Johan Renck was having a crazy enough day as it was, trying to shoot an H&M commercial with Kate Moss just hours after a photograph of the model cutting up lines of cocaine hit the tabloids’ front pages.
Fighting off paparazzi that were climbing a fence for a shot of the scandalized beauty, Renck was at the end of his rope — when out of the blue he got a call on his cell from Madonna. The two had collaborated in 1999 on her geisha-inspired clip for “Nothing Really Matters,” and now, six years later, the singer wanted to work with the Swedish director again — now. “She was desperate,” Renck said.
Madonna had planned to have photographer/filmmaker David LaChapelle direct her video for “Hung Up,” the first single from Confessions on a Dance Floor, and the pair had worked out a concept that involved incorporating all types of dance techniques from around the world — including the krumping style featured in LaChapelle’s documentary “Rize.”
But then the two had a falling out and couldn’t come to terms creatively — and Madonna was locked into a deadline to “get this thing going, immediately,” Renck recalled. She wanted to know if Renck had heard the song, and since he hadn’t, “she told me to be in the parking lot by the stage in 45 minutes.” Madonna sent a record-label rep over in a truck to play the song for him, then called back to ask again, would he do this?
“I was like, ‘Sure,’ and she said, ‘OK, I have a grain of an idea for this, can I e-mail you the idea?’ ” Renck said. “And then she asked if I could go to Los Angeles to meet with the stylist and choreographer. Mind you, I’m still in the middle of chaos with Miss Moss, so I said, ‘Well, I’m kind of shooting today.’ ‘Good, you can go tomorrow.’ It was all very abrupt.” (Ironically, H&M dropped Moss soon after and later picked up Madonna for an ad campaign).
“I kind of liked that we didn’t have time to over-think this and be too clever,” Renck said. “I like being out on a limb and not know what we’re doing and why. Just deal with it, the mayhem, you know?”
Thrown into the middle of Madonna’s whirlwind, Renck had to hit the ground running, just like many of the dancers cast for the clip. Madonna wanted to use a few performers from her tour, such as Daniel “Cloud” Campos, Miss Prissy from LaChapelle’s “Rize” crew and traceur Sebastien Foucan, a practitioner of parkour, a philosophical French sport that involves moving via uninterrupted motion, whether over, under, through or around objects. “It’s not about the music, but the bodily expression,” Renck said. “We wanted to show the whole spectrum, be it krumping, breakdancing, jazz or disco.”
While they couldn’t exactly shoot all over the world, Madonna wanted the video to have an “omnipresent feel,” with the middle section of the song generating a sense of congregation. Renck suggested that they have the boombox be the tool to unite everything, “since that’s the way street dancing started.” So while some setups are meant to take place in London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai and Tokyo, the actual shoots only took place in London and L.A. A London suburb stood in for the Parisian suburb most known for parkour, a restaurant in London’s Chinatown stood in for Shanghai and Compton stood in for the Bronx. “If Mohammed can’t go to the mountain, the mountain has to go to Mohammed,” Renck joked.
All of the dancers’ scenes were shot in early October 2005 in half a day, for a total of six days of shooting, while Madonna’s solo dance number — inspired by the John Travolta film trifecta of “Saturday Night Fever,” “Grease” and “Perfect” — only took three hours to shoot (Madonna has said the video is “really a tribute to dance — and John Travolta”).
Considering that the singer was still recovering from breaking her ribs, collarbone and hand just weeks earlier in a horseback-riding accident, “she was such a trooper,” Renck said. “She just fell off a horse!” When Renck and choreographer Jamie King would say they couldn’t even tell she was injured, Madonna would tease them, ” ‘If you were a real dance choreographer, you could tell I can’t lift my left arm higher than this’ — and it was like, what, a 20-centimeter difference?” Renck said. “But when she said it ‘hurts like f—,’ she’d take a break and sit down for two minutes. ‘I have broken ribs, remember that!’ I just can’t imagine dancing like that. Talk about priorities.”
Madonna’s priorities extended to sitting in on the edit so she could help shape the finished product. “She was my edit supervisor,” Renck laughed. “She’d leave me alone for a few days, and then come back and say, ‘Let’s do this and this, get rid of that, do that.’ And then she’d be there all day, more or less. I think she likes the process, how it starts to unravel in front of your eyes.”
Since Madonna had done more videos in her career than Renck, he welcomed her input. “It’s not, ‘My nose doesn’t look good,’ ” he insisted. “She wants her dance to look the way she wants it. She wanted it to be a little more raw, like a documentary feel, which was fine, because it let me portray her realistically, rather than how she’s usually polished and stylized.”
But while Madonna certainly could have made more demands — her right, her video, Renck said — she was willing to bend a bit. “She says, ‘I’m not a director, that’s why I have a director,’ and she gives you a lot of slack,” he recalled. Not that she lets anything go by uncommented. “She’s a very good client, but she’s tough. I can’t say it’s not tough. But she’s good.” Her toughness paid off to the tune of five MTV Video Music Award nominations, including Video of the Year (see “Shakira, Chili Peppers, Madonna, Panic! Lead List Of Nominees For MTV Video Music Awards” ).
Making “Hung Up” was such a “massive undertaking,” Renck said, that he feels like it was a little hard for all involved to come back to reality once it was finished. “It’s like you form this little family that’s flourished and prospered for the month, and then you chop it down like a tree,” he observed. “You come out with a sense of yearning and longing, like, ‘Can we just do that again? Please?’ ”