If you discovered twenty one pilots by stumbling upon the “Guns for Hands” music video like I did, you have Mark C. Eshleman to thank.
Since “Guns for Hands” and “Car Radio”—both directed by Eshleman— were released earlier this year, they have racked up nearly five million views combined on YouTube alone. As creative director and behind the scenes head honcho, Eshleman is a cornerstone of the band’s development that deserves recognition in the forefront. I had the opportunity to discuss with him his film company (Reel Bear Media), his dream project with Paramore, his dedicated fans, and more. An insightful adult with a goofball child heart, he breaks the ice by joking about hygiene on the road; in the same conversation, he dives deep into drawing inspiration from turmoil. Film is his breath, vision is his voice, and with his body of work, he speaks volumes.
Taryn Nobil: You’ve been touring pretty much nonstop. How do you like tour life?
Mark C. Eshleman: My body is starting to wear down… but I wouldn’t change it. I can put up with the sickness and being gross. I take showers—that’s all that matters. This is the first time we’ve done big shows as a headliner across the U.S., and I’ve been with Tyler (Joseph) and Josh (Dun) (a.k.a. twenty one pilots) since 2010. To be able to come back through these markets that we played last year—shows for a hundred or two hundred people—and to now do ones for over a thousand, some even two thousand, is really rewarding. It’s not just another tour for us.
TN: Has there been one favorite place you’ve been?
MCE: Ohio (where the band originated) is always great. But some other shows are insanely energetic and we’re like, “Where do these people come from?” And Florida is always great. Cincinnati was probably my favorite because my family lives just north of the city, so they were able to come out for the second of two nights.
TN: How did your relationship with the band develop?
MCE: Back in the summer of 2010, I had just gotten out of an art school and I was living around the Middletown area with my parents. I was ready to graduate and start working with the first opportunity I had. A friend of mine in a band was working with a new T-shirt company in Columbus. I did some networking, talked to the company, and said, “Hey, I can show you some video stuff…” So they had me come up for an event that summer at a place called Bernie’s in Columbus. You can stuff about a hundred or so people in the basement there. So I went to this show excited to video, and the first band to go on was called twenty one pilots. They were a local band, and this T-shirt company endorsed them. I met Tyler that night and did this video. We started talking more and did another video that fall. Tyler is fired up about video content… So we kind of tag teamed, and in the next couple months we did the “Jar of Hearts” video that he covered at Newport (Music Hall, in Columbus). He loved it and said, “Hey, we have an extra room in my house, want to move in?” And for some reason, I said yes—didn’t even think twice about it! I lived with Tyler and about three other dudes in this two-story house in the basement. I still live there. We continue to work together and I do their video content, and…here we are.
TN: How did you develop your passion?
MCE: I’m pretty sure I wanted to do this before I knew how to talk or function, or even knew what a movie was. Video production was always really comforting. I would watch movies like Am American Tail: Fievel Goes West and all these cartoons. I got lost in them and memorized all of the dialogue. Then, I started watching live-action movies and classics like The Princess Bride and other movies from that era. I grew up on Terminator and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. For some reason, I was completely attached to it. Instead of going out and playing basketball or video games, I would watch a lot of movies. It’s not like I’d play with a movie in the background. I would sit there and actually watch a movie. That was my favorite thing to do. That turned into me starting to play with video cameras and realizing that I really like doing it. I took a class in seventh grade that involved basic forms of video work. My teacher said I was good at it, so I just kept doing it. Luckily, I taught myself how to find inspiration, which is anything to do with art; inspiration is the backbone of it. If you know what inspires you—what moves you and what motivates you—cling onto that as hard as you can and you’re guaranteed to make good art. Same thing goes for Tyler and Josh when they’re writing. It goes for Monet, and even Miley Cyrus’s songwriters. They get inspired too! (Laughs.) I’m just happy to be a part of it. I’m happy to be inspiring and to be doing something that’s so rewarding.
TN: What’s your biggest source of inspiration?
MCE: I think turmoil, being sad, pretending I’m sad (laughs), which sounds very emotional. But when things are going wrong, I get inspired. Like I said, I love watching movies. I don’t like watching other people that are on the same level as me because I feel like they’re my competition. When I watch local music videos, all I do is compare, and it makes me feel like my stuff is terrible. I love independent movies. I love anything that Ryan Gosling is in.
TN: Have you seen The Place Beyond the Pines?
MCE: Yes! I loved that. Derek Cianfrance is one of my favorite directors. He did Blue Valentine too, which was also with Ryan Gosling.
TN: Who are some other directors you look up to?
