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23rd July 2019
Emmanuel and Madonna
Title of film: Madonna, Batuka
Director: Emmanuel Adjei
Production Company: COMPULSORY and Dreamers
After such intense collaborative long-term relationships with artists such as Sevdaliza – and we’re talking about a run up of films before the gob-smackingly cinematic and justifiably celebrated Shahamaran  – Emmanuel Adjei then signed up to make two films with Madonna. Wham. Bang.  Just like that. The first is brilliantly epic and huge in its message: Madonna’s consistent theme of the repression of the Catholic church played out with Mykki Blanco as  Joan of Arc. It’s faultless in its multi layers of visual narrative. And then joy oh joy, the second film, this time for  Madonna’s track Batuka is simply a beautifully uplifting, uncomplicated celebration of women and their love of music and faith to their own spirit.

Please tell us about how the two, so very different videos, came about. What were the initial briefs and did it come from Madonna? What were the early conversations about?

Madonna’s team reached out at the end of last year asking if I would be able to come over and meet her to discuss the visuals for her upcoming album. She was a big admirer of my work and wanted to collaborate on a number of videos. She organized a private listening session at her place in London and two weeks later I went over there to meet her. This was the first time I met her in person.  During our first conversation she gave insight into the backstory of the album and the things that inspired her. We connected on a personal level before we even started talking about the practical side of the videos which was really great.

After a long chat, we went straight into the studio and listened to all the tracks of the album. The songs were all exquisite, so different from her previous records yet very distinctively Madonna. While listening to the tracks we started sharing some ideas. I remember one of them was that she wanted the artist Mykki Blanco to star in one of her videos, as she had a special relationship with him. Initially, she wanted me to direct all the music videos that were scheduled for the album but we ended up choosing three tracks that I resonated the most with so I could really focus on creating strong pieces.

Once I got back to Amsterdam it all kind of felt a bit surreal at first. The next few days after our meeting I went back to Madonna’s place to re-listen to the tracks. After digesting all the info properly and I sat down with my co-writer Marleen Özgür and we wrote the concepts for ‘Dark Ballet’, ‘Batuka’ and ‘Killers Who Are Partying’. For the last track we ended up not shooting a video because of the tight schedule we had, but we had quite some time to develop the concepts for the other two projects which was really great to have.

Madonna, still from Batuka

What was the WHOLE process like? The films are distinctively YOU but did Madonna have her say along all the filmmaking stages through to edit?  Did you feel you had to compromise your own vision at all?

The process was fun but also very challenging. We negotiated a lot, as she was really on top of everything. I would literally discuss every detail with her over the phone, by text or in person; from script to shoot to edit, until the day of the release. She had a strong opinion about a lot of things but she also knew what she wanted. In essence, being flexible is key when working with such big artists. I always tried to stay open-minded to new ideas while still trying to keep the very core intact. In the end, I’m really happy our distinct voices and decisions came out nicely in both videos.

Batuka, on location in Portugal

Batuka is beautiful in its framing and lighting – did you work with the same cinematographer for both films?

Yes, the director of photography was Paul Özgür, with whom I also worked on Sevdaliza’s Shahmaran. We go way back and have worked on a lot of projects together. He really knows how to capture real emotion through his unique lens. We also had a second unit that came with Madonna’s team shooting additional stuff.

Did you storyboard in detail the scenarios – I guess Batuka was a more spontaneous shots list but how on earth did you work out Dark Ballet?

For Dark Ballet we had to storyboard the whole video in detail as it felt more like a short film. We had a number of different set-ups and a few shots that had visual effects. When storyboarding Batuka, I realized it wasn’t really necessary. I knew I wanted the scenes to feel more organic, documenting real moments of Madonna and the Batukadeiras, so we chose to improvise most of the scenes on the shooting days while still having the main concept as our guideline. Everything still felt in place when we made sudden changes on set.

Dark Ballet, Mykki Blanco as Joan of Arc

What were the most challenging aspects of the productions and how did you resolve them?

One of the main challenges was that we had to shoot two videos that were very different from each other, back to back with a super tight shooting schedule. We basically shot two films at the same time which made it sometimes hard to focus on one. When we were shooting Dark Ballet I was trying to find possible solutions for Batuka. And vice versa. Plus, let’s not forget working with a superstar who is used to having high demands. Executive producers Chris Toumazou from COMPULSORY and Mélodie Saba from Dreamers, together with producer Tom Birmingham, did an outstanding job guiding the productions into the right direction, from beginning till end.

Another thing; looking for some of the locations for Dark Ballet was quite challenging because we wanted to shoot some intense scenes inside or close to a monumental Catholic church building for an artist named Madonna. This is not something you would normally do in a country like Portugal but luckily we had an amazing line-producer Margarida Adónis from Ready To Shoot who did a great job hustling these unique locations for us that we ended up shooting on.

You’re Ghanian and Dutch. A Filmmaker and Artist. What drives you to make films? What is it that you feel is at the core of what you want to express.

My work mostly deals with human narratives that are honest and infused with a sense of mystery, but at its core, I like to see my work as a collection, or rather a curation of my own memories. My mind is like a museum in which I’m choosing very specific thoughts, images and sounds to display. A space of collections that come from my personal, socio-economical and cultural background, and raises political questions, as well as creating a platform for artistic discourse. Being both the curator of all these influences, as well as being a filmmaker and artist, I’m very much aware of the creative process, which I always try to utilize to my advantage.

