For a brief moment, Melina Matsoukas was employed as Beyoncé’s creative director. Imagine that job? “It was on her last album, and it was a month and a half before I was like, You know what? I think I’m just going to go back to being a director,” she told us with a laugh over the weekend, less than 48 hours after Beyoncé dropped her surprise visual album, Beyoncé. “It was a very overwhelming and massive job, and because I was doing that, I wasn’t able to direct any videos.” There were no hard feelings when she stepped down from the position: Matsoukas went on to produce all the visuals for Beyoncé’s “Mrs. Carter” tour, and she was indeed freed up to direct more videos, including her seventh with Beyoncé, “Pretty Hurts,” which they shot over three days in New York late last summer. (Matsoukas has also directed for Rihanna — winning a Grammy for “We Found Love” — Lady Gaga, and Britney Spears.) We spoke to the director on Saturday, while she was admittedly on a “crazy high,” about developing the pageant story, keeping the album top secret (it wasn’t as hard as you think), and casting Harvey Keitel.
Did Beyoncé let you know when she’d be releasing the album, and that she’d release it with all the videos at once?
I knew she was shooting a bunch of the videos, and maybe like a week or two ago she told me that it was all gonna come out together. And then maybe two days before it came out, she told me the exact date. I’d heard a lot of the tracks, but I hadn’t heard everything. I’ve been e-mailing her every second, like, “I’m so excited.” For a woman to do that — it’s so, so unprecedented, and really genius without having to say it’s genius, which so many people do now.
How did it stay so top secret? With so many people involved, you’d think it would leak.
Well, I don’t think that that many people knew. They knew — I just don’t think they thought she’d release the videos all at the same time. They didn’t know what she was doing.
In other words, they were working with her but they didn’t know the bigger picture of what they were working on.
Yeah, even on my set, like when we were shooting, it’s not like she was like, “I’m gonna shoot twenty videos and release them all together!” It was like, “We’re doing this.” And then she went and did other stuff. So I think the inside people knew and that was it. I don’t think she shared it with the label. You know, because she has control of her stuff. She is her own label. She owns her own imagery.
Did you have to sign a nondisclosure agreement?
I’m sure I’ve signed one in the past. So it’s still applicable? I didn’t this time. But I think the whole crew did. I don’t know.
How did you wind up directing “Pretty Hurts” in particular?
I knew she wanted to do something with the pageant idea, and that’s something that I was really interested in, so I kind of just gravitated toward that one because she had an idea and I had something I could go off of, and it just kind of clicked.
Did you guys sit down and flesh out the concept together? How did you decide that the story would involve eating disorders?
She told me what she wanted to do with the pageant world and I obviously like to take it there [laughs]. I was like, Let’s get into the toxic world and what we really do that is so damaging to ourselves, and use it as a microcosm for our society. Obviously, those ideas don’t just live in the pageant world; they live in our world. And that’s what the song is about. And it felt like we had to take it there to make it have meaning, because otherwise it would be a superficial, preachy kind of song and visual.
Were you ever concerned that you were taking it too far, like with the woman eating the cotton ball or Beyoncé throwing up in the bathroom?
No, I don’t really get concerned about that, maybe I should [laughs]. I’m always getting some sort of backlash. But when I’m working I try to take it as far as possible and if we have to pull back in the edit, I do. But when I’m shooting, I just decide to go for it.
Was there anything that you cut out in the edit?
At one point, Beyoncé wasn’t sure if she wanted to do the whole plastic-surgery thing. But then she ended up doing it. So that was the only thing. But it stayed in. We didn’t cut anything out. And, in fact, she wanted to take it further. That’s why we put in the diet pills. I’d written that she was in the house and had some kind of eating disorder. And at first we weren’t going to do that. But on the third day of shooting, she said, “I really want to take it further.” And I said, “Well, I’d written in this whole eating-disorder thing, but I wasn’t sure how you felt about it, because I had heard to take out.” So then she was like, “No, I really like that idea.” So that’s when we added in the diet pills. She was like, “Does anybody have a Tic-Tac or Advil?” [Laughs]
Her pretending to throw up in the bathroom stall was more shocking than the diet pills, I thought.
Yeah. Well, that too. I think at first it was hard because she didn’t want anybody to think that she was endorsing that. But she’s playing a character. People will be like, “Beyoncé has an eating disorder and is getting plastic surgery” in the headlines, you know? But I think she let that go. She’s like, It’s a character, obviously; it’s a video. This is not me.
What’s the meaning of the names on the sashes?
She’s from the Third Ward and I knew I wanted her to be Miss Third Ward. Then I had to come up with other slang terms for the hoods of our country. So that was kind of a last-minute idea. The stylist was like, [frantically] “I need the names!” And I’m, like, in the car trying to scout and trying to brainstorm: What are the different inner-cities in our country?
Were any of the trophies in the bedroom actually Beyoncé’s from when she was younger?
No, those were props, and we broke them and got in trouble [laughs]. Because some were rented, and some were bought, and my art director was about to murder me when I was like, [yells] “Okay, now break them all!” But it was important for the idea. Obviously a trophy is not a reward that really has any meaning. So it was important that she destroy them.
Did she get into it?