MCE: Nicolas Winding Refn, who did Only God Forgives and Bronson, is awesome. I like Michel Gondry. He’s done a lot of music videos. Jordan Bahat, who did the “Holding On To You” music video, has been one of my biggest inspirations… We met on the set (of “Holding On To You”) because I was making a behind the scenes video. He was like, “Hey man, I think you’re great, so I’m going to take you under my wing. I’ll show you some things and show other people, show my producers your work.” It’s inspiring to see how nicely people have been treating me. I used to think that everyone’s just mean a-holes. But if you ignore those people… you’ll find the nicest people you’ve ever met because you have so much in common with them. There are a lot of people in this industry…that think it’s cool to get drunk at show. But there are just as many people that do it because they’ve loved it since they could walk.
TN: Didn’t Jordan also direct a Fun. video that you did the behind the scenes for?
MCE: Yeah. We were texting back and forth and I was like, “I wish I could do behind the scenes!” Since twenty one pilots signed to Fueled By Ramen, I’ve had a good relationship with everyone there. So I sent them an email…and I was able to spend some time on that set and work with Jordan again. I haven’t talked to him in a while. I miss the guy! I try to see him every time we’re in California.
TN: You’ve done so many huge things. Fun. is huge, and you’re helping twenty one pilots develop their hugeness. You’ve even had promos on MTV, like the Five Knives promo. What’s it like seeing your work on TV?
MCE: I’ll never get used to it. I’ve had my mom send me texts and tell me that she’s seen (my work) somewhere. I have friends that live in Florida that were walking around Disney World, sending me pictures of the “Guns for Hands” music video playing on TVs in the streets. I’ve seen some of the promos in Journeys, and some of them in Asia! I don’t bring this up to brag…it’s just everywhere now. I have to take a step back and soak it in because every time we see an ad that gets on MTV…we think ahead of ourselves and try to go bigger and better. Whenever we take a second to look at what we’ve done so far, it’s inspiring. The music industry seems so ginormous. It may seem impossible, like there’s no room to get in there. But once you start making art that you’re happy with, it’s going to make it in there.
TN: That’s what I love about your work, and about the whole twenty one pilots team—how organic it is, and how the growth happens naturally.
MCE: That’s the backbone of what we’ve got. The twenty one pilots symbol exists because me and Tyler couldn’t sleep, and we stayed up until 5 a.m. trying to design a new T-shirt. We threw some shapes together and picked a color scheme, and we had a logo on accident! We’ve never tried to get outside help to help with our production. It’s mostly Tyler and Josh grabbing the reins and steering. A lot of bands are making that work. Jay Z! He’s ginormous because he does everything his way.
TN: What is your dream project? Who’s your ultimate collaborator?
MCE: It sounds crazy, but I’ve always had a dream of doing a Paramore music video. I think that would be cool because I’ve always been a ginormous Paramore fan. I’ve met them a few times, so I feel like if I make that my thing, they’re going to think I’m a freak. But who cares! Yeah, I want to do a Paramore music video!
TN: That’s definitely going to happen.
MCE: We’ll see!
TN: Do you think at some point you’ll branch into films, or will you stick with bands?
MCE: I never saw myself doing the band thing to begin with. That just started with me meeting Tyler early. I’m the kind of person that would prefer to watch movies by myself. I don’t want anyone trying to talk during the film or asking me questions about it, or even laughing out loud during the funny parts. I would appreciate gravitating back towards making a movie. Actually, my friend, Chance Humphrey, who I met in high school, is the only guy even close to my state of intelligence. That’s a joke (laughs). I’m somewhat writing a script with him. That sounds very hipster-ish to say, “Oh, I’m writing a script with my friend from high school,” but we’re excited about it. He’s a really good writer… I want to work with him and direct something. Maybe this time next year, I’ll be doing some pre-production for a film. I don’t know. This time last year, I didn’t know I was going to be outside of Emo’s in Austin, looking at 1,700 kids in line to watch my friends play. Who knows what next year is going to look like? Anything can happen.
TN: What’s your favorite music video of all time?
MCE: I think that everything Missy Elliott has ever put out is beyond genius. The hip-hop queen herself! The whole look of everything she did in the late ‘90s, early ‘00s was perfect. But, gosh! My favorite music video? That’s like saying, “What’s your favorite band?” It depends on my mood. I think there were better music videos back then than there are now. The only one whose videos are really killer right now is Tyler the Creator… and M.I.A. Her video for “Bad Girls” is probably in my top five.
TN: You’re a big fan of hip-hop?
MCE: Yeah, I have a soft spot for some hip-hop.
TN: twenty one pilots have some pretty intense fans, but so do you. Have you had any weird fan encounters?
