A Q&A with the director behind The Weeknd’s most controversial video to date

We had a chat with filmmaker Sam Pilling to find out how the video for Pretty came about and what he makes of the response to it.

The Weeknd has always been a problematic one. As Steph Kretowicz put in a recent review of his album Kiss Land for Dummy, "The odious characterisation of Toronto performer Abel Tesfaye, as The Weeknd, is summed up in his misleadingly emotive, often overwrought vocals that reveal a sexual appetite of sociopathic proportions." That's just it - Tesfaye, particularly in his 2011 mixtapes which were released semi-anonymously, escaped too much scrutiny for his graphic and misogynist lyrics by adopting a character to sing them. But with the release of his major label debut this year, and concurrently his gradual stepping out of the shadows, it's become harder to see where the line is between Tesfaye and his "sociopathic" creation. 
 
This seemed to come to a head last week with the release of the video for Pretty, his song about a cheating girlfriend. In the film, Tesfaye gets off a plane, into a car, stops to pick up some flowers, and on arriving at his girlfriend's (or possibly ex-girlfriend's) house, shoots her and her lover in their bed. The appearance of the video online was met with a backlash, with many finding it misogynist and taking offence at its graphic imagery and depiction of gun violence. To highlight an interesting parallel, it's all a bit reminiscent of the controversy that met Rihanna's Man Down video last year, in which she was shown shooting a man, and was criticised by censorship groups for glorifying premeditated murder
 
To shed some light on a dark topic, I spoke to Pretty director Sam Pilling - the talented filmmaker also behind the videos for Usher's Climax and SBTRKT's Wildfire - to find out what his intention was behind the video, what visual references he was drawing on and how he feels about the various responses. 
 

What was your main concept for this video?

Pilling: "The main concept for the video was to create a revenge narrative disguised as a love story. When I first heard Pretty I felt there was an underlying sadness and pain to Abel's lyrics, beyond the song's essentially upbeat narrative (which is primarily about a man returning home and accepting his girlfriend despite the fact she has been unfaithful). 

"I wanted to stray away from creating something too literal as this can often create a dull video. Instead I wanted to make a narrative that began in a way that the viewer might expect but that would ultimately be shocking and unexpected."

"I was also interested in the idea of showing something so horrific and horrendous in a beautiful and 'pretty' way." 

What was it like working with The Weeknd - did you collaborate on the story, or was it all your own ideas?

Pilling: "It was great fun. He approached me to do the video and sent me a few stills from different films he liked. They were a good starting point for tone and mood so then I looked at some more references that I felt fitted with the themes and then wrote the idea. He loved the twist in the narrative and that it was an unexpected ending."

What were the main reference points you drew from, visually and thematically?

Pilling: "The themes of the video are deceit and revenge. In terms of visual references I was inspired by a wide array of films from A Bittersweet Life, Leon, Only God Forgives, Collateral, Enter The Void, A Prophet, Killing Them Softly, Fight Club, Seven, The Matrix, Drive etc etc…!"

In your other recent video with The Weeknd (Juicy J's One of Those Nights) he's placed on the other side of a gun. Why the recurring theme - is this coincidental, or was the idea to make a series of similar videos with Tesfaye?

Pilling: "It's a bit of a coincidence to be honest! We recently did another video for Live For that didn't contain a gun. 

"The idea of having a gun in this video came from the actual sound of the track. There is so much emotion and sadness in that final breakdown and the slow drum beats sounded just like gun shots to me. All I could see in that section was a gun firing in slow motion and people's anguished expressions. The end of the track also sounds quite epic and I felt the visuals had to be somewhat intense and momentous in order to fit."

Making music videos these days is all about keeping viewers actually engaged until the final shot. Did thinking about how people watch videos online influence the way you plotted the story of this film?

Pilling: "Definitely. The song is over 5 minutes long, which means sustaining audience engagement is always a worry. I wanted to create a story that had a twist at the end and that would leave a mark on people. I didn't aim to offend people but I definitely wanted them to walk away with some sort of reaction. The worst thing is to create something that people simply don't care enough about to have an opinion. Obviously I'd rather people liked it but you can never please everyone."

You seem very influenced by horror and gore in general - your last video for Two Door Cinema Club feels like grotesque black comedy with its use of severed heads, and SBTRKT's Wildfire is like a fun, sweaty pastiche of The Exorcist. What makes you take a more straight-faced approach to portraying violence with Tesfaye?

Pilling: "In the videos for TDCC and SBTRKT there is a surreal, other-worldly element to the ideas as a whole. For Pretty I felt that in order to really feel the emotion of the song, the scenario and violence should be more 'real'. That said, the whole video could have been filmed in a much more rough and ready, 'documentary' style, which would have perhaps made it more shocking. Instead I chose to stylise the ending to give a haunting beauty to a horrendous scene."

There's been a backlash against the video for its glamorisation of guns and violence against women. Were you prepared for this reaction?

Pilling: "No. Not really. In terms of glamorising guns I feel that many films, music videos and video games come under fire for that. And I think you could argue that many of them (including this one) are probably guilty. That said, there's definitely something about guns and violence that interests young people. (You only have to look at the success of GTA5.)

"In my opinion, the beauty of any film or narrative is that it is portraying a story that gives the viewer a glimpse in to another world. It isn't condemning or condoning it. Also, I think that as a filmmaker you are drawn to extreme situations and behaviour that doesn't occur everyday. It wouldn't be interesting to watch him return home and everything be okay."

What's your response to those who find the film misogynistic?

Pilling: "I find the term 'misogynistic' completely inaccurate for this film. Being a misogynist means that you particularly hate women. In this narrative The Weeknd commits a crime of passion against his girlfriend and her lover. It has nothing to do with hating women - he is seeking revenge against her unfaithfulness, that is all. It's a story set in the yakuza / gangster world and in that world, guns and violence is how they sort out their problems. 

"I also believe that the way the nudity and sex is stylised and not derogatory. It is there for the story's sake, not simply to show some skin. I would actually say this video is far less degrading to women than the majority of music videos that come out with half-naked girls twerking and dancing all over our screens."

In your opinion how should the viewer feel towards Tesfaye's character by the end of the video?

Pilling: "I definitely wanted the viewer to have mixed emotions. Obviously shooting your cheating girlfriend is not the answer but it's important to note that Abel's character is not happy about his actions. And it's not a decision he takes lightly. He is contemplative, anxious and slightly nervous for much of the video. Even when the car pulls up and Abel gets out to pick up the flowers (gun) - he looks over to the shop apprehensively, thinking: 'Do I really want to do this?' before he walks in." 

Do you have any plans to work with The Weeknd again?

Pilling: "Yeah, hopefully. We're talking about doing another video in the future so watch this space…!"

Republic released 'Kiss Land' on the 10th September 2013.

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