Express Yourself: The Making of Madonna's 20 Greatest Music Videos

The directors who worked alongside the MTV-era maverick tell their stories

7. "Papa Don't Preach" (1986)

"Papa Don't Preach" finds Madonna treating the music video concept as more of a short film than promotional clip, imbuing her character — a teenager who discloses an unplanned pregnancy to her strict father (played by Danny Aiello) — with a mature, sympathetic tone far removed from her sex-symbol image. Shot over three days in Staten Island and Manhattan, director James Foley says that despite the seriousness of the song, the vibe was "pure fun." "No one was getting down about the message or social importance of it," he says. "We just liked to blast it as loud as possible."

James Foley, director: I was a bit spoiled because she had absolute creative freedom and could do whatever she wanted. We talked about wanting to tap into a working-class environment, because by that time she had done "Material Girl" and "Like a Virgin" and other stuff that was very glamorous and stylized. She wanted to do something a bit more grounded and "drama." I said, "You know a great place to shoot is Staten Island in New York." She said, "Why?" I said, "Well, I grew up there, and If I go back and make a video there with you, then I'll be the conquering hero and all my friends from high school can see what I've accomplished." It turned out to actually be the case. [Laughs]

We took the script literally from the lyrics of the song, and I remember having a moment's hesitation about doing that because most videos are not literal interpretations. But I just felt like it was something that tied into her desire to dip into the working-class world. I did have the idea that there should be a segment of the video where she was Madonna — not the character in the story — and that's where it cuts to the black and white stuff of her dancing around for the chorus.

I wanted to do a scene on the Staten Island Ferry just because it was such a big part of my growing up. We had to rent the ferry for the night and we finished early and had a couple of hours left. The captain said, "Well, you own it for the next two hours. Do you want to go anywhere?" So me, the crew and her just drove around the harbor to places that I had never seen in my life. It was a magical memory.

It was her idea to cast Danny Aiello as her father. She was just so blazingly hot that anybody involved felt very excited and happy. When we were shooting in Staten Island, there were thousands of people and paparazzi and everything. The whole thing had the air of a pleasurable circus to it and Danny just played right into that. A couple weeks after the video was released and was a huge hit, he recorded an answer song called "Papa Wants the Best for You." He has an incredible, booming voice, but it was a ludicrous song. He called me up and wanted her to be in his video and said, "She owes me this." That didn't go very far.

I've made a bunch of films and videos and it's one of the five things that I've done that I feel unequivocally good about. The strongest thing I came away from was the value of creative freedom, and that she used that in a very smart way. She's extremely focused and mature and had a work ethic. It was a good lesson to me: what to do with absolute, creative power. She's respectful of people's jobs and sees herself where she fits into it very well. I always thought, whenever I get total final cut on the movie, I will remember how she handled that freedom.

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