Let’s start at the beginning: Sing, did you pitch for this video, how did it come about and what were the initial discussions about?
So I directed a short teaser for Ash (Halsey) to screen at the end of her sold-out Madison Square Gardens show last year, a cryptic teaser to announce the beginning of a new chapter in her music. We shot it in four hours then she went to play a show in town. That evening we hung out after the show as she was getting tattooed… coincidentally she was getting the word “HOPELESS” inked. She talked me through a very formative concept for what would eventually end up being Hopeless Fountain Kingdom – so the idea for a long-form narrative was already established.
Cut to February 2017, Ash calls me up and explains this whole new backdrop of a world that had evolved from that conversation. It was a world of purgatory between heaven and hell, inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s R+J, along with his blessing. There were motifs that jumped straight out of that world, but Ash had delved further into the DNA of the Hopeless Fountain Kingdom she was creating, two Houses that stood in polarity – ANGELUS, a house that lived life as divine and as pure as possible, hoping that this would redeem them and set the free from this world, and AUREUM, a house that revelled in the delights and sin of the Kingdom, with no urge to leave. Both Houses insignia were to be wing related, a motif of the idea of escape and freedom.
She wanted to avoid the suicidal ending of R+J due to the negative message it might instil on a young audience, but to look instead at the tale of Orpheus, and how he could never look back at his lover, for if he did, she would turn to stone and never leave with him back to the mortal world (sadly, he did this). This would be the outline of the world of the album, so every video created during this campaign would be an instalment in the wider narrative.
With all this in mind, I went away to write a story for Now or Never. The title of the song sounded like a definitive, climatic moment of decision. So I focused on the Orpheus departure, the star-crossed lovers and a story about the negative impact of segregation, cultural prejudice and devastation with the interference of love. I wanted it to be brutal and unapologetic, driving home the hurt and heartbreak of the effects of close-mindedness between the two Houses. I wanted the narrative to drop straight into the heart of the story, so I imagined a moment where select members of both Houses were called together in truce by The Father to convoy the two innocent lovers out of the city together to unite, using the opportunity of the miracle of love to bring peace to the city.
Ash flipped the genders and roles of the male and female lovers, and I also flipped the roles of Mercutio and Tybalt. Mercutio (Joel Islas) would be from the Divine house, and yet still he would be the betrayer. A Judas kind of character, he would quietly orchestrate the ambush at the end, whether it was due to his obsession with Solis (Don Lee), jealously of the idea of love or hatred for peace and diversifying – Mercutio made sure this mission would never succeed. Tybalt (Paula Corinalesi) on the other hand was from the house of decadence and sin, and yet, for all her voracious energy and hard edge, she was fiercely loyal and supportive of her friend, Luna (Ashley). My thought was that there is no black and white, there is evil in good and good in evil. No absolutes. Nothing perfect. Also I wanted to create a border control style road block – a satirical commentary on the sign of our times.
How did the pre-production creative process work with Halsey – did you both liaise about treatments and storyboards together or did you work separately then merge the ideas?
It was the latter, I wrote the treatment, with no changes to my creative, I flew to Mexico City two weeks ahead of the shoot to fully embed myself into the city and begin prep. It was a big project with lots of moving parts. Myself and my team just waded through the two weeks internally. Luckily mine and Ash’s visions were so aligned, it was like we shared a brain. There was pretty much no back and forth, we trusted and respected one another’s creativity and space.
Was the co-direction process harmonious and if there were any differences were they easy to resolve?
I was saying to Ash during a Q&A after the premiere in LA, that because we were so in line with all our ideas, we could have easily taken it for granted just how easy the process was, but we shouldn’t forget how it could have gone, had we not! She trusted me to execute the DNA of the concept and the vision of her new album into a cinematic world and that gave me the space to just do what I needed to do. It was honestly such an amazing experience and a rare chance to work collaboratively with an artist that thinks visually as well as sonically.
It feels big, in every sense. Was it big budget or down to clever production design and art direction?
I wish all budgets for music videos were as good as this one! But Fernanda Guerrero, my production designer really brought the locations to life. You can have plenty of money and still not design sets right. She was someone that knew just how a scene needed to be lifted, both stylising yet keeping the textures truly natural and subtle. She helped create a unique world with the deftness of someone that really knows what we wanted to frame.
In fact the art direction is immaculately detailed – She from the blue hair, gold studded, Aloha-shirted faction and he from the pure white angel-winged side, not forgetting the motifs and symbols encrusted on medallions and guns of both forces. Was this a long time in developing and creating? Who was behind it?
This is a great question, a perfect example of the synchronicity of myself and Ash. Styling of the characters, the Plague Doctor tarot reader’s character were something Ash had already established and created before I was involved in the project. Her blue hair was a hark back to another evolution of herself which fans of hers would know so well. When I came on board, I ran with these ingredients, creating the medallions, made by Elizabeth Rustrian, I played with their importance to further communicate the story and highlight the segregation between the two lovers. I also researched Plague Doctors and named them Nostras after Nostradamus. Obviously Baz Luhrmann’s R+J was our initial blueprint and so we allowed ourselves to be inspired by the Hawaiian shirt nods and the firearms, keeping them to the gold and silver colour way of the Houses.
The locations are unusual – both on set and real. Where were they? Was it epic moving crew from site to site?
The decision to shoot in Mexico City was two fold – one again as a nod to R+J but also and more importantly, as mentioned before, we wanted an opportunity to celebrate the incredible diversity and culture of Mexico and Mexico City. The two week’s prep was used exhaustively and wisely and The Lift, our servicing company ultilised their extensive knowledge of all the roads and areas to piece together what could have been a logistical nightmare. Luckily we forged a story and scenes by localising several locations together.
What were the main challenges of the production?
The fact that you need ten days to put through a permit on location and then losing one of those locations, the final location for the massacre, during the second day of shooting. Then arriving at a new location blind on the third day and deciding what to do there with four hours left to go.
Looking back is there anything you would have changed?
I’m so proud of what we pulled together, even with the two weeks and planning, we all knew we were going into something that was wildly ambitious. Maybe the only thing I would change would be one of the road locations – it was awful for the Russian arm to drive down. But true testament to the crew and the spirit of the production, we made it work.
The six-minute format turns the music video into a short film, was this always the intention? Now or Never feels as if it’s a chapter of a multi-part series – is it? We hope so!
Personally, I’m on the warpath to play and explore with more narrative elements in music videos, subverting the structure of them playfully and experimentally. It turns out that’s exactly what Ash wanted with NON. So you know, marriage of ideology again! It’s also the first part of a four/five part film.
See more work of Sing J Lee’s at Partizan