Todd Tourso hasn’t been home in six months, which is understandable once you learn what he’s been up to. As Beyoncé’s creative director — he started in June — Tourso spent the last half of 2013 flying all around the world filming videos for her elaborate, top-secret visual album. He even directed a couple, too. In the wake of Beyoncé, Vulture spoke with Tourso about the creative process, the album’s visual themes, and how the hell they managed to keep it under wraps. (It wasn’t so hard, he says.)
What did your role as creative director entail, exactly?
I would pitch her directors; I would listen to the songs with her and then figure out what directors should work on what videos. On a few of the videos, the directors sort of came up with concepts on their own, but a majority of them, Beyoncé had a concept in mind that I would help her refine.
So when you started working with Beyoncé in June, this idea of the visual album was already rolling.
No video had been shot yet, and it was a very loose idea. She knew that she wanted to have a video for every single song.
And the songs existed at that point?
… No. [Laughs.]
Did the songwriting process and the video ideas go together, then?
It sort of started to coalesce more as we went along. When I met her in June, I think there were three or four songs that made the album that were done already, and then the rest came as we were working on videos. It started to come together where she was actually watching rough cuts for the videos in the studio and tweaking the music to fit the visual.
What kind of adjustments would she make?
She would rewrite some lines, or she would add certain audio, or she would add bridges. Sometimes, I think it would complete the picture of where the audio needed to go.
Were any songs particularly changed by the video?
I don’t think it was anything super dramatic. I think it was more textural, you know? “Rocket” changed a bit in regards to the video. “Mine” and “Flawless,” too. But it was more just, adding this break here, or adding this snare there. No songs 180-ed because of the video.
A lot of themes or images that repeat from video to video, but they were all directed by different people. How did that work?
She does have so many collaborators, but she’s really, really in control. And really has the overarching vision in her mind. So when she works with people she knows what she wants to get out of them and she’s able to bring the best out of them. And really their work becomes hers, you know what I mean?
What about something like the trophy, which pops up throughout?
We knew at the beginning that there was this concept of embracing imperfection. A lot of the stuff that has led her to this point in her career — and was sort of an underlying theme — was the fight to become a champion. All the things that you sacrifice along that road. And things that you do to yourself to make yourself the best in whatever everyone else’s eyes is. I can’t really speak for her, but a lot of the stuff we tried to touch on is: Once you hit your thirties, and you’re a mother and you’re a wife, a lot of the things that you fought for and you thought were everything kind of become meaningless. So we wanted to embrace the chaos of life. The trophy for us kind of represented the futility of that struggle. And that’s why we tried to sort of use it in a way that almost defaced it.
There seems to be fire in every single video. Am I making that up?
No, no — not at all. I think that I was particularly interested in duality of metaphors. And to me it spoke to that concept I was speaking of before — it alludes to her Star Search moment, where you think this is your life and you think this is everything, and then you look back on it and it’s just one stripe, or one thing at the time that felt like the end of the world, but actually made you the person that you are. So the fire, I was interested in how it represented so many different things, from sex, to death, to cleansing. To me, that kind of duality of an image depending on your perspective, spoke to the greater whole of the record.
What does Beyoncé say no to?
[Laughs.] That’s hard. She actually says no to a lot! [Laughs.] I would say of all the celebrities that I’ve worked with, every single thing that I’ve thought was a brilliant idea that she’s shut down or changed has actually resulted in a much better final product.
You directed two videos (“Heaven” and “Jealous”). Did you choose those particular songs?
I think she started “Heaven” the night after the “XO” shoot. She went to the studio and started it that night, and then a week later the song was pretty much done. She sent it to me and said, “I want to shoot this video in Puerto Rico, what do you think?” and before I could really even complete my thought, she sent me an entire treatment that she had written for it, with reference images, story lines. Originally, her main inspiration for that song and that video was watching her mother lose one of her best friends. So Beyoncé’s treatment — which was incredibly detailed and fleshed out, shockingly so, at seven in the morning — was juxtaposing this gut-wrenching sad song with really happy visuals of two girls who are best friends doing all these amazing things, and then at the end of the video you find out that it was one of the girls’ bucket lists, and she’s actually dead. So we went out there to shoot that, and in shooting it, we realized that a lot of the more epic moments that we had originally wanted to capture came across as contrived, and a lot of the natural things that we had filmed looked very real and very beautiful.
How much of that is happening on set versus editing?
It’s really both, I would say. That video in particular, because we were out of America, and because it was a really small crew — it was really just like her, her stylist, hair, makeup, security, and me and our DP and our producer — it was a ten-person team. So it was really kind of like we would just wake up and meet and just go shoot and kind of figure out scenarios on the fly.
You only had ten people on that set, but there are videos where that was surely not the case. How did you keep it a secret?
It’s funny that everyone freaks out on that. But the sad truth is I think it’s just like, in real life, where if you want it to be a secret, you just don’t tell anyone.
What about all the people in the videos?
Everyone who was in it knew they were in a Beyoncé video, and they would ask when it was coming out, and we would be like, “I don’t know, sometime next year, we’ll see.” And then I would be like, “Oh, we might not even use it, it might just be scrapped.” Everyone was just so happy to be working with her and with the directors, that I don’t think it was as difficult to give those kind of answers.
When did you know that it was coming out last Thursday?
It’s obviously been our strategy for a minute, and it just kept shifting depending on where we were at with the final audio and final edits and everything. As far as locking in on that date, maybe a couple weeks?
Is there a video that you are particularly attached to?
Definitely for me, the “Heaven” video was really special, because it was the first time I directed a music video. It was such a beautiful experience being in paradise with a very minimal crew that really had a great time. And also filming “Drunk in Love” in Miami was super, super fun.
My favorite is “Flawless.” The dance, especially.
Yeah, I really love that one too. That was another — you know, we had done half the video, and we watched it, and Beyoncé knew that it needed a dance moment that would be iconic, that people could pick up on. And then we went back and reshot that part. Because after seeing the video, and after the song coming together, she was like, “This needs a cool dance that anybody can do.”
Is that intentionally a “Single Ladies” reference? The double ring hands?
[Laughs.] Oh! I don’t think so. I actually definitely don’t think so. I’m not sure where that came from — I know that she worked on the choreography for that with the Les Twins and Chris Grant. And I don’t think it was meant to be that. There’s so many things that — and I think that’s part of being open to the creative process and letting things happen — that I actually think that you tend to do things subconsciously that way, and their meaning might manifest later. There’s been a lot of things that I read about in blogs and reviews where I think, Oh, that’s really smart! It’ll give it more meaning in retrospect.