What happens when Kanye West tries to work with a person who is just as steadfast in maintaining a vision as he is? Well, they might decide not to work together.
Last year, West and director Chris Milk teamed up for Ye's "All Falls Down" video, and when it came time to choose a lensman for "Jesus Walks," there was no question who the rapper wanted: Milk, and the feeling was mutual. "I thought it was incredible, one of the best hip-hop songs I ever heard," Milk said.
But when the two began working on a treatment for the video, they had drastically different ideas.
"Both Kanye and I have a real strong view of what we want," Milk said. "When the two align, they can be really great. When they don't, we really do butt heads.
"There was a lot of back-and-forth between us conceptually of what it should be," Milk continued. "Actually, we had so much of a difference of opinion that he did what he wanted to do with another director. I never want to do a video so bad that I'm gonna do a concept I'm not interested in."
The two amicably decided not to work together and Milk says he even started helping Kanye look for another director. Eventually, West decided on Michael Haussman (who directed Madonna's "Take a Bow") and traveled to a 'hood in Cali and filmed the clip about a street thug, a wino and a prostitute who want to change their lives. Kanye donned a suit and delivered his lines from a pulpit. Apart from a minor incident between some gangbangers and Kanye's friend/rapper GLC, the shoot went smoothly — but Kanye was still not fulfilled (see "Kanye West's Videos: 'Jesus Walks' ... And Walks ... And Walks").
After viewing an edit, Kanye decided he needed to say more. Everyone — his management, his record label, his friends — thought he was bugging out, but West knew he wanted to shoot two more videos for "Jesus Walks." One would be a lower-scale version, shot for $40,000, that "Through the Wire" directors Coodi and Chike would helm.
For the other, Kanye would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money — on Chris Milk's original idea of a video centered around a Klu Klux Klansman, a chain gang and a band of drug dealers on the run.
The most powerful image of the Milk-directed "Jesus Walks" video has to be when the Klansman is walking up a hill with a burning cross.
"The Klu Klux Klan guy, that was certainly the hot button of the whole video," Milk added. "Having a Klansman carry a cross up a burning mountain, like Jesus carried a cross as a precursor to his crucifixion, is obviously a pretty tricky image to put in a hip-hop video. I was very careful with that story line."
Eventually the wind blows the cross out of the Klansman's hands, but he is still not deterred, even if it means he'll go up in flames.
"His hate is so consuming that he tries to carry the cross back up the mountain," Milk said. "That's the physical manifestation of his hate, and he wants it to get to the top of the mountain for the world to see. He's so blinded by his hate that he doesn't [consider that his robe will burn]. But God forgives him and causes it to rain, therefore extinguishing [the fire], and that's a sort of baptism; washing away his sins. It's pretty complex. I know a lot of it is going to be lost in the translation of just being a music video, but the song is so deep it necessitates going the extra step with the visual metaphors."
The Klansman scene was the most difficult to film, according to the director. They had to shoot at night after a long day of filming in the sun, and they had to light the actor on fire and film the 11-foot-tall cross rolling down a hill end-over-end. To top it off, there were two rain-making towers (which made it difficult to see), six cameras and mud everywhere.
Milk says the car-chase scene between the cops and drug dealers was the most exciting to shoot, but he did need an extra $10,000 to procure a remote-controlled mini-helicopter with a small camera inside. One man operated the helicopter and another worked the camera.
GLC says the most taxing job for him was being an extra in the chain-gang scene.
"You really felt like Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence in 'Life,' " he smiled. "You got to see exactly how they was living in that movie. When we got back to the hotel, we were dirty — I mean, the tub looked like it was filled with coffee."
"He was determined to make this epic video," Milk said of Kanyeezee. "He was paying for it himself, and that was a scary thing for him. I commend the guy for putting himself on the line like that because it was still the beginning of his solo career. It was a tremendous amount of money for someone to pay out-of-pocket. Kanye looked at it like this is something new and to exist on its own; it's not just a commercial for a single."
Kanye has been rewarded for his diligence and risk-taking: The Chris Milk version of "Jesus Walks" is a nominee for Video of the Year at the 2005 VMAs.