“It’s kind of surreal,” says Hannah Lux Davis, as she reflects on her eight nominations for the MTV Video Music Awards: the most of any director this year. “MTV and the VMAs have been the beacon of all things cool and all my dreams.”
It’s almost two weeks after the nominations were revealed, but you can forgive Davis for not really soaking it in until now — as per usual, she’s been crazy-busy. Just hours before speaking to MTV News, the video for Ariana Grande and Social House’s “Boyfriend” premiered on YouTube, marking her fifth collaboration with Grande in the past year alone. Their partnership has proved one of pop’s most prosperous — four of Davis’s VMA nods are for the rom-com-inspired “thank u, next,” which became a viral event upon its release in November. The vid made headlines for its oh-so-fetch cameos, shattered Vevo records left and right, and, according to Davis, gave the more than 400 million people who watched it a new perspective on what Grande’s all about.
“It was a shift for Ariana with what she was doing, and it was like the world finally caught up to her and her humor in that moment,” Davis said of the instant classic, which is vying for Video of the Year, Best Pop, Best Direction, and Best Cinematography. “I feel like people kind of had a hunch that she was cool and funny and witty and incredibly comedic and smart, but they didn’t really know until that moment. Everything came in alignment with that song, with that video.”
Less than two months later, Davis and Grande reconvened for the pink-hued “7 rings,” which found Ari dripping in diamonds and drowning in champagne as she flipped “My Favorite Things” into a bad-bitch flex anthem. It’s nominated for Best Editing — a category Davis is particularly proud of, since she’s the lead editor on all her videos — and Best Art Direction, which honors the flossy, glossy set designs she and her team dreamt up.
“The intention behind the art and the world we created in ‘7 Rings’ was this sort of ‘vapor wave’ — just really high-gloss, feminine vapor wave is what we were calling it,” Davis explained. “We painted a whole house pink, and that was a really balls-to-the-wall moment that helped set a tone. And we were really playing into some of Ariana’s iconic things that she’s known for, like the forever-long ponytail. It was fun to play into her extremities in a way.”
Besides Grande, Davis also got to reunite this year with David Guetta, with whom she’s directed a handful of videos, like “Hey Mama” and “Bang My Head.” This time around, she helmed the strikingly neon visual for the Best Dance-nominated “Say My Name,” Guetta’s Latin-EDM collaboration with J Balvin and Bebe Rexha.
“Blacklight has definitely been done before, but this was sort of ‘jungle club’ and had this sophistication to it,” Davis said of the vid. “Blacklight is tricky and it can oftentimes feel dated, so you have to really approach it with a lot of careful consideration, just with the wardrobe and how everything is placed together.”
“Say My Name” was shot three days after Davis directed Grande’s “Breathin,” and it was achieved in just one day by meticulously working around the three artists’ busy schedules. In a case like that, Davis explained, she’s reliant on strong performances that she can continue cutting to — and Rexha, in particular, fully delivered.
“Bebe just brings it on camera,” Davis said. “She’s fearless and she gets that performance for a music video. While some can be timid, she goes for it.”
Timidness is also a non-consideration for an artist like Halsey, who called upon Davis to helm her ambitious “Nightmare,” which the director previously discussed with MTV News upon its debut in May. It’s nominated for Video for Good, a VMA category that’s gone through several iterations; last year, it was called Video With a Message. The gist is the same, though: The award recognizes culturally relevant and impactful videos. “Nightmare,” with its bold, timely message about the universal fury women feel in the face of the patriarchy, does exactly that.
“There’s definitely a strong message that’s very expressive to what Halsey and most women feel in today’s political climate,” Davis said. “And I feel it was done in a way that was aggressive. She didn’t hold back. There’s something to be said about her bravery and putting it out there.”
All of the videos Davis is nominated for this year share one common thread: They were made with artists whom she’d worked with in the past. Building solid relationships with some of today’s biggest stars is something Davis says helps her as a director, and ultimately makes her job “so much sweeter and richer.”
“I think Ariana is the perfect example of that,” she said. “We have such a great shorthand now, and we’re able to be more efficient in how we approach a project. That being said, we really try to not repeat ourselves. There’s definitely going to be a through line in the work that her and I do together, [but] we’re always trying to do something that’s different.”
Case in point: “Boyfriend.” Davis and Grande had just come off of the “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” video, and wanted to capture a different kind of house party: one that mixed violence and humor, and that hinged upon a theme of jealousy-fueled revenge fantasies.
“It’s something very universally relatable… like, the guy you’re flirting with every other night is talking to some other girl at a party and you just want to strangle her or knock her out,” Davis said of the vid’s concept. “That’s kind of where it came from: how funny that would be to see those fantasies play out.”
To achieve that on screen, Davis, Grande, and Co. pulled a “thank u, next” and went back to the movie vault for inspiration. They pulled from Dumb and Dumber (for the “ripping a guy’s heart out of his chest” scene), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (for the “destroying a bathroom in a fit of passion” scene), and, yet again, Mean Girls (for the “Ari going apeshit and tackling that girl” scene).
The result is a narrative and visual feast unlike anything Grande’s done recently — there’s comedy, drama, stunts, and plenty of meme-friendly moments, thanks to Ariana and Social House’s Mikey and Scootie. “Boyfriend” marks the sixth Davis-directed visual released this year, but far from the last… there’s already a rumored new Grande project on the way.
But before that, will Davis and Grande take home a Moon Person (or two or three or eight) this year? Find out on August 26, and get voting now!