For their doc feature about music superstar Lil Nas X, filmmakers Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel didn’t want to do a typical concert doc.
With Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero, which had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the filmmakers hoped to provide a viewing experience that both gave an inside look at the staging of his first tour while tracking Lil Nas X’s personal journey, including his decision to come out about his sexuality to both his family and fans.
His music, including “Montero (Cal Me By Your Name)” and “Industry Baby”, has become a culture war lightning rod, with protests outside of several of his concert venues and television performances garnering attention from right-wing news pundits. (The film’s TIFF premiere was delayed after a bomb threat was called in to the Roy Thomson Hall.) Nonetheless, his shows sold out and received critical acclaim for the musician, whose given name is Montero Lamar Hill.
Ahead of touching down in Toronto, López Estrada, best known for his narrative work on Blindspotting and Raya and the Last Dragon, and Manuel, who has long worked in non-fiction as a cinematographer, talked to THR about not dwelling on the success of the musician’s viral first hit, “Old Town Road,” and their unconventional talking head set-up: “I just felt like it was important for us to be as intimate with him as he is with everyone else, through his performance, through his music, through his social media.”
How did this doc come about?
CARLOS LÒPEZ ESTRADA They were putting this tour together, and they were starting to figure out what exactly this documentary would be. [Lil Nas X, creative director Hodo Musa, and Sony Music execs] knew that the show was called Long Live Montero, and they knew that they wanted it to feel very theatrical and they wanted it to have some type of narrative and they really wanted for it not to feel like a straightforward music concert where you just show up and someone performs songs, but they really want it to be high concepts. I got involved, and we locked ourselves in a room and listened through all the songs [on the album]. We mapped it out almost as a movie and tried to figure out what type of story would be able to hold all these things together. They said we have this incredible documentary filmmaker named Zac [Manuel]; we want him to follow Montero. Zac would work closely with him for a number of days and follow him around. I would work on the documentation of the show and the music and the fans, and then we’d kind of come together and bring those two ingredients to make this movie.
ZAC MANUEL They were looking for someone to document the tour experience, someone who could work with a small footprint, but also really get to know the artist on a personal level and broach conversation from an intimate perspective. I came on maybe a week or two before Montero and the team actually went on the road. We went to his house on the morning of our third day, and that was the first time we were actually able to have a good conversation without all of the busyness of tour business going on. That was the moment that it clicked, that there was a deeper story here.
What was your understanding of Lil Nas X prior to working on this doc?
MANUEL I remember the first time I told my best friend that I was working on this film about Lil Nas X. They were like, “I remember when you introduced me to him and you played ‘Old Town Road’ on your porch in New Orleans.” I really had my entrance or introduction to him just like everybody else’s — through social media. I got to really love his music because a lot of my work revolves around Black masculinity, queerness, and identity. As an artist, he really was exploring those things with a lot of depth and confidence and a lot of courage.
LÒPEZ ESTRADA I think it’s impossible to not have any exposure to him and the work that he’s been doing, because it’s just everywhere, all time. But the timing of his rise to success was while I was so deep into this long animated project that was all-consuming for two years of my life, and I finished and realized that I just for two years did nothing. I didn’t see any movie. I didn’t listen to any music. And his rise to success was so incredibly fast that of course I heard “Old Time Road,” but I just hadn’t really had a chance to dive deep. With this doc I really earned an appreciation for him and for his work and for his music that I feel like I really wouldn’t have had I not worked on this movie.
People were introduced to Lil Nas X via “Old Town Road,” but the doc doesn’t dwell on his musical origin story, especially considering how big of a springboard that was. What was the thinking behind that?
LÒPEZ ESTRADA From the beginning, the concept behind the show and something that I think was important to them to communicate is that his journey has not been linear. He had “Old Town Road” and it was a huge hit, and all of a sudden every person on the planet was listening to the song. And you would assume that is it in an artist’s life, that’s the high. But in the [concert] there’s this narrator who says, for most artists, [“Old Town Road”] would be the end of the journey, but that was really just the beginning of it.
MANUEL Obviously, “Old Town Road” is a big part of what made him successful, but a lot of his other songs say more about who he is as a person. It was important to allow the film and what we were talking about in the film to speak to his constant change as a person and as an artist and to not be stuck on the things that felt buzzy at that time.
Your “talking head” interview with Lil Nas X was conducted from his bed. What was the thinking behind that?
LÒPEZ ESTRADA The first thing we said when we were starting to work on this is it can’t really feel like a serious talking head doc. This needs to feel unconventional and it needs to feel daring and weird and funny. It needs to have a good sense of humor, and it just really should feel as unexpected and cheeky as his Twitter feed does.
MANUEL I just felt like it was important for us to be as intimate with him as he is with everyone else, through his performance, through his music, through his social media. Pretty early on in the process, I knew we were going to have to do a master interview, but he’s not the kind of person that you want to just be sitting in front of terrible background. You want to literally be in the bed, pillow talking next to him. He had opened up to me so much in the process, which I felt really grateful for, but I wanted to be able to translate that feeling of closeness and intimacy to anybody who was going to watch it. How can we tear down the walls of what it means to watch someone tell their story? Oftentimes when you’re really hearing someone and you’re really in an intimate space with someone, it’s maybe when you just wake up next to them in bed. And I think it’s just such a beautiful and graceful and endearing position to have a really deep conversation with somebody. And I’m lucky that he agreed to lie down in bed for a couple of hours and do that interview.