When director Jesse Dylan
teamed up with will.i.am to shoot a video that was inspired by a speech Barack Obama gave during his campaign, they had little idea that it would turn into such a phenomenon. Their music video, “Yes We Can,” quickly racked up millions of views on YouTube and became an anthem for a nation eager for change. Dylan, who is no stranger to activism because of his famous father Bob, recently launched a division at his commercial production company called Free Form, which has been working on Bono’s RED campaign and the TED Conference as well as other cause-based projects. We chatted with Dylan while he was at the TED Conference about his uplifting video and other non-profit work.
When you and will.i.am were working on the “Yes We Can” video, did you ever anticipate that it would take off like it did?
No, not at all. We were doing it because it was just something we wanted to do. Everybody was very surprised by the nice reception it got.
[The video] took off almost immediately, and I think it has more to do with people really wanting a change and maybe it was a little bit emblematic of what a lot of people were really feeling at the time.
How did you decide who was going to be in it?
Really it was people who had been on the campaign trail with Barack. The first day it could have ended up just being John Legend, Scarlett Johansson, Will—those were really the people who were there at the very beginning. And then we just started to get people who were earnest and [producer] Pantera Sarah found a lot of people and it was just really an organic process over two days.
The thing is, we were just shooting for two days and if they came, they were in it, and if they didn’t, they weren’t.
So you and will.i.am met while doing a commercial with the Black Eyed Peas, correct?
We did a Snickers thing together a couple years ago, so we had met then, but I had known him a little bit before. But when he wanted to do this video, he was inspired by the [Yes We Can] speech, and then we just put it together really quickly. It was just going to be this little YouTube video but it just kind of took off.
You do a lot of non-profit work and work for causes. What are some of the projects you’re working on?
We do a lot of stuff for RED, which I think is really good. We work on some of the TED Wishes like Pangea Day and Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion. They’re just great projects that are worth getting involved with.
I just work on things that I think are going to be good and that I believe in what they’re trying to do and where I think I can help them communicate their ideas.
I’ve done some work for the Creative Commons and a film that I did on Internet neutrality for the Ford Foundation—those are all emblematic of the kinds of things that I like to work on. I’m also a fellow at Science Commons and I think that doing things that explain science is really important and necessary.
So your production company Free Form is dedicated toward non-profit work?
I guess you can call it non-profit work, but I think it’s just about trying to do things that are good, you know what I mean? Just things that seem like they’re worth making a film about. All of those walls between different ideas have all broken down. So I just kind of work on things that I think are good, profit or non-profit. It’s all kind of the same thing in trying to find things that I’d like to be involved with.
What about your commercial work? What have you been working on lately?
I’m always working on commercials. I’m doing a Nintendo commercial at the moment, which I do a lot of. I work with Dominick Aiello who is a really dear friend of mine and we do a lot of spots together.
Activism has obviously played a large role in your career because of your famous father. How much has that influenced you?
We all just live our own lives. I mean, he’s a great father and he’s my best friend but he never said, go out and do this kind of work. But he just kind of leads by his own example.
You’ve been very involved in the music world and you used to make music videos. Who are some of your favorite musicians?
I really like Regina Spektor, I saw her last night. I really like this band The Strings, which I think are really cool, they’re kind of like this classical hip-hop band which I think is really interesting. I like Matisyahu and all sorts of people.
I like Elvis Costello’s new record and Slumdog Millionaire. There’s just stuff going on all the time that’s great and all these people out there making really interesting stuff.