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

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

Madonna

Since first storming MTV in 1983 with the poetic, lo-fi "Burning Up," Madonna's music videos have spent more than 20 years sparking conversations about fashion, feminism, sex, religion and what you could and could not show on television. To help her realize these 67 clips — one of the most rapidly changing visions in pop history — she teamed up with some video and photography's most celebrated artists, including David Fincher, Jean-Baptiste Mondino, Herb Ritts, Mark Romanek, Chris Cunningham, Stéphane Sednaoui, Jonas Åkerlund, Luc Besson and more.

"Madonna was the one you had to get," says Michael Hausmann, director of her mid-Nineties clips for "Take a Bow" and "You'll See." "That was the video that would be the most airtime. It was, in some ways, kind of more important than having a movie out. More people were watching it, that’s for damn sure."

To celebrate our cover star, we caught up with many of the directors behind some of the most iconic (and controversial) images in music history.

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“Take a Bow” (1994)

Remembers director Michael Haussman about this love story filmed in Spain, "She said, 'OK, Here's the song: It's about a girl in love with a public figure. Write something, but just don't make it dark.' So, of course I went and wrote something really dark." Madonna and the director met at the Ritz in Paris, tabled the discussion about his dark idea until dinner and started making small talk. "She says, 'Well, what have you been doing?' And I said, 'Well, I've been really into filming bullfights and stuff.' And I just saw this sparkle in her eye and suddenly I just kind of went with it. Pretty sure the while thing was written [that] night." The sepia tinged video mixes shots of real life bullfighter Emilio Muñoz with Madonna for a clip that's sensual, majestic and features steamy footage of the pop star writhing in front of a TV. "I thought it was going to be [difficult to direct] but then it was one of the sexiest things that I’ve ever seen," says Haussman. "She would just play the song through and go for it."

Michael Haussman, director: It became epic in proportions to try and actually do that video because it was such a taboo subject. There were several times when it was gonna be cancelled because of PETA getting involved, saying, "We understand you're going to film a bullfight?" And originally I was. I was gonna try to film a bullfight where the bull gets killed and everything, and that was kind of the idea to stay true to it. And [it] became kind of obvious…we can't stage a bullfight for a Madonna video, that's not going to go across too well….And sure enough, it was such a fiery topic that we had to have to have the police in my office in London opening our mail because a lot of animal rights groups send letterbombs to scientists and things. The producer had a rose taped to his door and it said, "Hasta la vista, baby!" All kinds of really scary shit. I had to check under hotel under different names, which I've never had to do, when I was in Spain.

The bullfighting world didn't want anything to do with someone that's gonna come in and [try to be] commercializing them. What helped was that I had a super passion about it…I knew enough that I could say, "Listen: I want Emilio Muñoz and I can tell you about every fight he had last year, every outfit he wore and where he fought." It was kind of funny because everyone said, "Well, he'll never do it, Emilio Muñoz — why don't you look at these other guys that are seeking publicity. And those are the guys you didn't want! So that was a whole trip in itself — literally sitting in hotels in Seville, waiting to meet this guy. Waiting for four days passing — and it's only his guys coming to scope you out and see if it's real and it wasn't some television show where they do pranks on people.

One thing we had to promise was that we'd never harm the bull in any way. And that became a real touchy subject because a bullfighter can't really fight a bull unless he's been harmed in some way. Usually they do a pick to his shoulder and that makes his head go down so that he could go use the smaller, red cloth called a muleta. So, if suddenly, we were not able to pick him or have any trace of blood on the bull, so how is he supposed to use this red cloth? She was set to fly out in two days and he was set to come the following day — it was right down to the wire. So I posed him the problem and he didn't really say anything except, "OK, let me think about this." And he just kind of of disappeared for two days. No one could get him on the phone. She gets on an airplane to come out. So, the drama was just fantastic! So he finally arrives and says, to the Spanish press, "I'm going to fight this bull, I'm not going to pick or bandeira him. it's going to be the first time it's ever done and I'm going to do it. I'm going to do it for my friend Michael."

I don't think [the bullfighting community] ever really wanted it to get out because he was able to fight that bull fine and it was beautiful and the bull never got hurt…at all. But you have to understand the reason that can't happen is, unfortunately, [bullfighting is] about the celebration about killing of a bull. So it kind of took away the reason it why it exists for the Spanish. And also, when you're looking at the footage, it's pretty outstanding what he does. He's not just fighting it — he's fighting it beautifully. It's gorgeous. It was all cloaked in secrecy. He wouldn't do it unless no one saw. It was just too weird that a bullfighter's fighting a bull that's not picked or bandeira'd

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“Open Your Heart” (1986)

"At the time, we were into a period where we were experimenting [with] some kind of freedom about the body, about sexuality and stuff. So the peep show was an idea that I had," says "Open Your Heat" director Jean-Baptiste Mondino. "But there was something sweet about this little boy waiting for her outside — something very naïve and sweet."

