Justin Timberlake may have skirted the truth when he said the "Cry Me a River" video was not about Britney Spears, but he was entirely honest when he said the concept came from the director.
"We had a conversation on the phone and all he said was he wanted to have some dancing in it, but to do my thing," the clip's director, Francis Lawrence, said recently, talking publicly about the scandalous video for the first time (see "Justin And Britney At War, Magazine Cover Story Declares"). "He told me what the song was about, but in a [general way] as well. He just said it was a kiss-off song, and so I came up with this idea and he went for it."
Lawrence paused, and then added with a laugh, "Of course, I put these details in that he enjoyed."
And it was those details — the fairy as a doorstop, a reference to Spears' tattoo, for example — that made it possible to make a video about Justin and Britney without it really being about Justin and Britney.
"Honestly, he and I never spoke of any specific names in this process," Lawrence said, later noting, "I'm being real honest, we literally never talked about his real breakup, we just talked about the general beats of the piece."
Lawrence downplayed the look of the ex-girlfriend, who, with her newsboy cap and tinted pink sunglasses, was instantly deemed a Britney look-alike. Spears herself, however, told MTV's "TRL," "The last time I looked in the mirror, I didn't think I really looked like her."
"I just wrote that she was a blonde girl," Lawrence said of his treatment.
The house, located in Malibu, California, was another story. "I was looking for a place that looked like a specific girl might live in it," Lawrence said, laughing.
Of course, his details (perhaps "clues" is the better word) were noticed by Timberlake (and Spears') record-label executives, who were already apprehensive about the video.
"The most work [Justin] did was standing behind it and saying he didn't want anything to change," Lawrence said. "The record label didn't want us to use a silver Porsche and he stood by that."
With a plot that found Timberlake breaking into his ex-girlfriend's house, filming himself making out with another woman on her bed and watching his ex as she came home and showered, there were plenty of other concerns, as well.
"They were nervous about the themes of Justin being a voyeur and the tone, especially with the girl coming in and getting it on and it not being sweet," Lawrence said. "That's the thing I liked most about this project, was that he was coming into it with a super clean-cut image with 'NSYNC, and he's such a nice guy and so handsome, and what I was into doing was making him be a bit scary. Lurking around the house in the rain, throwing a rock through her window, being a peeping Tom, getting revenge and doing stuff that's not really what a nice guy does."
Lawrence was particularly excited about the bed scene, which was uncharacteristic of pop-music-video romance.
"What I was looking for was not a girl who was necessarily into Justin, but he brought along a friend or knew someone who would do it, so I wanted someone who was sexy but put across the idea that it was all business," Lawrence said of the actress he cast. "The video was more about revenge, not about him starting a new relationship. She had the aloof coldness that I liked."
In the end, Lawrence, who is best known for his Aerosmith epics and for staging a car crash in P.O.D.'s "Alive" (see "VMA Lens Recap: The Story Behind P.O.D.'s 'Alive' "), did remove two shots.
In the original version, as Justin walks through the broken window and sings, "Cry me a river," he slowly lifts up his hand and flips off the camera. "It was so unbelievably killer, but it was never going to make it in and we didn't want to blur it," Lawrence said.
The other edit came after the video had already aired a few times. The standards department at MTV decided throwing a rock through a window violated a rule indicating there should be no acts of vandalism in music videos. Feasibly, since the house is his ex-girlfriend's, Timberlake probably could have entered with a key, but Lawrence decided to keep the "more damaging and evasive" approach and have the window break on its own.
While Lawrence considers dealing with the naysayers the biggest challenge with "Cry Me a River," which is nominated for Video of the Year (see "Missy, Justin, Johnny Cash, 50 And Eminem Top VMA Nominees List"), the three-day shoot was not without its own troubles.
The biggest headache was the constantly flowing rain machine, which not only made Timberlake cold and miserable during the exterior scenes, but caused the house to leak. Since the house was full of windows, outside rain was required even for interior shooting, but Lawrence never considered taking it out.
"It's sort of noir," he said. "The boyfriend standing out there, getting pissed on, it's pitiful."
The other major challenge came during the shower scene on the final day. Lawrence needed the glass to steam over and cover his naked actress, but the hot lights in the room made it nearly impossible. "Steam comes when the room is cold but the water is hot, so we had issues with that," he explained.
Ultimately, with credit to Timberlake's acting skills, the shower scene was Lawrence's favorite part of the video.
"The first take he came out looking sort of like Jack Nicholson in 'The Shining' and we both looked at the playback and said, 'That's too much, this is looking like a horror movie,' " Lawrence recalled. "So what we did was, there's a falsetto voice at that section in the track that has a really interesting emotion to it, so I said, come out with that emotion, because it's actually kind of sad. And he did and it just paved the whole thing off, because you realize how upset he is, but you also realize he's kind of sad. It added a whole different layer to the story, which made it much more complex, not just cold revenge."
And as for Timberlake's request for cool dancing? Piece of cake, if you consider floating around a room cool. And unlike, say, Missy Elliott's "Work It" video (see "The Story Behind Missy Elliott's 'Work It': VMA Lens Recap"), no cables were used in the making of this video.
"We had these guys in blue-screen suits, these dancers who were holding onto him," Lawrence revealed. "We had him wearing this stunt vest with these handles coming out the back, and so all that stuff is just two guys running around, holding him, lifting him and dropping him. They're dancers, so they get the timing of the music. It ended up being really easy to shoot."
Looking back almost a year after he first wrote the much-talked-about treatment, Lawrence summed up the experience: "The video did what I hoped it would do, which is stir things up a bit."
Check out the story behind the other Video of the Year nominees: