Behind "Blackstar": An Interview with Johan Renck, the Director of David Bowie's Ten-Minute Short Film
At the beginning of David Bowie’s “Blackstar” film, a woman with a tail comes upon a dead spaceman, his skull adorned with jewels. She removes the skull and travels to the middle of an otherworldly town, ancient and ambiguous, while the skeleton drifts toward an eclipse. A circle of practitioners waits for the skull “at the center of it all,” ready for some unspoken ritual. “On the day of execution, only women kneel and smile,” proclaims Bowie in elegant revelation. The man is back from space, and he’s brought some new characters with him.
You don’t have to know Bowie’s storied discography to tell that the chap is fascinated with the moving image. He’s acted in feature length films (the classic Man Who Fell To Earth, Labyrinth, and Basquiat, just to name a few) and composed several soundtracks. But Bowie’s most fascinating films illuminate his own music, including but not limited to 1969’s surreal The Image to 1973’s feature length Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and 1984’s absurd Jazzin’ for Blue Jean.
“Blackstar” director Johan Renck was keen to both Bowies sound and vision during their collaboration. Renck’s CV is vast— he’s helmed videos for everyone from Beach House to Beyonce, Madonna to The Knife. He’s directed episodes of Breaking Bad and Walking Dead. And for British crime series The Last Panthers premiering this week, Renck directs the whole series. Intimately invested in the project, Renck insisted that someone he worshiped since childhood compose the opening credits, but he never actually expected to actually get Bowie. When Renck’s assistant reached out to Bowie’s camp on a whim, Renck was into it. And when Bowie called him up the next day, Renck was star-struck, his mind reeling with ideas.
Noisey met Renck at his Bowery studio, a hallowed building where beat legend William S. Burroughs once lived and Mark Rothko painted his legendary Seagram murals. None of this history is lost on Renck, himself a voracious student of art, culture and media. We talked about “Blackstar,” The Last Panthers, and what it was like to work with David Bowie—whom Renck counts among the few true artists he has ever known—in a true, creative collaboration.
Noisey: While these images are still fresh, let’s talk about “Blackstar.” The first thing we see is a woman approach the body of an astronaut in a space suit. Is it Major Tom, and is this the confirmed death of that character?
Johan Renck: Most things like this are for the eyes of the beholder, you know? You make of it whatever you want. What I can say, on one side of things there is no deliberate, underlying, firm quest to have any references to past times. On the other side of things, a lot of these ideas have been conglomerative of David and I chatting. David sent me drawings and I sent him shit back, we’d been bouncing things like that.
Any specific images come to mind?
What do you mean?
I’m thinking of [British occult legend] Aleister Crowley who David references in “Quicksand” on Hunky Dory. The pentagram blackstar on the prayer book is Bowie “immersed in Crowley’s uniform of imagery.”
Well, I’m a huge Crowley fan, I’ve always been. I tried to make a movie on his life a few years ago but we didn’t manage to put it together. I love Crowley for being an audacious man at certain point in time. I think he’s greatly misunderstood. He was a good guy, but he was portrayed as an evil man and he wasn’t. He loved the idea of being in an escapist, magical paradigm and tried to evoke that shit. And obviously he didn’t succeed because that shit doesn’t exist, really, other then in here. [Renck points to his head]
Did you and David talk about that?
A little bit. Here’s the thing—David is an extraordinarily well-read man, you know? He’s truly brilliant. His depth of references is a chasm. He knows everything, he’s stumbled upon everything. And after doing what he’s been doing for such a long time, he’s still enormously curious, enormously creative in the right sense. Meaning, ‘let’s explore, let’s try stuff and see what happens.’
You mean the creative process?
The creative process. On the other hand, when we spoke about when this video is gonna come out and I told him that there’s gonna be interviews and shit like that, I told him, ‘be aware I’m not doing any of this to get any of your fucking glory or sheen on me, I don’t care about that. I’m doing it to support your music.’ And he said ‘I know you wont do that. The one thing I think is important is to not go into any second guessing or analyzing what these images mean, because they’re between you and me. People are going to go head over heels to try to break it down and figure it down across the spectrum, and there’s no point in even engaging that.’ And I said I totally agree. I’ve never been one to talk analytically about a music video or whatever I do. Because this is what I made, it comes from somewhere. You make of it whatever the fuck you want, I’m not going to push any of my ideas onto you.
Maybe it doesn’t matter where it comes from, it matters where it’s going? There’s an idea about the kind of people who analyze symbols and look for connections, like conspiracy theorists. The individual dots in a creative work or scenario may have meaning, but the strings connecting them are bullshit.
Well put. The dots can be true. But the strings are less interesting, even [though] it’s human nature to try and find these strings because they’re tantalizing.
But we could look at this film and they certainly start to appear. There’s the ominous tower “at the center of it all…” and the blackstar. That’s why I thought of Crowley. Then there are a couple of outliers… the leading woman has a tail.
But here’s the thing, also—I’ve been doing this a long time. All I’ve been doing, one way or another, is try to sort of make whatever I’m feeling inside into something that other people can experience. And not pretentiously, I’m not trying to be some kind of artist. That’s not what I’m saying. I’ve always been interested in that process, you know? Let’s transform some kind of emotion or psychology into something tangible. The older you get, the deeper your own references get. And the stuff you picked up along the way that interests you, whether it’s Crowley or Phillip K. Dick or whatever, [surreal filmmaker Alejandro] Jodorowsky, whatever you might think is interesting. That gets filed somewhere inside of you. There’s a curator inside of you that you don’t even know, who will sort of start filing ‘like’ and ‘not like.’ Then all of a sudden you have this fucking show with stuff that you like because it appeals to you in some way or another. I think the older you get, the more honest that is. Because it’s not ‘I could be younger, I will try to think this is cool because it’s cool!’ Not like that at all.
