Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards
How Sontenish Myers and Justin Casselle ‘Heightened the Emotion’ with two Beautiful Music Videos for Tank and the Bangas
Production Company
Los Angeles, USA
The Great Guns USA directors talk LBB’s Adam Bennett through the production of videos for ‘Stolen Fruit’ and ‘Communion In My Cup’

The combination of music and the moving image has always carried the potential to elevate both crafts to a higher plane. And, as one of America’s most creative and pioneering acts in the business today, Tank and the Bangas have forged an identity based on a unique cocktail of sincerity and playful experimentation. As the writer Joshua David Stein put it, “Tank and the Bangas don’t conform to the jazz stereotypes trotted out in the lobbies of convention hotels or milked on Frenchman Street. It’s New Orleans, but it’s New Orleans now”. 

As a result, and in the runup to the release of their album Red Balloon this year, there was an opportunity to add more depth to the group’s soulful and insightful music in the form of two music videos. To help Tank and the Bangas grasp that opportunity, two Great Guns USA directors jumped at the challenge. For ‘Stolen Fruit’, Sontentish Myers stepped behind the camera for a video in equal parts eclectic, graceful, and uplifting, whilst Justin Casselle dug into his own experiences to craft a compelling video for ‘Communion In My Cup’ which speaks to the themes of individualism and empathy. 

To go behind the scenes of these two videos and learn how they came together, LBB’s Adam Bennett spoke with Justin and Sontenish. 

Above: Sontenish Myers directed the music video for ‘Stolen Fruit’. 

Above: Justin Casselle was in the director’s chair for ‘Communion In My Cup’. 

LBB> Hello, Sontenish and Justin - congratulations on two great music videos! What were your individual hopes and expectations going into these projects, and how closely does the finished film line up to them? 

Sontenish> Thanks so much. When I listened to Stolen Fruit, images and ideas came flooding immediately. Natural light. Brown hands reaching for the sky. Exchanges that feel like something out of a dream. Multiple bodies contorting in a frame. 

My hope was to make a music video that honored the lyrics about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade as well as the dreamy and liberating sound in the instrumentation. So I wrote a story about a child who wakes up in a magical realm, and finds ancestors frozen in place. With his magical touch, they spring to life, and take him on a journey of dance and memory. 

It’s a privilege to be able to bring fantastical ideas into fruition like this. Thanks to my collaborators the video exceeded my expectations in a lot of ways, and they were each so essential in us accomplishing a soft and free-feeling video. That was down to having a hardworking producing team, an intuitive and talented choreographer, a dedicated and creative DP, a bomb steadicam-op, hard working PAs, the list goes on and on.

Justin> Having the opportunity to collaborate with Tank and the Bangas and direct this music video was monumental for me. This is a band I’ve loved for so long so when my reps slid this opportunity my way, I immediately got to work. Well, first I screamed, and then I got to work.

My expectations for the music video were simple: do a good job! I love this band, and I just wanted to make them - and myself - proud. And the fact that the video was so personal to Tank, with it being filmed at her Uncle’s church, made me want to deliver even more. Overall, I just wanted people to resonate with it. I wanted people to feel what we felt while we were filming, which was so much spirit and fulfillment. I’m extremely happy with how it turned out.

LBB> Sontenish, the last time you spoke with LBB, you mentioned your interest in the subject of identity and “how what we see on screen influences how we see ourselves”. It’s also a theme which crops up across much of Tank and the Bangas’ work - did you want to explore that with this project? 

Sontenish> Tank and the Bangas make the work easy. There’s an aliveness and versatility in their music. They’re musicians that can make you cry and get you hype in the same set. I can honestly say there’s no other band like them; so their uniqueness demands unique ideas. 

As a filmmaker, I am drawn to opportunities to tell mythological stories of heroism and wonder that center Black folks. I would never refer to myself as an activist, but I do believe there is activism in centering Black folks in sci-fi/fantasy/magical stories. Genre-work stretches the imagination whilst reflecting and re-imagining the past, present, and future. It pushes us to consider alternative ways of thinking and doing. And it takes viewer and writer off the beaten path. People of colour deserve to be at the center of those stories as much as possible - being the heroes of epic, transformative journeys. 

Imagining worlds and possible futures for ourselves is valuable work. Consuming fantastical tales in my own image helped me find who I am, so I’m grateful to strive to contribute to that growing body of work. 

LBB> And Justin, the last time you spoke with us you mentioned that you were drawn towards an understated kind of comedy in your work. I feel as though there’s a couple of moments in this video which speak to that (for example the wry look to camera on the ‘that’s absurd’ line). Is that something you consciously wanted to bring to this project? 

Justin> I’m glad you remember! Finding ways to bring in an appropriate level of comedy in all my projects is something I try to do. There’s comedy all around us, things that make us laugh, or chuckle, or smile. So - when it makes sense to do so - I love to reflect that in my work.  

In this video, those moments didn’t hit until we were on set filming. Tank has such a beautiful and charismatic personality; if she wanted, I could see her starring in movies in no time! Through the way she and the band blend genres, and the way she manipulates her voice, I have felt hints of comedy in the band’s work before. So, yes, the “that’s absurd” line is one of those moments where it felt like a fun adlib, a moment where her personality really shined through. And The Ton3s also brought some levity to the video so we leaned into that when we saw it. But all of that works because Tank sets the tone with her personality, and afforded me the freedom to get my shots - so shoutout to her.

LBB> Sontenish, watching the Stolen Fruit video feels so freeing and joyful - was that your intention, and how do you go about creating that sensation as a filmmaker? 

