That strategy has proven to work time and time again, as Cohen has crafted visuals of early hits for GoldLink, Joji, Clairo and Gus Dapperton. In the past decade, the New York City-based filmmaker — who got his start making independent videos primarily for hip-hop artists before being tapped by Interscope for work — has also shot commercials by Converse and Prada, among other brands, and in 2017 released a short-film documentary, Bulldozer, about death match wrestler Matt Tremont.
But now, just weeks into 2021, Cohen finds himself a part of the music industry’s biggest story of the year thus far thanks to his intimate music video for Olivia Rodrigo’s debut single, “drivers license.” (One of his best friends is Rodrigo’s A&R, who brought Cohen aboard; her team is filled with creatives Cohen has worked with for years).
Released by Geffen Records on Jan. 8, the pop power ballad about a fresh breakup — in this case, rumored to be about Rodrigo’s split with High School Musical: The Musical: The Series co-star Joshua Bassett — has dominated social media and sparked countless headlines. On Monday (Jan. 11), it raked in more U.S. plays on Spotify than the Nos. 2-7 songs (by SZA, Ariana Grande, Morgan Wallen, 24kGoldn and Internet Money) combined.
Meanwhile, its visual — which on Sunday (Jan. 10) was YouTube’s most-viewed video in the U.S. — seamlessly supports the raw and emotive narrative. Rodrigo’s vocals soar over dusky imagery of exactly what she sings of: driving through the suburbs at night, contemplating things that could — or should — have been.
Below, Cohen tells Billboard about filming the video over two-and-a-half days in Utah last November, reveals whether or not any easter eggs are sprinkled throughout the clip, and shares why he loves getting in on the ground floor with emerging artists.
The music videos you’ve directed often rake in millions of views, but “drivers license” has garnered over 15 million in just a few days. How does it feel to be part of the first massive music moment in 2021?
I’m used to working with talent who haven’t released much or are new or this is their first big project. I always wanted to be part of the artist’s beginning and foundation. I don’t look at my portfolio and stress the importance of names or stars, but more so the early connection and creative development. I have made it a priority to associate myself with groundbreaking talent and get in early. So I guess with the results, I always hope for the best. But seeing numbers like this time and time again and seeing some of these artists really have groundbreaking careers and being trendsetters, that’s the really exciting part.
I try to choose the artist carefully and work with people who I really am in love with. I definitely knew it was going to happen [with Olivia]; however, seeing it all happen this quick is exciting because sometimes it takes a while. Some records take 6-8 months to really pop off, and sometimes just a single pops off — or sometimes it’s a TikTok [push]. But to see Olivia’s project on all ends — from the song to the video to her overall brand and story — to see everyone gravitate to it so quickly and at this volume is a first for me.
You’ve talked about the importance of having some A&R sensibilities in your work. When you do hear a new voice or song, how do you know what will be big?
The process of going through all the noise and trying to find an artist — I look at it from all perspectives. Because at the end of the day, the artist might not have that record now, but they might have everything else: the brand, the confidence, the risk-taking skills and they just need that extra thing. It’s such a new age of music, where we’re at right now, where things are blowing up so quick, but I think [what’s important] stays the same. It’s really keeping an open mind and seeing the potential in the record and what can be told visually. The song might have an incredible narrative within it — or the video I did with GoldLink for “Crew,” that song is just incredibly fun and anthemic for the town. Sometimes the record speaks so much about what it needs visually.
How would you describe working with Olivia?
I knew that she’s been in film for a long time, since she was 11 or 12. She is the most professional; she is fully in charge of her whole brand, and this was an exciting one because she brought most of the ideas to the table yet was eager to develop and try new things. I love when that happens. She came in and had a very specific direction. The song, I think, has an incredible narrative to it that didn’t need anything crazy, so working with her was great and collaborative because she was involved in every aspect. She also had an incredible amount of trust; we shot on film, and the monitoring of the footage is quite a bit different.
I particularly loved when old photos and videos were projected on Olivia’s neck. That felt like a new way of tackling nostalgia and iPhone scrolling within a video.
She knew she wanted to do something with projections and incorporate this world of nostalgia and this relationship in a way that didn’t seem so… explicit? I think we really landed on a nice way of telling this little story within the story, that you see through these projections that are this first-person account of a relationship. She shot all those little mini-films for this project on her iPhone, so those are all real things that we were able to incorporate for the video. I think that image is really powerful, especially with the music.
The song has sparked lots of rumors and headlines about its potential subject. As a director, did you anticipate fans would comb through this video looking for hints as to what certain lyrics might mean?
I did. I feel like that’s the fun of a record and a video like this, where it’s so simple that every detail you can really dive into. It wasn’t the plan to do something that was all over the place and had all these gimmicks and weird narrative moments. I think the idea of just a girl driving through the night in the suburbs with a record that’s that powerful and has so much in it, it allows you to look at the video in an interesting way and dive into things where there might be something more there. I think because this was such a collaborative [project], each image in this video has a meaning — and I think at the end of the day, it’s really just fun to watch. But if you were to read into it, you can find stuff throughout the whole video.
I honestly don’t know the answers to Twitter’s questions, but that is one of the best parts about video — because I’ve even been able to look back on some after they’ve come out and been like, “Oh, maybe there is something there.” I can be objective about it once it’s out, and watch it with a different perspective. And that’s really fun, especially when people are coming up with different ideas of what they think it means.
Who are other young and emerging voices you’re excited about heading into the new year?
I have a ton. I keep a catalog of people I want to work with, I’m excited by Junior Varsity. But back to the first question and choosing these artists and whatnot — I’m always looking for the next new creative young talent. That’s who I always want to be working with. If you look through the catalog of people I’ve done videos for, I would say one, I’m incredibly grateful, but two, it’s by design that I’m trying to get in with them as early as possible. It’s all about spending time with the artist and really developing the ideas.
I get this question all the time from kids: a lot of people assume the budget of your video dictates the outcome or the look. And really the most valuable thing with any production or creative collaboration is the creative mind; there’s no limit on that. If you have just an iPhone and iMovie and have really creative ideas, and you’re working really closely with talent to tell them, that is what’s going to make your video feel expensive and high-end and make something that people are tuned into. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions of how videos work, like, “Oh because you signed to this major label and got this much money for a video it’s going to be good,” but it has nothing to do with that. It really takes someone challenging the artist and the artist challenging the creator back.
As someone who works in film and also loves music discovery, where does TikTok fall in terms of your like and use?
I love it. And I think it’s one of those things, too, where you’re seeing a new world of creators come into the industry. And I think it’s groundbreaking in its own space. And now you’re seeing the TikTok world break out of that — you’re seeing it obviously in music, because it’s empowering all of these artists to have songs that might not have had a landscape to do so, and then within film, I’m going on there and I’m seeing effects I’ve never seen done before, and it’s done and edited on an iPhone.
So I think you have to look at it as a great source of inspiration, because that’s what it is. I also just think it’s fun to watch a lot of the stuff. But as a filmmaker and a creative, if you ignore it, you are going to be left in the dust — because it’s clearly the future, and this group of young creators who are making stuff there are tuned in and have a voice, and it’s as simple as that.