As the groundbreaking, Grammy-winning rapper, singer, and songwriter Lil Nas X was about to embark upon his first tour last year, Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel were brought on board to document it. The co-directors were present to capture both the dazzling show itself—and the fans’ poignant reaction to it—as well as intimate footage of the artist offstage, navigating questions of identity, family, expectations, and acceptance, and reflecting on his place within the legacy of Black queer performers and activists. The result is the funny, touching, and thought-provoking feature documentary Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero, which received its world premiere at last month’s 48th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
Following the premiere, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel about how they each became involved, the essence of what they wanted to capture about the tour and the performer, the film’s inclusion of references to Little Richard and Marsha P. Johnson, and how an appearance from Madonna almost didn’t make the final cut.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: what did it mean to you to have the film world premiere at TIFF?
Zac Manuel: “It meant a whole lot. It’s such a prestigious venue and the quality of the programming at TIFF is really strong. It’s an honour to be included in the lineup of films here. Also, to have the film supported as much as it was—with that incredible red carpet, all the press there and everyone who showed up for Montero—was amazing. It made us feel special and it made the message of the film even more powerful. It really elevated it.”
It was clear from TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey’s on stage introduction that he is among the many people whom Lil Nas X has had a profound impact on.
Carlos López Estrada: “That was so beautiful. Zac and I were both waiting backstage stage and when we heard what Cameron was saying we looked at each other and were like, ‘Oh, wow, this could not be more perfect’. It’s a testament to the power of Nas’ music and how it can really touch people’s lives. It was so moving to hear him speak about that ahead of the screening.”
How did you became involved in making the film?
Carlos: “I had worked with the label on a couple of music videos. When they were starting to put the live show together, Nas wanted to do something that wasn’t a traditional concert experience. He had these ideas to make it very theatrical and for there to be a story that was driving the music. They wanted it to feel a bit like a play or a film and they brought me on to work with them for a couple weeks to help them structure the show. We put together a loose narrative that started with someone talking about the creation. Originally, we were going to have someone playing Nas as a kid and then you’d get to see him grow up into the man he is now. That idea got tweaked a little in the end, but I helped them with it initially and then they went off and started the tour.”
“I thought that was the end of my involvement, but then about a month or so later they called and said, ‘We are really happy with the show and we want to document it. We have this amazing documentarian on board, Zac, who’s going to be following Nas for the next couple of weeks, but we also want to film the shows, would you be interested in coming on board?’ I immediately said, ‘Yes’, and it was incredible. I met Zac backstage at the New York show and we reconnected because we’d actually gone to the same film school.”
Zac: “I’d already worked with one of the producers, Caryn Capotosto, and I knew one of the executive producers, Krista Wegener, from some other projects. I’d just moved to Philadelphia three days before I got a call from Caryn and she was like, ‘I have this super secret project which I can tell you about in a second, but first I need to ask if you’d be interested in coming out to LA’. I was like, ‘Alright, tell me about it’. She said, ‘It’s Lil Nas X’ and I was like, ‘Fuck, yes!’ So it was a really quick decision and then it was an organic process from there.”
“Basically, the directive was to document his first tour and so we were shooting everything backstage and the setup. It was still on a soundstage and we were documenting rehearsals. At that point, his art director at the time, Hodo Musa, pulled me aside and she was like, ‘What are you all doing here? What is all this footage going to be used for?’ And I said, ‘Hodo, if you can get me into Montero’s house tomorrow morning, I think that we can get a movie out of this’. She pulled some strings and got us into his house in LA to film the next morning. Five or six minutes into the finished film there’s the footage of entering his house and going into his living room and into his bedroom, that was actually our first entrance into his house as filmmakers. We were rolling the entire time, so you really get to see and hear our first close personal interactions with him. That’s how it all started.”
Zac, why was it such an instant decision to come on board?
Zac: “I was introduced to his music in 2019 when “Old Time Road” came out and then I introduced it to some friends of mine. I was really interested in and enamored by a gay Black rapper doing music that was very different. He wasn’t following a certain script of popular music. It was adding some complexity to a lot of subjects that I was already interested in exploring, so that was very exciting to me artistically. When I got that call I was super excited and interested to get to know more layers about Nas as an artist.”
What were some of the subjects that you were interested in exploring?
Zac: “A lot of my work is around masculinity in Black communities and I work a lot with people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, building connections and intimacy through difficult situations and through trauma. That’s always been a theme in my work. I work a lot with musicians as well and I come from a musical family, so that’s part of my artistic fabric. Making this film put a lot of those things into the same tapestry.”
When you did get to speak to Nas himself, was he as open and unguarded as he appears to be in the film?
