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Interview: Mark Romanek Talks Jay Z’s ‘Picasso Baby’ Short Film, Says “It’s A Tsunami Of Joy”

Interview: Mark Romanek Talks Jay Z's 'Picasso Baby' Short Film, Says "It's A Tsunami Of Joy"

Tomorrow night, at 11 pm, Jay Z (the hyphen is gone!) will premiere his brand-new video for “Picasso Baby” on HBO, a highlight from his recently released Magna Carta Holy Grail album. It’s an art installation-style 10-minute short film, in part based on Marina Abramovic‘s “The Artist in Present,” an installation (and later, feature-length documentary) at New Year’s Museum of Modern Art, in which the famous artist sat at a table for hours on end while everyday people would sit across from her and stare. For the Jay Z project, the rapper rented out a downtown Manhattan art gallery and invited people to perform the song too. So it was kind of like the Abramovic thing, except much more of a party. We got a chance to talk to Mark Romanek, the director of “One Hour Photo” and some of the most memorable music videos of the past two decades, who told us where the project came from, how he put it together, and why the music video format might be dead.

Romanek, it should be noted, has some history with the rapper, having directed the brilliant, stark video for “99 Problems” and helped with the promotional campaign for Magna Carta Holy Grail. Secondly, we should let you know that we haven’t seen “Picasso Baby” yet. HBO is keeping the surprise in store for both critics and audiences until Friday night. So we’ll be watching, right along beside you tomorrow, and the sound system will be turned up very loud. Until then, here’s what Romanek had to say about the endeavour.

How did this project come about?
About 3 months ago, Jay Z called me and invited me over to his office to listen to his new music with an eye towards some sort of creative collaboration and we ended up doing that series of Samsung spots and had a good time. And he said, “I’d really like you to do a video.” And “Picasso Baby” was the first single.

And how did the art gallery idea evolve?
He said would you like to make a music video for “Picasso Baby?” My reaction was, I definitely want to work with Jay-Z. It’s very exciting. And something about making a quote unquote music video in a traditional sense, didn’t seem very interesting to me. The song name-checks a lot of fine artists and I thought, what could we do with that fine art world that isn’t a traditional musical video but is part of the zeitgeist—something unpredictable and [that] utilizes social media? I didn’t want it to be a hermetically sealed experience.

The idea of performance art came to mind. I was aware of Marina Abramovic’s “Artist is Present,” even though I was in London shooting “Never Let Me Go” and didn’t get to go. And the idea that Jay Z regularly performs to 60,000 people at a time, I thought, “What about performing at one person at a time?” He absolutely loved it. He interrupted me and said, “Hold on I’ve got chills. That idea is perfect.” He thinks, like me, that the music video has had its era. I also wanted to make sure we had Marina’s blessing. So she attended the event and took part in the event. She couldn’t have been more happy or enthusiastic about us using her concept and pushing it forward.

Had you stayed in touch with Jay since the “99 Problems” video?
Yeah my wife is friendly with Beyonce. So we ran into each other socially. We did a Budweiser spot and then the Samsung spots. I mean who wouldn’t want to work with him? He’s an icon of our era.

Was part of this idea scaling down that icon to a more manageable size?
Not really. I’ve know him over the years and wanted to bring out a side of him that people don’t normally see. He’s not a street rapper anymore. He’s a wealthy businessman and a father. In this video I think he’s very relatable.

How important are these smaller projects to you?
I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I get to make commercials or music videos or TV pilots, and they all complement each other and fill up my spare time. I’m always working with new people and trying out new technology. I don’t take it for granted. It hasn’t been my focus to do music things for a while, just because I did so many of them for so long. I did a bunch of those iPod silhouette spots in the early aughts, so I felt like I didn’t have to do music-related things for a little while.

