How DANIELS Broke the Internet with the Music Video Sensation 'Turn Down for What'
UPDATE: part two of this interview, where DANIELS share the original treatment for "Turn Down for What," is here.
Three years ago I posted one of my favorite music videos of all time, created by the directing duo DANIELS, who've since racked up many more awards for their terrific music videos and short films. I was excited when I found out they would be at this year's Sundance Screenwriters Lab with me with their feature film project, but little did I know they'd be releasing a viral sensation shortly thereafter. Their music video for DJ Snake and Lil' Jon's "Turn Down for What" has crossed 35 million views as I write this, thanks to its absurd hilarity, excellent direction, and infectious energy. In part one of our Q&A with directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan -- the latter of whom is in fact the main performer in the video -- we address the expected (how they made the video, the cinematography and visual effects) and also the unexpected (dancing sex organs, crotch bruising, Asian masculinity).
NFS: Tell us more about the sexual prosthetics.
Daniel Scheinert: Almost everything in the video is practical. The visual effects shots are practical things composited together. The dancing body parts have almost no effects at all. Like when Dan’s wiener comes alive, I’m just hiding in the doorway behind him with a stick running through the butt hole area of his pants.
Daniel Kwan: The butt hole area, yeah.
Scheinert: You know that spot. I’m just puppeteering it. The raw footage looked good enough, so we didn’t even have to remove me in post – it was so much easier just to have me hide. At the very end I’m hiding under the coffee table puppeteering his wiener. I’m just under there.
Then the boobs are actually puppeteered by Sunita, the female lead dancer. She was just hiding behind the lady with her hand threaded through her shirt and then she had boob shaped gloves that she was wearing so that she could just puppeteer them. It worked, all practical. Actually, if you rewatch the video, you can see her head poke out from behind her sometimes. But it was so fast and fleeting that we didn’t even think it was worth trying to do the visual effects. We were like, “It works! No one’s going to notice.”
Kwan: If they do notice, that’s fine.
Scheinert: Better that you can tell.
NFS: Kwan, how did you come to star in the video?
Kwan: We wanted to just do a dumb dance video because we haven’t done a proper raunchy party dance video yet, and we just love that kind of stuff. I wanted to do, just as a side project, a video where me and Daniel run around Los Angeles breaking stuff by humping it just because that’s so stupid and so funny, and that über masculinity taken to the next level is something that we are so distant from, it would just be fun!
NFS: What was the song originally going to be?
Kwan: Oh, it was going to be a Dillon Francis song – really playful dubstep that’s really stupid but really fun. It was meant to become this fun thing for no money where we just play these characters that just break things with their dicks. We had a name for the subculture and everything. We wanted to call it frumping. It’s like a thing where they just frump shit and they break things with their dick to show off how manly they are. Because of that, when we pitched it, the other Daniel really wanted me to be the lead. I didn’t like the idea because it’s just a lot easier to direct when you don’t have to act in things. But when it came down to it, when we were doing casting, we really couldn’t think of how to find someone who would be willing to do all that stuff. It was a brutal thing to ask someone to do because it was so physically taxing, and also we just needed someone who was so carefree and egoless, and someone who’d be willing to get reckless and trust us... I feel like it would’ve been impossible to find just the right person. Because we had two days to shoot it all, it was just nice having me there not needing direction. I could just do whatever I wanted and it sped up the whole process in a fun way.
Scheinert: I pitched [Kwan] as a joke, and then our producers and the commissioner got really excited and they’re like, “Wait, is that true? Is he going to be in it?” Then every step of the pre-production process we questioned it, like, “Is it still a good idea?” I think it ended up making the video for me. By the end I was like, “Thank god Dan Kwan’s playing the lead.” Because like he said, he could just direct himself. He could jump into the scene and make up jokes. We didn’t plan on him humping the coffee table or the TV. That was just as we were rolling, things kind of went there. Then also having Dan in the scenes set the tone of the whole video, so all the other actors were like, “Okay, I can look dumb. I can go crazy. I can come up with jokes and I don’t even have to ask the directors.” That became the tone of the shoot. He set the bar of: you don’t look pretty... and you don’t turn down.
