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Carlos López Estrada & Zac Manuel

Renowned film directors Carlos López Estrada & Zac Manuel sit down with 1883 Magazine to discuss Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero.

Championing inclusivity and self-acceptance by being deliciously outspoken, Lil Nas X a.k.a Montero Lamar Hill is undoubtedly a cultural phenomenon already at only 25 years old.

His breakout hit “Old Town Road” may have paved the way for his worldwide success, however, his foot is yet to lift off the gas. From dominating Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage last year to partnering with an online video game, League of Legends, and recently collaborating with pop songstress, Camila Cabello – the unapologetically queer icon is smashing any and all expectations with ease.

However, away from the shining spotlight and fan frenzy, who is he really? This is a question the directors, Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel, were poised to uncover by teaming up to follow the singer-rapper during his career-defining, Long Live Montero Tour in 2022. 

Proven creative revolutionaries themselves, López Estrada is an Academy Award nominee and Latin Grammy award-winner and has directed Billie Eilish’s, “When the Party’s Over” music video and Disney’s, Raya and the Last Dragon. Meanwhile, award-winning New Orleans bred-and-based filmmaker Manuel has worked on a range of projects from Netflix’s I Am Vanessa Guillen to Music Pictures: New Orleans.

Culminating into an in-depth documentary, Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero, is an exploration of what drives him without ever shying away from displaying his vulnerabilities. Featuring snippets and interviews from those closest to him as well as fans, it’s a truly in-depth exploration.

1883 Magazine chats with the directors about capturing Lil Nas X’s relationship with his fans, where they see his journey taking him next, and more.

When did you decide to split the film into three parts and how did this idea of a journey influence your creative approach?

Carlos López Estrada: It was all Zac’s idea.

Zac Manuel: No, that’s not true.

C: There was a lot of discovery in the process of putting the movie together, but one guiding North Star that we had throughout the process was that Lil Nas X constructed his show very thoughtfully and deliberately. He not entirely, but almost perfectly followed a chronological order in terms of how he released a lot of these songs, and where they landed in terms of his growth as an artist and a person. He wanted the show to feel very theatrical, splitting it into acts with each act having a theme.

It was about cycles that repeat themselves. I think he gave us a lot to work with in terms of the structure of the show. When we were starting to think about the movie we followed that same structure, obviously, making it our own and giving it some added layers. This allowed us to really honour the storytelling in his show and his trajectory as an artist.

Carlos Lopez Estrada attending the 2022 Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, (Photo by Jc Olivera / LALIFF)

Throughout the film, it’s clear how close Lil Nas X’s relationship is with his fans. How did you find capturing that and witnessing that in person?

C: When Zac and I were starting the movie together, we just noted that his relationship with his fans is very particular, very peculiar. He’s really done a lot of work to get rid of filters between an artist and his audience. He does it through social media and we wanted to mirror that in the movie. We knew that the fans were going to have to be an important part of the storytelling and we knew that we really wanted to include them throughout in ways that were meaningful.

That’s how it started. We were just coming up with ways, like the confessional that we did outside of concerts, and some fashion shows at the end of shows, where people would walk a little catwalk and show us what they were wearing and give us a little bit of vibes. We were just really trying to go out of our way to involve the people that he’s in daily communication with. I’d like to think we were really able to make them a part of the movie.

Z: I I think a typical way of showing fans is OTF interviews on the street, or on the fly kind of stuff like that. I think that the collection of testimonials, confessional groups, and fashion shows places them actually in the narrative as well. It starts to draw a parallel between their personal journeys of self-acceptance, coming out, finding some truths to their identity, or acceptance with their family; it starts to connect their stories with Montero’s as well. I think that’s a really brilliant aspect of the film.

Zac Manuel

At what point in filming did you realise the gravity of the journey, and did viewing this journey first-hand change your perceptions of him?

Z: I don’t know if there was a moment that really stuck out for me that feels like this is the moment where his life is changing. When we got towards the end of the shooting period, you could feel the emotion kind of shift between, ‘Is this going to be successful?’ to ‘Not only has this been successful, but it’s also united a lot of us in this experience’. It will probably be something that collectively a lot of folks within this space are going to hold and bring with them into future work together.

I carry this experience as well. It’s just being a witness to something that was pretty historic in terms of an artist of his calibre and his influence going on his first tour. If anything the degree to which that was the first outing of Lil Nas X into the world, as a solo artist going on his own tour was special to witness. I think it changed my life and the way that I see him as an artist. The way that I want to make films and the way that I connect with people. Maybe that’s how it changed me.

C: Similarly, being so close to someone going through such an intense creative process, it’s just inspiring. Period. But, he’s someone who’s so gracious and so thoughtful. Seeing someone at that level still being so aware of his impact, his influence, and the power of his words was inspiring to be around and will be helpful in our creative processes.

