Walter C. May is a film director based in Los Angeles. He's shot commercial campaigns for Toyota, Smirnoff, Starbucks, and Samsung. He's also become a go-to music video director for pop superstar Katy Perry, and the band Elektrik People. He's also worked with a vibrant array of celebrity talent including the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Eminem, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Serena Williams, and more. But Walter is much more than just a director, he is also a visionary artist and loyal collaborator. His latest project Friendship Is Magic is a series of fine art pieces in collaboration with expressive painter and close friend Tyler Ramsey. He also created an innovative and award winning viral video in 2010 for his then girlfriend (now WIFE!) called "I Hope This Gets To You". I had the pleasure of interviewing Walter about most of his work, his ethos, and all the things that inspire him. Being a singer, music fan, and avid pop culture aficionado myself, Walter and I had a lot in common to talk about.
Here are some of the highlights from our interview...
REID HAGGIS: Out of all the video content you've created in your career what is your favourite lane to be in? What are you most passionate about? Is it music videos? Documentaries? Commercials? All of the above?
WALTER C. MAY: When it comes to passion, I get passionate about doing things that other people haven't done, or that people are gonna get excited about. Of course there's passion of my own that goes into everything I do, and I do this for a career and to make money and survive, but also because I strictly want to do it - and those are the things (that I think) have turned out the best.
One of my favourite things I've done is create a viral video for my then girlfriend to try to impress her while she was on the other side of the country going to school. We put it on YouTube and I blocked all of our mutual friends from seeing it, it was a music video for a song I helped write with a couple friends, but it still got to her organically and now she's my WIFE!
I also get passionate when I really believe in another person's art form. 10 years ago my friend Katy (Perry) came to me and said she had a small budget for a music video, it was for her song she had called "Ur So Gay" - we thought hey let's get some barbie dolls, build some sets and do a video! It was back when MySpace was still super popular and we got featured on the front page of MySpace!
And then there's also other friend's bands like Elektrik People and The Daylights - I just believe in them so much that I have a special connection to the person and I know what the songs are about so I enjoy the intimacy that comes along with creating for somebody or with somebody.
RH: How did you first meet Katy Perry?
WCM: My college next door neighbour was good friends with her when she first moved to LA, she was also a singer and not mentoring Katy in a singing aspect but just kind of like an older sister type in LA (because Katy was only 18 or 19 at the time). She introduced me, and we would go to her shows where there was about 5 to 10 people in the audience, and I was enthusiastic about her talent and wanted to hang out and try to help her - because at that point you don't have fans yet, you have friends. So we became friends during that time and the rest is history.
RH: From working with Katy so frequently - what's something the public wouldn't necessarily know about her work ethic?
WCM: She's extremely calculated and smart. She knows what she's doing, she's very very loyal, but she's also very opinionated, and you need to bring your A-Game when you're presenting her with stuff. She understands exactly who she is. A lot of people think that pop stars sometimes have full "teams" of people, and most do...But Katy is the major force behind her career, and she's had that since I met her.
RH: How did you first break into the video world? Did you go to film school?
WCM: I went to college at Baylor in Texas. When I was a teenager, my parents wouldn't let me watch MTV, so I ended up getting a job at the mall at a place where they would play music videos all day long on big screens as people shopped. So I'd watch videos all day long and I thought I wanted to be an MTV VJ. So when I got to college I was doing some broadcasting classes but then I realized I didn't want to be a VJ, I wanted to be the person actually making the music videos. At that point I was in a hiphop/rap band situation and I knew some other bands so I just started making videos for my friends. I bought a computer, I bought a camera, and my film teacher at the time saw that I was really dedicated and he got me an internship at a post-production house in Dallas, where I started out just getting coffees for people, and learning that side of the business. Then I eventually worked myself up to being an editor out in LA for awhile, and it was around the same time that I met Katy that I decided to launch my directing career. I'm super passionate about music videos, and I love that era (of MTV) and I'm sure I could tell you shot for shot what was in some of those videos!
RH: What's one music video or song from the past that you WISH you could've directed?
WCM: SO MANY! ... "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga, "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys, "Cry Me A River" by Justin Timberlake. One of my friends got to shoot the Kendrick Lamar "Alright" video where he's flying - that video is super cool too!
