Grammy watch: Vancouver’s Miles Jay on his best music video nomination

Young filmmaker from B.C. up for potential honour


TORONTO — Vancouver-born director Miles Jay was on a fruitless pursuit of accolades before he finally realized his mistake.

Like many young filmmakers, he thought taking on projects that felt like guaranteed award winners would bring a future of trophies.

“I spent a lot of time in the early part of my career really wanting them and hunting for them,” admits the director, who was born Miles Jay Robison.

It wasn’t until he gave up the chase that recognition began to emerge.

Now the 27-year-old is directing major commercials — he shot two Super Bowl spots with John Malkovich — and has a Cannes Silver Lion on his mantel. He could grab another trophy Sunday night at the Grammy Awards.

His powerful visual take on the song “River” by soul singer Leon Bridges is nominated for best music video alongside heavy-hitters like Beyonce’s “Formation” and Coldplay’s “Up&Up.”

The seven-minute clip focuses on the lives of Baltimore residents in the aftermath of protests over the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died while in police custody in 2015.

The video is mostly a fictional interpretation of scenes Jay witnessed.

The director formulated his idea after wandering the streets of Baltimore in search of inspiration for a feature film. As a Canadian living in Brooklyn, N.Y., he wanted to better understand the simmering racial tensions within the city.

“I was much more interested in what people did when they left the riots,” Jay says of his approach to the “River” video.

“What it was like to go home after a moment of police brutality, or a vigil.”

The video was filmed with a mostly Canadian crew, including cinematographer Chayse Irvin, who also worked on Beyonce’s Grammy-nominated music film “Lemonade.”

Jay says they found inspiration in the work of photographer Bruce Davidson, who’s known for documenting America’s class struggles and economic strife while treating his subjects with dignity.

He expanded on his Baltimore memories with fictionalized stories, and residents were cast for the video’s vignettes.

Earning the trust of his inexperienced actors was monumental to making “River” work, says Jay.

“The key is to stay with those people,” he says. “Not just shoot them and run away.”

One of the most tender moments he wanted to recreate happened between a mother and son Jay watched as they left a Baltimore vigil that fateful summer. In the video, he extended their story into a private moment back at home.

Another scene features a blood-drenched father returning home to hold his baby. It was inspired by a friend Jay met at a community centre.

Other scenes were pulled directly from real life, like footage of a church congregation holding a baptism beneath a fire hose. It doubles as a reminder of clashes with police during the U.S. civil rights movement, Jay says.

Bridges is also seen in the video playing his guitar in a hotel room while news footage of the Gray riots plays on a fuzzy television screen.

Jay says he likes that viewers aren’t necessarily able to separate the truth from the fiction in his video.

“We all look at the world through our own emotions and experience,” he says.

“That balance (of) trying to figure out if it’s real or not, I think that’s more what life is like.”

– David Friend, The Canadian Press

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