“Water? Coffee? Gushers? Fruit by the Foot?” offered director Connor Wiles as his volunteer crew carried equipment past classrooms filled with board games and crates of toys. Over two days in mid-November, Wiles and his partner in the production company New Trash, Nat Alder, turned part of the Kidz Express Boys & Girls Club in Austin into a music-video set for Chicago hip-hop duo Mother Nature. This was to be New Trash’s 30th video in less than three years, and they’ve developed a vibrant, playful style both despite and because of their typically minuscule budgets—the Mother Nature shoot would cost about $500.
Launched in summer 2016, New Trash quickly earned notoriety working fast and cheap with artists from the local underground scene, filming fistfights, dance troupes, vampires, and more. That reputation helped them land a job this year with breakout Chicago rapper Valee, who’s signed to Kanye West’s GOOD Music and distributed by Def Jam. Their video for his track “Juice & Gin” has a surreal, B-movie-futuristic party vibe, alternately soaked in DayGlo fluorescence and blood-red light. It’s by far the biggest platform yet for New Trash’s distinctive DIY aesthetic—coated in spray paint and splashed with radioactive ooze, like something from the VHS collection of the coolest person at a comic book store. “Our guarantee is, we will shoot even if it’s two of us and an iPad or 40 people and a Def Jam artist,” says Alder.
For the Mother Nature production, Wiles and Alder were joined by four crew members: camera operator David Hughes Jr., lighting director Anastasia Mikolyuk, and designers Olivia Laird and Claire Wiles (Connor’s younger sister), who converted a Kidz Express classroom into two color-saturated sets. “Everyone who we bring onto the project is there for that collaboration and is doing it for the chance to make something fun—art for art’s sake,” says Alder. “We can shoot in a single day, we don’t have to hire sound people, and we can do it quick and dirty and emulate people we love.”
New Trash’s founders are young—Wiles is 24, Alder 23—and with encouragement from their fathers, they developed idiosyncratic tastes even younger. Wiles dug deeply into Gene Kelly and John Waters, while Alder fell in love with Steven Spielberg and Robert Rodriguez. Wiles is into expressionist spectacle—what he calls “smash and panache”—and Alder has a dark sense of humor that drives his interest in the “inner perversions” of his characters. The two of them met in fall 2013, during their first week of classes at Columbia College, where Wiles was impressed by Alder’s movie knowledge at an icebreaker event.
“They throw chips at you if you answer trivia questions, and Nat was just ringing them out. He had more chips than he could carry,” Wiles says. Through their four years at Columbia, where they both pursued BFAs in Cinema Art and Science, they became friends and colleagues, filling roles on each other’s productions.
New Trash began in earnest just before their senior year. Columbia offers select teams of filmmakers in its Advanced Practicum class a small budget to make a short film, in exchange for which the school owns the final product. But Wiles and Alder had a different idea. “We didn’t want Columbia to own our work,” says Wiles, “so we didn’t take any money from them and instead decided to put our time and effort into using grindhouse and classic cheap-movie techniques to produce our own pieces at no to low cost.”
Alder and Wiles spent their senior year making music videos. The first was for “Crucifix” by Chicago folk-punk band Little Yellow Dog, whose members Wiles had met while filming at defunct DIY venue the Keep (bandleader Dakota Buyka lived there for several months). Valee has been their only major-label client so far, but over New Trash’s brief lifetime they’ve expanded their reach to work with an increasingly diverse roster of artists.
For Latinx prog rockers Avantist, New Trash crafted a harrowing black-light hallucination speckled with disembodied eyeballs (“Red Bible”); for dark electro-pop outfit Pixel Grip, they conjured a 1980s-style dystopia populated by hazmat-suited dancers (“Golden Moses”); for Milwaukee garage band the Pukes, they turned a slapstick John Waters-inspired heist sequence into a bloody party, complete with a dildo fight, a cameo by a kinky Jesus, and a robber made up like Waters’s favorite drag queen, Divine (“Execution”). In April 2017, Alder and Wiles made a video for “Coins,” by Chicago synth-rock eccentrics Woongi, that depicts a generic Barney-type dinosaur under siege from a group of kids, with a sort of suburban Lord of the Flies feel. On the day of the shoot, though, New Trash couldn’t find anyone to wear the dinosaur costume—so Wiles stepped into the fuzzy purple shoes himself. As Alder filmed from a borrowed golf cart, he ran through a field in Barrington, chased by a preteen soccer team wielding cardboard spears.
Wiles jokes that his dream collaborator is “anyone who wants to,” but New Trash’s standards are simple. “A good song goes a long way,” Alder says. “You hear it once and you think, ‘There’s no way we’re not shooting this.'”
At Kidz Express, Alder and Wiles were making a video for Mother Nature’s unreleased song “Simple.” In April of this year they’d booked the duo—Shasta Matthews, aka Klevah Knox, and Tierney Reed, aka T.R.U.T.H.—to perform at a New Trash video-release party for Chicago pop artist Liska Steele. They hadn’t seen Mother Nature perform before, and they were bowled over by the rappers’ command of the stage. Alder and Wiles screened the duo’s video for “This Yo Year” at the party too. “That’s where we met New Trash,” said Matthews, as she weaved metal rings into Reed’s hair for the shoot. “They were just playing videos, and then they played our video, which they didn’t do—but they celebrated us, you know?”