Emmanuel Adjei

Please sum up your childhood, was it a particularly creative environment?

My parents are both Ghanaian and I was born and raised in the Netherlands. I grew up in the Bijlmer district in Amsterdam, a place that had one of the highest concentration of immigrants in Europe. A powerful place but also an intense place to grow up as it was neglected for decades by the local government which resulted in social segregation. The Bijlmer created its own raw, unique culture, and like many generations, I developed a mechanism to find my own positive destination. At high school, I first got introduced to fine art and theatre, which was really an eye-opener for me. I have always been fascinated with the Dutch masters, so when I attended art school, the first two years I thought I was going to try and be a painter. I finally ended up making experimental films and got into film school which combined the best of both worlds together in one practice.

And briefly what led you to where you are now!?

It’s really a combination of hard work, collaborating with likeminded spirits and not being afraid to challenge myself. A pinch of good fortune was very helpful every now and then.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I want to give special thanks to every member of the team who worked on these two projects. It’s great sharing the fruits of our labour together!

Madonna, Batuka Directed by Emmanuel Adjei Creative Direction by Imogen Snell Production Companies: COMPULSORY & Dreamers Executive Producers: Chris Toumazou, Mélodie Saba Producer: Tom Birmingham Service Producer: Margarida Adónis Prod. Designer: Paulina Rzeszowska Ass. Prod. Designer: Ruth Levy Make-up: Isamaya French Ass. Make-up: Porsche Poon Styling for Madonna: Eyob Yohannes Hair: Andy LeCompte Costume designers: Bratsk Choreographer: Megan Lawson Ass. Choreographer: Nicolas Huchard Service Company: Ready To Shoot Editor, Colorist: Danny Tull, Tom Watson Post Production: Mathematic Studio VFX supervisor: Yann Aldabe Flame artist: Michael Bianchi VFX producer: Guillaume Marien Post producer: Julia Kerguelen Stills Photography: Riccardo Castano 1st. AD: Dilia Brito 2nd. AD: Vanessa Patricio Project Manager: Paulo Guedes Talent & Prod. Coordinator: Sara Brito Prod. Secretary: Renata Amaro Location Managers: Tiago Nogueira, Luis Santos, Joao Barata, Joao Correia Local Stylist: Isabel Carmona Local MUA & HD: Mery Pastore Camino, António Carreteiro Local Art Director: Sebas Serra   Madonna, Dark Ballet Starring Mykki Blanco Directed by Emmanuel Adjei Creative Director: Imogen Snell Production: COMPULSORY & Dreamers Executive Producers: Chris Toumazou & Melodie Saba Producer: Tom Birmingham Make Up: Isamaya French Make Up Assistant: Porsche Poon Styling for Madonna: Eyob Yohannes Hair: Andy LeCompte Production Designer: Paulina Rzeszowska Costume by Bratsk Choreographer: Megan Lawson Assistant Choreographer: Nicolas Huchard Edited by Danny Tull & Tom Watson Post Production: Mathematic Studio, and John Pearce, The Base Photography & Stills: Riccardo Castano VFX supervisor: Yann Aldabe Flame artist: Michael Bianchi VFX producer: Guillaume Marien Post-producer or line producer: Julia Kerguelen Service Company: Ready To Shoot Service Producer: Margarida Adónis 1st Assistant Director: Dilia Brito 2nd Assistant Director: Vanessa Patricio PM : Paulo Guedes Talent & Production Coordinator: Sara Brito Prod Secretary: Renata Amaro Location Manager: Tiago Nogueira + Luis Santos + Joao Barata + Joao Correia Local Stylist: Isabel Carmona Local MUA & HD: António Carreteiro Local Art Director: Sebas Serra Props Buyer: Ruth Levy Drivers: Hugo Peras, Paulo Duarte, Duarte Bettencourt, Pedro Silveira , Jaime Mendes, Carolina Gomes Teixeira   Sevdaliza, Shahmaran Produced by COMPULSORY, Handsome, Halal Pictures Directed by Emmanuel Adjei Director of Photography: Paul Özgür Producers: Chris Toumazou, Melodie Saba Executive Producers: Chris Toumazou, Melodie Saba, Sam Fontaine, Gijs Determeijer Written by Marleen Özgür, Emmanuel Adjei Visual Effects Services: Mathematic VFX coordinator: Guillaume Marien VFX supervisor: Yann Aldabe Flame Artist: Fred Brandon Colourist: Vincent Heine Production Services: Paranoiia Productions Producer: Andrea Sastoque, Ariel Navarrete Spahn Prod. Coordinator: Fabien Colas Editing Services: Trim Editor: Emmanuel Adjei, Leila Sarraf, Marleen Özgür Sound-designer: Sharkee 1st AD: Jesse Hays PA: Nick Weir, Camilo Godoy, Ann Kocarek Prod. Designer: Miranda Lorenz Art Department: Rudy Grazziani Steadicam Operator: Parker Brooks, Chris Loh Drone Operator: Josh Yeo 1st AC: Ai Dang 2nd AC: Harper Thomas Gaffer: Scott Ray Key Grip: Ryan Lozano Costume Designer: Creepy Yeeha Wardrobe: Inez Naomi Stylist: Kristin Kathol Hair Stylist: Devin Bianchini Make Up Artist: Carla Rosso