"There are so many different conventions being broken here that it kind of hurts people’s brains and they just don’t know how or why this got made, but it did get made."
NFS: In the context of über masculinity and men being unable to control their humping desires… I think it’s really interesting for me, as an Asian guy, to see an Asian guy portraying that on screen. Because typically in the media, the Asian male is the least likely to be portrayed as having a dick, or at least being allowed to put it to good use. Then here comes this Asian dude with a super active dick going all over the place. Was that intentional, subconscious, just a coincidence?
Kwan: As far as the Asian thing goes, completely coincidental that I am an Asian person who happens to have this idea and have the ability to convince a record label to let me make a music video and cast myself in it. Just all those things are kind of coincidental but I do think in retrospect it’s really exciting for me that I get to be the person who portrays this super sexualized masculine lead male character because I think the only times Asian males are ever sexualized are in gay porn. I had a professor at school whose Masters thesis was on Asian gay culture and Asian gay culture within porn specifically. He always would talk about how Asian males are never sexualized, never eroticized. They’re never exotic except for in kung fu movies and gay porn.
Just that thought, it’s kind of a bummer. I know growing up I wished I was white. Even when I was in musical theater back in high school, whenever I would go up to try to audition for something I would never get any parts except for side characters or this one year when we did West Side Story, all of the sharks were played by Asian guys, except for, of course, Maria was played by a white girl. It’s just things like that for some reason that became the norm. Because that’s how we grew up.
It’s fun to be able to take something so stupid like this video and play with that and confuse people. I think there are so many different conventions being broken here that it kind of hurts people’s brains and they just don’t know how or why this got made, but it did get made. I love that.
Scheinert: It started like most of our projects, like we don’t go in with an agenda necessarily. It started as a coincidence, but then that was something that we liked about Dan being in it: “Okay, that’s unexpected.” Then we ran with it, and I feel like we wanted the main theme of the film to be dumbness. Like mostly this is just dumb for dumb’s sake. But then if there was a theme underneath that, it became diversity where we just wanted this to be a video where it’s about everybody going hard. It’s not a celebration of any one subculture. The goal is, “Okay, let’s get the most diverse, weird, every body shape, every skin color, every dance style, and just within this tiny cast try to get a big spectrum.”
Kwan: I think that was just a product of the fact that we went into this video saying, “No rules!” We wanted everything and the kitchen sink to come into this project because we haven’t done a music video in so long and we got so antsy because we’ve been working on a script for almost a year and this was a liberating project for us. I think that the two things that it ended up becoming essential to the feeling of it, is this big diversity of ideas and people and moments, and then on the other side also just this idea that it’s all about liberation. It’s all about letting out things that you want to let out and being able to shake what you have, so to speak.
NFS: That could be a big part of why it’s so popular, and why it has gone viral, is that the people feel real. You don’t feel like you’re on a set where hair and makeup is stepping in every five minutes.
Scheinert: The hair and makeup artist did do an amazing job.
Kwan: Our hair and makeup artist did step in every five minutes, but just to spray more sweat on people.
NFS: Did you film on a set? How long was the shoot?
Scheinert: It was a two day shoot and yeah, it was on a set in this warehouse space in downtown LA called The Escarpment. We had been looking around for big apartments or spaces we could dress as an apartment, and originally it was going to take place in different rooms around an apartment. Then we realized, wait, if we compress it, if we keep it all in one room, the whole thing, we could make a bigger mess. The whole thing is just one room that we redressed three times. Our production designer would have to come in and change the walls and furniture each time we switched floors.
NFS: Kwan, how difficult was that to fall through the ceiling and have your head butted through the floor?
Kwan: It was probably the most physically taxing thing I’ve ever done. I’ve never been more sore and in pain in my entire life. It was ridiculously funny how hard it was on my body. But I think overall the worst parts weren’t the falling and the smashing through things because Jason, our production designer, does a great job of building things that look like they would hurt to break through but they’re actually just foam core and balsa wood. Like that baseball bat, he built that baseball bat himself and it shattered so beautifully.
A lot of the stuff that really hurt was unexpected: I wore a cup the whole time. That was awesome. But because I was using the cup so much, the cup itself actually started bruising me around my dick, if that makes sense? My dick was fine but the area around it started getting bruised. Sunita, when she was trying to hit me with the baseball bat, she just kept missing for some reason. She was supposed to aim right for my dick so the cup would block it, but she kept hitting my inner thigh.
Then when she smashed me through the floor, we actually built a platform, like a mini platform, and she just sat on my head slowly and I went through the floor. That was fun, but the problem was as she did that, the bookshelf that was also on the platform tipped over and a flower pot hit my head. Then on top of that, just the dancing, going hard on the dancing was pretty rough on my body.
Scheinert: I felt bad for actor Dan because director Dan was being so brutal to him. He would just be like, “We’ve got to do another take.” I’d be like, “No, it’s good.” Or during the take he kept humping the coffee table over and over. I was like, “No, no, we got that,” and he kept going until the thing splintered – and that wasn’t a breakaway coffee table.
Kwan: Yeah, that was a real coffee table… and I just broke it.
Above: Daniel practicing. #EXCLUSIVEBTS!
[At this point Dan Kwan's phone also breaks, or at least drops the call.]
NFS: Do you guys storyboard, do you pre-vis, do you shot list? What do you go into the shoot with?
Scheinert: Something like this we just have a shot list that we have verbally been working on and then very last minute we’ll be like, “Crap!” and we’ll write something down for our AD. It’s pretty lazy, but also organic. That we’re just hashing things out and passing things out and it’s kind of nice that we haven’t storyboarded it because then we don’t have these preconceived ideas of, “wait, we have to point the camera this way.” Continuity doesn’t matter that much and instead we can just be like, “Wait, what’s going to look best?” Especially because we were shooting mostly chronologically.
NFS: What did you shoot on?
Scheinert: We shot on the Arri Alexa and then for the super slow-mo bits we were like, “man, I wish we had 300 frames.” Our DP called in some favors and got a Red Epic, but we only used it for like four shots, because he doesn’t like using the Epic.
NFS: What are the tools you use in post?
Scheinert: Dan mentioned that he edited a lot of “Underwear,” our first video, in After Effects and that’s still true. Most of our films, if they’re high octane like this one, we move pretty much the whole edit into After Effects – we would edit in Final Cut and then transfer it into After Effects to just do tweaking. We would add really modest lens flares just to try to polish certain effects or cover up things we didn’t like or we add a lot of camera shake obviously. When you watch this one it’s pretty relentless.
NFS: Is there a particular shot or effect that in the video that you’re really proud of?
Scheinert: There’s one that I don’t even know how we pulled off because our friend Zak Stoltz helped us with a lot of the effects. The one in the party when Dan comes through the ceiling, that’s two different shots. One is in the party just pointing up at the ceiling where there was a big light fixture to make light wash over the audience as he crashes through, and then separately on green we shot Dan jumping through some ceiling tiles onto a stunt pad. Zak reconstructed a fake ceiling so that whole ceiling isn’t real. It’s just a collection of photos of ceiling tiles and things and it looks pretty convincing.
NFS: For visual effects, is it all After Effects? Do you use CINEMA 4D and other stuff too, or what other software?
Scheinert: On this one it’s all After Effects and then we’ll use Photoshop to create elements. We always say we’re not that good at visual effects. I think we’re good at shooting content that will work with our limited knowledge of effects. I feel like the key to getting really great visual effects in a movie is to come up with ideas that are going to look good and then shoot it in a way that you know you can pull off. Then it’s not that hard.
Above: using a hair dryer to melt the face of a police officer -- legally and practically, of course.
That's it for part one of our interview. See part two of our interview for career-oriented issues: how DANIELS write treatments, how they pitch, and how to forge a career as a music video director. We even post the original treatment from "Turn Down for What." Thanks to the Daniels for sharing!