Zac: “Very much so. It’s not often that you can go into someone’s home and within 15 or 20 minutes they’re showing you around their bedroom. My instinct is to is to keep asking for a little bit more and a little bit more until someone says, ‘That’s the limit’. But to his credit, he never said, ‘That’s the limit’.”
I love the moment where we see an archive clip of Little Richard and hear Nas talk about him. Then the screen fills with Black queer and trans folks, including Marsha P. Johnson, which is a brief, but really powerful and moving sequence.
Carlos: “We hope that the film is similar to what Nas does with his online persona. On the surface, he’s irreverent and controversial and just a troll, but when you get past that you see so much more. A lot of people don’t get past that though and don’t really get to see the whole picture, so they don’t get to understand the full depth of what he’s about. But if you take a second to look past the humour, you get to see that he actually speaks very powerfully to Black youth, to queer youth, to anyone who feels othered or like an outsider. I would hope that the movie does that too.”
“The film is funny, and we got a lot of laughs at the premiere, which was really rewarding for us because Nas is such a funny guy when you hear him talk and there’s this incredible charm about the way he carries himself. It’s a concert film and it’s flashy, but then you’re hit with these moments of truth where you get to think about him in a sociopolitical cultural context and you’re like, ‘Oh, I get it’. This goes way beyond, ‘A funny man makes catchy music’. He’s actually part of a cultural conversation that changes lives and he’s aware of his place in it all.”
Zac: “As you see in the film, when we first went into his house in Los Angeles we noticed that he’s got that entire wall in his bedroom with all those cutouts on it. In the middle of it there’s a pretty big picture of Marsha P. Johnson. A lot of the photos are stacked on top of each other, but that one is actually on the top layer so there’s nothing obscuring any part of it. It was very intentionally placed there. I remember seeing that and thinking that his level of consciousness and perspective was surprising to me and more than what I had anticipated. To have a picture of Marsha P. Johnson, who was such an activist, communicated to me that he was thinking about his place in the legacy of other Black queer performers, activists, and artists. There was also a moment during the interview when we were filming Nas on his bed when Caryn—who had recently produced Lisa Cortes’ documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything—said, ‘We should talk about what Little Richard was doing 50 years ago’.”
Nas actually appears at the end of Little Richard: I am Everything in a montage sequence that honours Little Richard’s legacy, so the films echo each other.
Zac: “That’s absolutely right and I think that was a super important note from Caryn and a super important conversation to have because it was the other side of the story. It made clear that Nas is actually thinking about his place in it all and it added a nice capstone to that.”
Carlos: “The idea to include that archive clip of Little Richard came from our editor Andrew Morrow. It hit us so hard, similarly to the pictures that you mentioned of Black queer and trans folks. The first time that we showed a cut to some of the people who we were working with on the film, they told us that they weren’t sure about us including those photos. They thought people wouldn’t know who they were and that they were out of context. After that meeting, Zac and I were both in agreement that that was actually one of the most important moments in the movie. So we said to each other, ‘Let’s not only hold firm on this, but let’s push it even further’. So we added more photos and we added their names.”
“I’ve always felt it, but being in a group of people at the premiere and seeing those images come up and feeling that complete silence as people were taking them in, made me realize how that moment takes everything that we’re doing and grounds it. It tells you that you need to be paying attention for multiple reasons.”
Zac: “Aesthetically it’s impactful too in terms of what Andrew did with those photos. In placing them on top of the frame lines they break the aspect ratio, which is pretty genius. It’s a really subtle visual way to communicate the importance and the presence of those figures.”
Carlos: “I agree, and I really want to make sure that we give props to Andrew, because Zac did an incredible job and I did the best I could, but Andrew really was a co-author of the movie. Andrew brought a whole layer of fun and originality and truth to the film. That was in the footage, but he really discovered some stuff in it and the movie would not have been as impactful without him. He gets it on such a personal level and he was such a key part of the creative process.”
You mention Nas’ humour, which as well as being entertaining is also part of his resilience isn’t it? Like the moment where we see him sending pizza out to people who are protesting outside his concert.
Carlos: “Exactly. That pizza moment was Andrew’s idea too. He pulled that footage up and said, ‘We need to include this’. All of us were like, ‘Oh, wow, yes we do’, because getting to see that contextualizes things so well. You also see that this is a three or four year journey. You think of Lil Nas X as being this legacy artist, but five years ago no one knew who he was. He hadn’t even released a song. We see that footage of him talking about how many Instagram followers he has and he’s so excited about his 2,000 followers. He says, ‘Let’s check back in a year!’ Watching it, you’re like, ‘Dude, just you wait!'”
