Interview: How Director Maegan Houang is Bringing Her Twisted Visions to Your Favorite Indie Music Videos
Delve into Los Angeles-based director Maegan Houang’s filmography, and you’ll be stunned at some of the macabre things that you’ll find. Horror, unnerving tension, and elements of dark fantasy all come together in her works time and time again, coalescing in a kaleidoscope of gruesome ideas. The one constant? A multitude of rising indie hits that soundtrack each eerie visual.
Houang’s filmography is equally a reflection of her favorite musical artists in the indie scene as it is a showstopping resume for her inspired visions. For example, in one of her first videos, Chastity Belt‘s “Black Sail,” a group of American pioneers moving West find trouble when one of the members of their convoy turns into a zombie. For Skylar Spence‘s “I Can’t Be Your Superman,” Houang’s music video takes a dizzying turn into straight-up weird. When a nail salon owner is threatened by thugs, his employee has no choice but to act by throwing acid at the attackers–resulting in a hallucinogenic dance sequence filled with grooving nail technicians and nightmarish finger-people (yes, you read that correctly). Backed by Skylar Spence’s upbeat nu-disco sound, it’s a wonder how Houang managed to come up with the video’s idea and further pitch it to the label heads at Carpark Records. But the result is astounding, as “I Can’t Be Your Superman” has to be one of the most peculiar music videos released as of late.
However, it wasn’t until Houang took a crack at “Happy” off of Mitski‘s album Puberty 2 that she really hit it big. Set in the unspecified past, “Happy” tells the story of a wife who suspects that her American husband is cheating on her. Unfortunately, as she soon comes to find out, things are much, much worse than she initially thinks. Built off of horror conventions and further fueled by Mitski’s gift for capturing anxiety in its purest form, “Happy” is unforgettably gorgeous and stomach churning. “Happy” also became something of a revelation for Asian Americans in the indie music scene: with a shocking video that was directed by an Asian American, stars an Asian American actress (Lisa Maley), and features one of the fastest rising Asian American indie rock artists in the scene (Mitski), it was a breakthrough for representation two years before Crazy Rich Asians even hit theaters. Though “Happy” was somehow wrongfully snubbed at a variety of film festivals that year, Houang’s video will forever live on as a landmark for those who were paying attention. Even now when she gets approached by people about “Happy,” Houang tells me she’s humbled. “I made it for us,” she says with sincerity. “I made it for the Asian American community.”
Now, Houang works as a writer on the J.K. Simmons-starring Starz television series Counterpart, but she still directs music videos on the side–her most recent one being “Chatroom” for New York indie rockers Charly Bliss. The two-year gap didn’t change much for Houang. “Chatroom” is just as chilling as anything she’s done before, and it once again features gorgeously colorful shots mixed with shadowy intrigue. The premise of the video is similarly horrifying: lead singer Eva Hendricks is depicted as a follower of a cult who slowly comes to the realization that things aren’t as simple as they seem.
This year, Houang has also returned with her short film In Full Bloom, a film about an agoraphobic shut-in who finds her tranquil world disrupted by strange worms that threaten to tear it apart. Featuring Joy Luck Club actress Kiều Chinh, In Full Bloom is a mesmerizing and welcome addition to Houang’s eclectic credits.
We got the chance to talk to Maegan Houang about what it’s like being an indie music video director, how she got to work with esteemed bands like Charly Bliss, and what In Full Bloom is all about.
What is it like being a music video director? What is the process of making a music video?
I’m part of We Direct Music Videos which is a community organization started by the Daniels to get music video directors more respect in the industry, and we always refer to it as a Wild Wild West. That’s because we’re given very little money, not always given very much time, and we just have to make things happen. There’s this amazing quote by the Hong Kong director Ringo Lam about shooting in Hong Kong and he said “No money, no time, just do it,” and I think that’s really also the way that music video directors are often operating. For me, it’s really specific because I’ve almost always worked directly with artists and just emailed the artists I liked. I’ve emailed hundreds of artists and like five have responded. I’ve sent them my work.
For my first music video for Chastity Belt, I went to high school with Gretchen Grimm who is the drummer, and I just asked her if I could make a music video for them for the song “Black Sail,” which I liked and I paid for it. When I was in grad school I read a book called I Will Teach You to Be Rich [by Ramit Sethi], and I saved a lot of money. And I saved that money so I could move to LA and I could make stuff. When I got here I used that money to make my first music video. I think we spent $2,800. Then from there I used that as a calling card to see if other artists wanted me to make music videos for them and that’s how I got the rest of my work–it’s just sending that and future videos and saying “Hey I really love your music, and I’d really like to make a video for you.”
Because it’s so low budget and because there’s no time, it’s really important to me that I really like the artist when I make a music video… that I care about their career and that I’m invested in making something that’s good because I’m not getting paid usually–a lot of the crew isn’t getting paid or they’re doing me a favor or they’re taking a low rate, and I’m often putting some of my own money in to make it work. So if I don’t love the song or the artist, then it’s probably not worth my time.