New Trash later cast Matthews and Reed in the “Juice & Gin” video. “We were thinking that we was gonna be extras,” Reed says. “We ended up being the main girls.” Alder and Wiles’s policy for clients is “pay what you can,” and Valee’s people could afford to exceed New Trash’s usual “no to low cost” range. Wiles says they splurged by hiring “an actual producer who knows how to do paperwork.”
Wiles and Alder freelance as video editors and work as production assistants to support themselves, but they’re optimistic that New Trash will eventually get them properly paid directing gigs. “We are of course building a portfolio to hopefully land bigger-budget projects where we have the opportunity to pay our crew back,” says Wiles. “Many of them have repeatedly donated their time and talent. But at this stage, all the budget goes to what you’re seeing on the screen.”
The Valee shoot got Mother Nature interested in making a New Trash video of their own. “They’re very DIY, which is our approach. We do everything by ourselves,” Matthews says. “We’re constantly having to compromise and wear all these hats.”
Mother Nature had already come to Kidz Express to give a workshop on writing and performing, invited by Imani Hardy, who manages the facility’s after-school hip-hop club. (He also raps under the name Mani Jurdan as part of the HUEY Gang crew.) When Reed and Matthews recorded “Simple,” they recruited a half dozen kids from the club to add vocals to the hook, complementing the song’s bright, bouncy instrumental. These same children agreed to appear in the video too, and New Trash were given use of the Kidz Express space for free.
For New Trash, DIY isn’t a philosophy so much as a reality they’ve adapted to—making videos with little more than passion for the work. “If somebody told me they would give me money to direct a Nickelodeon show,” Wiles jokes, “I would be out of here in a fucking second.”
When planning their shoots, Wiles and Alder aim for striking visuals that they can accomplish on a low budget. After initial discussions with a client, they guide further conceptualization by assembling a lookbook of references from film, photography, paintings, and architecture. “If [the musicians] have big thematic ideas, it’s like, ‘Look, we’ll try and boil this into the DNA as best we can, but the realities of the day are what they are,'” Alder says. “Maybe we won’t have a giant laser cross, but we’ll try to do something with lasers.”
The “Simple” video draws from the exaggerated aesthetic of maximalist late-90s hip-hop videos, particularly the work of director Hype Williams. The crew’s shot list called for colors “shiny and bold like a piece of candy wrapped in cellophane,” and its central conceit is that the kids themselves are directing a video for Mother Nature.
On the first day of filming, the six young performers arrived an hour later than expected. Hughes and Mikolyuk set up a set-within-a-set on a parking lot next to the playground, hoping to capture as much daylight as possible. They arranged a director’s chair, lights, a VHS camera, and a green screen with an eight-foot dolly track passing in front of it at waist height. The uncanny feeling of watching a real film crew shooting a pretend film crew was only intensified when one of the kids, 11-year-old Jovon Black, began livestreaming the whole thing on his phone.
As the oldest of the children, Black exerted a moderating influence on the others, suggesting, “Be y’all, but don’t be too much of y’all.” It was 30 degrees outside, and the first snow of the season fell that day, but the kids brought all the pent-up energy they’d usually blow off at the end of a school day to the set. They Milly Rocked and did the Shoot dance, and they sang along to their own voices on the hook: “I do not do what you do / Keep it simple / I am me and you are you / Keep it simple.”
Wiles talked the kids through each take, and when Kidz Express assistant director Marco Dodd could take a break from his duties, he stepped in as an acting coach. For a scene where nine-year-old Danielle Reed was supposed to throw a script binder off her directing chair in frustration, he called, “Act like you’re mad at your brother!”
As it got dark, the crew moved into the gym. The kids followed Hughes’s camera as it spun with them, the background a blur behind their faces. They lip-synced as they stood in a static shot that imitated a class picture. When Wiles lined the kids up for individual dance features, they seemed to find new reserves of energy. Each one leaped into frame, improvised moves for 12 bars, then ran around to the back of the line to wait for another turn—even in slow-motion, as some of that footage will appear in the the finished video, the dance relay was electric. The first day of shooting wrapped up at 6:30 PM, and the crew broke down the set in five minutes so Kidz Express could serve dinner in the gym.
Wiles was constantly in motion throughout the shoot, evaluating angles from behind the camera, then kneeling down to talk to kids before takes. He clutched a Bluetooth speaker that played the Mother Nature song so the children could stay in sync with it. They had little time to spare for reviewing footage and no way to do so except inside the camera—Wiles joked that the kids’ prop monitor was the first one New Trash had ever had on set.
Alder moved in a different orbit. He frequently ducked into the building, retrieving equipment and refreshments while checking on Laird’s set-construction progress. This dynamic is typical on New Trash sets. The pace of production requires Alder and Wiles to fill multiple roles simultaneously. “I’m a good liaison person. I talk to people and make sure everything’s OK,” Alder says. “This guy is a war horse, so he’s good at calling a lot of the literal shots.”
