The Inside Story of Jay Z’s ‘Picasso Baby’ Video

Photo: Kodaklens/HBO

Would you like to spend your Friday night with Jay Z? Then stay tuned tonight for the premiere of Hova’s new music video, “Picasso Baby,” which bows on HBO at 11 p.m., following Jay’s appearance on Real Time With Bill Maher. Culled down from six hours of footage, the “Picasso Baby” video chronicles Jay’s delightful performance-art stint at Chelsea’s Pace Gallery in July, when the Magna Carta Holy Grail mogul rapped his song over and over for a host of art-world luminaries (including our own critic, Jerry Saltz) and gadflies including Judd Apatow and Alan Cumming. How did things turn out, and how did this wild event come together in the first place? Vulture rang up “Picasso Baby” helmer Mark Romanek for the answers.

So, did Jerry Saltz make the final cut?
[Laughs.] He’s in there, actually! You know, there was 30 hours of footage, and I’ve spent the last fifteen days just combing over and over it, so I saw Jerry having a very good time. People just had so much fun that day, including Jay, and the whole thing ended up being a document of completely unfeigned joy. There’s smiles and laughter, and people were strangely moved by it, actually. It’s got an extremely humanistic vibe for something that you could describe as from an elitist New York art world.

This video recalls Marina Abramovic’s MoMA performance, and she herself pops up in “Picasso Baby.” Did you see The Artist Is Present? Was that an inspiration?
I’m a big fan of hers. I was directing Never Let Me Go when she was doing her show, so I was out of the country, but I saw her documentary about it, which was very well made and made me regret not seeing it live even more. When Jay said, “I’d like to do a music video for this song,” my reaction was kind of twofold: I wanted to work with him again, because we had just made the Samsung stuff, but I didn’t want to make a traditional music video because it felt uninteresting to me. So I was trying to think of something that would feel more of the moment — more spontaneous, more uncontrived — and I presented this idea to Jay of this performance-art piece in the mode of The Artist Is Present. He loved the idea, but I felt immediately that we needed to get Marina’s blessing, because it could seem like we were stealing her concept. So we contacted her and she couldn’t have been more enthusiastic and open. She really felt flattered, actually, and she felt like it was part of a continuum of performance art, that all performance art has influenced other performance art.

You had eight cameras going, but it still felt uncontrived?
Jay is so charismatic that you’ll see: There’s a lack of awareness of the cameras in this piece. I’m excited for people to see it. It doesn’t look like any other music video. It does resemble The Artist Is Present, but hers was so spiritual and silent, and this is so … not. [Laughs.]

How long is the video?
It runs about ten minutes. There’s an intro and an outro with people’s interviews, just about their anticipation and their reaction afterwards. When it came to footage, we had an incredible amount of choices every time he sang a line. You know, he did it about 40 times, and we had eight cameras running, so what’s the math on that? It was a quite a slog to troll through all that footage to make sure you’re not missing some gems, but editing for me is the funnest part.

What was your favorite moment of those six hours?
Honestly, from beginning to end, the whole thing was a surprise. It could have been a dud, it could have not worked, but instead, it’s ten minutes of people being unbelievably happy and excited to be there. Some people are dancing, some people start singing, there’s a ballerina, there’s Jay’s encounter with Marina that’s a whole other part of performance-art history … it’s all over the place, but from beginning to end, it’s pretty fabulous. Jay did an incredibly shamanistic job of keeping that energy going, and when I show the video to friends and glance over at them while they’re watching, they’ve got a smile plastered on their faces the whole time.

Everyone was surprised by Jay’s energy over those six hours, but I’m curious what he was like after those six hours were over. Was he exhausted? Energized?
It was a roller coaster ride for us and for Jay, and it was kind of this feeling afterward like when you’ve come off a roller coaster: There was joy, and also exhaustion. There was a lot of preparation on our parts to make it look like nothing. We didn’t want to make a music video in the traditional sense, because it seems like that era has kind of passed, so what I tried to do is design an event that was completely authentic. Once we flipped the on switch, we didn’t know what was going to happen! We were kind of hanging on by our fingernails just trying to make sure that any great moment that occurred was beautifully captured on film. It was really pretty amazing, really, and I was lucky to get to do it.

You directed one of Jay’s most iconic videos, “99 Problems,” which came out almost ten years ago. I feel old just saying that.
I know, it’s sort of freaky. We had stayed in touch sporadically over the years, mostly through Rick Rubin. I think we’ve both changed since then. We’ve both become parents, and he’s become a successful husband and businessman and icon, really. I think the video is probably more representative of who he is now. I will say that I saw him and Beyoncé at the Rose Bowl recently, and Beyoncé was really effusive and sweet and emotional in her reaction to the video. She felt that it really captured a side of him that previously she was only privy to. As I said, he’s very engaged and playful and affectionate with people, and this different side of him really comes through.

How do you feel about the music-video format these days, in the age of YouTube? Obviously, times have changed, but there are still some music videos that pop through, like “Blurred Lines” and “We Can’t Stop.”
I’m not really an objective social observer, so it’s hard for me to answer that question. I’ve seen those videos; I’ve followed them a bit. I’m not saying that someone can’t make a new video in a more traditional style, it’s just that I didn’t feel like doing it. I did 50 or 60 of those back in the day, and I wasn’t interested in doing another one this time. Listen, it’s cool when somebody makes a cool music video; it probably gets seen by more people now than it did in the MTV era, because you can just watch it whenever you like on YouTube.

You’ve made some of the most iconic music videos of all time, like “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails, and Johnny Cash’s “Hurt.” I would imagine you still get lots of requests to direct music videos even though you haven’t done one in several years.
Yeah, they come in every once in a while. I’ve never said that I’m done with music videos forever … I think proclamations like that would limit my opportunities. But I’ve been really focused on making movies, or trying to make them, at least. The right music video hadn’t come along until now, recently.

You’ve directed only three feature films over the course of your career, though not for lack of trying: You were attached to The Wolfman and dropped out close to production, and the same recently happened with you on Cinderella, where Kenneth Branagh took over. What happened?
It’s a matter of not being able to get on the same page with the studio. At the end of the day, they’re spending a lot of money, and if things seem out of whack creatively, you just kind of agree that it’s better to move on. But it’s a huge time commitment to try to get a movie going, and it’s painful when it doesn’t come to fruition. I think I’ve learned, perhaps, that I’m better suited to be making medium-sized movies. You can make a piece of cinema without shame, and I think that’s where I’m going to put my efforts from now on. It just hasn’t worked out for me to do those triple-digit-budgeted movies. It just isn’t for me.