Do the record labels get involved in funding the music videos?
Now I always have a budget when I do a video. So the first one is the only one where I’ve paid for the whole thing. But the rest of them… I mostly only supplement when I have to. The record labels usually give the artists a very limited budget and they have to divide that between their videos. For example, a lot of the smaller indie record labels would give their artists a $10,000 budget for all their videos. That artist can decide: okay, I’m going to make one video for $10,000, or I can make four videos for $2,500 each.
The biggest budget video that I’ve heard from a major artist in the past few years is about $300,000. But that’s actually not very much because commercials are about $300,000-$350,000 a day. To make a whole music video for that is great–you can pay people–but it’s not the days of Michael Bay or David Fincher where they were getting $1,000,000 in 1992 dollars for music videos. I have a friend who is a music video rep and he told me that in his whole roster only one person made enough money to live. And it was around $40-50,000 and everyone else is supplementing with other jobs. So it’s not a career–that’s partially is what We Direct Music Videos is about. It’s not about making it a career but it’s about making it a little bit fairer.
It’s like Dan Kwan’s example that he tweeted about on Labor Day. For the “Turn Down For What” video, where they had hundreds of millions of views, they each only made $1000 or $1500 each for two months of work. No one can live off of that! And none of us in We Direct Music Videos are necessarily saying we want to get rid of low budget music videos because they’re a great way for directors to learn and they’re a great way to break into the industry. But there is systematic mistreatment that happens which is unfortunate. I’ve been lucky because almost all the artists I’ve worked with have been really open-minded about my ideas, let me do what I want, and just really been a pleasure to work with, but also I’ve only tried to work with people like that. It kind of goes both ways.
What was it like working with Charly Bliss? How did you get into directing their music video?
So that’s the thing. I’ve known Charly Bliss for a long time because my boyfriend grew up with Sam Hendricks [drummer] and they’re best friends from high school, and they were in jazz band together. My boyfriend plays guitar and Sam obviously plays the drums. So I’ve known Sam for a long time, and Eva [lead vocalist] is his little sister. Eva really liked my Chastity Belt video, so for the past four years we’ve gotten to know each other and talked and thought it would be fun to do a video together–I think that’s how that happened.
I think it’s important for people to know that a lot of bands do just work with people that they know personally or friends. It’s a lot easier for people to give someone what is a small amount of money to make a video–but a lot of money to the band and the label–to someone that they know and that they trust, and they can feel secure with that. I think that’s why that happens and it makes sense. If you’re an up-and-coming music video director, the key is to go to concerts, talk to artists, email artists, and try to get to know them. It’s not about being best friends with them necessarily–it’s also about making them feel comfortable. I think that will pertain to if I’m ever in the position to pitch a film, or to get an actor. It’s based on your prior work, and it’s also about how safe you make people feel.
Eva has mentioned via social media that “Chatroom” comes from a particularly dark place–her own experience with sexual assault. How did you navigate that delicate topic when creating the music video?
When Eva first sent me the song we got on a call and she told me what had inspired the song. I had gone through a really similar experience where I was sexually assaulted by an ex-boyfriend. I think I really related to the experience, and we came to an understanding. I think that’s another example of how we were comfortable with each other because we had had a similar experience.
One thing I really cared about is not perpetuating showing sexual assault or rape in media and instead, think more about the emotional experience. It’s finding a story metaphor for the experience to the best of my ability. If you felt like you were in love with someone and they did something that horrible to you, in my mind it felt like the same thing–I’ve never been in a cult–but I felt like it could be similar to being obsessed with this person who you think is so great, and then they’re hurting you. Reconciling those two things is really difficult and I thought that it was just a really good way to show that emotional experience without having to show the act, or be so explicit about what the song was about, but also just demonstrate how much that can impact you.
Also, I think in a lot of ways rape culture is a cult. The way that we prop people up and make excuses for people who are terrible to women. I guess this isn’t rape-culture, but patriarchy is kind of like a cult. We didn’t pass the Violence Against Women act until 1994, and I think if you think about that the way that women have been treated throughout history it’s pretty terrible and it’s still really hard for people to believe in. Anytime people come out with a story the first thing people say is “Do you believe it?”
I think it’s important to explore those ideas and the impact that it has on people emotionally, or the feeling of being controlled just by someone’s persona or how you felt about them and how they’re totally undermined.
Could you tell us a little bit about your short film In Full Bloom? What is it about?
I wrote the script three or four years ago, and it was just very expensive because it’s about a woman who’s agoraphobic and a hoarder and she doesn’t leave her house. But she likes to garden, so she orders these worms who end up creating a black hole that takes all of her stuff. That’s a pretty expensive idea–it requires a lot of special and visual effects. We ended up doing a lot of stop-motion for the worms. I always really wanted to make it but I didn’t have the money, and then I applied for the VSCO Voices Creator grant and I got it, which was awesome! That was $20,000 so that’s how I made the film.
