Stage Right: Bill Boyd On Directing, Producing And Racing
– Bill Boyd
Bill Boyd has spent a career working with some huge names within the music industry and television. From Linkin Park, Will.i.am, Kanye West, INXS, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw and Katt Williams to “Monday Night Football,” numerous advertising campaigns and now Masterclass.
Originally from Hawaii, Boyd caught the entertainment bug early and moved to California to work in film after high school. While studying he got invited by a friend to help with a music video for DJ Quik and from there slowly developed a reputation for competence and creativity, moving from one project to the next, forming lifelong friendships with artists Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas and Joe Hahn of Linkin Park along the way.
With decades of experience as a director and producer on dozens of projects, Boyd now has a treasure trove of stories he rarely decides to share with the press, but he graciously made an exception for Pollstar.
So you work for Masterclass now?
Yes, I’m an executive producer. I just started working with them in December and it’s been a really good experience, pandemic aside, or in spite of. It has been a challenge to try to get these projects going though. A lot of the people we are working with are concerned, rightfully so, about bringing outsiders in that they don’t know and if they have to travel. So in Los Angeles we’re not shooting anything until the COVID numbers stabilize.
You must know a lot of people in the industry who are hurting because of COVID right now, particularly all the contractors who are out of work.
Most of my career in film and music I have been a contractor, I’ve never been that person who wanted to have a 9 to 5, it’s not in my DNA. I would say 90 percent of my work has been as a contractor. In the beginning I had to eat a lot of mac & cheese, a lot of ramen, you had to stretch your dollar but as time went on, you establish more relationships with people, the phone rings a little more and you don’t have to drum up work. And you realize you’re fortunate when the phone does ring.
I was catching up with a photographer friend of mine yesterday, I was asking her how she’s doing and she said she hasn’t worked in a year now. So today I’m going to Trader Joes and I’m going to leave a bag of groceries on her doorstep, because it’s the right thing to do.
I was telling somebody the other day that roadies are the last of the carnies. A lot of the people I’ve worked with, and I include myself in this, are a lot of misfits that found their niche. This is what I’m good at, this is what I like doing, and I actually can get paid doing it. The people I’ve encountered over the years in this business, you can’t put them in the same box as most other people. They’re not your typical personality.
These days I check on a lot of my friends, particularly those I worked with on Linkin Park projects for years. …
All these people are struggling. A lot of them are covered in tats, with full sleeves of ink and it’s hard for them to just go get a job where they have to go put on a tie. People give them odd looks. They are all good people, they just follow a different beat.
One of my dear friends, Jim Digby, who runs the Event Safety Alliance, is always reaching out to people to see how his friends are doing emotionally. He is just calling them, doing welfare checks. I love Jim, he is a good guy.
How did you get into the entertainment industry?
When I got out of college, one of my cousins in NY used to be a drummer for Stevie Wonder, he told me look up his friend Bill Duke, an actor who transitioned into directing. So I got to shadow him on the set of a TV series he was working on. There were 100 people running around and suddenly Bill calls out my name. “Bill Boyd to the front of the set.” I was at the back of the set thinking “Oh no, what did I do?” He looks at me and says, “You’re never learn to direct from back there.” He had me look into the camera eyepiece and set up a shot.
That was a learning moment for me and a confidence builder. That really inspired me and I’m so grateful that he did it.
So what has your experience been like as a Black man in the entertainment industry?
Let me tell you a story. I don’t remember who connected me with Linkin Park, but I was producing a video for them, I think it was for the song “Crawling.” After we finished filming, Joe Hahn was staying at his parents’ house and I offered to give him a ride. I was driving my ’63 Falcon Futura, it needed new wipers. [laughs]. So there is Joe wiping the windshield with his t-shirt because it kept fogging and we couldn’t see the road.
So I get to his house, he just asked “Hey, you want to come meet my family?” I said “That’d be awesome.” … So I started out producing their videos and we became lifelong friends. I was eventually best man at Joe Hahn’s wedding.
I brought this up because those guys in Linkin Park never looked at me as anything other than a person.
Obviously, you can’t help but notice I’m a person of color, you don’t negate that, but they looked at me for who I was, and they gave me an opportunity and asked “Do you want to work with us on a longer term basis?” That was one of the few jobs where I was given a retainer to work with them monthly.
When I toured with them and some of the other bands, and you go places with multiple bands, festivals, I encountered a lot of glares, rudeness on more than one occasion. It is what it is. That’s life. In every aspect of everyone’s career you are going to encounter idiots. 20 years ago it seemed like the entertainment industry was very exclusive and there were a lot of good ol’ boys. Thank God for people like Jim Digby who weed those people out and say “That’s not acceptable in this industry anymore.” God bless him for that.
There have been a few times when I have told him “This is happening,” and he has asked “OK, do you want this person fired? They’re fired!” But I’ve told him I don’t want these people fired, I just want them to understand what we’re doing here and what my role is.