You’ve had enough time to already know what resonates to you? You don’t need that validation?
No, not at all. I’m not looking for an effect, I’m not looking for a reaction.
Neither is David, it seems.
Not at all!
That’s why you guys work well together?
Yeah, and it’s amazing. I’ve worked with a lot of artists, a lot of actors, a lot of people. But very few are that true. He’s the least pretentious guy I’ve ever met, but at the same time his ideas are deep and founded and interesting, you know? We can talk about the tail on the woman [in the video] in a million ways. All I can say is, and I don’t even know if I’m allowed to share it. But the tail was David’s thing. All he said was, ‘I want a tail on the woman.’ And I said, ‘yeah, yeah, I like that.’ And he said, ‘yeah, it’s kind of sexual.’ And that’s it!
David’s always had this almost philosophical awareness of the nature of image running through his work, and used it to dabble in film. Then looking at your body of work there’s a point where your filmography intersects with music—all the videos, and you’ve recorded a few albums, too. You’re the auteur with a strong supplementary love of music, and David’s the musician with a strong supplementary love of film. Was the collaboration realized through your crossing specialties?
100 percent! It started with him writing the title music to the film, which was the origin of the song. He would call me from the studio [to] play me something and say, ‘what do you think?’ and that’s how inviting he would be into the process. Not as a courtesy—he stated very early on, ‘I want this thing to be mutually meaningful. I want to make this song because I’ve never done a song like this for television before, it inspires me on many levels, and I want this to be tailor made for the titles. I want it to feel meaningful on both ends.’ He was extremely generous in that sense. So that led to us having a bunch of conversations. He was interested in us doing this together because we found some weird kind of common ground. I’m not here to befriend these icons and legends or anything like that, but it’s exactly like you’re saying. We come from different backgrounds, but maybe there’s a mutual trajectory to how we approach this work or how we think. Some references, via serendipity, happen to lie very close to each other.
So if people can make different meanings from looking at the same thing, and you and David share a mutual affection for the same aesthetics, then your meanings can be totally different and that’s ok?
You’re making something vividly clear that I’m just rambling on about. So that’s what it was. And a big part of this collaboration is based on the relationship. It’s very simple, very basic, un-dramatic and unaffected. Hence it was an easy process to go through. David gave a lot of freedom, [and] I had a lot of openness to anything particular from his side. He did not interfere, but at the same time when he had an idea, he could just send me one of his drawings and say ‘this is something.’ I would try to embrace that and see if I could incorporate it in some way, and along the way some kind of skeleton was built. He’s very, very happy with the outcome of the video, and that’s all we’ve said about it. He just said, ‘I think it’s perfect.’ And that’s all we need to know. On a collaborative level, that’s all it’s got to be for us. People are going to have all sort of shitty ideas or comments, primarily in this day and age.
Why do you think Bowie likes to play with the idea of subverting a messiah complex? You see the crucified scarecrows, the fallen spaceman, we don’t need to interpret the images to see that theme runs through this. Is this about age? About time and place?
I wouldn’t be able to make any analysis on that in the chat room, so to speak, but I do think that there’s reason to believe if you’re a prolific artist and going into your late 60s you’d at least start to think about mortality. In doing that you start thinking about your own relevance to history in a different way. When you’re young and you’re doing stuff, you’re making music, directing, making art, it’s all future directed. You want to change stuff onward. And when you get older, this applies to me, you think about the things you want to do and how it will be perceived by your children one day. The opposite of the frontal trajectory, there’s almost a biographical aspect to it, you know? So maybe you change your thinking. I can honestly say that the messiah thing with the scarecrows is not in any way intentional.
And what meaning is the viewer projecting?
Totally! There was a teaser out on the Internet, and the comments on there said it was sacrilege, being derogatory to Jesus on the cross.
That’s great publicity.
Of course! But it didn’t even cross our minds. I can’t really say anything, though. If did a music video without any involvement from the artist at all, I would speak freely on it. But here, this has been a long process, a lot of things tossed up and down, turned around and twirled with, it’s truly collaborative. And I wouldn’t want to try and voice what the meanings would be without David in the room.
Looking back after working with him, has the process illuminated anything for you about his fascination and fixation with the moving image?
No. But I went back and listened to a lot of old Bowie stuff, you know? I did that because all of a sudden this guy that I grew up with…I had Bowie posters in my room when I was ten years old. And all of a sudden, after spending the time in proximity [to Bowie] I wanted to listen to all these things and see what I felt about him, and I loved all the music even more than I already did. Because I realized it was all true. It wasn’t contrived, it wasn’t somebody insecurely trying to become relevant or interesting. Every word, every little line was truthful, coming from a brilliant man who never tried to be a sensation or anything like that. But the character there, we named him Button Eyes, I was there when that character was born. It’s not like, ‘hmm, what can we do that’s cool and different, that people will be interested in?’ He sent me drawings. He just said, ‘I want a mask with buttons for eyes.’
There’s something to be said for a man who doesn’t create an image to run it into the ground. How many musicians do that? They build a brand. They build an aesthetic.
What I didn’t do is ask ‘what is he?’ Because I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in what comes out of him, and interested in Button Eyes. So in the video there are clearly two characters—there’s Button Eyes, who’s introverted, a sort of tormented blind guy. And then we have this other guy who’s a flamboyant trickster in the middle of it, selling us the message in the other part of the song.
Word, with that book embossed with the blackstar.
No, that’s the third character! The priest guy. If you look upon all the characters he’s created over time, and there’s quite a few, some of them have names, some of them don’t. Some of them only exist in the lyrics in songs.
Some of them went on tour.
Exactly! But they’re all characters, and they all mean something. And it’s all true.
Justin Joffe is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.