If he weren't so damned humble, it'd be pretty easy to hate Chris Marrs Piliero. However, the 32-year-old director is nice. Like, really nice. To the point at which when you hear how he went from being a dude with a camera to the guy in charge of music videos for acts such as Britney Spears, Ke$ha and the Black Keys, whatever tinge of jealousy you might have for him is immediately erased.
Piliero was singing in Orange County pop/punk band Up Syndrome when, in 2005, a major life occurrence took place: He turned 25 years old. Knowing he enjoyed both music and making film and didn't want to spend his entire adult life touring in a van and playing to 17 people, the singer went to his band mates and said he was giving his group one year to make it big. If Up Syndrome didn't become a household name, Piliero was going to pursue filmmaking, a passion he was introduced to at Anaheim Hills' Canyon High School (and later studied at Chapman University). Up Syndrome did not become the next Green Day, but the time spent fronting his group was the impetus for the director's fast-track to filmmaking success.
"If I wouldn't have done the band thing," Piliero says, "I wouldn't have signed to this small independent label that signed another band that happened to get signed to Warner Bros. Their manager gave me a call and told me they needed an extra cameraman for a concert. That guy went on to manage the Used, and they needed someone to film the Taste of Chaos in Long Beach. From there, it was a snowball."
Piliero then began shooting documentaries after enduring only four wedding videos, the cinematic equivalent of thinking about running for your city's comptroller position before becoming vice president of the United States. He later shot music videos for Yellowcard, DRUGS, J.P., Chrissie and the Fairground Boys, A Day to Remember, and Cage the Elephant. Not every filmmaker is this lucky. In fact, few are, of which the Los Angeles resident is highly aware.
"I was in the right place at the right time," Piliero says. "At the same time, it's not like I suck. Believe me: I'm very grateful for how things turned out. Once I got that first call, I didn't stop working. I never had to go through the period of trying to hit up bands and labels, which is pretty amazing. I'm super-stoked at how it all panned out."
Sure, Hollywood is all about whom you know, but Piliero's leap to big-time videos came from not only who he knew, but also from famous people knowing famous people. The director shot four videos and a commercial for the Black Keys (including the MTV Video Music Award-winning "Tighten Up"), a band who claim pop star Ke$ha as one of their fans. This connection led Piliero to get the gig for the singer's video for "Blow," which includes unicorns, laser guns and a dance sequence with actor James Van Der Beek. And because Ke$ha is friends with pop icon Britney Spears, Piliero was a candidate to work with Ms. "I Did it Again." (He got the job.)
Laymen have preconceived notions of celebrities, and we've seen Spears' well-documented roller coaster of a career. Rather than shying away from the controversy that surrounds the singer, Piliero says, he listened "maybe three times" to her song "I Wanna Go" before creating a treatment that addressed the media's hounding of the pop icon. And, he adds, she was totally up for it.
"I didn't expect her to not be nice," Piliero says, "but I loved the fact that she embraced the idea. When I wrote it, I knew she'd either love it or hate it. But if she loved it, that meant we were going to go for it. And she killed it. I was proud because I wrote this video for her. It was awesome to see it come off the paper and come alive."
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So, yeah, he has worked with the biggest pop star this side of Madonna, and the rest of us schmucks have every right to be envious of that. But then you ask Piliero if he has anything else he'd like to say, and you expect him to spew something that ruins the nice-guy persona. And what do you get? A shout-out to a high-school teacher.
"Make sure you give props to Wino," Piliero says, referring to Canyon's video-production instructor. "That's Mike Weinkauf, but we called him 'Wino.'"
This article appeared in print as "I Shot Britney Spears: And other tales of music-video directing from former local musician Chris Marrs Piliero."