Amy Winehouse knew exactly what she wanted for her "Rehab" video. Her label knew what it wanted too. The only problem was the two ideas were completely opposite, and, despite treatments from nearly a dozen directors, nobody could find one whose vision split the difference.
Enter Phil Griffin, the veteran director of videos by everyone from Diana Ross to Keith Urban to Paul McCartney to modern British girl groups like the Sugababes and Atomic Kitten.
Introduced to Winehouse by British jazz singer Tyler James, Griffin immediately bonded with the beehived retro-soul singer at their very first meeting. "I went out one night with my friend Tyler, and Amy was there, and we talked about how women are filmed and how it's all flouncy and pretty-pretty and how I thought beauty should have an edge," said Griffin, who has just wrapped work on a video for Prince.
That's all Winehouse needed to hear. The singer's label called the director the next week, and Griffin said he begged for a chance to direct the clip, which is up for Video of the Year at Sunday's VMAs (see "MTV VMA Race Is On: Justin Timberlake, Beyonce Lead Nominations"). At the time, Winehouse didn't like any of the treatments she'd seen and was intent on a performance-based clip, while her label was hoping for more of a narrative approach to the signature song about the singer's reluctance to get cleaned up.
"Amy wants performance, you want narrative — it's pulling in two directions," Griffin said. "So I needed to tread between the two, and I came up with the concept of 'postcards from rehab.' "
The director said he pitched his unusual idea to the singer this way: "Amy, you wake up and you know this is it — the day you have to go see the doctor and you don't know what's going to happen, and the band is with you. It's kind of surreal. You go to brush your teeth and the band is there. You go outside, the band is there. You end up in a hospital cell, the band is there. There's no real narrative: It's postcards of the day you went to rehab ... postcards from a girl in distress. And she was like, 'I love it!' "
Luckily, the label loved it as well, though the bandmembers weren't so sure about another "surreal" bit Griffin and Winehouse had cooked up: having them wear their pajamas throughout the clip. That bit was inspired by some early 1980s videos by English ska revivalists Madness, and Griffin said he was able to overcome their skittishness by ordering up some pricey sleepwear from high-end English jammie purveyor Derek Rose, whose designs can cost more than $250 a pop.
Saying he believed right off the bat that Winehouse was an artist on par with legends like Diana Ross, Griffin said he decided not to shift the camera around very much during the shoot, instead letting it linger on the singer as she deadpanned the lyrics right into the camera. "The postcards had to feel like every scene was something you reveal slowly," he said. "That's why I didn't move the camera much and there aren't very many mid-shots. It's all about wide shots and details, which reinforces the sense of portraiture."
The next step on the one-day shoot was to find the right setting, which Griffin set out for after attending a styling meeting with Winehouse, during which they both fell in love with the orange-accented kimono she (barely) wears through most of the clip. "The building was led by the styling," he explained. "We had the styling meeting first, then the location scout had to find a building that had oranges and greens. From a cinematic view, I was interested in how they did it in the 1940s, when the art director, cinematographer and art director would sit down and talk about the color palette because they didn't have the ability to manipulate color like we do now."
They settled on a decrepit building in London called #32 Portland Place, whose rust-covered, faded green walls perfectly fit Griffin's vision. The director simply moved Winehouse and the band from one crumbling room to the next in the abandoned eight-floor complex: out onto a fire escape, into a doctor's office and, finally, to the tile-lined room that signals Winehouse's lockdown in a facility.
"I wanted her singing to the camera because that's who she is," said Griffin of Winehouse's lingering, longing stares into the lens. "She's singing through the lens to every viewer. With Amy, everything is instinctive. So this isn't a video directed by Phil Griffin. It's a video portrait of Amy Winehouse by Phil Griffin. Everything was a complete collaboration."
Given Winehouse's recent alleged troubles with drugs and a reported stint in rehab (see "Amy Winehouse Cancels More Shows Due To 'Health Issues,' Denies Serious Drug Problems"), the heavy dose of irony in the video treatment is inescapable. Griffin, who said he's grown close to Winehouse while working on three videos with her, flashed a streak of old-school chivalrousness worthy of the singer's throwback sound in dealing with the sensitive question. "Amy is a beautiful spirit," he said. "In the world we live in ... regardless of the support she has from her record company, management and friends, which I include myself in ... she's a beautiful spirit and that's not always easy to be in this world."
Go behind the scenes with other Video of the Year nominees:
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