To put his success into perspective – his videos have tallied up around 17 billion views to date, whilst TED Talks have 4 and a half billion views in total, making his pop narratives more influential than the words of the world’s most innovative thinkers.
From very earnest beginnings, his first job was as an intern on Amy Winehouse’s Rehab in 2006, he has risen through the ranks of the music industry. 12 years later, he’s not only climbed the ladder but built a whole new one within the industry.
Having successfully surmounted the peaks of pop culture and firmly positioned himself as music video royalty (his brother Jake has directed videos for Lana Del Rey and Beyoncé), Nava is now working on giving back to youth culture in a different way.
In an age of on-demand streaming video, one-minute attention spans and pop star factories, it looks like Emil’s biggest challenge lies ahead, straying far from the immediacy of pop culture. Nava is in the editing suite as we speak polishing up his first feature documentary about the opioid crisis sweeping America. His film is, as he told us, an attempt to give the young people affected by the crisis a voice.
In this exclusive interview, we chat to Emil about his early life in London, his most bizarre and memorable moments on set and what really motivates his success.
You’re originally from London, so tell us about the city gave to you as a director?
I grew up in London until secondary school. I was getting into a lot of trouble as a ten-year-old. Then we moved to the countryside after my parents split up. So I was split between London and the countryside. The countryside was very calm, and then in London, I was with my father. My dad was an artist/painter/actor and he took me and my brother round to bars and clubs. I can remember being a kid with my dad and going around Soho and Camden, he had a market in Camden. I was very much living and breathing music and the arts as a young boy.
So your dad was a bad influence on you?
My dad rest his soul, he died last year, he was an amazing wild man. He was Mexican, from the streets of Acapulco, living on a beach. He met this English woman and then moved to the UK with her. He really has been the inspiration for a lot of what I’ve done. He was a surreal actor moving into surreal art. And he was a very loving man. I feel like there’s a lot of things I learnt from him growing up that have bled into my work when I look at it as a whole.
So when you were running around London, what were your impressions? What were your first touch points?
Well, I absolutely love North London through and through. Basically between Kentish Town and Camden Town that was where I spent my youth.
My parents were pretty liberal so I was definitely a kid of the street. My parents were hippies, they were into soul music, and the Beatles. I guess vivid memories are being with my dad at a pub or a party and just being left to run around like mad. Or being in a car with them constantly listening to music. It was a real lesson in soul music.
What do you think your dad would have made of your success today?
My dad was an amazingly proud man. My dad was crazy, but he never cared about gossip or about pop culture. When I told him I was doing these music videos, he didn’t know the artists I was working with, he was just proud of the success.
He was always very supportive of me working because I never chose the education route. I worked in the kitchen as a chef starting out and started making tea and coffee on film-sets just before my 18.
"The first video I did for Ed Sheeran, it was a super low budget. [...] Next thing you know we’re ten videos deep and we’ve won VMAs."
So you are the person who captures pop stars like Ed Sheeran and Dua Lipa and Jessie J on camera. Are they vastly different off camera?
I think in music videos, for every video you do you’re portraying something different with them. I feel it’s more about the concept of the video and how the artist wants to be portrayed in that video. It’s the same as making music or making anything. You’re showing a part of yourself for that project or that thing.
It’s even as simple as sitting with Ed for a drink – I know what he likes and what his aspirations are, just as I do with my best friend. The hardest thing I find with music videos is being sent these songs and being asked to come up with an idea. Because with music videos it’s an open playing field basically of what you can come up with.
When you were coming through the ranks, were you watching the legends of the music video world like Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham or were they not important to you?
No, I love them, Chris Cunningham has made a few of my favourite ever videos, same as Spike.
I think what I loved about those types of directors is they were such trailblazers and were doing whatever the fuck they wanted. I just think there was something so amazing about that era in music videos. The creativity was at such an insane level. And I feel with them as well their best work was with artists that they had relationships with.
