Video Chats: Jeff Nicholas on "What Now" by Rihanna
Posted by Doug Klinger on November 18, 2013 in Interviews
Shot in Thailand, Rihanna's "What Now" is an eerie video featuring Ri-Ri in a torn up, spooky looking room, performing some Exorcist inspired choreography. Directed by Jeff Nicholas, Darren Craig, and Jonathan Craven of The Uprising Creative, the video was shot over 24 straight hours in a makeshift soundstage built from scratch inside a warehouse in Phuket, Thailand. We talked to Jeff about collaborating with Rihanna on the project, working in Thailand, and the crazy 24-hour shoot.
Doug: The last videos you guys did of this magnitude were for Justin Timberlake, which came through an established working relationship. Did this video for Rihanna also come through first working with her on other creative projects?
Jeff: This was our first time working with Rihanna, actually. With Justin, we had a longstanding creative relationship with the team, and that gave us the opportunity to come in and do a couple videos that we may not have been considered for otherwise. But with Rih, it was a pretty standard process. A request for a treatment came in from IDJ and we were writing against at least six or seven other directors. We’re not sure who else was writing on it - we never are of course - but we can only imagine it was some of the top talent. I mean, she's worked with all the top directors - some people that we really look up to - and has made some really amazing and beautiful videos. We definitely felt like we were coming in the underdog and I remember really doubting ourselves at one point, like you do, just saying “hey, at least we got to write on a Rihanna video this early in our careers!” I mean in all honesty, most of the MV industry is looking at us like “who the fuck are these guys anyway?” and it was a long shot for someone like Rihanna to go with us, but we put everything into it.
At the end of the day though, our concepts as directors and commitment to execute as a production company ended up winning Rihanna and her creative director Ciarra Pardo over. It was a risk for them, and honestly it was a risk for us - high stakes, you know? Once we got through the initial selection phase though, it became apparent that we were going to work really well together.
The directors we have here at The Uprising Creative all bring something different to the table. Different aesthetics, experience, points of view. Sometimes we direct individually, and sometimes it’s as these teams where we all bring something different to the table. Obviously I co-directed this one with Jonathan Craven and Darren Craig, the same team that did Justin’s "Take Back The Night" video, and although working as a team when we all have such strong passions and visions can be tricky, it tends to really take things in some interesting directions that they may have not gone in individually. I mean seriously, I’m really fortunate to be able to work with these guys - they are amazingly talented, and really driven. They crush it and are so awesome to work with day in and day out. In this case, their love of and experience with the dark and creepy really made all the difference in getting the aesthetic right, which is what helped us nail it with Rihanna and Ciarra I think. Not to mention their experience with production in general that made shooting in Thailand vs the US even possible for us as a company.
Doug: The video has a spooky edge to it that might be unexpected for a love song like this, Rihanna even mentions this in the BTS video. What was the narrative of this video based on and how did those elements find their way in?
Jeff: The concept for this video evolved quite a bit. Part of what drew Rihanna to working with us was that dark, creepy edge we were bringing to it. We knew she’d be getting a lot of down the middle concepts thrown at her. The first thing that jumps out at you is how she pronounces mirror. That really sticks out, and the first thing your brain goes to is incorporating mirrors. Then the next obvious is some kind of narrative about a love story. Honestly, that would have all felt really boring and contrived, right? Expected. So one of the things Darren always pushes for is to throw out all of those obvious concepts at the beginning - as he always puts it, we don’t want to be just another bunch of assholes doing some vanilla, expected, obvious videos.
The concept did initially incorporate more of a narrative though, and some exteriors in Thailand. But once we really got into it with Rih and Ciarra, we started to realize how personal this song is for her. Things just sort of naturally evolved into this sparse, creepy, horror film inspired internalization of her emotional turmoil and struggle relating to love. Stripping it back allowed it to really speak to that pain and discomfort, without a bunch of distractions. Sometimes it’s about stripping away vs throwing everything in. Restraint.
Doug: Did you guys have a choreographer for this project, or did the dance elements in the video all come from Rihanna?
Jeff: Having not worked with Rih before, we thought we’d need one. Typically you do, you know? But she’s amazing and didn’t want (or need) one. Everything you see came from her, along with our direction of course. We asked that she think about it like she’s possessed - she has this thing inside her that is controlling her, battling her, trying to get out. She took that and honestly blew us away on set. Some of what didn’t make it into the video is pretty amazing - these contortions that don’t seem possible, and erratic movements that look as if we pulled frames. But it was all in camera. After each take we’d sit with her and watch playback in amazement. It was pretty incredible.
