If you put Lady Gaga outside in a "gimp, erotic asphyxiation suit" amid a 118-degree heat wave in the name of shooting a music video, you'd better come out the other side with a work of cinematic excellence.
Luckily, visionary filmmaker Tarsem Singh (The Cell, Mirror Mirror) did just that as he partnered with the Oscar-winning superstar for the surreal "911" short film — which, like unplanned artistic kismet, brings an otherworldly face to Gaga's staccato, Euro-disco banger about her experience with trauma and antipsychotic medication.
"I told her when we met that I’ve never heard a song of hers, I haven’t seen [A Star Is Born]. I told her that the song is what would make a big difference for me, because I’m not really the best person for music videos," Singh tells EW about first meeting with Gaga in July. "But I loved the song. I knew what to do with it."
Essentially, that meant Singh dug deep into his mental archives for a decades-old concept he'd sat on since the early '90s — which, as adapted here, follows Gaga while her mind concocts a fantastical vision of limbo between life and death in the aftermath of a car crash — after Gaga reached out for a collaboration. He then worked with her to connect the concept's dots (ones he previously tried to coalesce with British trip-hop band Massive Attack).
Below, Tarsem outlines how the "911" video came into being after that emotional first meeting with the pop star. And be sure to read our complete breakdown of the story behind the birth of Chromatica with Gaga's producers and songwriters.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Gaga said on Instagram that this video is based on a 25-year-old concept of yours. Is that true?
I had the idea more like 28 years ago! I told her when we met that I’ve never heard a song of hers, I haven’t seen [A Star Is Born]. I told her that the song is what would make a big difference for me. The best music video directors hear a song and they write a video for the song…. I’ll wait for the right song to fit [my ideas]. But I loved the song. I knew what to do with it, but I usually only listen to classical and folk music.
What was the original idea, and how did it go from your story to being a Lady Gaga music video?
The original idea had more to do with blood loss. My friend said, ‘It’s basically The Wizard of Oz without the first act.’ At the end, it’s like, ‘And you were there, and you were there!’ So, to build the first act, [we went] abstract. In the end you realize the images were abstractions because she’s had an injury. They’re talking to her in the middle of blood loss. These images are of people who were trying to help her…. When she’s in that phase, she’s seeing and imagining different things.
Around 20 years ago, I thought this would fit an idea for Massive Attack. I love their song “Angel.” But our schedules never worked. I wanted to do it in Namibia in the sand dunes, but I’d already done The Cell [in sand], so the idea kind of went away. Then, I got “911.” The greatest thing about it was there was an intro in classical music, so it just hooked me…. She and I bonded. I didn’t realize how close the idea was to what happened to her. When she told me [what the song] means, [the concept] fit like a glove. I made it not about blood loss, but about the opposite of being high on drugs: Basically, a lack of a drug. You don't have your pills, so you’re not on your medication. I realized not having your medication is just about as absurd as having a lot of medication or drugs. You can do heroin, or not do the drug prescribed to you to feel what the rest of the world perceives as normal.
I had to cede the idea of why this person is seeing the way they’re seeing these things. They could be coming from seeing a movie, so I put the [Armenian Film Festival poster] out there…. It would be like she’s gone to see this particular film, and that’s where the imagery is coming from. I took all of that and abstracted it, so I picked one filmmaker, Sergei Parajanov, and abstracted it in his style and put her world in there.
Singh referenced Sergei Parajanov and Federico Fellini while shooting '911'
I’m curious about the specific references to Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates and Federico Fellini’s 8 ½. Why are symbols from these films so prominent in Gaga’s hallucination after the accident?