Chris Cunningham and Aphex Twin, Spike Jonze and the Beastie Boys. I can already imagine them sitting together brainstorming and throwing ideas out there. I can see how the videos were created with an artist and a director having open conversations about what they wanted to do. Also back in those days, the money people were spending you could literally build a whole set and blow it up.
Image: Conor McDonnell
So do you find that today the emphasis on music videos has changed a lot in terms of budgets or their importance?
Yes, I mean I think there are lots of different things going on at the moment that has changed the game.
YouTube is a huge thing, that people are able to upload their own stuff and showcase videos that they’ve made themselves, which I think is such an amazing platform. But I feel right now music videos are one of the biggest pop culture moments of the day. I mean you look at something like Childish Gambino, the one he just did in America it was everywhere.
What did you think of that Childish Gambino video?
I loved it. There should be more of that, they just really nailed it. I love it when I see a music video go like that and I don’t think there’s many of them. I feel like again you can tell that Hero and Donald Glover have been working together for years, and I feel like I can see how that video came to life. And it’s definitely something I aspire to do, I want to shut down the internet. I want the day that we drop a video for everyone to be texting me about it or posting it. That feeling that the world is watching it is the most special feeling.
You’ve had billions of views on your videos, so you have somewhat shut down the internet. Are you saying that making a socio-political statement would mean more to you?
I think it’s a balance. I want to make something that says something. There are things that I feel really passionate about and I want to say more about in my work. But also I do understand the importance of a big pop culture video that’s pushing the song and the artist.
Sometimes, I feel like directors make videos for themselves, not for the artists. For me, I want to make music videos for the artists, films for the characters, documentaries for the people. I feel I’m not actually making them for myself, I want to make them for other people and for the viewers, but I also have my own goals and views of things I want to inject into the world.
Image: Grace Pickering
What’s your film about?
It’s about the drug problem sweeping across America and Canada.
The opioid crisis?
Yeah exactly. It’s a film looking at that, a film looking at youth. I can’t say too much about it because we haven’t released it yet. But to me, it’s a film that’s giving the youth of today a voice. And I feel very passionately about it and I really do feel that it’s going to be in its own lane of the type of cinema that it is.
So you’ve got close to 350 million views for the Dua Lipa and Calvin Harris One Kiss video. How does that sit with you when you see those kinds of numbers?
Yes, it’s amazing. It blows my mind to the point that I do find it hard to think about how many people have watched them.
In my company, we did a rough tally to find out what the views were on the videos I’ve done and we clocked it at just over 17 billion views or something. So it’s mind-blowing and I feel like what I really try to do in my work is make things that are re-watchable.
A lot of videos, I watch them and I wouldn’t have to watch them again because they revisit scenes or they milk the footage. I guess what I really try to do is make every shot different, everything moving forward. And I’ve got quite bad ADD, I get bored very quickly so I make things that I can change very quickly. That plays a part in getting people to re-watch it and getting hopefully obsessed with it. I always say that’s the goal, we’ve got to get the billion views. That’s the kind of bench mark for today for videos for me.
Eminem ft. Ed Sheeran – “River”
So if an obscure artist who doesn’t really have a huge profile sent you an incredible treatment and you were really loving the music, is that something you like to do or is a billion views the benchmark for you?
Oh no, a billion views are just such a funny number. You know when I was growing up I didn’t even know what a billion was and now it’s in the vocabulary of a number of views. We just did a big thing with this new girl called L Devine where we just did two visual EPs, we shot five videos for her first EP and we just shot another five videos for her new EP. And those budgets were nothing, basically, everyone worked for free, it was all for love, I went back to Newcastle and just delved into her hometown, met her family.