RH: Are there any artists you're listening to right now that you would love to direct visuals for?
WCM: I'm constantly thinking of my friends Elektrik People. I've done two videos for them already, but they have so many good songs! I think of a video idea for every single one of their songs and I just wish I could afford the time to execute them all!
RH: What is your perspective on the importance of music videos in the current state of the music industry with streaming and such? Do you miss the days of MTV or do you think VEVO/YouTube has made them more accessible?
WCM: It has made them more accessible. I would equate it to back in the day when you would pick a place to go out and there would be jukeboxes of music. Now there is a digital jukebox of music, and in some sense MTV was kind of like that as well, but they also dictated what you had to listen to/watch - but nowadays with VEVO it's really up to you what you want to watch. I think it's also an advantage for upcoming artists like yourself because everything is so catalogued and accessible. It's easier to get discovered, but there's also some cases where you might not take off for 10 years and have mass appeal, but you have an advantage because at least it's out there...
RH: I've always been curious if music videos ALWAYS need a record label's stamp of approval before they get released...?
WCM: If a label is funding it then 100% yes! But there are rare cases like Beyoncé when she was pregnant - she asked my friend to shoot something like 5 videos for her within a couple weeks and she paid for the whole thing herself.
RH: Because you used to be an editor earlier in your career, are you usually still hands on in the editing process? Or do you prefer to hand over the task to someone else now?
WCM: I like the idea of having a second set of eyes. Collaboration is always good. I like to collaborate with other editors and other art directors.
RH: Would you ever direct a full length feature film if the right script came along?
WCM: The right script has come along a couple of times... Something is in the talks now, but it's definitely an opportunity I'd want to take. But it has to be the right timing.
RH: Because you've collaborated for commercial campaigns with corporations like Starbucks, Samsung, and Toyota, what is your perspective on the concept of "ARTPOP" - in the sense that more and more corporations are putting fine art back into pop culture - like the reverse of Andy Warhol and POPART. Have you found this theory to be true?
WCM: Yes 100% true. The public now has more access to fine art and brands have picked up on that and are trying to partner with artists to get more exposure for their products. When it comes to Lady Gaga, a great example is the collaboration she did with Intel for her 2016 Grammy Performance, she's using her artistry to push art and technology forward. Graffiti culture has also become fine art. It's interesting because Andy Warhol himself started out in advertising before he finally got to the point of making whatever art he wanted to create.
RH: What do you want people to know about your new project Friendship Is Magic with Tyler Ramsey?
WCM: Tyler has been a friend of mine for about 10 years, and he's known for being an expressive painter - he also has his own line of TOMS shoes. We just had a gallery with about 30-40 pieces, and we will be doing more.
We like to intersect often - I'd compare us to like a band that reunites every now and then, or even like Drake and Rihanna whenever they do a song together - they both have their respective career paths but every time they collaborate it just works. I wanted to do something with Tyler where I could bring my skill set and technology. It could've been something we could've created individually - but it really only works together. We combine paint with graphic design, photography, laser cutting, flat bed printers. For example - I'll take a photo and print it on plexiglass and then Tyler will paint over it. At the end of the day we want to make fine art - not just things for "decoration" - we always have an intention or deeper meaning behind the things we want to create together.
RH: How did it feel to win the Best Use Of Social Media Award for "I Hope This Gets To You"? And what is your favourite social media app of choice?
WCM: Winning the award was surprising. I didn't make the video to win awards but I appreciated how many people connected with the video in their own way. We all have someone we love and miss and thankfully we live in a world where social media can keep them closer than they are. My favourites are Snapchat and Instagram.
RH: Who are your biggest inspirations?
WCM: My wife and my friends. Andy Warhol, Cleopatra. When it comes to pop icons - Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, David Bowie. I also love David Fincher's video work - he directed Madonna "Express Yourself" and Billy Idol "Rock To The Cradle Of Love".
RH: What's something that scares you?
WCM: Disappointing my wife...
RH: If you had an endless budget and no limitations what would you create first?
WCM: A space - maybe a hotel or a restaurant that is a constantly evolving/moving art piece. Kind of like Burning Man but more accessible (and indoors). I'd love a Neon Carnival Hotel kind of thing - I see a video element to it, a music element, performance, fine arts - a combination of all those things, and having it be a "place" you can create a community that way!