For "Princess of China," Rihanna's dramatic duet with Coldplay, video director Adria Petty and her co-conspirator Alan Bibby dreamed up a video concept that radiated danger, dark desire and intrigue. In wake of the clip's Video Music Award nomination for Best Direction – a first for both directors – Thread Count spoke to the creative team about their art direction and styling of the video.
"Rihanna has this edge right now," Petty explained to Rolling Stone. "To put her in a situation where there's no edge seems like a mistake."
"Princess of China" separates itself from other videos by Rihanna and Coldplay in its physical and costuming feats, its eerily bright palette and its antihero sensibilities. Petty and Bibby owe its unusual treatment to the odd characteristics of the song itself. "We thought it was a weird song, in terms of time signature and structure, so I thought the format of a typical music video wouldn't fit it," Petty said. "But we thought that a kung-fu movie trailer would." She and Bibby decided to create a series of striking vignettes loosely tied to an assassins-in-love-and-in-peril concept. They mixed together "action and kung fu" traits in a playful manner in which they could "get away with anything." It is by no means a purist reflection of any Asian culture or tradition but rather, perhaps, their surface aesthetics reimagined through a Hollywood lens.
"It's a music video; you're not really held to any narrative structure," Petty noted. "Once we had the movie trailer format, we wanted to celebrate something visual and Asian-inspired across the board, but nothing too prescriptive." Bibby said that recent samurai, kung fu and ninja epics like Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon factored into "Princess of China's" pastiche, calling the video an "homage to action and romance." Thus, they planned a sequence of acrobatic martial arts scenes and dubbed Rihanna's violent damsel character the "Geisha Assassin" and Chris Martin's hero "The Returning Ronin."
Naturally, high octane visuals demand equally impressive clothes, and Martin and Rihanna's ensembles for "Princess of China" pair high fashion and high performance. As Rihanna needed to fly across green screens for her harnessed martial arts scenes, Petty worried about how details like swooping kimono sleeves and cumberbunds would function under aerodynamic stress. "No constraints was a priority," she said.
Fortunately, Rihanna's stylist Mel Ottenberg was up for the challenge. He says, "I studied the storyboards for the video and set out to create a Rihanna 'Princess of China' rock trousseau. I worked with designer Adam Selman to create the clothing. We talked for a long time about each design detail to make sure the clothes would be strong but not overpowering – costume but easy and modern." Otternberg made sure harnesses were kept hidden under a white jumpsuit, and provided convenient slits for movement. Some of his favorite details include the "metal fingers" created by Michael Schmidt and Armani Prive's astonishing headpiece, as seen in the Guanyin dance scene.
Chris Martin's scenes were equally physically demanding, but stylist Lauren Bradley took a more organic approach in styling him. "I was seeking an edgy, layered silhouette to achieve the point where exotic warrior from the Orient collides with pure rock & roll," she says. "For the scenes where Chris and Rihanna are flying, I modernized an actual vintage Chinese robe from the costume house by recreating it into a new form. Contrasting grey and black, I paired this with custom shin wraps inspired by traditional Shaolin kung fu attire." But for Martin's entrance scene, set in a desert, Bradley kept things far more low-key in "earthy sand and gray tones," mixing Maya's sweatshirt motorcycle jacket with Skingraft's draped hooded tee. "I tied everything together with a textured waffle scarf that I repurposed to create a rugged, layered look."
"Princess of China" is an impressive art direction effort by all involved, and it captures the torture and ecstasy of an age-old question. "[The clip] comes down to: I don't know whether to love you or to kill you," Petty said with a laugh.