He mentioned at the TIFF Q&A that he’s fascinated by time travel, and your movie does some time travel in a way doesn’t it? Showing us his past and present, and it underscores how fast everything changed.
Carlos: “Yeah, it really does.”
I welled up quite a few times watching the movie last night.
Carlos: “I did too and I’ve seen it so many times now.”
One of the sequences that really moved me was when we hear from Lil Nas X’s fans, why was it important for you to include their voices in the film? You also capture how diverse his fan base is, in every way, including age.
Zac: “That was Carlos’s idea and it was a brilliant.”
Carlos: “When we first started to talk about the doc with the label they said, ‘Nas’ relationship with his audience is very peculiar and unique’. He uses social media in a way that no artist had ever done before to really make them feel like they’re a part of of the process. He talks to them directly. He broke that barrier between artist and audience that I think a lot of artists use to feel protected and to separate themselves. From the very beginning, Nas was like, ‘I am going to use these tools for you to feel like you’re a part of my journey. I’m going to tell you all the embarrassing, complicated, confusing, sad, dark stuff that’s going on in my mind’. I think that’s why his fans feel like they have this crazy connection with him.”
“For us, we were like, ‘Okay, how can we capture that in the movie?’ We didn’t want to make a movie where we were only showing him being awesome and famous and on top of the world, and we also wanted to make his fans a part of the storytelling. One way that I came up with to do that was this thing that we called the confessional booth. We set up a camera outside of his Atlanta show and pulled in people from the audience. We asked them questions—not necessarily about their favourite Lil Nas X song or why they were coming to the concert—but more about themselves. We asked them to tell us about a moment of transformation in their lives, a moment when they found out their own worth, or a moment where they weren’t sure of themselves but they ended up overcoming it. From those questions, they all ended up talking about Nas. It was really beautiful to see what his music had created in all of these people. They all talked about dark and complicated moments in their lives and a lot of them were queer or trans folks.”
“”Sun Goes Down” is a song about contemplating suicide and why and how Nas decided to stick around. A lot of his fans talked about their lives having been in a really complicated spot and how through his music and his message and his bravery they were able to find the strength within themselves to go on. Hearing those stories was when I really got it. I knew his music and who he was, and I was excited when I got the call, but being in that confessional booth with is fans was when I was like, ‘This is important. This is a lot bigger than I thought.”
“Every time that we could point the camera at the fans, we did. We actually did a couple of concert tapings where instead of pointing the camera at Nas and the dancers, we completely focused on the fans. They were expressing themselves through what they were wearing and were so invested in the show and they had these amazing signs. We tried to put as much of that in the movie as possible.”
Having seen the show in Washington DC, I think you did an incredible job of capturing what it was like to be there. What did you want to convey about the concert?
Carlos: “A lot of it was about the fan experience, that to me was the most special thing about it. Obviously the dancers were incredible and that slow motion sequence of the dancers in the film, which is actually Zac’s footage, is so beautiful. I don’t want to say that it’s easy to shoot a concert, but you put a lot of cameras around and the show is incredible so it’s going to look good, but what I was really hoping we could capture is the intimacy of what it felt like to be in that room. That’s why with “Sun Goes Down”, the first third of the song is a close-up where we’re in bed with Nas and he leads us onto the stage with him, which was a big deal at the time. It was about trying to balance the spectacle with the heart and the vulnerability of Nas.”
When we think of documentaries about musical artists on tour, Truth or Dare (In Bed With Madonna) immediately comes to mind. How conscious were you of that when you decided to include Madonna in the film? I also love seeing Nas talk about his relationship with his own dancers on the tour, that’s a really beautiful sequence.
Zac: “With Madonna, obviously we didn’t plan for her to be there, but Nas had gone to one of her shows and she was an inspiration for him when he was starting out, so it was this really beautiful Kismet moment where they were almost changing places a little bit. She was in the audience watching him perform, rather than the other way around. We thought it was important to include that moment because it helps you understand where he is in his career. It’s one thing to perform and have tonnes of people at your performance, but it puts you on another level to be buddy-buddy with Madonna. You understand in that moment that this is the level of pop stardom that he’s reached in such a short amount of time, where Madonna is his contemporary.”
Carlos: “Nas saw a cut of the film with that in there and he was like, ‘I don’t know that we need that Madonna moment’, and he had a good reason, he was like, ‘It’s not really furthering the narrative’. We were talking about his family at that point in the film and following that thread, then all of a sudden you have Madonna in it and potentially it could be seen as being random. But I remember after that meeting, Zac and I were going, ‘We have to figure out a way to convince Nas to let us keep Madonna in there’. When we spoke to him again he was very open about it and I’m really glad that we kept her in the film.”
By James Kleinmann