Transposing the dynamic energy of raw urban imagery and sound against a black and white background of inner city life, director Mark Romanek juxtaposed elements of harmony and chaos to produce artist Jay Z’s music video “99 Problems.” Utilizing broken clips of footage captured in Brooklyn’s Marcy housing project, Romanek in conjunction with Jay Z create an effective portrait of urban life. Somewhere between the almost photographic imagery and the rapid montage of cinematic movement, Romanek manages to convey Jay Z’s development and monumentalize the artist’s urban roots as well as the nature of the projects themselves.
Read the treatment and watch the Jay Z “99 Problems” music video at the
Mark Romanek website
Music Video Wire: Obviously the strongest, or at least most immediate, visual element of “99 Problems” is the use of black and white film, did you know from the start that the video had to be shot in black and white?
Mark Romanek: Well, I didn’t get any sort of brief from the label. My dealings were all with Jay-Z directly. We had one phone call before the job was awarded and all he said was that he wanted to shoot something in and around The Marcy Houses in Bedford Stuyvesant where he grew up in Brooklyn. He said, “I want you to make a pissy wall look like art,” I immediately imagined this type of gritty, urban imagery in black & white. So, I asked Jay what he thought of this idea and he said, “I love it. Let’s do it!” That was really the entire “pitching” process. Jay sort of does what he wants.
MVW: How did you like working with Jay Z on this project?
MR: I liked him a lot. Jay is a gentleman — cool, hardworking, and really funny. This was a longer shoot than he was used to and he sometimes complained (in a totally light-hearted way) that I was forcing him walk all over Brooklyn. But, I think he knew we were making something a little special and that since it was his last video, he was willing to put in the extra work. I think he has similar perfectionist tendencies so, he understood my process and the focus I put on trying to get that extra effort out of him and everyone on the crew. Our key word was “fiddling.” If there was a delay, he would say to everyone, “It’s cool. Mark’s just fiddling some more.” I tend to do a lot of…”fiddling.”
MVW: After working directly with Jay Z to develop the concept of the video, what was the labels first response to the treatment?
MR: Well, like I said, the label wasn’t really that involved. The treatment was pretty general. I never really got any sort of response to the treatment from anyone. It was more a kind of formality. Jay was hiring me based on my reel and Rick Rubin’s strong recommendation that I was the guy he should hire.
MVW: What was your experience shooting in the Marcy projects?
MR: Great. It was freezing cold and we were shooting during school hours, so it was pretty quiet. We were able to go in there, shoot what we needed, and split without any big crowds or hassles. It’s a pretty photogenic place. All the people were really cool and were happy to see Jay come back for a visit. A lot of his neighbors are still there and they’re really proud of what he’s accomplished. It was very moving to go back to the apartment where Jay grew up. He’s come a long way and that’s one of the main things the video wanted to portray.
MVW: Being that your subject matter was based on life in the projects, how did you choose individual scenes to achieve the overall concept of the video?
MR: I made a list of ideas and images that aren’t often seen in music videos, things that seemed a bit more visceral or transgressive, and I had several location scouts go out and look for these types of places. I also did a lot of photographic research. I looked at a broad range of urban photo reportage by people I really admire, like Bruce Davidson, Helen Levitt, Weegee, and some of the other “New York School” photographers. Also, I drove around Brooklyn a lot just getting a feel for the Borough.
MVW: There were several shots of people in the video that could be still portraits, powerful images, what are your thoughts on the line between film and photography?
MR: I don’t really think about those sorts of academic distinctions much. I sort of go by my gut as to what’s just a still image put onto motion-picture film, and what constitutes something that is inherently cinematic yet still having the impact of a great still photograph. This gets to the very heart of what makes one image “cinematic” and another image less so. And I’m not sure that can really be articulated. Some images have “teeth” and others are sort of toothless. Some images feel resonant with subtext and others seem one-dimensional and flat. Some feel like they came from some deep place and others just sit there. I guess this is one of the mysteries of cinema.
MVW: The end of the video where Jay Z is gunned down is very dramatic, had you ever directed this type of scene before?
MR: I don’t think so, no. I’m not that huge a fan of gunplay in films. It’s not fundamentally different from shooting any other sort of scene. It just takes a little longer to set up. That scene was done in one take with three cameras. I was tempted to do a second take, but I chose to move on and go to other set-ups. It was really important to me that the video be rich with varied imagery and never repeat itself or rehash set-ups. So, just about every scene was a “shoot-one-take-check-the-gate-and-move-on” type of deal. The “bullet-riddling” scene was really meant to be a kind of abstract, violent, ballet-like moment — a visual climax. It was very intentionally designed to teeter on the brink of the literal but I can see why people might take it as a literal story-point.
Director of Photography, Joaquin Baca Asay’s technological retrograde for the production of “99 Problems” insured that Romanek and Jay Z’s vision would materialize from pre through post production. Naturalistic cinematography combined with the extensive use of filters and minimalist lighting created a gritty texture rich with expression.
MVW: How did you work with Mark on the pre-production of the video?
Joaquin Baca Asay: Mark and I have worked together a few times this year. We just started working together and he kept saying that he wanted to totally freak everybody out. He wanted to shoot things for the content of the video that you’re not supposed to shoot. When we went into official pre-production, he showed me stacks of black and white photographs of the black ghetto world similar to what he wanted to do. There were six or seven books of photography and honestly I can’t remember the names of any of them; he was interested mostly in the accidental quality of the content and just the fact that it was real. He wanted this thing to feel very, very real. A lot of heavy duty scouting had already been done so he was showing me all these crazy locations.
