In the video for ” ’03 Bonnie & Clyde,” Jay-Z and Beyoncé played a modern-day version of the headline-grabbing 1920s bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. The clip neglected, however, to reveal how the notorious couple met their end.
That’s where the “99 Problems” video comes in. The controversial clip, one of the five nominees for Best Video of the Year at Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards, concludes with the rapper being sprayed with bullets, a scene inspired by the ending of the classic 1967 flick starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, “Bonnie and Clyde.”
“I’ve always wanted to do a ‘Bonnie and Clyde’-type of scene for a music video, but no one had the guts to let me do it until Jay-Z came along,” director Mark Romanek revealed. “Jay was a little unsure about it at first, because that sort of imagery has a lot of real-life baggage attached to it in the rap world, but I explained to Jay that it was meant to be more abstract, that it wasn’t meant to be taken literally. He finally decided to trust me and I think he really liked the way it came out.”
In the video, Jay-Z’s assassination is shown from three different angles and deftly spliced with footage of a Brooklyn funeral and a gospel choir, among other things. Romanek shot the scene in one take with all three cameras running simultaneously at the slow-motion speed of 150 frames per second.
“The result is due mostly to the work of my excellent collaborators: my cinematographer, Jaoquin Baca-Asay, and my editor, Robert Duffy, who were both nominated for VMAs for this video and deservedly so, I think,” Romanek said.
For the director, whose videos over the years include Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson’s “Scream,” Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” Madonna’s “Rain” and Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” “99 Problems” marks a major milestone — his first hip-hop video.
“It’s not because I wasn’t keen to do one or because I don’t listen to hip-hop, I do,” Romanek said. “It’s more a result of the fact that no hip-hop artists ever ask me to direct their videos. I’m not sure why. I’m just not in that loop, I guess.”
After, in Jay-Z’s own words, “going through the motions” for the “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and “Encore” videos, the rapper wanted something special for “99 Problems.” He was referred to Romanek through other directors. “Every director is like, ‘Mark is the one.’ He’s the best right now,” Jay said.
Once Romanek signed on (“It’s an amazing track,” Romanek said. “Jay-Z is a brilliant poet and rapper. Why wouldn’t I want to do it?”), Jay gave him a few guidelines.
“He told me that he wanted to shoot in and around the Marcy Houses [in Brooklyn] where he grew up, he wanted it to be done ‘artistically’ and he didn’t want it to look like other hip-hop videos,” Romanek recalled. “I remember he said he wanted me to make ‘a pissy wall look like art.’ I asked if I could shoot it in black and white. He immediately loved that idea. After that, he pretty much trusted me to do my thing with it.”
Romanek thought black and white would go well with the tough, stripped-down sound of “99 Problems.” It also made it easier to avoid the “bling-type gloss” of the typical hip-hop video Jay wanted to stay away from.
“Also, when Jay said he wanted a kind of exposé of Brooklyn life, I immediately thought of the work of several photographers who I like, people like Bruce Davidson and Eugene Richards,” Romanek said. “So I just started thinking in monochrome terms.”
In preparing for videos, Romanek typically does a lot of photographic research, which tends to inspire certain scenes. “In searching out a range of intense, transgressive, urban imagery, I came across some prison photos and it just struck a chord,” Romanek said. “So I staged some prison scenes. I shot that stuff, as I did every other scene, without much concern for the censors. I wanted to make it a little more real than the average music-video version of that kind of stuff.”
The influence of Davidson and Richards’ black-and-white photography is evident in other scenes as well, particularly the many quick shots of real Brooklyn natives.
“Sometimes subjects are aware of the camera and sometimes they’re not, Romanek explained. “When they are, it felt right for them to be a little confrontational. I don’t really think about it. I just go by the feel of it.”
Romanek also acted instinctively in coming up with the shot for the breakdown midway through “99 Problems.” He asked his casting agent to find a stepping troupe and she returned with the local Alpha Phi Alpha Steppers.
“Stepping has a long, rich history in African-American culture and — once again — it just felt right to include it as an element,” he said. “The track revisits that original late-’80s Def Jam sound, which Rick Rubin helped invent, and stepping had a resurgence in popularity during that era. I hope people don’t think it’s just the usual music-video choreography.”
As for Rubin, who produced “99 Problems,” it was also Romanek’s idea to include him in the video. Commanding in his signature beard and sunglasses, Rubin shares several scenes with Jay, but perhaps the most memorable is the quick shot of his eyes opening as the rapper is first hit with bullets.
“The track has such a Rick Rubin signature sound to it,” Romanek said. “It took a little convincing, but he came out and had a good time. The only thing Rick said to me was, ‘You better make me look cool.’ ”
One of the days Rubin was on set, his friend Vincent Gallo came by to visit. Romanek spontaneously asked the actor to be in the video and wrote a part for him — a part somewhat shrouded in mystery.
“Some people think he’s the hit man,” the director said. “That’s as good an interpretation as any. Gallo just looks great on film, so I put him in there. And I didn’t want to take the sh– he would give me if I shot him and didn’t use the footage.”
In the end, Jay-Z was extremely proud of the “99 Problems” video, including the controversial ending.
“As far as me getting shot, I just looked at it the same way I would watch Denzel [Washington] in ‘Training Day,’ or seeing any other actor, you know?” Jay said. “I was just acting out a part. I was trying to show Hollywood I got some chops, too. Maybe I’ll get a little job.”
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