The music video world suffered a huge loss, as did the world, when pop music icon and musical genius Prince passed away yesterday. We were fortunate enough to interview one of Prince’s music video directors, Rebecca Blake, a few years ago. Here, she recalls the experience of working with Prince on his videos for “Kiss,” “Cream,” and “Diamonds and Pearls.”
Rebecca Blake: I was really kind of established as a fashion photographer in New York, and I was doing some record album covers. And I photographed Sheila E. in Los Angeles and his limo showed up at the shooting and then he sort of walk-through–I was shooting Sheila E. and her band. And he rolled down the window of the limo slightly and had a good look at me while I was working and then just disappeared. And then I think it was few weeks later I got a call from his management saying that Warner Brothers was interested in my directing the ‘Kiss’ video for him. And I ended up on the phone with him, and it was my first major project, and it was certainly my first real film project. And since I didn’t know that much about how he operated, in my first phone call with him I told him, “Well, yes, I will be interested in doing it, but I have to do my own concept and I have to bring my own people and I’m going to bring a choreographer in.” And he amazingly agreed to everything.
Rebecca Blake: Yeah. Which I think was just–I mean, that was–you know, at that time and also because of his stature, it’s really kind of amazing. I think it was just–I was really just–I was very artistic and I didn’t know that much about that end of the business. And I just went with my gut instinct on how to best support in a music video. How I would do it. And that basically how it progressed.
GAMV: Well, that’s great. Now, when he called you, and asked you about directing this video, had you gotten a chance to listen to the song and kind of come up with a concept?
Rebecca Blake: Yeah. Well, they sent me the music track and then I wrote a concept and I went out to LA and actually had a very excellent production and I was very into design and so I designed the set and everything kind of followed from there. What was fascinating was how once the stage was put together, how brilliantly he move around in the space of the set for the film. Like, I would set-up a shot and then he would kind of interpret it in terms of how he moved physically. And that was very interesting.
GAMV: So how much of the choreography was a choreographer, and how much was him, or was it both?
Rebecca Blake: It really melded. The choreographer worked with the dancer who I brought in, in the ‘Kiss’ video who is dressed in this black veil. And the choreographer worked with her very closely and worked with him indirectly because he would never have direct contact with the choreographer. He would only speak to me, so I would have to relay what the choreographer suggested. And I think he would sort of go off and practice on his own. And frankly, when he showed up and did the moves that he did, they were pretty amazing. Truly.
GAMV: Yeah, it’s really an amazing clip. And one of the things that I noticed in it is that it also reflects the minimalism of the song. I mean, it’s a big set but there’s not a lot going on.
Rebecca Blake: No. Exactly. I was very determined that it not looked like a music video, whatever that meant at the time, and that it would just sort of have this very pared-down discipline. And because I had a lot of theatrical lighting and I also use that conceptually, I didn’t try to flood the frame with a million lights and things like that. I did it in a kind of very minimal way, purposely.
GAMV: Now, was there–was there some issue as far as something not working? Because I talked a little bit with Stan Harris, the art director. strangely enough, and he said there was a set of doors that were supposed to separate, and it didn’t work.
Rebecca Blake: Oh, yeah. I know what he’s referring to. Yeah. Actually, I had wanted the grid, the steel grid that we built to work to open by some kind of remote mechanism at exactly the right moment in the song to match the choreography. And I don’t think that was functioning well, so it had to be done manually and–but it was done and it ended up working out very well….I think what happened was I was using some kind of a techno crane at the time, and I wanted it to slide through and have the gates of the grid basically open. And eventually, they did and it was done manually, off camera. But that’s basically what happened. And you have to realize that that was shot prior to the advent of a lot of visual effects that would made it a little bit much easier. It was all done in camera. He didn’t know it was amazing because it was, you know, including his performance. I think everyone on the set was very–they were just kind of really impressed with how Prince moved and danced. A humorous note was when he came out on the set for the first time. He was very into buttons and he had buttons all up and down the costume and I remember saying to him, “You know, what’s with the buttons?” And he looked at me and said, “You should have told me you don’t like buttons.” “It’s not that I don’t like them…” (Laughs)
GAMV: When you worked with him again, it was for “Cream” and “Diamonds & Pearls,” and this is several albums later.
