Director Jonas Akerlund has worked with Madonna on some of her most iconic music videos, bringing “Ray of Light,” “American Life” and “Music” to life. After he shared behind-the-scenes stories from her most recent video, “Bitch I’m Madonna,” Akerlund gave EW the inside scoop on what it was like to put together the rest of their greatest collaborations.
“Ray of Light”
This was the first music video Madonna and Akerlund worked on together nearly 20 years ago, and he says at that time, he still didn’t know how to behave around artists of her stature. “I decided to be myself and talk about the job as I see it and hopefully we hit it off,” he says. “It was a different attitude and we started to shoot it in Sweden. We shot a few days before I met her and that idea was so spread out. Both of us felt we had something special. We just worked together and I thought that was it. I went back to Sweden with a VHS tape showing them, ‘That’s cool!’ and then we moved on.”
Madonna teamed up with then-unknown comic Sacha Baron Cohen for this glossy piece of eye-candy, which finds Madonna tooling around town in a limo with her girlfriends. “She was pregnant at the time,” Akerlund says. “She had a big fur on to cover her belly. We always had an idea to have an animated part and almost like cartoon-ish, with the colors. We wanted to have a comedian in there. I had met Sacha [Baron Cohen] in England right at the time, and he was just about to break out as Ali G. in the U.K. Nobody knew who he was in America.” Madonna, however, saw star power. “She instantly fell in love with him, like the rest of the world did. It took another year or two before the world knew who he was. Man, I wish we had those outtakes.”
The music video for “American Life” was due out around the same time the Iraq War broke out, and the track ended up sparking some controversy on American soil. “The timing was pretty amazing how we made that video,” he says. “I think the same week we were supposed to release the video the [Iraqi] War broke out. It was literally the same week. I was traveling between Europe and America at that time. I could really see the two different perspectives. In Sweden we were like, ‘This video has to be released, it’s very important.’ And in America, we thought we can’t release it. I connected with both perspectives. I could see how it was controversial, but for two completely different reasons. But [Madonna] did the right decision to not show it at the time. There was no discussion.”
Akerlund knew he wanted to use Madonna’s backup dancers, who were parkour experts, for this video. “I knew all about [parkour],” he says. “The reason why we did it was because she was touring and she had the best parkour kids on her tour. It was one of those videos we shot wen she was touring. We had to find time for it on her schedule and it ended up being in Tokyo. Visually, it’s awesome and I really wanted to use her parkour guys that she had on her tour. That itself is all I needed to get going. It was crazy shooting in Tokyo, but it worked really well with the music.”
Akerlund says that they actually ended up with two different videos for “Celebration.” One focused on her biggest fans, and both were shot on tour. “We shot that part with her and her dancers and Milan, and then we shot the parts with the fans in Barcelona,” he says. “The way we did it was kind of cool actually. We had a section outside the arena where she was shooting and we made a line to the people there, and the music was going in a loop. We were just shooting. Some people came as dedicated fans and some dressed up, and my AV was like ‘Next, next!’ We ended up with way more. The fan version has all the crazy fans.”
According to Akerlund, Madonna knew exactly what she wanted for the post-apocalyptic clip “Ghosttown,” which features actor Terrence Howard. “The good thing for me was that Madonna had a clear idea what the song was about,” Akerlund says.” The whole end of the world theme was perfect. Visually, we could make something out of it. We shot it over two nights. Also a night shoot actually. We were on location in Los Angeles. And we took all the people out to shoot in the desert in a closed down factory. It’s a big deal to do that. There was a lot of production design to it. That location was dirty. Dirty for real! But Madonna was going all the way.”