All my collaborators and I spent a lot of time–probably six to eight weeks of prep just figuring out how to do all of these effects. I had talked to people about it in the past and the biggest thing I learned was “No CGI.” CGI is really expensive, it’s not going to look good–try to do everything as practically as possible. One of my very good friends Matt Wauhkonen is a VFX artist. His specialty is compositing, and everything we did in the film we just designed around compositing.
The film is a pretty personal idea to me, so it’s hard for me to explain simply, but it’s really just about how one can be so wrapped up in their grief and loss that they don’t really know what to do. Sometimes it takes a transformative event to cause them to take action. But it’s also about the question I have which is: “Can you ever get over losing someone you really love?” I guess I don’t have the most optimistic view–that it might not be something you can overcome. I don’t know if it can and I don’t know if it’s the simplest answer, but I was thinking about those questions. Is it worth living if someone you built your whole life with is gone?
I think there are a lot of narratives that say a really easy yes, and I didn’t want it to be so simple.
What is it like working with a veteran actress like Kiều Chinh in In Full Bloom? How did you get her on board with the project?
She is a legend! Kiều is the Vietnamese actress who was in Joy Luck Club (1993), and when I talked to people who were in the Vietnamese American community about her, she was lovingly referred to as the “Oprah of Vietnam.” I’m very lucky that she wanted to do my film. She’s also an incredibly talented actress. I was blown away by her performance, I was blown away by her questions, her ideas, everything. She’s so professional and it was really a joy to work with her. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to make the film without her.
When I was casting the film it was a wake-up call in its own way: not that I didn’t know this but I never had to confront it personally. I watched the reels for a lot of older Asian American actresses and it was frankly pretty depressing. They’re often playing comedic roles that are implicitly making fun of their race, using funny accents, not really being given substance, and always a side character. I watched them and I cried because I felt really sad that there’s not that much opportunity for these people who love acting–who have made their life about acting–to do roles that they care about. There’s just not a ton of substance behind them, and I think that’s sad and I really hope that this new generation of filmmakers and inclusion will give actors and actresses who have been working for 20-30-40 years more opportunities to really show the talent and skill that they have–because it’s sad that we don’t see more of it.
It’s the same with female filmmakers–there are a lot of up and coming female filmmakers. But there are also a lot of us who are older and have been doing this for years. I think we need to remember everybody because inclusion shouldn’t be just about gender or race, but it should also be about age. We’re in an ageist industry.
As members of the public, we don’t get to see a lot of what goes on behind the scenes. What has your experience been like as an Asian American music video director, and do you think there has been more representation behind the camera as opposed to in front of it?
I think for a lot of Asian Americans it can take a little while to fully embrace your identity of being other in society. I know for myself because I grew up in a predominantly white place [Michigan] and in a predominantly white community, I have, for much of my earlier years, spent a lot of time with white people. I think that as I’ve gotten older, I became more and more interested in my Asian identity, and that has made me more interested in knowing other Asian American creators. At first, I was mostly surrounded by peers from college who would be mostly white men, some white women, and since I’ve moved to Los Angeles, in the past seven years I’ve made friends with other creators of color and other Asian Americans too.
You feel less isolated–you don’t feel like you’re the only one doing it, but it definitely was a process within the past 10-12 years of choosing to integrate that more into my life. I think that’s also a generational shift too because I’m really proud and happy to see younger Asian Americans grasping onto their identity at what I feel is a much younger age than when I would’ve been able to be aware of it. When I was growing up, I had a poster of Bjork on my wall because quite frankly as a half-Asian person she looked the most similar to me as a celebrity. No one else looked like me, was relatable to me, and I loved her. I think that when I reflect on it–I love her music–but it’s also just a reflection of seeing myself and I think that it’s cool that more and more people have that now in artists like Mitski, SASAMI, Jay Som, Japanese Breakfast specifically with music, and obviously in film and TV. Crazy Rich Asians, Master of None, and all those other shows. I think that’s awesome but it’s definitely been a process.
I think I was also lucky enough to have two of my favorite music video directors be Asian American, specifically Hiro Murai and Dan Kwan of the Daniels. It was cool to see them making work that really mattered, that people really believed in, but I still haven’t seen as many Asian American women.
Who would you most like to work with in the future?
For music videos, I would love to work with Mitski again. I love SASAMI, Blonde Redhead, Land of Talk, Charly Bliss, Speedy Ortiz/Sad13, and Jay Som so much. I really do gravitate towards bands centered around women or female singers–I definitely feel more inspired to do work for them, and the music I tend to listen to tends to be female-led or with female vocalists. Any of the Asian American musicians. Yaeji too.
If I’m really reaching for the stars, I’d love to work with Janelle Monaé. One of my favorite bands growing up was Yo La Tengo and I would love to do a Yo La Tengo video. Obviously Radiohead, Bjork, ROSALÍA, Vagabon and Perfume Genius too.
What music are you currently listening to now?
Maegan Houang’s short film In Full Bloom will be screened at various film festivals across the USA, including the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on Monday, May 6th and San Francisco/Oakland’s CAAM Fest on Friday, May 10th.
Cover photo by Bao Ngo.
In Full Bloom Website: Link