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Grammy-winning singer Allison Russell consults with director Ethan Tobman on the set of the music video Demons.Ethan Tobman/The Canadian Press

Ethan Tobman’s production designs have placed Beyoncé atop a sinking New Orleans police cruiser and perched Taylor Swift on the roof of her Folklore cabin. Still, with his childhood friend Allison Russell, he aspired to greater heights.

“I wanted to put her on the edge of a cliff,” the Montreal-raised creator explained as he recounted the story behind the Grammy-winning folk singer’s video for Demons, nominated at the Juno Awards this weekend in Halifax.

In his music video directorial debut, Tobman not only took Russell to the edge of the cliff, but he also instructed a gaggle of cloaked dancers to toss her into the computer-generated ocean below.

It’s one of the many stunning sequences that punctuate the visual odyssey for Russell’s song, taken from her 2023 album The Returner.

She’s also transported to the depths of the desert where a swirl of dancers circles her in the sand, and she scales a massive angular wall as a steady current of human bodies pours down the side.

“It was about world-building to me,” Tobman said in a video interview from Los Angeles.

“[I wanted to] explore the emotional landscape of somebody who will never be able to outrun their demons and has learned to embrace them.”

A shared Juno nomination for music video of the year marks a full-circle moment for Tobman and Russell. They both said the project couldn’t have come together without the trust, experience and friendship they forged as teenagers in Montreal.

The two ran in the same formative circles of teenage artists during the late 1990s. Both of their lives were anchored at a friend’s apartment in Le Plateau-Mont-Royal neighbourhood, a lively part of town with an abundance of galleries and cafes.

Most nights, the group would puff a seemingly endless supply of cigarettes, Tobman said, as they discussed all corners of the art world, spanning music, film and literature.

But amongst the friends, Tobman and Russell were the least familiar with one another until one fateful night in the apartment’s kitchen, where they bonded over learning they were born on the same day.

“I was really drawn to her and I think she was drawn to me too,” Tobman remembered.

“And we sort of kept sniffing each other out, but by this time, she’s already one foot out the door pursuing a music career and I’m leaving Montreal on my way to NYU.”

The pair lost touch for about 15 years as Tobman studied film in New York and pursued a career in Hollywood production design. He shaped the looks of films such as Room and Free Guy, and music videos that included Eminem’s Not Afraid and Beyoncé’s Formation.

It wasn’t until a reunion at the 2023 Grammy Awards that they truly reconnected. Russell was nominated that year, and Tobman was in attendance for his work on Swift’s self-directed All Too Well: The Short Film.

“He invited us to Taylor Swift’s after-party, which is how surreal it is when you’re friends with Ethan,” Russell said.

Looking out at Hollywood from the Chateau Marmont party, Russell said the pair got serious about finally working together. She had a second album coming and he was determined to somehow get involved.

A few months later, Russell was on a flight from Calgary to a production studio in Prague where she spent a little over three days bringing to life a meticulously planned shot list.

Tobman’s concepts drew from influences as vast as Eastern European operas, David Lynch’s 1984 sci-fi film Dune and the White Walkers from Game of Thrones.

“We only had 20 dancers and we wanted it to look like 40,” he said while explaining how special effects replicated the performers.

“So we [had to be] very precise about where they were all going.”

Tobman also had Russell doing things she’d never tried before. She was interacting with invisible worlds that would be added later through CGI and at one point dangled on stunt wires like a Marvel superhero.

“I wouldn’t have attempted it, I don’t think, with anyone else,” Russell said.

“It felt like we were making an experimental film together. I was an actor for the first time, trusting my director.”

When financing for Demons hit a snag, they got a lifeline from Letterkenny actor and executive producer Jacob Tierney. The childhood friend, and member of their shared Montreal artist circle, invested his own money to help push the video past the finish line.

“Jacob really came in on his own accord and saved the day,” Tobman said.

“I matched what Jacob put in because the record companies do not give you sufficient funds, if any. And, he was so selfless about it … he did it because he believed in me and Allison. He’s an extraordinary person and friend.”

Tobman and Russell learn whether Demons wins a Juno during an industry gala on Saturday.

In the meantime, Tobman’s visual work continues to travel the world as part of Swift’s Eras Tour on which he served as creative director. He’s also thinking about what’s next, though he’s not ready to divulge any details.

“I’m very interested now in directing because I’ve essentially gotten to watch some of the greatest directors of music videos and movies over the last 20 years,” he said.

“It makes sense to explore a different style of storytelling where … I work more closely with the actors.”

As for his work with Russell, he’s especially pleased with the timing. Few musicians are afforded lavish videos these days, he said, and hers comes at a time when the world is starting to acknowledge her unique musical talent.

“It’s really exciting to put the first jewel on a crown,” he added.

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