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Lil Nas X - A Story of Transformation & Self Actualisation

Arguably one of the most genuine and sincere Queer Black Artists in today’s world of emerging talent, musician Lil Nas X has been a source of inspiration and strength by many. 

In a celebration of his life, independent filmmakers Carlos López Estrada & Zac Manuel from the USA, took it upon themselves to document some of the powerful moments in his journey of self-realisation, turning all those precious moments into the film Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero. 

First premiered at Toronto International Film Festival in 2023, titans of the film industry such as Universal Pictures were fully supportive of the story that Carlos and Zac were trying to tell, and helped to make it accessible on a global scale, which included special screenings taking this place in many cities around the world including 20th March 2024  at the BFI Flare London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival.

With the impact of the film continuing to grow on a daily basis, we had the pleasure via the wonders of Zoom, as we sat down with both Carlos and Zac to find out more. 

Greetings from the UK gentlemen. How is 2024 going so far?

Carlos: It’s been alright, it’s been good so far. We released the movie in the US earlier this year and have now been getting  a wave of different audiences responding to it, so it has been really special. 

A couple months back you actually came over to the UK and had various screenings at the BFI in London, how special of a moment was that for you?

Zac: What was really great is how the audiences responded to it, and for one it was near as much sold out theatre. People were just joyful and moving in their seats so to be in that space of rich cinema history also was really special. 

What was it that encouraged you to tell the story of the life of Lil Nas through the art of cinema in the first place?

Carlos: That is a great question. I think both Zac and I really like and appreciate Lil Nas’ music but he is a character who has  most existed on headlines and tweets at the time as well as social media statuses, so I feel we never got to fully understand who the person behind the celebrity filter is. So the idea of being able to dissect his music, history, his family and his inspirations, at least for me, felt like a really special opportunity. Even though he became a household name he is still a relatively new artist, so being able to spend time with him so early in his career and see him on his first show really felt like a lot of ingredients for a very unique and compelling story. 

Zac: Yea I would agree with that. He kind of holds a special place in the legacy of Black Queer performers, especially Black Queer performers from the South, so I think for me I felt that gave the story a lot of gravity. He is one of the most visible but also most mysterious pop stars. We know so much about him but also don’t know so much about him at the same time if that makes sense. So being able to really get into the weaves of his family history and his identity and how he got to where he is, including what makes him tick, what makes him create, I think was a really unique opportunity. Also to just be able to tell a story of a Queer person from the South  who is really influential in a good way, and is successful in a good way, I think is a worthwhile endeavour.

When you were focusing on Lil Nas’ personality and identity as a Queer person growing up, were there parts of his character that were underestimated?

Zac: Oh that is a good question too, your digging deep today! Haha!  I think his ability to use his humour as first a shield and then a weapon is maybe something at least for me is underestimated. We know that he is able to snap back at the haters, but the speed he is able to do that and the proficiency plus the wit and the humour he is able to do it makes me speechless. Someone can try and lob an insult at him, and in two seconds he has turned that insult into a viral tweet that then goes on to show shade back at that person. He is very generous about it and has a unique ability to deflect and redirect the shots that are thrown at him and turn them into something very funny. So for me that was such a skill, such a talent.

Carlos: I think in addition to that, just his vulnerability and how willing he is to be radically sincere and radically open. That is his greatest weapon which is just laying it all on the table and not being afraid to show his emotional process and talk about his fears, challenges and traumas etc. I feel that there is something just very empowering about that which is good to see the way that people have responded to that, because it is something that has also empowered his fans  to do the same and fully embrace their true selves. 

Do you think it represents a new level of sassiness? 

Zac:  Haha, I think it is its own genre of sassiness at the Montero level. 

Do you feel this film also demonstrates what it means to be resilient?

Zac: I think yes, but I also think its wider than that where you take the hits but you still keep on going. I think for Lil Nas he is very conscious of what his limits are and I think it is important to mention that because his limits are also very broad and he is very vulnerable at the same time. 

So yes he is resilient but he is also very strong and also knows the ability of his strength and power as a tool, but also as a vulnerability. There is a lot of strength in the vulnerability too which must not be overlooked. 

When it came to pulling together the film, how did the pair of you decide which bits your going to include, and which bits your going to save for a different adventure?

Carlos: I feel like that was a conversation that took six months and lots of edit sessions. We have an amazing editor called Andrew Amero who was a big part in helping us shape the film as well as helping us find the story, so it was just a matter of using the structure of the show to let his music lead. And then all the hours and hours of incredible footage that Zac had captured to just mirror his journey.

Zac: I feel like early on we knew that this would be a story of transformation, which was our sort of topline lighthouse so to speak. It was always a bigger theme we were following and stay really close to that. Even with the testimonials and the confessional segments that Carlos did they weren’t so much, ‘what’s your favourite song?’ and more like ‘what were the moments you felt like you really had to transform?’. It was a brilliant way to connect what all those personal stories were and how they were mirrored to Lil Nas’ own personal story and then to the theme of the show which was about becoming a butterfly and going through a process of self actualisation. So we were alway looking at what was that top line idea, and how the questions we were asking were telling the story. It did feel like a process of experimentation a lot of the time but we had a thematic guide to get us there.

When Universal got behind the project how did that feel to have there support especially as creatives?

Carlos: I think it was great, because we knew he had an audience and knew that the music world would embrace the film but we have had a pretty great journey into the film world with it. We premiered  it at the Toronto International Film Festival last year and then we were able to set it up at HBO here in the US, and then be able to work with Universal globally. So I think it has just been very surprising but also very encouraging to see that that the film world has embraced it and that so many more people are going to get too see the movie and hear the story, so it has just been really great to see the trajectory of the movie so that its now out of our hands and any one who wants to experience it for themselves can.

Zac: Just to add to, I was going to say we are lucky that our partners are able to identify the power of the film as something that can inspire people and create some change towards self-acceptance throughout the world. So I appreciate our partners for that and wanting to give it the biggest amount of support and attention possible. 

Picture: Zac Manuel (Co-Director)

Picture: Carlos López Estrada (Co-Director)

As creatives, how has working on this increased your hunger to create even more?

Zac: Oh the hunger is always there! I think both Carlos and I are people who are working on a number of different projects at a time which are at different stages at all times, so it is a life journey. Every story is a new process of realisation of what the craft can be and what it’s limits or limitlessness is, so I dunno, my hunger just grows with every project.

Carlos: As independent filmmakers your have to have more than one thing going on and it forces you to be very fluid and be open to surprises which include detours. But yea working on these types of movies and seeing the impact they can have, i think really affirms we are doing something that is meaningful. The last project always inspires the next one. 

For anyone who hasn't seen the film yet, what would be your advise for the best way to approach it?

Zac: Well, Carlos and I got to go to the show as just members of the audience, as fans, not just filmmakers, and I think that is kind of the best way to experience it. Invite your friends over, maybe wear a cheeky outfit, find a big screen, turn the volume up to 11, have a really great time and dance on the couch like your Tom Cruise and sing along, that would be my recommendation. 

Well guys its been a pleasure speaking to you, wish you all the best for the continued growth of the film, and look forward to catching up hopefully for your next project.

Article By Thushara S. Chandrasiri

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