It’s really seeing someone going through a transformation and letting that impact on our own. That’s kind of what the movie is about.

Within the film, Lil Nas X says: “The greatest thing a human can do is to create”. What are your thoughts on this and how do you find staying true to yourselves as artists?

C: Just the radical vulnerability that he approaches everything with and trying to find the most real and honest version of yourself. The fact that he is really trying to go out of his way to talk about his spiritual, mental and personal emotional process through his journey, has just been really helpful for our own. I think, ultimately, the type of art I personally want to make needs to feels honest, vulnerable, and real.

The fact that he is encouraging everyone to look inwardly and think creatively about the type of person and artist that they want to be is some type of philosophy class that we join by being with them. I’m definitely taking a lot of that away into my own process.

Did you have any reservations about things not to include or anything that almost made it but didn’t?

Z: I think there were not really any reservations about what we could or could not include. There were some conversations that I thought were really interesting but weren’t included in the film, especially about his early weeks, days, and months as an artist in Atlanta. Kind of what his journey really was to find his artistic and collaborative community. Facing the entrenched homophobia of the rap community.

Ultimately, he is an artist that can’t be defined by one genre, as just a rapper or a pop star. It felt more present to the story to just look inward and then explore outward to this really elevated dimension. He’s not just influencing a genre of music or being an influencer in one genre of music. But really being a world identity influencer for people in general of all ages and creeds. There were some topics I thought were interesting but nothing was off-limits in terms of what we could talk about. Which means we got into some spicy conversation, I’ll just admit.

How did you find depicting his queer and religious identities in the film? 

Z: That to me, is one of the most compelling aspects of the film. He’s released a lot of musical imagery, videos, fashion, and iconography that plays with religious motifs. To look at what his influences are from that, like obviously he is satirising things.

He’s making things absurd but what we have to do is look at the roots of those entrenched thoughts or where that ideology came from. How he’s mining his own personal backstory in commenting on it and making commentary about it. I think that was a really interesting part of the story and it felt really necessary to explore it as well.

Were there any obstacles that you had to overcome?

C: I don’t think that there were any dramatic setbacks or anything like that. I think more than anything it was just dealing with a crazy schedule. Zac and I must’ve been on 30 or 40 flights just following him around the U.S. at different parts. We’d be like, ‘No, we can’t shoot tomorrow because he has this huge thing that he’s doing. Never mind, he’s changed it. We can shoot tomorrow, can you get on a plane in like two hours?’. There was a lot of that. I think probably, on my side, that was the biggest challenge. I don’t know Zac, do you have something more specific?

Z: Kind of similar. There’s the tour. Let’s say the tour is here. There’s all this press and interviews that he’s doing for different releases. He’s releasing music at the same time and in different collaborations with other brands, such as YSL, or League of Legends. There’s all of that going on and the film. We’re trying to find where we can place ourselves within everything else and all the other moving pieces. That was the biggest challenge I think, like Carlos said.

Carving out the space for us to create something together. Luckily, the team that he’s put together and cultivated is really generous and really kind about how they accepted us in. They brought us into different spaces and fit us into his schedule in a way that was really meaningful. We lucked out in terms of how we were accepted in his space. I think it was a really great situation.

Is there a particular memory that will stay with you?

C: I really loved the moment that we planned to interview all of the people in the audience. We called it transformation confessionals. I think having so many people open up about moments of transformation was really powerful.

Z: There were a lot of memorable moments. One I haven’t actually talked about but I’m thinking about now is the first show in Detroit. There were a lot of nerves leading up to that show, especially from him. You can see that he’s concerned like, ‘Are people going to turn up to my first show at my first tour ever?’. I remember looking out into the audience from the stage, during the first couple of songs in this old historic theatre in Detroit, the Fox Theatre.

Actually looking at the top balcony shake because people were dancing so hard. I was like, ‘Yo, this kid actually gives ass’, but it’s actually really amazing that it’s a full, packed, rowdy, incredibly joyful house. That was really memorable.

Where do you see Lil Nas X’s journey taking him next? 

C: That’s a great question. I don’t know. I wish that I could predict. Part of the coolest part about him is that he really is so bold and follows no formulas. I think every time you imagine his trajectory, he takes a really sharp turn into some unknown territory. I think we’re just here for the ride. Excited to see what he comes up with. Do you have any big predictions, Zac?

Z: I’ve been keeping up with his latest releases and collaborations and everything is different. I think he’s an artist who’s not afraid to experiment with different sounds and different genres. Some of his songs are kind of dance, like club tracks. Some of them are super personal. I think he’s still in this space of straddling the edge of being someone who makes really fun party music, and mixes their personal story and kind of struggles and vulnerabilities into their music as well. I think we’ll see his maturation. His growth really closely as a person through his music.

Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero is available to own & rent now.

Follow Carlos López Estrada by clicking here and Zac Manuel by clicking here.

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