Why do you think the traditional music video form is dead?
It wasn’t exciting to me anymore to do something that was kind of preconceived. What we did was build a machine in a way – we designed the space and did a lot of acoustic tests on the set and built a bench and did wall texts in a gallery, even made these giant vinyl banners that you see in these galleries, and did invites. Everything about it was designed in that respect. But once everybody came in we didn’t know what would happen. It might have been a big dud for all we knew. There was a lot of excitement. We had to hang on by our fingernails and film this. And the idea that people could take photos and do Instagram and take Vines and have this be a hub for a series of spokes that we couldn’t control, was very exciting. We didn’t know how long it would be. The piece ended up being 10 minutes long, but a lot of people have said that they wish it was longer just because it was so fun to watch.

How did you decide who to invite?
A woman named Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn did the invites. She’s an art dealer in New York and has an association with Jay Z. But we didn’t want it to be an elitist art world thing. There were many artists who were interested in seeing the event and who came. But we wanted to make sure people from all walks of life and social strata could come, including people who were huge Jay Z fans. People didn’t know what it was, exactly. They knew it had something to do with Jay Z but they didn’t know what it was or if he was even going to be there. There was a nice quality of surprise and excitement.

How did you deal with the crowd? Could people just hang out all day?
We had to control the flow of people, partly because the film office and the police were very concerned because if it spread through social media it could become something where they couldn’t control the amount of people. We had 250 people at a time and we had about nine or ten groups of people. Jay did the song maybe four or five times for each group. And then we had to recycle them. And it all went off quite smoothly. Had it gone viral and gotten out of control, it could have been another exciting thing to film. But it’s probably better that it didn’t.

What were you most surprised by?
I was continually surprised. And that’s what’s so joyful about watching it, too. It’s kind of an endlessly inventing, surprising thing. It’s a tsunami of joy. Everyone is having such a good time, Jay is having such a good time. Some people came and sat and absorbed the experience. Other people felt the need to perform or collaborate or come up with some sort of gag. There’s no one encounter that is similar to another. It’s a whole range of surprises. We had 30 hours of film, because we had 8 cameras going.

Are there any plans to do anything else with that footage?
We had some deleted scenes but I think we had a chance to artfully manage it. There was some talk of cutting it even more. The only person that Jay performed the song for from beginning to end, since most people sat for 30 to 60 seconds, was Marina Abramovic. We should probably put that version together.

How quickly did you have to turn this around?
At the end of the day, we had a bit of time. Everybody worked 14 hours a day from the moment we finished shooting until yesterday. But when Jay made the arrangement for it to premiere on HBO we knew what our delivery date was we had a little bit more breathing room. We had a mixer who has been nominated for 16 Oscars, who did “Schindler’s List,” which was great because it was a tricky mix. It’s all live vocals. There’s no lip-synching. The whole point was having a live document. So it was a challenge. We had four or five editors on it at any given time, trying to make sure we were capitalizing on the giant tidal wave of footage.

Were you worried about losing that sense of spontaneity?
To be honest, I wasn’t worried about it. We could see how it was coming together in the spirit and tone we intended. It was so live and real. So the challenge was really how can we create a nice flow and structure to it and not leave out any of these terrific spontaneous encounters and these little sweet moments. And that’s just artful editing. The filmmaking is very transparent. We didn’t light anything. We chose a gallery that allowed for this great sunlight. We tried to make the filmmaking have as light of an impact on what was happening as possible.

What’s next?
I’ve got three projects, one of them I wrote, another one’s a black comedy, another one is a drama. I do want to make another film. That’s my main goal.

Have you given up on trying to make a big studio movie?
I’ve made my attempts at making these large-scale studio pictures and it’s not gone well. And perhaps what it’s telling me is that I’m better suited to more medium-sized types of projects. I think that’s a happier place for me to be.

Jay Z and Mark Romanek’s “Picasso Baby” premieres on Friday night at 11, right after Bill Maher. Check out a preview below along with a montage of Romanek’s music videos.

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