I told her the idea [over Zoom], and by the end she said there can be no other idea, this is the idea. I got up and started bumping the air and jumping around, and I looked back and she was crying. I was like, f—k, this is a lot more personal to her than I realized. Then she said there was a filmmaker’s visual style that she liked. I think she mispronounced his name. I said, ‘Are you saying Parajanov?’ And she said yes…. At that time, I hadn’t decided if I was going to go with another filmmaker’s style, but this was a meeting of the minds, so we just left it. She moved heaven and earth for me…. The only thing I do feel bad about is I wanted the ending to be much grittier and s----y looking, like Cops, just shot on video. The problem is we couldn’t get permission to go to any city in a real location. Because of the COVID situation, they wouldn’t give us more than an hour past nighttime. So, I embraced the backlot.
The ending is gritty, though, in terms of Gaga’s performance. Can you walk me through that day and how you got her prepared to perform such a raw scene as the victim of the accident?
I only have two gears: I’m full-on or I’m off, and she’s like that. I knew I wasn’t going to get too many takes…. This was a very close subject to her, and the night before we went there to shoot the part inside the church where she thinks the guy is stabbing her, but he’s just trying to defibrillate her heart. I knew it would be a lot harsher than I thought, so I only did one wide shot and jumped in on her face. In the wide one, I could tell she broke down straight away.
When we went outside, I realized I wasn’t going to shoot it like a film…. I thought in the condition that she’s in and how delicate she is compared to how close the shot is, this isn’t going to be more than one take, so [I told her scene partners not] to talk, because I didn’t want their lines on top of her lines.
It was improvised?
Well, she’s doing the dialogue to people who aren’t talking to her, and she’s getting frustrated. She was like, ‘Why are you not talking to me?’ She went into that phase…. She just did it and it was one take…. I knew with her I had one go and when that was gone, she would exhaust herself. So, I just made the situation right, went one shot only, and I just said, "Go, girl!" All the wide stuff I used with a body double. I just wanted her to be present, and she was.
How did you approach filming this safely during the pandemic?
Everybody had to have solid tests. We had to stand completely away from each other. We were in the desert with tight clothes, so people passed out, two people had to be sent away, one of the cooking people didn’t fill out the right form before coming in and everybody couldn’t eat for another three hours because we had to send the whole catering system away. You had to follow a particular protocol. Especially the heat, it was difficult, and it didn’t help that everyone was sweating like a pig!
Which desert did you shoot in?
We shot this in Valencia, about 25 minutes north of Glendale. I found a façade for the [oasis] and painted it completely white. I wanted a blank sheet, because it was originally mud-baked terracotta, but I wanted the colors to pop…. I wanted the sand to be white. I drove up north near San Luis Obispo. There’s a beach about three hours away from L.A., and it’s not the best one for what I wanted to do, but I realized that with one shot I could do special effects and get rid of the beach that’s there. The sand is sand-colored, so I made it white. It’s supposed to look like New Mexico, where white sand is, but they wouldn’t let us in.
How long did all of this take?
This was around three weeks ago. I finished the cut in 48 hours…. Suddenly everybody realized the date was too close to 9/11, and that wasn’t being sensitive enough. Otherwise, from the day we finished it, you would’ve seen it four days later.
Do you have any other memorable stories from the set?
I’ll tell you what was dangerous, that I had to fix in post: the leather suit she’s wearing is a gimp, erotic-asphyxiation suit, and the temperature was 118 degrees. We zipped her up…. we did two takes [of] her giving the gestures of 9-1-1 with her hands up, and after three takes, I think she was ready to pass out, so they took her head gear off. I said, “I need one more take!” and she said, “Oh, please, do you have it?” But I said no because her hand with the “1” was against her black mask, and I couldn’t see her finger, and she said, “Do you really need that?” and I had one look at her, she looked so red, so I said, “We have it.” So, I cut in her arm from a previous take.
I’m sorry, wait, that black outfit is a leather gimp suit?
Not a good thing to wear when it’s 118 degrees in the desert! She was hardcore to the wardrobe department! She rode them hard, and it was never out of anything but getting the right work, which means that she put herself in the hardest place possible. She didn’t go there because things were easy!
This interview has been edited and condensed