Our approach was to use as little light as possible to make it feel as real as we could. There were some places where we did a lot, like in the club near the end of the video where there are several shots of Jay Z rapping. Even then we used regular household lights to light the scene.
MVW: Were there any concerns shooting the video in black and white?
JA: I’ve shot a lot of black and white film over the years but not that frequently and I was very concerned because Mark is so particular about the way things look. I insisted on doing a test (ended up shooting a pretty scientific film test), which they weren’t budgeted or scheduled for. It wasn’t a lighting test or a look test, it was more like what does this film do and what kind of latitude does it have in terms of exposure. I tested several filters, which in black and white do crazy things with the sky. For example, if you use a red filter it can make the sky look really, really vibrant and it can also make black skin tones pop out. We ended up doing a lot of filtration tests even though we were not expecting to use filters at all. Mark knows a lot technically and he wanted this to be as raw as possible, but when he saw the test, he was disturbed because the lighting didn’t look like anything he wanted. The more we started working with the film, the more he started to figure out that it was just to learn how the film would look and how critical to the look of the whole thing it would be. We ended up using filtration extensively. There are certain scenes you can really see the filter working; there’s a shot of a kid pulling a ski mask off his face and the texture of the ski mask is so intense that if you see it on a good monitor you feel like you can touch it.
MVW: What type of black and white film did you use?
JA: We used Double X Negative, it’s 200 ASA film, but it’s a faster, slightly grainier stock and we wanted some texture in the film. We wanted it to have some grain. But it is also a very, very sharp film, a very beautiful film and it’s different than shooting in color. You get a much different texture from the new color films especially and it was important to Mark that it have a real texture, authenticity of the images. We could have shot color film and transferred it to black and white but then we would have ended up with a much cleaner, smoother look.
MVW: What about lenses?
JA: He really wanted to use one lens to shoot the whole thing because he wanted a constant feeling of movement. The cuts were almost irrelevant and you were always experiencing it from the same subjective vantage point. Everything was shot with an older Zeiss 18mm prime lens because we wanted a lot of flares and for it to look dirty, not perfect and clean. Newer lenses are very beautiful and sharp and it’s very difficult to flare them. We used an Arri 435 to shoot with, a very good slow motion, lightweight, camera because everything was hand held and we shot a lot of slow motion.
MVW: Did you use natural light for most of the scenes?
JA: We did a lot of lighting but it was usually using realistic fixtures. In the “dog fight” scene, we hung one fluorescent fixture over the top of the space that was created in an abandoned warehouse on a pier in Brooklyn. I had other lights hidden around so there would be some depth but I wanted the lights to feel like they would really exist. There’s a scene where there are prostitutes walking in the street and I used a simple light to simulate headlights, just to give some light on the women’s legs. Again it’s from a totally realistic motivation and I don’t even think another DP would necessarily know that I was lighting it. In general, that’s how I like to work. On this video it was especially important because we wanted it to feel like we were grabbing those moments- that they were not fabricated moments, even though obviously they were all fabricated.
Naturalism to me is fundamental to cinematography. Mastering naturalism is very difficult because you want to do something that looks realistic but also conveys emotion. But that’s only one part of cinematography, there are many other approaches, that’s one of the fundamentals. You’re trying to make something that to the naked eye looks natural, but in fact is sculpted and designed to elicit emotion and feelings. A lot of it has to do with not just the lighting but also the way you expose things, for example when you decide to put somebody in silhouette. There’s a shot in the video of a kid pointing a gun out of a window. It’s a very different choice to leave him in silhouette and obviously there can be detail outside, but it also conceals things about him and increases the tension that the audience feels because they can’t really see what this kid is doing or what he’s about. That’s a naturalistic choice but it’s also an expressive choice. In real life your eye can see the details, you’re not seeing a silhouette when you look at that kid, you can see what he’s doing and you can see everything outside. DP’s make those kinds of choices to conceal and reveal.
With the Jay Z video, I was trying the best I could to walk into a space and not do anything to it. If I had to do something to it, I’d try to make it as real as possible.
MVW: When shooting the scenes with Mark, was he specific in what he wanted?
JA: It depended, sometimes he was very specific about the framing he wanted; sometimes, he was even specific about the lighting. Mark would see something he didn’t like and would want me to change or adjust it a little bit. When it was working really well, at least for me and I think also for him, it was just a free for all. The height of that was during Jay Z’s performance in this kind of nasty club set up and in that it was really just freestyle. Mark would tell me to shoot from a certain angle and I would just go crazy with the camera. We would shoot until I was exhausted and then we’d do something else. Mark would definitely give me feedback, he could DP himself, and he is incredibly capable. He would tell me things that were missing or if he wanted it to have a different feeling or more energy. Because of the nature of photography, the camera operation was more like a performance than a normal thing where you’d go from A to B with this shot, it was more like getting my energy to a certain place. I really loved the fact that I was expressing with the camera all the time; in a way, that’s an unusual kind of opportunity.
Production Co.: Anonymous
Producer: Mala Vasan
Director: Mark Romanek
DP: Joaquin Baca Asay
Production Designer: Happy Mase