Sontenish> I’m so glad to hear that! Thank you. This song was fascinating to work with in that it was dealing with dark subject matter, but simultaneously made me feel blissful and free –which is kind of my happy place tonally. I enjoy finding ways to ride that line. Some of it is intuitive, populating the lookbook and treatment with images that speak to joy and freedom. Closed eyes. Figures moving through the trees. Lush green fields. Close-ups on hands. Sensory, detail-oriented camerawork with deliberate composition that floats along with the characters’ movement, generating a feeling of moving photographs in a fairy tale. 

I’m an obsessive archivist. I’m constantly saving any image, sound, song, or film that strikes me. Sometimes I know why right away, sometimes it’s yet to be seen. I revisit them whenever I start on a project, and almost always find things that align. Our references included the work of Tyler Mitchell, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, the film This Not A Burial It’s a Resurrection, and miscellaneous images I stumbled upon on Tumblr. 

LBB> Justin, looking at the lyrics for ‘Communion in my Cup’ they seem to play with themes including politics and identity. Did you aim to incorporate those into the film as well, and how did you look to do that if so? 

Justin> You’re right! This is a song about acknowledging the various ways in which people find and have their own communion and the things that drive us there. 

My goal was to make sure the piece felt really grounded. So moments like the anguish on our wandering woman’s face, Tank feeling the spirit in the pew, and The Ton3s gambling out front, were really important because those are all feelings and/or moments Tank and I both have experienced. 

There’s a moment when our wandering woman walks into the light down the center aisle and the lyrics are “look at your president, look at your government, you’re feeling powerless” and our main character gives us this subtle shrug. That moment says a lot to me in terms of how I wanted to let those moments, those feelings, speak for themselves. 

LBB> Were you involved in the casting process, Sontenish? All of the cast in Stolen Fruit, especially the Young Boy, seem so perfect in playing to those themes of hope and innocence. 

Sontenish> Choreographer Maya Taylor casted the dancers, with my and Tank’s input. They were all fabulous to work with. Casting the Young Boy was a group effort. It takes patience and persistence to find a child actor with the magnetism that matches the tone of the

project. We saw many audition tapes of sweet young boys with the help of our lovely casting director Ruby Green. But we actually found our Young Boy on Instagram! 

Our producer, Alexandra Kern sent me a video on @Itchy_videos Instagram, which celebrates 2nd Line dancing. And there was this video, of a little boy dancing 2nd Line like no one was watching. He was drippin with talent and I loved the absence of self-consciousness. We were like, “who’s child is this?!” so we immediately tried to find out who he was. His name is Dell Carter, and @Itchy_videos was kind enough to put us in contact with his mom who was so kind and down to work with us. 

LBB> What was the most challenging aspect of this project, and how did you overcome it? 

Sontenish> I mean, you’re always racing the clock. One day shoots are tricky because everyone is on set and working together for the first time, and there isn’t another day afterward to build on lessons and rapport. The only way to combat that challenge is prep, prep, prep. I was not playing with my prep. I did whatever possible in advance so that by the day of the shoot I knew the video frame-by-frame. Since I was editing the video as well, I was very clear about what we’d be looking at and when. When you don’t have a lot of time, you gotta make being on-set a matter of execution. Whilst, of course, always leaving room for magic and discoveries. 

The other challenge was simply remembering to allow my vision of the video to evolve. With each talent, collaborator, idea, and hiccup the video changes and you gotta practice flexibility while maintaining clarity of the vision. I had always imagined a very extroverted actor for the role of the Young Boy. Dell, on the other hand, is of a much shier disposition. It is my job as a director to identify where his magic and magnetism lives, and learn how to capture it. Dell comes alive when he dances, and has a mesmerizing and contemplative gaze. I’m so grateful we casted Dell because he brought something to the role I couldn’t have anticipated, and made it so much more human. 

LBB> If you had your time again, would you do anything differently? 

Justin> Honestly? I don’t think so. This was a challenging process, but I enjoyed it so much from pre-production to post-production. Perhaps I wouldn’t stay down in the French Quarter so I could get a quiet night’s rest before the shoot! But truthfully, I’m incredibly happy with how it all turned out. 

LBB> And finally, a couple of Tank and the Bangas members have cited filmic influences to their music including Disney and anime. Flipping that around, do you ever find your filmmaking style being influenced by music? 

Justin> Definitely. Sometimes when I hear a song I like (and inevitably play it repeatedly until it’s seared into my brain), I start to see moments and characters and build out scenes in my head that fit the moment and feeling the song is ushering me into. So yes, I’m heavily influenced by music because music often makes the piece. It heightens the emotion, and helps tell the story beyond what words can do. 

Sontenish> That’s an interesting question. There are songs that conjure scenes and camerawork styles for me. For example, I was listening to “That’s Him Over There” by Nina Simone the other day. She is such a beautiful storyteller. In the song, she describes seeing a former lover in a crowded room for the first time in years, and you just feel like you’re there, watching the whole thing unfold. I love how music can bring about visual exercises like that.

I’m very sensitive to the role of production sound and sound design in film. There’s a musicality you can create in the edit - a rhythm and tone that is shaping the viewer’s experience whether or not they’re even aware of it. Even when I write, I’m imagining and writing what the scene sounds like. Or what the silence feels like. 

Stolen Fruit was brilliantly arranged. As the editor of the video I was able to appreciate the details: the layering rhythms, the timing of the flute, and the peak of the song. I really wanted the footage and the timing of the cuts to honor the song’s intricate structure and shape. I grew not only as a director working on this project, but as an editor as well.