By his best estimation, Anthony Mandler has made 16 videos with Rihanna — everything from early career pieces like 2006's "Unfaithful," high-profile, multi-artist collabos like "If I Never See Your Face Again" and "Run This Town" to dark, deeply-personal clips like "Russian Roulette" — but he'll be the first to tell you that he's never directed one like her latest, "Diamonds."
"I know that my journey with her has always been about exploring deep emotional narratives. But [videos like] 'Russian Roulette,' 'Disturbia,' 'Man Down,' 'Only Girl (In the World)' ... most of them take on a more linear journey," Mandler told MTV News. "With this one, I felt the need to create a wider landscape; almost hint at things, go into things, then get out of them, and not allow people to attach themselves to too much ... they needed to feel like dream vignettes, like, when you wake up from a dream, you realize what you were dreaming about is not really what it was about, it was about something else.
"This song and this album and who she is today, to me, it all feels like a new book; one book is over, and we're in a new book," he continued. "And in that new book, there's the idea of 'Let's try something different.' "
And "Diamonds" is most definitely different ... it ditches a traditional narrative and stiches together a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes, and, in the process, paints a much larger portrait of Rihanna's much-discussed personal life. Which, in a way, is perhaps the most accurate portrayal to date.
"Nothing in life is black or white, just death and taxes, and there's always two sides to the story, and there's always multiple ways to look at the same situation, depending on who you are in that situation. Are you one of the people involved, or are you an outside viewer?" Mandler explained. "And you can see what I'm getting at in terms of relating this to Rihanna's real life, and what she's been through. What's truth or fiction? You know 'Is she drowning, or is she in complete ecstasy? Are those hands coming apart, or are they finding each other?' ... we tried to bring up these deeper questions that relate to song and her life and finding beauty in chaos and finding beauty in pain and finding pain in beauty."
Rihanna's willingness to trust Mandler's instincts is just one of the reasons why their partnership has produced so many iconic music videos ("Rihanna makes records that are attached to her and her journey. So we always feel like she's speaking to us from her heart," Mandler said. "And for me as a visual artist, you can't ask for anything more.") And though, in the week since "Diamonds" debuted, fans have worked overtime attempting to dissect each individual vignette — "Does the heavily tattooed arm she embraces belong Chris Brown?" is a particular point of contention — Mandler isn't about to divulge any secrets. After all, that debate is what he hoped to highlight in the first place. What is truth and what is fiction? Only he and Rihanna know for sure.
"I'm obviously using what has been talked about and created, and truth and fiction and creating my own reality. Call that what you will," he said. "I'm hand-picking certain imagery in order to create impactful new imagery ... but I'm sworn to secrecy."