MCE: The weirdest thing is that people recognize me and consider themselves fans of me. A lot of Twitter action happens. I try to be funny on Twitter, so I get some interactions with people being funny back. There’s a lot of intelligent people out there, and some crazy people that tweet a bit too much, but there’s nothing I can’t handle. That’s just people being young. I think it’s so weird though… how these people are so open about being online and sending tweets randomly. I would never tweet, like, Christopher Nolan just because I can. But people are involved, and I enjoy that. As far as in person…people stop and say “hi” whether or not they know that I do video work, or if they know that I know Tyler and Josh personally. I always stop to talk and be thankful. Tyler and Josh always try to be nice, no matter how difficult it seems. It’s easier to walk past, but we try not to take the easy route.
TN: You also get some fan art, right? What do you do with all of it?
MCE: I keep every bit of it! Reel Bear Media has a bear head logo with a tooth sticking out. There are a lot of very good artists—younger, like kids—that create their own versions of that. And it always comes out perfect. This girl from Arizona wants to make me a letterman jacket with the Reel Bear Media logo on the back. I told her I’d pay her for it. A guy named Ian Baldwin and I created the logo and…the fact that people want to recreate it in their free time… if they’re getting an emotional release by doing their own spin on it, that’s nothing but a win for me. I want kids to learn about how important this mission is, whether they get that from looking at a logo of mine or watching Tyler and Josh’s videos that we put together. I will always keep the artwork. If I don’t hang it up, it’s at least in my drawer. When people hand me stuff, nine times out of ten I hear, “Can you give this to Tyler and Josh?” And I’ll take it to Tyler and Josh. But one out of ten times, I’ll get it and it’ll have my name on it, and I just glow. I get so excited about it. Hopefully, that’ll never change.
TN: How did Reel Bear Media originate?
MCE: Reel Bear Media was me trying to develop a video production name that wasn’t my name. I have plenty of friends that use their first and last name and then put “video” or “production” or “media” on the end of it. I wanted to take an industry term and mix it with an animal. I took different terms and mashed them up with different animals, and one seemed seemed right. I’m one of those guys that jumps with an idea and thinks it’s perfect right away; I didn’t think about it too much. I put (“reel” and “bear”) together, and orange is my favorite color, so that became the branding. The bear has a snaggletooth because it’s not perfect—no one is. Now, if I used my name, I couldn’t have John Flanagan and Lindsey Flanagan, my two videographers that I’ve always worked with and credited. I can just bring them in to work with Reel Bear Media. They are bears themselves. They can work on projects and we don’t have to worry… They don’t feel like they’re working for me.
TN: “Car Radio” was my favorite music video of the year. The visuals are incredible. How did you approach bringing that vision to life?
MCE: That’s one of Tyler’s favorite stories because when I met him, he was in the process of working with a video guy to make that happen. And for this music video (Tyler) imagined, it’s the same concept: he’s sitting on the bathroom floor of a house; he delivers (the song); he starts to shave his head; he puts the clippers down; and he walks down the hallway. At the time, he wanted to walk into a living room with about a hundred people, like a house show. Then, they perform the breakdown and at the end, the people disappear, leaving him in the house by himself. That was the idea in 2010. We got to a point where the band sold out the the indoor LC (Pavilion in Columbus)—2,200 tickets. We wanted to take that opportunity to do the video. Tyler and Josh can control that hometown crowd so well. They’re so excited about being a part of it because they’ve been there since the beginning. The band started to play the song and stopped to explain the music video. Then, Tyler left the stage, put on the mask, and we started rolling. In one take, with about four different cameras, we got that whole section where Tyler split the crowd down the middle, crowd surfed up, and did the breakdown. Then, we stopped filming and they performed the rest of the show. That following Sunday or Monday, with the help of PromoWest (Productions)—they own the LC—a guy who works there let us come in to shoot the rest. We shot the scene where Tyler takes his mask off, puts it down, and falls off the stage. Then we cut and went to the bathroom…and filmed the rest.
TN: Was it nerve-wracking with Tyler shaving his head, all or nothing?
MCE: If we did it again, for some reason, I think it would be nerve-wracking. But we were so fired up in the moment. It was one of those days when everything looked right. A lot of times, when you’re shooting something, you put the camera where you thought you would want it and then you realize the shot doesn’t look that good, so you have to take readjust everything to make it look right. But…that whole weekend was perfect! We got everything we wanted. It wasn’t nerve-wracking. I had the camera on Tyler, he would shave a third of his head and we’d cut, switch angles, do another third, then the last third. There are all these cuts intertwined of him shaving once. That was all we had. It’s not fake at all. It’s not a wig. It’s the real deal.
TN: I love the intimacy of that. And I love the stripped-down videos like “Goner” and the street poetry. Is more of that coming in the future?
