LÒPEZ ESTRADA I think it’s impossible not to have contact with him and his work because it’s just everywhere and at all times. But the moment of his rise to success was when I was so deeply immersed in this long, animated project that took up two years of my life, and I finished it and realized that I just hadn’t done anything for two years. I haven’t seen a movie. I didn’t listen to any music. And his rise to success was so incredibly rapid that of course I heard “Old Time Road,” but I just hadn’t had the opportunity to delve deeper. This documentary really gave me an appreciation for him, his work and his music that I don’t think I would have achieved if I hadn’t worked on this film.
“Old Town Road” got people talking to Lil Nas. What was the idea behind it?
LÒPEZ ESTRADA From the beginning, the concept behind the show and I think it was important for them to communicate was that his journey was not linear. He had “Old Town Road” and it was a huge hit, and suddenly every person on the planet heard the song. And you would assume that that would be the pinnacle of an artist’s life. But in the [concert] There’s this narrator who says for most artists: [“Old Town Road”] That would be the end of the journey, but that was actually just the beginning.
MANUAL Obviously, “Old Town Road” is a big part of what made him successful, but many of his other songs say more about who he is as a person. It was important that the film and what we talked about in the film should express his constant change as a person and an artist and not get stuck with the things that were fashionable at the time.
Her “talking head” interview with Lil Nas X was conducted from his bed. What was the idea behind it?
LÒPEZ ESTRADA The first thing we said when we started working on it was that it can’t really feel like a seriously speaking head doctor. This has to feel unconventional and it has to feel daring and strange and fun. It needs to have a good sense of humor and feel just as unexpected and cheeky as his Twitter feed.
MANUAL I just felt like it was important for us to be as familiar with him as we are with everyone else, through his performance, through his music, through his social media. I knew pretty early in the process that we had to do a master’s interview, but he’s not the type of person you want to just leave sitting in front of a horrible background. You literally want to lie in bed and have pillow talk next to him. He opened up so much to me in the process, which I was really grateful for, but I wanted to be able to convey that feeling of closeness and intimacy to anyone who would see it. How can we break down the walls of what it means to watch someone tell their story? When you really listen to someone and you’re really in an intimate space with someone, it’s often the case that you just wake up in bed next to them. And I think it’s just a beautiful, graceful, lovely position to have a really deep conversation with someone. And I’m lucky he agreed to lay in bed for a few hours and do the interview.