Doug: What brought you guys to Thailand to shoot this video?
Jeff: Really it was just schedule. Rihanna was on tour in Asia at the time, and she had a few days between dates where she was going to be in Phuket to get a little downtime. Her schedule was so packed that they were the only two days she had available. But also creatively, almost as a byproduct, shooting down there really lent this gritty, somewhat creepy feel to everything. It’s beautiful down there, but there’s this pervasive chaos and grit.
Things were really in hyperdrive too. We ended up boarding the 20-hour flight from LA to Bangkok without having the concept approved, or even really knowing 100% that we had been awarded the video. We were pretty sure, but we were rewriting the treatment on that flight. The timeline was so tight though, that if we didn’t get on the plane, we literally would not have been able to pull the video off. I mean seriously, we landed in Hong Kong for a 2hr layover and had to rush off the plane to get internet access so we could download reference imagery to finish the treatment revisions, and then as soon as we landed in Bangkok sent it off for review and approval.
We had this amazing production company, Bullet Productions, who was our team on the ground in Thailand. They really gave it everything but when they picked us up at the airport, we still didn’t know 100% that the video was happening. They just rushed us to their offices in Bangkok anyway and we did the equivalent of about three to four days of prep work with the keys from each department in about a 7-hour span. We just sat in this conference room and some of the most talented people we’ve ever worked with came in, one after another, going over where they were at, getting our feedback, planning the steps forward. It was crazy.
The issue with Thailand was that we needed to shoot in Phuket, not the more developed and film/video-friendly Bangkok. That’s where Rihanna was going to be. But, Phuket doesn’t really have any film/video infrastructure at all. Literally everything had to come from Bangkok, including all of our key people. I mean cranes, stabilized heads, cameras, lenses, sets - EVERYTHING. Hell, our stabilized head actually came from Singapore, and our Motion Control unit (and operator!) was from Belgium. So our orders had to be right, and had to go in earlier than normal, in order to make the boat/van/plane rides down from Bangkok or wherever they were coming in from. You couldn’t just run out to get something, we had to be fully prepared. And to top it off, there are literally no stages in Phuket. We ended up having to construct two complete sets inside this crazy warehouse.
So it was this crazy compressed prep day in Bangkok, then a couple crazy prep days in Phuket. It really was unbelievable how quickly everything moved. We had to scout locations as soon as we landed in Phuket the next day. We went to this warehouse that was storing old furniture - it was a total mess, out in the country. As soon as we said it was good to go, there were like 20 people rushing in to clean it up and start building the trussing and sets almost immediately. Like literally looked down at the ground and when I looked back up, they were rolling in. We’d never seen anything like it.
Doug: The shoot for this video was scheduled for two days, but instead you guys just shot straight through the night into the second day. Was was behind this choice? How did Rihanna and your crew respond to it?
Jeff: Ha, what was behind that choice was Rihanna! First time working with her, right? So we didn’t know that’s how she’d rather work - straight through. Our 1st AD Jesse Sternbaum had calculated that we really needed about 22-24 hours to get through our shot list, so naturally we scheduled it as two 12-hour shoot days. And because she was on tour and really tied up, we didn’t have a ton of communication with her prior to those shoot days. Literally at 2am the morning of the shoot we got the call that Rih really didn’t want to shoot two days - that she’d rather push straight through. So, yeah, bit of a scramble to make that happen. And it definitely threw the crew for a loop. Our DP, Sing Howe Yam, was going to get worked pretty hard since we were doing a lot of handheld and in-camera effects.
Once she was on set though, she was bringing it so hard that it really kept the energy levels high and everyone was really excited to be there. It’s just a different level working with someone like Rihanna or Justin - they’re pros in front of the camera and it really makes you push to keep up. Also, like I said before, the Thai crew was amazing. Their work ethic is incredible and although it was a bit of an adjustment for everyone, their attitude was really like “if that’s what needs to be done, then that’s what we do and we will give it our all every step of the way.” Again, it was incredible, and after all was said and done, I think everyone enjoyed having that second day essentially off in Phuket instead of coming back to set to shoot again. Including Rihanna, as her Instagram can attest to.
jeff nicholas, rihanna, the uprising creative, video chats, what now
Doug Klinger is the co-founder/content director of IMVDb and watches more music videos than anyone on earth. You can find him on twitter at @doug_klinger.
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