And I’ve worked for a lot of new artists, for me, that’s where it’s exciting. The first video I did for Ed Sheeran, it was a super low budget, his first video for a major label. Next thing you know we’re ten videos deep and we’ve won VMAs. Jessie J, I did Jessie’s first video at a major label. Dua Lipa, did her first video at a major label. For me, I love working with a new artist and popping at the same time as them.
Who’s the most difficult person you’ve worked with?
Ah ha, can’t comment on that.
Can you give us their initials and then add a letter? *laughs*
It’s a stressful environment we work in you know. I’m sure I’m not the easiest person to work with a lot of the time.
So you’ve done a lot of videos with Ed Sheeran and he’s become a music icon of our time. You must find it rewarding to see your work rise with him. Is he as amicable as he seems on TV?
Yes, I love Ed as a true friend. I’ve known Ed for years. And one thing I would say about Ed is that he’s pretty much the same person I met six years ago. He’s so humble, he surrounds himself with amazing people.
I’d love to really get an understanding of the music video director routine. Could you give us a break down what a day in the life of a music video director looks like? Let’s take one of our favourites the Feels video with Calvin and Pharrell and Katy Perry. So you get there on the day and what happens?
Yes, that’s a good one to look at because that one is based on a set build. And the set build I find the most stressful. I can see the idea, we get it signed off, obviously, there’s a lot of artists to get it approved, get all the treatments, we’re working on all the styling. It’s a really big number.
And you’re working with really big people?
Exactly. They have my references and they have my treatment and the trust is with me but that set was built two days before the shoot. So I would be on the set and it was just a massive massive empty room. And then it’s like trucks and trucks and more trucks and plants and trees and water and sand. You see all this stuff arriving and you’re like – God! I fucking hope this all comes together.
And then the next day comes and basically the night before the shoot you start making tweets and it’s like fuck. You’re building a piece of art.
"That video was the only video where literally I walked in the toilet and looked in the mirror and was like: “Here we go, just don’t fuck it up.”
You must have been shitting your pants?
Yes, it was crazy. That video was the only video where literally I walked in the toilet and looked in the mirror and was like: “Here we go, just don’t fuck it up.” Each star, Pharell, Calvin, Katy Perry had twenty people, their whole glam team, stylists, management you know. I shoot them all individually and I remember finally we get them all on set. At one point I was talking to them about the shot and I turn round and there are like literally 150 people; all the crew, all the glam, like everyone. And I was just like – fucking hell! So it really felt like a big uphill climb, an incredible pinnacle point with everything working, it really was a moment.
How long was the shoot?
The shoot was very long. In the end, it was about twenty hours. So we started at 6am and then finished at 3 or 4 in the morning. I feel like on video sets you couldn’t make up the problems that you face and that’s almost half the battle.
Yes, and you managed all the personalities quite well, right?
Yeah you know, I’d worked with a couple before. I’d worked with Pharrell on Sing before, I’d worked with Big Sean on a Calvin record before, I’d met Katy before. So I had relationships with each of them. And my approach is that the vibe on set is what bleeds into the video. I try to create a lot of fun and energy.
From someone who’s really defining music videos for the last couple of years for the youth culture, what videos do you go back to and see as legends of their time?
Yeah I mean there’s a few definitely. Chris Cunningham’s Windowlicker video was huge for me, Chris Cunningham’s Portishead video was huge for me. Missy Elliott Get Ur Freak On was huge for me. Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River is I think one of the most perfectly executed music videos in the way that it was just dance, performance, narrative, seamless edit. I mean those are definitely some of my favourites, I’ve got so many.
What are you working on next?
I have a film coming out and I just started my own company, which focuses on delivering 360 creative for artists and brands, taking a music video and growing it into other elements like artwork and parties and just kind of looking at creating a much more 360 sense. We’re launching in November and we’re working with some really interesting, new and diverse talent that I feel deserves a voice.
Feature image: Grace Pickering
Emil Nava’s most recent project is the video for Calvin Harris + Sam Smith’s “Promises.” He is currently in post-production on his first feature film.