By James Rea
Don’t miss An Evening with Trey Fanjoy on The Producer’s Chair on Thursday, June 30 at Douglas Corner at 6 p.m.
When Trey Fanjoy rolled into Nashville 20 years ago, in her vintage ‘68 Cutlass convertible from Los Angeles, the world of music video production was pretty much like the music industry itself—male-dominated. And it still is, with a major exception.
Trey Fanjoy is the only female director to capture the coveted CMA Video of The Year award, having done so twice with back-to-back wins in 2009 and 2010 for Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” and Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me.”
She has worked on seven videos for Taylor Swift, eight videos for Keith Urban, over a dozen projects with Miranda Lambert and multiple videos with Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Blake Shelton, George Strait, Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett. This barely scratches the surface of her illustrious body of work.
But don’t think for one minute that Fanjoy didn’t earn her stripes. After studying journalism and theatre at the University of South Carolina she accepted an internship in New York City working with the Associated Press, while also studying acting at the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse under Sanford Meisner.
Then, it was off to L.A. where every young actor works at whatever they can to afford pursuing their dream. The difference being, Fanjoy’s day gig was in TV commercial production. As time passed, her interest and expertise in what goes on behind the scenes grew.
When she arrived in Music City, she quickly found work as a freelance producer with Jon Small, who became her mentor. Fortunately for Fanjoy, during this period, CMT was putting the names of both the directors and the producers on music videos so she immediately had her name on the network as a producer. She honed her craft producing for some of the industry’s leading directors.
Because of her writing skills, she found herself coming up with concepts, writing them and doing shotlists. Fanjoy made the transition into the director’s chair with Small’s company Picture Vision. After a decade of directing with their company, Fanjoy left with Small’s blessing to form her own Big Feather Films in 2006.
“Writing is first and foremost in my career because my skills as a writer enable me to write the concepts that get me the jobs as a director,” she says.
The Producer’s Chair: Was there one defining video that stands out?
Fanjoy: I think a defining time for me was my friendship with Keith Urban. Keith was managed by my good friend Anastasia Brown. I did a lot of Keith’s first videos: “Your Everything,” “But For the Grace of God” and “Somebody Like You,” which was the debut single off Golden Road. And I think that was the moment that really launched Keith in a bigger way. It was such a magical video. It’s still one of my favorite songs and favorite videos I’ve ever done. In my career, for me, I don’t see it as one big break. I see many defining moments.
Tell me about your very first directing gig. What was that like?
My grandmother, who I was extremely close to, died the night before my shoot. So it was incredibly emotional, but I had to dig down deep and pull myself together. I completed it and it went incredibly well. Throughout my career I’ve had moments that have had to really test my mettle in that way. It was tough but my grandmother was proud of me and she would have wanted me to fulfill my commitment, and so I did. I worked for 14 hours, I got on a plane, and I went to join my family.
What’s the difference between the director and the producer’s job on a music video?
That’s a good question because a lot of people don’t know that. The director is the creative vision. The producer is there to execute that vision. And so the producer will handle the budget, hire the crew, and they will put all the pieces together for the director. It’s an important job. And the best producers are also highly creative. They’re not just bean counters. The very best producers know how to wrangle the budget, and they have all those organizational skills, but they’re also creative collaborators as well. And so I was a creative producer.
What was it like directing Taylor Swift?
She’s always been extraordinarily bright. When you hear people talk about a preternaturally poised young person—she was all of that. She just had a self-awareness that was beyond her years—and also a professionalism and work ethic that was astounding. You have so many kids in the industry who are pushed by parents, but I didn’t get any of that sense at all. It was her ambition and her dream. So she was and is now just so professional and smart. I think Taylor may be one of the most intuitive and smartest artists I’ve ever worked with.
What is the most important part of your process from beginning to end?
Prior to the actual shoot date you’ll have what’s called a tech scout. A tech scout is when I bring together all of the department heads, what they call keys—and your keys will be: the gaffer, the key grip, the art director, the DP, the AD (the assistant director) and of course your production staff. So we will have a tech scout and we do an actual run-through prior to the actual shoot date.
And it is so completely detailed. I show up with a shot list. And my list has complete details of every single shot that we are going to do that day. We will do a walk-through, we know where we’re going to place the generator, where we’re going to park the motor home, the grip truck, where we’re going to wrangle the cable. We talk about how we’re going to light that scene so that we know exactly what equipment needs to be ordered.
I’ll bring a viewfinder out, but there are no cameras, unless I’m just taking stills for references. We’re just talking about every single shot, from a lighting and equipment standpoint. I don’t know how other directors do it without a tech scout. I would not want to be their client. (laughs)
Which do you enjoy more, intimate shoots or the big outdoors action?
Honestly, I like them both for different reasons. I’ve done smaller jobs where there’s such an intimacy and such a connection. On the bigger shoots I love the toys. I love helicopters and technocranes. I love all of that and I love the opportunity on a smaller and more intimate setting to really connect with the artist to create something more emotion-driven too.
Has making music videos been a stepping stone to other things?
I’d like to do long-form narrative. I want to do feature films. I see myself as a story teller first and foremost. I’ve done pop, rock, country, a lot of different musical formats. But because I’ve had the opportunity and the blessings to do so many country videos, the songs themselves are story driven and narrative. So it’s really helped me hone my skills as a storyteller.
When did you start Big Feather?
I had been with Jon Small and Picture Vision for around a decade and in 2006 I felt ready to take that next step and I wanted to be able to have a little bit more control. I wanted to be more involved in the executive production decisions and the overall production of the jobs. I had that background, so I wanted to take a more active role in producing my jobs.
They say, “The magic happens in editing.” Who is your editor?
My editor is a guy named Adam Little at Filmworkers. He cut my very first video and he’s over there working on Brett Eldredge for me right now.
Of all the videos that you’ve done, do you have a favorite?
That really is like picking a favorite child. But I do have my favorites. It’s probably plural. One of my absolute favorites that comes to mind is Miranda’s video “Over You.” It’s a song that she and Blake wrote about the death of his brother. During the making of the video, Miranda lost a close friend and I lost my father. It’s probably the most deeply personal video that I’ve ever done.
There’s a lot of hidden metaphors and things that are for my father. My Dad collected pocket watches, he had a thick head of white hair and so the stallion is for my father. And that’s his name on the gravestone that Miranda ends up at. You can hear my voice kind of cracking as I’m telling you this one. That’s as deep as it goes for me in a music video.
Can a music video make a hit record out of an average song?
Absolutely, I do believe that. I come as a fan first. And so music videos were around for a long time before I ever became a director and I was a fan first. And there have been many videos that made me buy a record.
Have you ever been given a job to do a music video and you didn’t care for the song?
I always find something in the song that I like, whether it’s a lyric that I can latch onto, or a melody, or a vocal performance. I’ve never done a video where I didn’t like a song. If I really hated a song I would turn it down, and I have. I think I would be doing a disservice to the artist and the client if I took a song that I hated.