Rebecca Blake: Well, I think he made a conscious decision to create probably a greater level of success with these videos that he did with Randee St. Nicholas [director of Prince’s “Gett Off” video]. While I was prepping “Cream” he kept coming over to visit me at the production company and it was usually to tell me to get in the car and listen to some more of his music. He’s said, “How about we shoot this one?” And I kind of looked at him because I don’t think he necessarily tuned in to how work intensive it was at my end to mount the production, and that it was ambitious, and that I brought in as many elements as I was bringing to the party, which was the set design and the architecture and the choreography and the styling and the look and the attitude. My purpose at that time really was to create long form video, and that I really was trying to marry “Diamonds and Pearls” in succession with “Cream.” And the whole objective and what I always talked about with Prince was a long form, but after that we talked about doing a movie. So I mean, I think the thing that happened was Prince and myself was I appreciated him enormously, that he was really outstanding and really had given me incredible opportunities and a vehicle really which to show artistically what I could do. It was definitely a mutual respect.
GAMV: And when it came to prepping these videos, how was the relationship between you and Prince and the record company at this point?
Rebecca Blake: They [the record company executives] were there on the set during the filming of “Cream” while I was blocking all the scenes and everything. I don’t know if you aware of it. There’s this long intros to those films. I really basically brought the ideas to him and I was working with somebody who I collaborate with who was helping me write some of the dialog and we were interviewing–we were picking people up, and basically learning how to do street talk. And then we found out that it that the street jive in Minneapolis was totally different than in LA.
GAMV: Oh, boy.
Rebecca Blake: And so we then met with the New Power Generation, they were like, “What’s up? We don’t talk like that.” And we have to rewrite everything based on the new viewpoint. And there was a lot of improvisation, like for example, there was a barbershop scene which was totally improvised, and there was a restaurant scene that was pretty much improvised. I just kept blocking and moving the camera, and so it’s feeding lines to people. I think Prince had actually loved that. He really loved that stuff. And some of them–some of the things were pretty funny and I thought, “Oh God, it’s funny but I don’t know, maybe it’s offensive.” And Prince was like, “No, no, no. I love it. Let’s get to work that.” So that was good.
GAMV: How many cameras did you have?
Rebecca Blake: I think I had four, maybe five. And I think had somebody working with us definitely on choreography, because I had to rehearse the chorus line and–I mean, the costuming of the chorus line, let me tell you, what was major was the wigs. The wigs, the costuming and the choreography, and then we had to sort of integrate that choreography with his choreography. So he’s pretty involved.
GAMV: And the concept of the two girls being Diamonds and Pearls, that was you?
Rebecca Blake: Yup. Well, that was totally something that I was created and with a lot of back and forth convincing with Prince, and then finally he decided to go with the program. Finally, he liked it, then he went with it.
GAMV: Now we shift from “Cream” to “Diamonds and Pearls,” which has a lot of children in it.
Rebecca Blake: That was actually something he asked for. That was something he wanted.
GAMV: What is the giant building they run up the steps of?
Rebecca Blake: That’s the current L.A. City Hall. I mean, what was very–oh, another humorous thing was when we were shooting, the amount of the streets that were blocked off and the security and the amount of Winnebagos, I mean, it was so immense that I had trouble getting into my own shoot! The amount of security that I had to go through was incredible. I was saying, “Let me in, I’m the director.”
GAMV: Now, how was it with the record company on doing these two because they are obviously enormous, probably the biggest budgets you might afford with?
Rebecca Blake: I think they actually loved it and I think they really liked everything that was happening. They were very supportive. Warner Brothers was very, very supportive. And I think they were kind of excited about it. I had actually very good relationship with the people that were at Warner Brothers at that time. I really love [those videos]. I love them. Those are my favorite videos, and I was always at a good creative level when I was working with him. There was a lot of emotional support, it was sort of unspoken in a way. And the fact that he was willing to do all of these with me. I grew up with music being really important, and so everything visual for me has always been involving music, and I think that’s where we really connected.
If you are in New York City, please join us Saturday at Littlefield in Brooklyn for “A Celebration of Prince.”