Clad in a black bustier and stripping off her gloves and wig, "Open Your Heart" was Madonna's first overtly risqué clip. But this was no shock piece: An even mix of Fellini and Fosse, "Open Your Heart" was gorgeous, from the paintings of art deco artist Tamara de Lempicka on the club exterior, to the colorfully cold cast of characters. At one point, in a brilliant piece of synergy, Madonna leans back and mimics the now-iconic Herb Ritts cover photo of "Open Your Heart"'s album, True Blue. "Because she makes the picture, you know?" says Mondino. "She gives you the stuff. You've got to be ready to grab it." 

Jean-Baptiste Mondino, director: [The set was built] from scratch. We found this place where we could actually build it. We just built the front of it and the little booth where the old man was inside. I guess it was my Hollywood period where I was in [a] Hollywood state of mind with my cranes, the building….We were very young [laughs] and everything was possible, I guess. I like the fakeness of it. I haven't seen it for a long time, but when I saw it once again, I said, "It's so naïve." It's kind of badly done, which I like, compared to today. We didn't have the same equipment, people are more skillful today, but there's something sweet about it. I love the ending; like a Charlie Chaplin ending when they run after each other. That little moment is very touching.

The good story about this video is that it was the first one I did with Madonna, and I said to her, "You know it could be nice maybe if you wear a black wig," because she was kind of blonde. Very well known as being the blonde with short hair. So a few days before the shoot, we had the meeting with hair and makeup and they work on her and they prepare her with the outfit and the wig and stuff. And I came in and they were all raving about, "Oh my God, she's so beautiful" and stuff. Then she turns around and she looks at me with the wig on and says, "OK, Mondino — tell me what do you think." And when Madonna asks you something, she asks you something, you know? It's not just like a sentence; she really meant it.

So I look at her and say, "Well, you look great, but to be honest, I prefer you in blonde." She looked and me and that day, she trusted me because she knew more than anyone else that she was better in blonde….And I think that day, maybe that's when I gained her confidence. 

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“Ray of Light” (1998)

"It’s probably, to this day, the longest shoot ever for a music video," remembers "Ray of Light" director Jonas Åkerlund, who traveled to New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas to shoot this fast-forward pastiche. "I think we shot 14 shoot days or so. But, we were the smallest crew. My idea was to fit the crew into one car. We found an angle, then we set it up, and then and we were talking shit for a half-hour, waiting for it because it took forever to do these shots." The clip's stationary shots with a flurry of activity had a similar feel to 1982 art-house favorite Koyaanisqatsi (which he hadn't seen) and provided a frantic energy for Madonna's embrace of contemporary house music. Åkerlund would become the only collaborator in Madonna's monumental run to garner the pop star an VMA for Video of the Year. 

Jonas Åkerlund, director: We did a few tests in Stockholm with a film camera so I could to show her the technique I was talking about, and the test actually came out so good, that it ended up the final video. So there’s a lot of shots from Stockholm in there. 

Of course, we didn’t shoot digital — we shot with a big, 35mm camera. We had this diagram that I had in my pocket for the whole production where it said how many frames per minute or per second that we needed to do in order to get the certain amount of footage. So let’s say you shoot one frame every 10 seconds or so? Then you have to do that for 30 minutes to get like five seconds. Stuff like that

We mounted the camera on a bus, I remember, driving around in New York. That was like a pretty big effort for a 20-frame thing [laughs]. Everything was like a huge thing considering how much that actually ended up in the video because it's happening so fast. Every shot was just like such a big deal. I think we ended up using everything we shot, too. The song was long — I remember in the edit thinking that the song was too long because I used up all the footage.

"At the time, I really didn’t think about [winning the VMAs]. I was there with my Swedish friends, just drinking beer and though it was great that the beer was for free. But looking back, it was a life-changing moment for me."

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“Express Yourself” (1989)

The first of Madonna's collaborations with David Fincher is also her best — and one of the priciest (at $5 million, it was the most expensive video ever made at the time). Heavily influenced by Fritz Lang's Metropolis, with its sci-fi cityscape and surreal factory scenes featuring men struggling with giant machines, "Express Yourself" is a perfect melding of Fincher's expressionist impulses with Madonna's shape-shifting allure. Here, we see her juxtaposed against various versions of herself, each representing a different kind of seduction: A pantsuit-wearing, Marlene Dietrich-like figure with a monocle; a shimmying coquette in a corset; a submissive wife chained naked to a bed. Meanwhile, Fincher's camera swoops and cranes and tracks around the impressive sets and through fields of blown-out light, expressive shadow, and thick layers of steam. (The director's feature film debut, Alien 3, would actually repurpose some of this aesthetic.)

"This one I had the most amount of input," said Madonna. "I oversaw everything — the building of the sets, everyone's costumes, I had meetings with make-up and hair and the cinematographer, everybody. Casting, finding the right cat — just every aspect. Kind of like making a little movie. We basically sat down and just threw out all every idea we could possibly conceive of and of all the things we wanted. All the imagery we wanted — and I had a few set ideas, for instance the cat and the idea of Metropolis. I definitely wanted to have that influence, that look on all the men — the workers, diligently, methodically working away."

Both Metropolis and "Express Yourself" end with the same epigraph: "Without the heart, there can be no understanding between the hand and the mind." But what was for Lang a plea for reconciliation between workers and bosses becomes, for Madonna, a creative credo.

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