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Johan Renck, director of David Bowie's 'Blackstar' video, calls collaborative process 'a dream'

Melody Lau

Last week, David Bowie released a 10-minute epic called ★ (pronounced "Blackstar"). The music video is dark and eerie, rife with visual nuggets for Bowie fans: a deceased (and bejewelled) spaceman, ritualistic imagery including crucified scarecrows and Bowie himself taking on multiple personas including a blindfolded man called "Button Eyes." From fan theories about the mysterious spaceman (is that Major Tom?) to Bowie’s history of playing with surrealist and prophetic imagery, "Blackstar" is an exciting new extension of Bowie’s twisted universe.

Before "Blackstar" became a 10-minute opus, though, it was a 45-second snippet. Director Johan Renck (Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead) first reached out to his "childhood hero" Bowie to create the title music for a series he directed called The Last Panthers, and while he thought the request would be a longshot, Bowie agreed and personally gave Renck a call the next day to discuss the project. In fact, the iconic musician was so inspired by the experience that he kept working on the track. Once he finished it, he asked Renck to help complete his vision by directing the music video.

CBC Music spoke with Renck about collaborating with his idol, translating influences like Popeye the Sailor into the video and why he won’t discuss those Major Tom theories.

What was that first phone from Bowie call like?

It’s a weird experience, to get a phone call and it’s like, "Hello, this is David Bowie." What are you going to do? It’s hard to grasp. He’s a brilliant man, he really is, but we just got right into things immediately.

Can you describe the first time you heard "Blackstar"?

I was back in New York, I went to see him and he played it for me in his office space so I was there with him. He put his hand on my shoulder and just before he started playing he looked me in the eyes and said, "It’s 10 minutes long," just to sort of warn me!

What was it like to collaborate with David Bowie?

The way a creative process should be, on all levels. It’s completely free from any pretensions or free from ego. He’s curious, witty, super smart and a deeply, deeply knowledgeable man so the process is like a dream. His input is inspiring and smart, with great taste and a great sense of humour, but also with a dark edge to it. It’s pretty remarkable.

Is it true that Bowie conveyed his ideas through drawings?

He did, actually. At the very beginning, he sent me drawings which were great and he kind of left it at that. I took a lot of those drawings and I went with them. Sometimes it’s interesting to work from a completely white paper, but many times if the artist is interested and he has ideas and they’re good, I love working with that because it’s a great starting point.

What were some of the images that he drew?

We had a drawing of [one of Bowie’s characters, Button Eyes], which was pretty amazing. He had a drawing of a woman kneeling by a man in a spacesuit and he had a few other drawings so they’re clearly represented in the video.

Speaking of the spaceman, many fans are drawing connections between him and Major Tom, but I see that you’re not necessarily confirming nor denying those claims.

No, because it becomes sort of prosaic to say that. A music video is an extension of the song, but there are other layers, too. There’s something always impressionistic about a music video. There’s no clear narrative and it’s up to each and every body to interpret. The outcome would be sort of mundane to try and say that this is about this because it really doesn't have to be. Take away from it what you want!

How did you string together all of Bowie’s images into one cohesive product?

I think a lot of that is the process, as you’re going and you inform your mind about what you’re doing. Things are being completed as they are being done in some funny way. To be honest, in filmmaking, a lot of things are figured out in the editing. You have one idea and then you start editing and you change it up quite drastically because you find something else.

Is it true that Popeye was a specific influence on the video?

Both David and I were very interested in dance so we worked with a choreographer and David had this idea. He sent me this old Popeye clip on YouTube and said, "Look at these guys." When a character is not active, when they’re inactive in these cartoons, they’re sort of created by these two or three frames that are loops so it looks like they’re just standing there, wobbling. It’s typical in those days of animation and stop-motion, you would do that to create life in something that was inactive. So we wanted to see if we could do something like this in the form of dance, we had to do that.

It’s definitely a jarring, but captivating image to look at.

I love that stuff. I find it so intense and it almost looks like they’re trapped in these movement patterns.

Like a trance.

Yeah, exactly.

How was it to work with Bowie onset?

Amazing. He’s a performer who’s dedicated and open. He comes very well prepared and comes with his own ideas of what he wanted to do, but there were still lots of room for playfulness.

Well the end result was wonderfully weird.

I love weird. Weird can only be good. Things that interest me are, nine times out of 10, weird. That’s an emotional area that I like to be in.