Matt Lambert

Bodies On Film: Director Matt Lambert Liberates The Music Video

A Q&A with the filmmaker behind Mykki Blanco's 'High School Never Ends' and more

Filmmaker and photographer Matt Lambert works in a potent visual realm in which nudity is normalized, intimacy is political, and youth lasts forever. The L.A.-born, Berlin-based artist got his start creating animated films in his early twenties before adopting the Die Lamb moniker in 2011. From there, Lambert has quickly become a prolific force in fashion and art, creating films and shooting photos for the likes of Gucci, Givenchy, and a host of fashion magazines. It’s easy to see why: Lambert’s remarkably raw photography and films, inspired as much by German expressionism as by post-digital youth culture, create an evocative body of work that lays bare the connective tissue of sexuality, youth, and identity.

Three years ago, Lambert shifted his vision to music videos, taking a director’s role for Patrick Wolf’s “The Libertine.” Dark, sensual, and loaded with a narrative that drew from the anti-gay conflicts devastating Uganda at the time, the video revealed new possibilities for Lambert’s art. “It's been a chance to collaborate with the people who inspire me,” he explains. “I've rarely done a video for a musician or group that I'm not in love with.”

The impulse to collaborate with musicians in his circle and push himself creatively gave rise to more music videos, including Capsa’s “War,” the three-part “Die Alphatier Trilogie” for Westernhagen, Hercules and Love Affair’s “My Offence,” and Austra’s “Habitat.” Lambert’s visual language is clear throughout these works: sharply rendered bodies, neon blooms of light in dim settings, vulnerable close-ups of intimate encounters. But his directorial eye isn’t interested in simply crafting stunning visuals: “Habitat” humanized taboo relationships through tender, affecting glimpses of motel room meet-ups, while the talking heads of “My Offence” confronted the controversy and empowerment involved in reclaiming slurs. In Lambert’s music videos, purpose and progress go hand in hand with aesthetic choices.

This year is proving to be a crucial one for Lambert. Following the release of his first photography book, Keim, and a homo-punk-inspired zine called VITIUM, he directed the video for indie upstart Declan McKenna’s “Paracetamol.” A touching, heart-in-your-throat portrait of trans teenagers forging connections with one another, “Paracetamol” does away with a hackneyed narrative trope that often plagues art focused on trans stories and lives: the seeming requirement that they end in tragedy. Instead, McKenna and Lambert turned their film into something much more uplifting. “We wanted to make something positive,” McKenna told The Guardian. “This video doesn’t tell them that their life is going to be shit simply because some people won’t accept who they are.”

Lambert’s latest work — a short film for New York rapper Mykki Blanco and French singer/producer Woodkid's “High School Never Ends,” released last week — marks an intentional return to violent imagery, however. Taking a bucolic German countryside setting and loading it with questions of race, sexuality, and Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis, “High School Never Ends” is Lambert’s most powerful work to date. The film uses an elegiac riff on Romeo and Juliet to address complex social ills, unchecked aggression, and the violence that can be engendered by both, all through the power of suggestion. "We'd known we wanted to make something together for a long time," Lambert tells me of his work with Blanco. "This was the one that really felt right. Mykki had a pretty clear idea of who his character would be, and then I fit that into the script I was writing. We shared a lot of notes along the way."

MTV News caught up with Lambert to talk “High School Never Ends,” his biggest aesthetic influences, and how he’s turning queer identity into subtext.

You’ve said that "High School Never Ends" is a culmination of your team’s visual language over the past few films you’ve made. Did you draw from any other works of art aside from your own in directing this?

Matt Lambert: Almost all of it was from my life or stories in my periphery — from the skinheads I knew in L.A. as a teenager to the queer punks in NYC and gender-fluid politics of Berlin to the rural worlds of Germany.

There are a lot of loaded, powerful images in this film. What was the general feeling like on set?

Lambert: There was a strong family vibe. It was usually loose and playful, but also scattered with some more somber moments of genuine emotion, like [during] the death scene.

What's your collaborative process generally like once an artist approaches you about making a music video? Does the music itself have to strike you a certain way for you to first get onboard?

Lambert: Most of my videos for artists like Mykki, Hercules and Love Affair, Austra, and Patrick Wolf were direct from relationships I had with them, and they often shared tracks as part of the opening dialogue. I try to start the conversation really early on. Sometimes it's months until we really get to knowing what we're going to make.

What music videos made the biggest impact on you growing up?

Lambert: I grew up in L.A. watching Dre and Snoop videos on The Box. The density of the worlds they built was so on point. Once I started directing, I'd say [Jonathan] Glazer's “Rabbit in Your Headlights” was a big one.

Declan McKenna has said that it was important for both of you to make "Paracetamol" a story about trans characters that had an uplifting message rather than ending in tragedy. Can you speak to why that was so important to you as a director?

Lambert: Trans or even gay characters in film are so often victims before anything else. They can be reduced to their bodies or sexualities. It was really important — and is with all my films — that people are people first, and that their orientations or gender identities are subtexts.