Fill In The Blank Leanne Shapton’s urban infill
By Mark Tramdak
Photos by: William Arcand
Kevin Calero, music video and film director, wants to introduce me to the “Zen room.” We’re at Crew Collective, a café and co-working space on the cavernous main floor of a 1920s-era neoclassical skyscraper in Montreal’s Old Port. He leads us away from ornate vaulted ceilings and soaring archways into a secluded room panelled in coffered dark wood and filled with cushions and plants. It is exactly the kind of moment Calero specializes in: a change of pace in a dramatic setting.
Whether he’s shooting music videos for Miguel, Foxtrott or Coeur de pirate or a Cîroc vodka commercial with Diddy and DJ Khaled, Calero’s work is full of dynamic contrasts: glossy neon colours glowing against black backgrounds and wide-angle shots of dancers dwarfed by rock formations and crashing waves. He describes his aesthetic as “rhythmic and sculptural,” but, above all, it’s immersive. “I understood very early on how music videos could be vessels for escape,” he says. “You dive into one little moment in time.”
A true child of the ’90s, the 32-year-old director grew up in suburban Blainville, Quebec, watching MTV and daydreaming. “I wanted to make my life an episode of MTV’s Making the Video. You get the dance rehearsals, showing up on set, storyboarding, obstacles.” He didn’t waste any time realizing his vision. “Every summer, I’d take my little sister hostage and make her do fashion shows and choreography,” he says with a laugh. “I think the director role came very naturally.”
But first, Calero was a performer. He studied violin from age seven and spent his childhood watching his sisters dance, learning all the moves to their Janet Jackson routines. At 14, when his older sister took him to one of her own auditions, he kicked off 10 years of intensive study as a hip-hop dancer. Although he shifted his focus to film in 2009, dance remains central to Calero’s practice. “In dance you’re taught to dissect a song so that when you freestyle, you can pick up little sounds and associate them with movements—and that’s absolutely my approach to directing,” he explains. “Then I make edits that are superrhythmic. There’s always a cadence to the information.”
“In dance you’re taught to dissect a song so that when you freestyle, you can pick up little sounds and associate them with movements—and that’s absolutely my approach to directing”
Nora Rosenthal, who covers dance for a local arts publication in Montreal, notes that Calero “understands that dance can exist in the edit and not only be embodied by the dancers themselves—that what constitutes dance all of a sudden changes in a video and, in particular, in a non-narrative format where the driving component is the music. Sometimes you’ll see a dance filmed that was really intended for the stage, and there’s often a surreal disconnect there, but Calero’s work embraces his medium.
In his latest project, a music video for Montreal synth-pop band Braids’ “Young Buck,” the candy-sweet visuals tell a story of mutual attraction from afar between singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston and a fan who auditions to be in her video. “The song had this galloping kind of feeling of being in love, so we have a couple literally galloping in the choreography. Rather than that being important in the story, it’s how we represented it visually,” says Calero. The choice reflects his intuitive approach to creative direction. “I want to embody the song. I want it to be inside me, and then I can perform it through different set-ups: How does it make me feel? How can we add other levels of meaning? Those four minutes that are given to me are so precious, so how do I give you as much as possible?”
Standell-Preston says that her experience working with Calero made the video the most fun she’s ever had working on a creative project. “Kevin is one of the most magnetic people I’ve ever met, aside from his brilliance,” she says. “On set he made me feel extremely strengthened and in control of my talent. He skyrocketed potential in me that I didn’t know was there. I think he has that effect on people. From the very beginning with this video, when we sat down with him, he already saw the whole thing in front of him and knew exactly what he wanted. I haven’t really experienced that before—working with somebody with such a clear vision, with so much excitement and dedication.”
That vision has resulted in uniquely rewarding opportunities for Calero. A personal highlight was shooting Coach’s 50 Years Proud project last year: a Soul Train-style dance video commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The video featured legendary members of the New York City ballroom scene. “I can’t express what it was like to see a 69-year-old drag queen explain to an 18-year-old dancer what Stonewall was,” Calero says. “That was priceless for me.” Another priceless moment? Filming Naomi Campbell saying “Generation Gap, take one!” for a reboot of the famous ’90s Gap campaign. “That was one of my dreams, to do a Gap commercial. And I did it earlier than I thought!”
Going forward, Calero says he’s thinking about “how to harvest creativity. Now it’s about sustainability and longevity and making it fun for myself.” He’s excited to explore new paths, less concerned with genre than with his one central pursuit: how to transmit an emotion. “There’s no better feeling than seeing someone else’s dream, allowing yourself to dream and then getting others to dream.”