behind the scenes

Director Jonas Åkerlund on ‘Haunted,’ ‘Superpower,’ and Beyoncé’s Many Virtues

During a weekend when Beyoncé was on everyone’s lips like liquor, director Jonas Åkerlund was finally able to talk. It was he who had Mrs. Carter crawling all over the bed in “Haunted” and viva-ing the revolution in “Superpower,” just two of the videos that make up her self-titled visual album. But he’d kept that information hidden for months. “It’s not hard keeping a secret,” he told us over the phone. “I do that all the time. That’s what we do: We never talk about anything.” And yet, when we got him on the phone, he gladly laughed it up about how “Haunted” could’ve been much raunchier, the virtues of Beyoncé, and all the things he’s still not telling us.

How many pages was the non-disclosure agreement you had to sign?
[Laughs.] I don’t know, man! I don’t usually sign those! I don’t even remember signing one, to be honest. We have standard agreements between my production company and the artists that we work with, but I do not remember signing anything different this time. I can imagine those always being pretty, pretty, pretty big.

Did you even know the videos were coming out this weekend?
We kind of suspected, because the two videos I did were the last ones to be delivered in the big package and [laughs] everyone was just waiting on me at one point, which was a little stressful. So, I knew it was going to drop any day after I delivered it.

The set for “Superpower” looks incredible. Was that a set or a mall?
Los Angeles is amazing. It has all of these places you can rent, so I mean, it was a real shopping mall that was closed down years ago and now is used for filming. I’ve been wanting to use it for a long time, I was just waiting for a good thing to use for it. I don’t know if you noticed, but at the end, there’s a big area that sort of looks like the freeway. It’s fake; some big action movie left it there. It’s on top of a garage, but it’s a proper five-lane freeway! Only like 400 meters or so, but it’s a real freeway.

In “Haunted,” there are a lot of cuts to side rooms, where you see demon girls and glitter paint buckets and nipple tattoos. Were there any ideas that went too far for brand Beyoncé?
Um, yes. [Laughs.] There’s always stuff that is too much when you work with me. It’s part of what I do. But, you know, I always shoot too much for edit’s sake. There were a few pretty raunchy things we shot; they were taken further. But we ended up with a perfect balance between her performance and a strong idea, a visually stunning look and all those things. We didn’t exclude anything that was meant to be in there. Nothing big was left out.

But what were the original ideas? It couldn’t have been “We want to stage the apocalypse in the Gap,” could it?
We actually met when she played Stockholm back in February or March — could it be that long ago? She invited me to the show. We met and listened to some of these songs, already, back then. And even at that moment, we started to talk about ideas. From then to where we ended up, it was a lot of ideas going back and forth between us. It was not like a solid plan of “This is what I think we should do.” It was a pretty long process. And she was traveling and touring, so we had time to bounce ideas back and forth, figure out what the best vision was. And meanwhile, she was shooting all these other videos and I wasn’t really involved in what those other ideas were.

Yeah, I was about to ask.
I knew some of it; I knew who was doing them … but I didn’t really know what they were doing. So it was hard to write these ideas out. Some of what I was writing was too close to other videos that people were working on. We wrote quite a few ideas, but that’s pretty normal. When an idea’s brought up and it’s the first one taken, that’s usually a sign of not caring. [Laughs.] That’s not how she works.

When you’re directing, do you ever look at footage and think, “This is going to be a really good GIF?”
Um … no. [Laughs] But I guess this one is filled with a lot of great GIFs! But, no, I’m not really a GIF kind of guy. I’m an old-timer and GIFs are…new.

How was it different working with Beyoncé earlier this year — on the “Standing on the Sun” video — and now?
We shot a couple of things at the beginning of this year, the O2 commercial to promote her tour and the H&M commercial. Commercials are always very different, a different way of working with clients. Different approach. For me, Beyoncé has such a strong creative focus, which always makes my job easier. Because sometimes when I work with an artist, I have to guess a lot, to figure out things. With her, it’s a straight communication and you kind of know where you go. Even with the commercials, she’s very firm and she knows what she wants. She gives straight answers. I thought I’d meet a wreck, because she’s been on tour all year and performing all these shows and shooting all these music videos over the last few months, but she was super-fit, super-enthusiastic. It amazed me.

You’ve worked with Beyoncé before, Kelly and Pharrell, too. But what it was like to work with Michelle and Tina for the first time?
I worked with Kelly and David Guetta; Pharrell, I did a N*E*R*D video. But it was a pretty spontaneous thing to bring Kelly and Michelle into the video. We were like, “Oh, wow, this is great, put them in” for some cameos. Pharrell was a natural; he was part of the album. But literally, on set, when we shoot that many scenes, it’s just like, “Okay! Where’s Kelly? Where’s Michelle? Put them in — great! Tina?” So everything happens really fast. Of course, they’re super-pros — they walk straight into it.

Was there any point at which Frank Ocean was supposed to appear?
I wanted him to! I really wanted him to. I kept asking why, but I don’t know. I never met him, so I don’t really know. It would’ve been perfect, too.

Can you tell me about the decision to make the “Superpower” video soundtracked, as opposed to having her sing along? Was that a timing issue?
We actually talked a lot about that. It’s a very untraditional way of doing music videos, to not have her lip-synch. For Beyoncé, who’s a dancer, it’s very unusual to have a video without a dance part. I felt part of this idea for “Superpower” was to have stuff be in contrast to each other, so this song is very soft and very slow, but the action you see is aggressive and very big. We discussed it many times to see if we’d have the performance in the video or not. We decided no, and I think it works really, really well. It’s kind of like a brave move, if you think about it. Most artists can act and have all these different things, but they’ll still fall back on the performance.

Now that this whole cat is out of the bag, what secrets can you tell us?
[Laughs.] That’s for my book, which will come out when I’m about to retire. I have a great book coming in about twenty years or so.

Jonas Åkerlund on ‘Haunted’ and ‘Superpower’