Grant Singer Paints An Elaborate Portrait Of Shawn Mendes
“I think there’s a sincerity to this film and its style, because it’s a sincere and honest portrait of a person.”
In Wonder opens to the image of Shawn Mendes’ back, draped in a salmon colored shirt and fading tattoos. He’s walking through the twisted, hidden hallways of a stadium. Soon, he turns and smiles gingerly at the camera. “Hi,” he says, but we can’t hear him for the sweet, soothing melody that’s replaced the chaotic rumblings of concert life. Then, only 20 seconds into the film, a black curtain is parted and Mendes emerges into the crowd. Screams fade in, lights turn up. This is the superstar we’ve come to know, but from an angle altogether unfamiliar.
And that’s the thinking behind the documentary, directed by Grant Singer. The name may not jump out at you, but if you’ve seen The Weeknd music videos, or Taylor Swift and Zayn’s smash hit “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” then you’re familiar with Singer’s work. In his shift to the big screen, he hoped to give audiences a more intimate peek over the shoulder of the mega-famous.
“I was really inspired by some of the music docs from the ’60s and ’70s, which were less formal and more observational, where a filmmaker would just spend, you know, however long, with an artist,” explained Singer. “It was like a vérité portrait. You just witnessed these moments, and then through the life of these artists and the world that they live in, you end up constructing a portrait of who they are.”
When I caught up with him ahead of the movie’s release, he told me about a particular shot in The Rolling Stones’ 1970 documentary “Gimme Shelter,” that shows the band performing from behind the drummer, as if you, the viewer, are up on stage with them.
“It’s disarming because you’re like, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t see this. I shouldn’t feel this.’ It feels jarring but in a really sensational way. I immediately was like, I want to do that. I want that feeling,” said Singer.
He met Mendes at a business lunch when the two both joined talks to work on the documentary. It marked a large change in direction for Singer, who got his start about a decade ago directing music videos for his friends. They all happened to be musicians.
“I was always the film guy in the group. It started out, not even as formal as necessarily music videos, more just like directing visual things that accompanied their music. That turned into one video into another video and then it kinda just spiraled into a career, but it was never like an intention to be a music video director.”
So, a desire to direct turned into a passion for directing music videos. Singer became known for his moody and artistic takes on pop hits. But when the opportunity to slow down arrived, he jumped on it.
“You know, for almost 10 years I’ve been directing music videos and you work very intensely, but over just a couple of weeks or a few months. I wanted to get into something long-form and exist within a project for a long time and have one focus.”
Taking on a documentary allowed Singer to flex a different set of skills. Not only is the 83-minute film the equivalent of at least 20 music videos stacked on top of each other, but letting your subject take center stage, figuratively and literally, requires a certain amount of artistic restraint.
“I think that, as a music video director, in many ways, you’re like a magician. You’re creating an illusion. You’re creating a façade of visual spectacle for three and a half minutes. After doing that for a while, I was really excited by the opportunity of stripping all that away and just creating a portrait of someone. That was sort of my pitch to Shawn, something that we both were interested in doing.”
In Wonder doesn’t have the fast-paced and punchy style of One Direction’s “This Is Us,” or Justin Bieber’s slightly older “Never Say Never.” Instead, Singer’s film strolls through Mendes’ 2019 tour, his hometown, his highly publicized relationship with Camila Cabello. There are frequent moments of quiet or casual conversation, things that would be left on the cutting room floor in a typical celebrity feature. Here, they’re used to color in the finer details of Mendes’ likeness.
“When you’re directing a music video, your imprint as a director tends to be heavy,” said Singer. “With this documentary, I wanted to remove a lot of the façade that I’ve lived in, in terms of my aesthetics of my work. I think there’s a sincerity to this film and its style, because it’s a sincere and honest portrait of a person.”
Filmed in one or two week blocks over the course of a year, In Wonder sees Mendes through a time during which he plays over a hundred shows. At one interval, he celebrates the enormity of his success. At another, he cries over the toll it’s taken on his body. Interspersed through it all are kisses and meaningful glances shared between him and Cabello.
“When you make a documentary, you can’t plan for magic or for a great scene. You just have to be there. Also, keep in mind, when you’re making a music video, the artist is prepared, they’re ready. They know what the blocking is, the action is, what the performance is. With a documentary, you’re trying to capture something that’s real, and to do that, you have to almost be invisible. You have to kind of remove yourself from the scene. You have to feel, as much as possible, like a ghost in the room.”
After what’s sure to be a successful outing with Mendes, will he continue to pursue long-form filmmaking?
“I would love to make more documentaries,” said Singer. “What’s great about not having a nine to five job is that my life can kind of take its course and whatever opportunity comes my way, and I find inspiring, I get to sort of exist in.”
Singer’s documentary directorial debut is available to stream now on Netflix, starring Shawn Mendes. Check out the trailer below.