A few weeks ago, Mike Diva, the director of Lil Nas X‘s new Orwellian fantasy video “Panini,” slept no more than 10 hours total. On Thursday (September 5), it was easy to see why — months of Diva’s hard work was on full display when the effects- and choreo-heavy visual finally came out. “I slept in my office for about two weeks,” he told MTV News over the phone, laughing victoriously. “It definitely shaved a few years off of my life.” The directing, dancing, and conceptualizing point man can now relax and watch Cartoon Network’s Chowder because he admittedly doesn’t know much about the origins of the character Panini (who Lil Nas X refers to in the song).
Diva’s viral videos like 2011’s “Dubstep Guns” and 2016’s “Japanese Donald Trump Commercial” showcased his unique, colorful, and goofy approach to self-aware comedy. This year, he was approached by the music commissioner at Sony with the opportunity to direct Lil Nas X’s latest. “He figured I would be perfect for it because it had the surrealist slapstick humor I strive for, and that it needed some visual flare,” Diva said. From there, he connected with Lil Nas X and his team and began working on concepts.
At first, Lil Nas X sought something blending live action and animation in line with and inspired by Chowder. But after that concept was scrapped, the rapper’s team came back with a treatment glowing with cyberpunk and futuristic inspirations. “The Sony commissioner sent me the concept that Lil Nas X actually wrote on his Notes app and it was insane,” Diva said. Lil Nas X shared it on social media over the weekend and previewed it at his 2019 VMAs performance. “After reading it, I was like, we have to do this,” Diva said, “but how in the hell are we going to do it without a million dollars?”
“Panini” takes place in a magnificent, glowing metropolis in the future, where holographic ads featuring Lil Nas X stretch up the sides of buildings and pop up through the streets. The design rings familiar and uniquely stylish; Diva mood-boarded “every single scene,” taking inspiration from seminal futuristic visions like Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner. “Nas was very receptive to all of my ideas: concepts for robots, cars, and other things like that,” Diva said. The shooting process moved quickly. “We pretty much got the treatments to the video a week before we shot it. So we roughly had a couple of days to rewrite the treatment and make it into an actual shootable video, and then a couple days of pre-production, and then we were just thrown right into it.”
Since shooting was so swift, Diva, who felt insecure about the quality of some of the effects, decided to add holograms to “pick up the slack.” He also worked on the ridiculous amount of advertisements that help fill the world, from the real brands — Uber, Fiat, Beats By Dre — to the fake ones. The entire creation was an enormous, taxing, and exhilarating experience — one much grander than Diva’s typically intimate process of making YouTube videos.
“To pull something off like this is actually pretty insane in the music-video world,” he said. “In post-production, it took almost a month because every single shot was a multi-layered digital effects shot.” Although arduous, Diva loved the process because it reminded him of the “golden age” of expensive, high-concept music videos in the 1990s that felt undeniably cinematic. (Indeed, some of the era’s biggest visionaries — Hype Williams, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, and more — graduated to feature films.) “I feel like you don’t see as many of these anymore, so I was stoked to be able to do that because those kinds of videos are what inspired me to direct in the first place.”
Actress Skai Jackson plays the video’s title character who just can’t stand seeing Lil Nas X everywhere. She flees but still ends up coming face-to-face with him dancing in an alley and surrounded by robots. They filmed the scene filmed 5 a.m. when the entire crew was ready to go to sleep — apart from Lil Nas X. “Everyone was exhausted, and Nas had just been napping, so we woke him up and had him dance in an alley for an hour and he killed it,” Diva said.
Lil Nas X’s electric routine was in part choreographed by Diva. “I worked with the dancer, Phil, to choreograph the movement for the robots using motion capture,” Diva said. “I basically wanted him to come up with the movements that, if Nas didn’t have the time to learn, or if he wasn’t necessarily a good dancer, that he could just perform in front of these robots and look cool.” When brought a simplified version of the routine, Nas didn’t want to settle. “He was adamant about learning the dance in the day that we had to learn it, and he really wanted to just do the full thing.” At that moment, Diva knew that the video would be something special.
The video wraps up after Jackson lands back in the city to find the rapper turning off his presence so that, as Diva said, “he can kill the saturation of his brand, just for a moment” and show Panini that he does care for her. This happy finale could have potentially been a bit darker, if Diva’s original treatment had been used. “It would have had this ending, but then, after a bit of blank screen and you think it’s over, there’s a rebooting sequence and you see Nas floating in front of the TV with a bunch of flowers, and all the Nas holograms come back more obnoxious than ever,” he laughed. Diva also found inspiration in director Jordan Peele’s frightening visions to give “Panini” a haunting closing memory. “There would be a horror version of ‘Panini,’ almost like the remix of ‘I Got 5 On It‘ used in Us. Afterward, he’d do a classic ‘Thriller’ turn to the camera, and you would see that his eyes are glowing red.”
It took a city of people to bring the metropolis of “Panini” to life, and despite a lack of sleep, Diva knows it was worth it to help amplify and execute the unique vision of Lil Nas X. “I’m happy to say that I was able to take 80 percent of his ideas and make them happen,” he said. “We work really well together, and he’s really fun to collaborate with.”