Directors Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel were thankful to have not learned about the bomb threat that delayed the TIFF premiere of their documentary “Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero” until after the screening had ended.
“We were just hanging out in the green room and my agent showed me the (headline) and I was like, ‘Oh, no, that’s not true. We were just here. That’s really funny that they posted that,’” said Estrada.
When he showed the report to the rapper and his bodyguard, “They were like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s true. I was like, ‘Oh, whoa.’ I showed it to Zac and we couldn’t believe that we were oblivious to this,” said the director. “I had gotten a couple texts from some friends in LA, and they were like, ‘Did you see the news?’ And I was like, ‘I actually didn’t know,’” said Manuel.
Though they had gotten to spend a lot of time with Lil Nas X on the road filming his Long Live Montero tour in 2022, Estrada said the bomb threat situation meant “we got to experience in five minutes what the life of Montero is like. And at the base of it all, it was this really awful, just horrific thing that you would have someone who disagrees with your worldview—”
“So much that they want to threaten violence,” added Manuel.
“They want to threaten your safety and make you feel scared for your life. That’s like the most horrible thing that a human can do to another,” said Estrada. “But you look past that and then Montero has this sort of amazing irreverence to him of just being like, ‘Yeah, but how rockstar is that?’”
It was that demeanor, in fact, that helped shape the filmmakers’ approach toward combining the traditional documentary footage of the rapper with his concert setpieces. “Our main inspiration for the movie was his Twitter feed, and it was just like, ‘How can we capture the irreverence, the troll-like nature, the humor, the weirdness?’ He’s just a funny, weird guy,” said Estrada. “There’s nothing in the world like his Twitter feed, literally nothing. The relationship that he has created with his fans, that intimacy, that immediacy of the fact that he says, ‘I don’t want any walls between us, and I want them to feel like they have a personal relationship with me.’ How can we turn that into a movie?”
“We knew what the show looked like, and I knew you were planning for a big multi-cam shoot, and that was going to be very beautiful and definitely more extravagant than the verité stuff that I was doing,” said Manuel. “So we were trying to figure out early on, how do we marry the kind of opulence of the performance, or maybe actually take that down a little bit and temper it so that it can meet the verité footage in the middle.”
The pair are quick to give editor Andrew Morrow a shoutout “because he came in and became essentially a co-author of the movie with us. We had seen the work that he had done with Beyoncé, and some really incredible editing,” said Estrada.
Producer Saul Levitz as well, from Lil Nas X’s record label is credited for stating from the beginning, “This cannot feel like a regular documentary. This cannot feel like a regular behind-the-scenes. This cannot feel like a PBS doc. This needs to be like Nas. It needs to be cool and unexpected. And with a quirk and an attitude,” he added.
“Other people can judge whether we did it right or not, but it really does feel like we hit all those things we want to hit. And the movie to me is funny and weird. And also every now and then, it hits you with some truth, said Estrada. “In between joke and joke, you’re like, ‘Oh fuck, he’s actually a part of conversations that are shifting the way that we think about Black queer youth, that we think about transformation, the way we think about people being vulnerable and accepting themselves.’ And to me, that’s what makes me the most proud of the movie, to say, ‘Oh, we had that objective, and we found a way to do it in some weird way.”
Being able to share the stage with their celebrity subject on Saturday night, having seen the Roy Thomson Hall audience dance and sing along to the film, was a pro that far outweighed the dangerous cons. Referring to the bomb threat again, Manuel said, “I hate that that’s a reality. I hate that someone felt the need to do that, whether it was a joke or whether they were very serious about it or whether they just wanted to stir the pot or stoke fear. But at the same time, that makes it more important and more meaningful that we do show up and show out, and that he is there and he is present, and he’s on the red carpet with super tall platform shoes and an open jacket and really long hair.”
The director went on to say, “Those lows, those threats, the violence, and then him still walking and still going out. It just is a huge middle finger to that. So yeah, I felt really proud actually to be in that moment afterwards and have done what we did, and had shown the film and had been there with him just to be like, ‘Yeah, fuck all of that noise. We’re still going to shine.’”
Seeing Lil Nas X exit the TIFF premiere after-party as he entered left Estrada worried that all the rapper’s energy was spent from such a spectacle. Then, “Zac was like, ‘Oh, you know why he left? I was like, ‘No, no idea. Please, don’t tell me there’s another weird thing going on.’ He was like, ‘No. He said he felt inspired and he booked his studio and he went to record,’” said the director. “This was at 2:00 a.m. and I was just like, ‘What better token of appreciation can we get from our subject, from the coolest artist in the world to say that you made a movie about me. We premiered it together. We did a Q&A. And his reaction to it is, ‘I’m inspired. I’m going to go create more.’ It is like, ‘Oh, we’re good. Whatever happens to the movie next is not up to us. But that’s incredible.’”
“Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero” world premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released by Sony later this year.