I try to help as many people in music and film as I can, people that would not necessarily have a door open for them, because someone had to open a door for me. So now I’m all about asking how can I help somebody.
Obviously you want to make sure you are helping somebody who is doing things for the right reasons and has a good heart. If people have a good heart, I’m going to bend over backwards to help them because people did that for me. And Will.i.am is the same way.
It’s good to see that the doors are opening now, but it’s really weird how people still get compartmentalized.
Like if you are a person of color, there is this idea that you can only work with artists of color. That makes no sense to me. One thing about working with Kanye, he would say to me, “I just want the best person. It doesn’t matter what they look like. It’s all about the best person for that role. I hire the best.”
Speaking to you now, you seem like the most agreeable human on earth, I cannot believe people did not like you when you were touring with Linkin Park.
Well they weren’t even giving me a chance. It was just my exterior. It had nothing to do with me, it was just what I look like. A lot of people in the music, concert world at that time, their exposure was very limited. … As a person of color or a person not of color, you are going to have your challenges all the time. I try not to take things personally, I try to look at people that say idiotic, ignorant or insensitive things, and I try to look at why they said this and put it in their perspective and understand. Maybe that kind of cushions it for me a little bit.
What was it like working with Kanye?
He’s a controversial figure but I had nothing but a good relationship with him. [laughs] You know, I was at his house one day and I saw that he was remodeling his kitchen and in the drawings and renderings, I saw the appliances were different from what he already had in there, a fridge and stove, a Sub Zero and a Viking. I asked him “What are you going do with that refrigerator and stove?” He asked, “You want them?” So I went and got a U-haul that day, I called a buddy, and we came and loaded them up, before he changed his mind.
Apparently some other people wanted those appliances too, so some people got a little upset that he gave them to me.
Ok what was it like working with Katt Williams?
So we shot for a week and after we would wrap, at the end of each night, Katt would go to every crew person, he would thank them for a job well done and hand them a $100 bill. I saw some crew people getting in line twice, and him having to tell them, ‘Man, you were already in line.’
One of the other things, Katt prided himself on being a very fast runner, a sprinter. So, after the shoot, on the last day, he said “I’ll take on all comers,” and offered to race anyone in a 50-yard dash. I ran track in college and high school and I wasn’t great, but I had quiet confidence.
I was gonna jump into the race when one of the producers taps me on the shoulder and says “Hey, you better lose. You can’t beat him. You know what’s gonna happen if you beat him?” Needless to say, I decided not to race. But I will say, he was really quick.
What are some other highlights from your career?
For two years I was doing the halftime show for ESPN’s Monday Night Football. Each week was like a different tour stop, it was like setting up a new concert in 17 cities in 18 weeks. I would produce and direct a lot of them.
When we were filming before The Roots performed in Philadelphia, I was driving around with Black Thought, he was pointing out where he went to high school, where he grew up. How many people get to do things like that? Very few. That job was exhausting, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.
[laughs] Also, our liaison with the NFL during that period was a former Bears player, Willie Gault, and I am friends with him to this day. … So Genesis was the sponsor for the halftime show and the person who was the head of marketing for Genesis was very big into fitness and everyone kept saying we should have a race. I think Willie was goading him. I know those guys raced but they wouldn’t tell me who won.
It’s funny how I’ll still encounter people who want to race. [laughs] I was in China with Linkin Park. We were doing a live show, I think it was in Shanghai at a football stadium, and there was a running track, so Joe Hahn and one of the marketing guys raced there.
What was it like working on the John Lennon Imagine Project?
That was very meaningful. That was a project for the UN, so I got to go to the UN and meet everybody before we kicked off the project. Somebody from my upbringing, to find myself in that situation, I don’t think I would have ever dreamt of being able to be in the back office of the UN, in the building, empty because we were going to film there. Sometimes I reflect and go “Wow, this is amazing. I am very fortunate.” All the artists that came in and gave their time, a lot of musicians, actors, people in the film industry, celebrities, they were all there for the right reasons and it was cool because we had somebody making the phone calls, but these people were just so happy to be a part of it. To me, there have been some projects I’ve worked on not for the money but because it was the right thing to do, to give back, and that was one of them.
So you worked on a lot of halftime shows, what did you think of The Weeknd’s turn at the Super Bowl?
I thought it was great, especially under the circumstances. You can’t have many people around, because of COVID, but I thought they really pulled it off. I wondered how they were going to do it because he’s not known for carrying a guitar on his shoulder, there wasn’t going to be a [prominent] band. I thought it was very creative.
It’s a tough situation for the producers of a halftime show, you want to please everybody, but half the country really just loves country music. The other half loves rock, R&B and other things. You’re always going to have detractors simply because the show was not their style of preference. Producers just have to say they’re going to put on the best show they can and hopefully people are going like it. But you’re never going to please everybody.