What do Lenny Kravitz, Prince, and Jadakiss have in common? They all have worked with director Sanaa Hamri. Sanaa has always sought inspiration from the content of her songs; dutifully mirroring their messages in reels. Each time she gets behind the camera, something uniquely different is captured. This time, Sanaa presides over a trichotomy of style, genre, and talent; bringing together the star-crossed matrimony of music and video. Kravitz saunters through the San Francisco streets, accosting smiling strangers, and singing softly to the four winds creating an aura of placid respite. Jadakiss is cast in cinema verite, socratically delivering a litany of acerbic interrogatives. The narrative-driven “Musicology” evokes vaudeville sensibilities and princely charms. These three widely different works surely put feathers in Sanaa’s cap; although feathers of decidedly different plumage, tone, and style.
Sanaa Hamri: I have always wanted to work with Lenny and Prince. They are the two artists that I really feel connected to. Lenny and I met in LA and talked about the concept, which was to not really be stuck to a concept, because I didn’t want it to feel contrived. It’s a day in the life set in the San Francisco/Oakland area. The video has a little edge to it because everybody there is just “being.” Lenny and the other characters are not conscious of the camera.
It’s harder to do a video when you’re just shooting randomly and have to catch moments that seem natural. Even when everything is story boarded and perfectly designed it’s difficult to capture moments that feel completely natural, because people freeze up in front of the camera. The key here was to create an environment that feels like we’re just hanging out. We were able to infiltrate the different neighborhoods and make the locals part of the video. There were no actors. Casting was done there using real people. It was a big risk for the record label to take but they had faith in my capabilities and Lenny wanted a video like that as well. The video is a lot more difficult than it seems and required a lot of thought and spontaneous creation to make it feel fluid and easy.
MVW: It’s like trying to create a documentary but you’re making it up as you go along.
SH: For example, the kid on the bike with the foil rims was in that neighborhood when I scouted it three days before so we told him we were shooting on Saturday and to please come by. We didn’t have phone numbers on him, so we didn’t know if he would show up at all. When he showed up, it wasn’t like, “Go into hair and make up.” It was just like great! He came! I was praying that the kid would show up because I loved his bike. It was a very spontaneous creation and we had to have faith that people were either going to show up or not.
MVW: How did you shoot the scenes as he was walking down the street?
I did everything hand held because that gives an intimate, voyeuristic feel to the piece. Cameras on dollies or cameras on cranes or steady cams would feel contrived and wouldn’t make it feel like he was really walking down the street. This is an introspective piece where you don’t know whether he is actually seeing the images then and there or if it’s what he saw a the previous day. It’s part of that moment when you’re walking alone and just being yourself.
MVW: What about the look of the film?
The look is super-saturated but with a gray and blue color tone to it, we did that in the transfer. That cinematic effect was exactly what I was trying to achieve, something not too glossy and overly lit, which I generally don’t like. The song tells me what the look is going to be versus me imposing a look on the piece. It was for the mood of the piece, I mean the song’s called “Storm.” The blue and gray tones make the reds go very deep so it’s super-saturated but not in a pop kind of way.
MVW: The time lapse is a nice effect for the video.
The time lapse is supposed to give the dramatic effect of time passing, and you’ve interviewed me before, I always talk about time. In this piece, time is really eternal. So everything passes by quickly but it’s still there. I just heard time lapse at the beginning and I heard time lapse at the end, book ended it and felt that it worked well with the piece.
MVW: So Jay Z was already on the track, did you have any contact with him at all or anything about the video?
Jay Z is retired so he’s not doing videos or anything like that, but just because he’s retired doesn’t stop us from creating and doing new concepts. Lenny surprised me when he started to rhyme Jay Z’s rap. And it looked so good and it was really funny, it was just a great moment. Since this was a spontaneous creation, we decided to put him and some of our friends up against the wall and have them rhyme.
MVW: It came off great. I was surprised to see Lenny doing this type of song but when he started rhyming, I thought, this is definitely a new direction for him.
SH: Lenny embodies both sides. He’s mixed; his father is white, his mother is black so he embodies everything. He never had the opportunity to do this type of video and I think that’s one of the reasons he wanted to work with me because I see every side of him. This enabled me to take this particular side. A lot of people are shocked to see Lenny in this type of scene, but it’s his scene as much as the rock scene is. It’s just what he has and has not explored. He seems very comfortable with it because it’s part of him.