Mother Nature arrived at Kidz Express camera ready on the second day of shooting, both wearing black-and-white checkerboard pants and bright, warm-colored fleeces. Hyping themselves up with their own song and with “Live Sheck Wes,” the two MCs strutted and flexed in front of the green screen—which will probably show a beach scene in the finished video—and then the camera pulled back to reveal the set and the parking lot. That visual punch line will dovetail with the lyrics of the bridge: “Should have had it all by now.” As Wiles explains it, incorporating their set into a video is one way New Trash turn their low-budget production style into an asset—in this case, it becomes part of a self-deprecating joke.
The shoot was calmer with grown-up subjects, but it didn’t go entirely smoothly. New Trash had to abort several indoor takes when a snow machine malfunctioned. Even after Alder figured out how to fix its delay in dispensing fake flurries, the snow still wouldn’t blow toward the camera properly—the crew were stumped until Mikolyuk pointed to a vent in the ceiling. The shot was worth the trouble, though: Matthews and Reed leaned into each other against the sudden blizzard, taking pratfalls that drew laughs from the handful of people who’d gathered to watch.
When the kids arrived, they flocked to Mother Nature, and the directors tempted them away from these local celebrities with rough-cut footage from the previous day played on Wiles’s phone. The kids were entranced—they’ve grown up with smartphones, but they’d never seen themselves shot in slow motion at 120 frames per second. Intrigued by the filmmaking process, five-year-old Zyler Kidd pushed the camera back and forth on the dolly track (under Hughes’s supervision) until his older brother Zack called him back on set for another take.
Inside the gym, New Trash shot a sequence meant for the video’s credits. Hughes’s camera zoomed out from a Kidz Express sign, his extended shot taking in each of the kids with their movie-set props and Mother Nature lip-syncing the final chorus. Then Wiles asked everyone to gather together and cheer “like the end of every sports movie.” Nine-year-old Trashuwn Jones threw down the papier-mache boom mike he’d been valiantly holding above his head to join the bouncing, noisy throng. After postproduction, New Trash’s black-and-yellow logo would roll over that triumphant scene.
The production then relocated to the classroom that Laird and Claire Wiles had spent two days slathering with color. Mother Nature and the kids danced in front of a whiteboard covered in mock storyboards and neon Post-its. Nine-year-old Landon Sanders, freed from his post behind the prop camera, danced to the front as the MCs cheered him on. Each kid took a turn at the head of the room through two takes of the song, one with a stationary camera and another with Hughes floating through the crowd.
Alder called a wrap for the kids, and they celebrated with hugs from Matthews and Reed before rejoining their peers in the gym. The crew then pivoted 180 degrees to shoot the other half of the classroom, which had been transformed into a giant simulation of an elementary school diorama. Models of the planets hung from the ceiling, surrounding a mirrored comet with a cardboard tail. Mars-red gravel covered an off-white tarp. Reflective sheets of silver plastic, draped over two eight-foot stands, flowed onto the floor like carpeting on a spaceship.
The directors filmed Matthews and Reed prowling through the solar system as Mikolyuk twirled a red spotlight. The crew had initially rented a fisheye lens to distort the rappers’ faces when they got close to the camera, but they were stymied by a last-minute recall. “The rental company called and said, ‘It doesn’t work if you shine light through it,” Alder says, laughing. “So it didn’t work at all.” Hughes got the desired effect anyway by setting up the camera even closer to his subjects. Reed watched some of the footage and said, “Looks like Puffy and Mase”—referring to Hype Williams’s iconic video for Biggie’s “Mo Money Mo Problems.”
The moment the crew had finished filming, they flipped on the fluorescent classroom lights and efficiently dismantled the painstakingly constructed diorama. Laird offered the model of Saturn to anyone who would take it. Wiles transferred gigabytes of video to his laptop. The crew loaded up lights and equipment in a matter of minutes, stopping only to hug Matthews and Reed good-bye. Plans to use a smoke machine and shoot on the playground were cut for time. “The reality of production is the greatest decider of everything,” Wiles says.
The directors will face another time crunch finishing the production. Wiles and Alder are roommates, and they’ll be editing to meet a deadline a few weeks away while also hunting for a new apartment. The release date is still undetermined, but Mother Nature plans to roll out a new project in early 2019. Reed is sure the duo’s relationship with New Trash will continue. “This definitely won’t be the last video we work with them on,” she says.
Wiles and Alder have more projects in the pipeline, including their first video featuring animation. In the long term they want to expand to feature films, their goal since they arrived at Columbia. They also want to encourage fellow purveyors of their over-the-top style. “Give them the opportunities you wish somebody would’ve given you,” says Wiles.
Alder looks further into the future: “I think everybody who wants to make movies has this fantasy of being able to be famous enough that you can see an artist that you love and be like, ‘I wanna see what this person is gonna do with this kind of material,'” he says. “A big-picture plan we have would be to open a production company where we could foster talent and finance projects that don’t fit into any established line of Hollywood thinking.”
“I think New Trash is a writ-large idea, something that could easily transition into an actual production company,” Wiles adds. “God forbid we have any success.” v