MCE: Yeah. With me taking over as lighting director for the tour…we’re making our own production, and we get a lot of stuff put on our shoulders. Tyler and Josh leave almost every day for radio events or acoustic performances, and then they play for an hour and a half. Then we’re on the bus, only long enough to be in the next city in the morning. As much as we like videos, it’s still work. It’s still Tyler and Josh working to be performers on screen. You can’t half-ass it. You have to be totally involved and pumped up. It’s rare to have a video guy on the road that does as much as I do. Usually, for music videos, a band routes a stop in either L.A. or New York, shoots the video on a day off, gets back on the bus, and continues the tour. During that time when they’re touring, the directors at the location in L.A. or New York work on the videos. That’s all they have to do: the artists show up, they shoot them, and they’re gone. But because I’m traveling with the band, I don’t have an office to work on my computer. I have to work in my bunk on the bus. With all that, we’re trying to find time to work in more of those organic videos. That’s the root of everything we do, and that’s what the people like… The weirder the stuff, the greater the chance people will want to share. They like being weird with their band.
TN: I also love the “this side of the line” video (for the Trend Micro What’s Your Story contest). You directed that too.
MCE: Yeah. That was something we did early on for a contest. (Tyler and I) won ten grand and split it between the two of us. Tyler wrote the entire thing and came up with the idea. I shot it, did all the camera work, edited it, and sent it in. And we actually ended up winning! They haven’t done anything with it since, but we won!
TN: It’s definitely getting more views now! What’s currently in the works for you?
MCE: Well, we’re leaving in January for an Australian / New Zealand tour with Paramore and You Me At Six. I’ll be working on some documentary-style videos and running the lights for the (twenty one pilots) set. Then, in February, we’ll pack up and go to Europe! We’re doing a big Amsterdam show, a big London show, a lot of Germany dates… then, before we know it, it’ll be time to go back to the U.S. A lot of people ask me, “Do you work for any other bands?” Yeah, when I have time! But I definitely don’t have time right now. twenty one pilots has had my full attention. A lot of video guys are constantly looking for work because they’ll do just one tour, or that band didn’t like what they were doing, so they have to find another band. I’m lucky not to be in that situation. We’re all friends on the road. I’m trying to make this band the biggest thing possible, and so far, it’s working. We’re trying to figure out how the show can look different. Like, if we come back to Austin, how do we make sure we play a bigger venue and have different lights and videos? That’s the goal.
TN: “Guns for Hands” was the first music video I ever saw by twenty one pilots. It captured my attention and changed my life. What’s the story behind the beginning?
MCE: I like to pretend that I know Tyler and Josh really well (laughs). They’re both really good on camera. All I had to do was take a step back, let them perform on a white background, and make sure it’s interesting enough to make people care about what they’re doing on the screen. The intro has a lot to do with insecurity. I like to tell little stories with long intros. It’s about putting the mask on, whatever that means. It could be some insecure guy in college that decides to go drinking all the time or doing any kind of drugs. That’s his mask because he wants to blend in; he doesn’t want to show his real self. Josh gets offered the mask to join that side of covering everything up, and then the song starts and he runs. Once he gets behind his drum kit, which is where he’s most comfortable, the mask immediately gets ripped off. I was playing with (the mask idea). At the bridge of the song, the big part before the last chorus is taking the mask off. I wanted it to come off almost quicker than it went on. Whenever it comes to ideas for a music video or editing or shooting, I like to make things aggressive. That’s my favorite word to use: “aggressive.” When he almost immediately rips off the mask again at the end… that pause is for question. It makes people think, “Why did that happen?” That’s the whole point. If you watch any good movies or music videos, or anything that’s older, they’re mind-boggling. They completely confuse you. We don’t get that any more with Miley Cyrus and Ke$ha, and a handful of other artists… We get, “Look how sexy I can be!” We don’t get the confusion, the art, or the story anymore. That’s why Tyler the Creator and M.I.A. are the only ones I care about… They give that with their work.
TN: Miley and Ke$ha should hire you to straighten them out and make some better music videos for them.
MCE: No, they should hire me tell them to quit. (Laughs.) Ke$ha’s show…it’s her narrating her life, going to parties and staying up until 6 a.m. My Life as Liz was a great show. Liz (Lee) is awkward. She loves Star Wars and she’s not super thin, but she’s attractive and hilarious and nice. Now, it’s these nasty thin girls that are out drinking and doing drugs…People want to see Ke$ha either destroying her life or living the life that they want to live.
TN: Well, you’re certainly making an impact with your message and how you’re spreading it so much. Thank you for taking your time.
Next stop for Eshleman: Fort Lauderdale. twenty one pilots will play at Revolution Live tomorrow night.
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