Just out of high school, Matt Stawski dropped off a short film he made portraying him fighting himself at the offices of a punk-music label in Pittsburgh. The unsolicited move spurred his first professional music video and launched a career directing videos for Kanye West, Fall Out Boy, Train, and Snoop Dogg. The Warren native and Cousino High School graduate was nominated for a 2011 Grammy Award as music video director for Cee Lo Green’s “F*** You” (the expletive-riddled release was also up for Song of the Year and Record of the Year, winning neither). At 26, Stawski nearly reached a pinnacle that others chase for a lifetime. But, like Spike Jonze and Marc Webb before him, he hopes the Grammy nod is just a stop on a career bound for feature films.
On a recent Detroit visit, Stawski — who now lives in Hollywood — discussed artistic inspiration, why he was more excited for the Feb. 27 Oscars (he really, really liked Black Swan), than he was for the Feb. 13 Grammys (he correctly predicted Lady Gaga would best him), and what it’s like being the youngest person on the set.
How did you get started doing music videos?
Because Cousino has the [Warren Consolidated] TV station, all my friends from Warren and Sterling Heights [and I] would just run around and shoot stupid shorts.
What was it like finding out you were nominated for a Grammy?
The night that they announced all the nominees, I wasn’t watching. My buddy … texted me: ‘Hey man, congratulations on the Grammy nom.’ I was like, ‘Grammy nom? What’s nom short for?’
What was your vision for that video?
I wrote the treatment for this kid getting [dumped] three times. It was all going to be really colorful and neon, with a retro ’50s diner vibe. It paid homage to Little Shop of Horrors with the three doo-wop girls; they’re sort of our narrators leading us through the video. It was telling that story, mixed with [Cee Lo’s] lady-killer performance, where he’s this new, elegant man.
Have you ever been disrespected because of your age?
No. … If there are any problems on set, it’s with the artists or the actors.
There are a lot of kids in a lot of my videos. That’s always fun, because I’m actually telling someone younger than me what to do.
Are there particular artists you prefer working with?
The ones that are creatively involved. For example, when we did Fall Out Boy, Pete [Wentz] called me every day.
What are your thoughts on Michigan’s movie industry?
Everyone knows about the tax incentives. What I think people don’t know about is the scenery: beaches, mountains, urban. You can pull off a lot of things in Michigan. … If I get to the point where I could write something, I definitely see coming back as an option.
What do you miss the most about home?
Winter. I really like it. There’s something to say about [bad] weather — or even the change of seasons — as far as art goes. Because rain, thunder, clouds — it’s drama.
Are there any places that you always visit when you come home?
For the holidays, I always like going to Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation at the Magic Bag. … Bangkok Express in Ferndale — $5 Thai, and it’s the best. Polish Village in Hamtramck has the best Polish food.
What’s it like living in Hollywood?
It’s weird. You’ll be at a party and Shia LaBeouf is there. …
You see [celebrities] a lot. You’re just like, ‘Wow, that’s him.’ And it’s not just that, it’s, ‘Wow, everyone in the world knows who that guy is. If I threw my mug at him, I would be on the news!’
But there are people that I can’t relate to in California, that have never worked a day in their life. I’ve been asked the question, ‘Man, that video was cool. So, who do you know?’ And it’s not who I know. I worked [hard] in Michigan and Chicago. I got a degree [in film from Columbia College Chicago]. And we shot videos in negative-20 degree weather. That’s how I got here. It’s not who I know.
What’s your perspective of Detroit, now that you’re somewhat of an outsider?
The environment that exists right now in Detroit — as far as the city trying to rebuild itself — is almost a perfect setting for a dramatic movie. In the next 10 years, someone definitely will make a movie and put [the city] under the microscope, and people will know Detroit is that. I just hope no one exploits it.
Are feature films your next step?
That’s always been the goal, but the whole process of that was always cloudy for me. I think what I want to try to do this year is direct someone else’s script.
To what do you attribute your success?
I’ve always [worked hard] and never slept and never been happy where [I was] at. There’s nothing wrong with settling at a certain point, but it’s always about what’s next. That’s why the whole Grammy thing — I’m just thinking about if it can open the door to make a film. It’s always about the next level.