MVW: And it comes across on the video. I read that Crash was your DP, have you worked with him before?
SH: That was the first time. It was really interesting working with him because we had to develop a style of camera work together. The look and style we used is mine so Crash had to take on my way of shooting things. It wasn’t a challenge for him but we had to get into a kind of zone.
MVW: How do you edit a piece like this, especially within such a short amount of time?
SH: To edit a piece like this in two days is pretty much unheard of because it’s a four-to-six day edit. I had a support team help me because I wouldn’t have been able to do it by myself. The editing process is where the video takes place and is key to the work. I prefer to do it my self and feel that I do the best job.
MVW: The story line for Musicology video is great. There are really two videos, one with the performance piece and one with the story of the young fan mimicking Prince’s moves. What was it like actually working with Prince?
Working with Prince is very collaborative so he allows the creative process that I go through and is definitely supportive of creating in freedom. Prince is independent and
does whatever he wants to do so he’s very big on that. He wants people who are on his creative team to be able to do that. We talked about the concept, I wrote a treatment and we shot it. He’s very easy to direct because he needs no direction. He’s done this long enough to know what it takes to do a great video. Prince was extremely supportive.
MVW: The young fan dancing with the vacuum cleaner was great. Did you have that all storyboarded or was that spontaneous?
SH: This was not like the Lenny video; this one was storyboarded. The kid is a metaphor for Prince as a child. We wanted to show how back in the day, old school style, kids just listen to music they like over and over again, just having fun in the bedroom type of situation. So I think that was personal to Prince.
MVW: How did you approach editing those pieces to make them work together as one?
It was a very easy edit because all of Prince’s performance was very on point. He hit every line and looked good in every shot so it wasn’t really hard for me to cut a performance piece together. Then I build up the story of the kid until he shows up at the concert. The kid is more like an abstraction of Prince’s mind being in the concert than whether he’s really there or not.
MVW: Was there a lot of art direction in those locations, for example, inside the old record store?
The entire video has a retro vibe, but we weren’t trying to emulate the 60’s or 70’s. The idea was to take the old school vibe and add it in the most modern way. The art direction has hints of retro, however it is in the present day.
MVW: How were you able to convey the concept of Jadakiss Why music video in a written treatment ?
The treatment came from the lyrics of the song and actually reads exactly like the video plays out. Using the lyrics made it easy but it’s also very powerful because of the subject matter. I like to convey some sort of message in everything I do. Jadakiss was a perfect opportunity to speak to the media, speak to kids, speak to the masses, speak to the radio channels, speak to the TV channels all in one video and that’s what’s exciting about it. When I wrote the treatment I was conscientious about following what Jadakiss said. I wanted to create a visual piece that people can watch because it’s cool and get something out of it at the same time.
MVW: Describe the process as far as knowing what you want to shoot and how it will look in post?
SH: I know what I want to shoot and what it’s going to look like. I would never put myself in a situation not knowing what the outcome is going to be. Also I have a technical background as an editor. I try to be as creative and free as possible when I’m directing. I only do things in one or two takes unless something technically goes wrong with the lighting or the camera move or whatever. Editing is all about timing and knowing what to put where and how you’re going to use it. You need to be able to see the entire piece in your head before you shoot it, because if you don’t you won’t be able to create a complete piece that conveys your story clearly.
MVW: He just did his thing, there was really no acting involved. He had a message and just went for it and it comes across on the video without being contrived.
SH: Once you get the artist comfortable in front of the camera, you really get to feel them and see them. That’s what a music video should be, regardless of all these concepts and effects, and the direction, and the directors, and everybody’s egos. That’s not what’s important, what’s important is that we really see who the artist is and what they stand for, whether it’s a political issue or whether they stand for champagne and tits and ass. The point is to see the person that they are.
MVW: The biggest challange is to capture the natural feel that you work so hard to achieve with out the viewers realizing what they are seeing.
SH: It should always be that way. It should never feel difficult. When a person watches a music video, they should just be in that world for three-and-a-half to four minutes. They shouldn’t think. Once they start thinking too much about the shots and “I wonder what happened” and blah, blah, blah then we’ve failed. Our job is to suspend reality for that time. That’s what I strive for in my music videos. I’m not trying to showcase or show off talent or technical abilities or anything like that. It’s about creating a mood or a time, it’s for the artist.