Oh, she loved it. She loves to do all that. She was like, “This is so much fun.” She went there. They were heavy. There was stuff flying everywhere. Thankfully nobody was hurt. But she goes there, which is why I enjoy working with her so much.
Were you aware that trophies would then feature so prominently throughout the other videos? Did Beyoncé explain that to you from the get-go?
I didn’t know. I mean, they had already shot “Grown Woman,” so I knew they had done some stuff there. But I didn’t know there’d be one in “Drunk in Love.” But it makes sense, gives it a through-line, and connects the videos, so I loved the idea.
And what about the footage at the end of young Beyoncé accepting an award? Did she tell you from the start that she wanted that in there?
No, I didn’t actually know that. We delivered it and we got a note saying that she wanted to do that, because it’s supposed to connect to the next video. Actually, throughout the process, we were playing with what to put in the TV. At one point we were going to put in when Halle Berry was competing in a pageant — we got that archival footage, we were thinking about using that. And then we were gonna use Vanessa Williams as well, and show different black women in the pageant world. But we shot it with the static, and then in the edit it just kind of looked good with the static. I thought it symbolized the sort of blank stare into that world. And I didn’t want anything to distract from what she was singing about or her performance too much.
When the Harvey Keitel character asks her what her greatest aspiration is, it cuts to a shot of her in water. Was that your idea?
Yeah, how I originally wrote it was that she was stepping onstage and would fall, and it’d cut to her going into this water and drowning. But we didn’t get to shoot the trip, because the crew decided to quit on me because it was taking forever. But I felt like it was a good moment to break down the song and be in this really vulnerable, thought-provoking moment.
Why did the crew quit on you?
Because we were shooting in New York and they just have really crazy rules that I can’t stand. I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about shooting in New York because I probably have to shoot there tomorrow. We just went really long, which happens on most videos. And, you know, people have the right to leave if they want after a certain time, and they decided to do that.
Oh, union rules.
Yeah. So that’s how that happened. I mean, we have union rules in L.A. That just doesn’t happen because people actually care.
How could you quit a Beyoncé video?
That’s what I’m saying! With Harvey Keitel right there, who was about to kill me because my crew was taking forever.
So, Harvey Keitel: How did he wind up in this video?
I knew I wanted this kind of, like, greasy, Vegas-type pageant character, and I was trying to think of who could pull that off, and of course Harvey was who I wanted. I love his work and I’ve followed him my whole life. And he’s from New York, and I knew he could pull it off. So we reached out and he was really into it; he was a big fan of Beyoncé’s. So he came and he did it. And he was there all day, so graciously. And that day was just, again, a really hard day. We were shooting in a school and we were supposed to shoot a bunch of other scenes but never got out of the auditorium.
Some little high school in Brooklyn, because it’s supposed to be a small-town kind of pageant. But the crew was — it was just the slowest shoot I’ve ever been on. It was ridiculous. So he had to wait around all day, and he did, and he was just so sweet. It wasn’t like Harvey Keitel, like I would think. He was just chill; he was cool.
What did you think he was going to be like — scary?
You know, he’s an accomplished actor and he’s used to working a certain way, and on videos, that doesn’t always happen. And we had to wait around all day. And not eight hours — I’m talking twenty hours. And for a small part. And he did. And it’s not like we paid him. He’s Harvey Keitel — he doesn’t need money [laughs]. He just stayed there because he wanted to do it.
What time period were we supposed to be in?
I was going for modern-day times but lost in a small town that’s probably stuck a bit in the eighties. With a mix of a little pinup. I was going for kind of like how Blake Lively was in The Town. Like that girl.
You’ve watched most of the videos by now, right?
At least three times.
So you’ve seen “Drunk in Love.” You’ve directed Jay Z and Beyoncé together —
Oh, I didn’t do “Drunk in Love.”
No, I meant in your career.
Oh, before. Yes, “Upgrade U.”
How do they work together?
When I worked with them they weren’t married yet. Now — I don’t know. I mean, they support each other — they’re best friends. They influence each other and they push each other to be better and to impress each other, too. I love them.
I think all of America does.
Yeah, I wanna be drunk in love like that, too! You know, I think they have a real partnership, and that’s what’s so beautiful about their relationship.
Not to obsess about the secrecy again, but do you think the media’s response to that aspect of the release has been overblown?
No, I think it’s an incredible feat: How can you have a top-secret album and nobody knows? I don’t think anybody expected her to release a visual album. Because it’s never been done. I think that’s what’s really blown everybody away. And that there was no promotion.
She doesn’t need promotion. Because the fans will do the promotion for her.
Yeah. Exactly. It’s a really modern way of doing things. Especially if the material is strong, which it is. She’s not a singles artist. Record labels now work so much on singles. That’s just not who she is. She’s such a diverse artist, and you can’t take one side of her without another. And that’s why it’s so important for you to see the whole thing, for you to hear the whole thing. Because she’s so multifaceted. She is a woman and she’s a sexual being and she’s a mother and she’s a feminist; she’s emotional and she’s vulnerable, but then at the same time she’s powerful. And I think that’s so important to understand and know about her. Each video cannot stand in isolation, you know? They support each other. So I know it’s important to her for people to hear and see the entire body of work at once. And she made you do that. She made you do that. She’s gonna force you to do it her way. And you’re gonna love it.