The video for David Bowie’s new single, “★” (pronounced “Blackstar”), is now up on YouTube, but those who made it to Nitehawk this afternoon to watch it on the big screen got a special treat. And not just the free ★-branded boxes of popcorn. After the screening of the 10-minute mindfuck featuring human scarecrows, sorcery, and a blindfolded Bowie, its director, Johan Renck, fielded questions from Noisey editor-in-chief Eric Sundermann.
Renck said from the beginning that he wouldn’t discuss the symbolism of the film, rehearsed in his Bowery studio and shot in New York and Bucharest. But that didn’t stop one member of the audience, which happened to include longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti, from asking about the stranded astronaut with the smiley-face patch. “Could that be Major Tom?” she asked.
“Could it?” Renck retorted, to laughter. “Could it be? I don’t know, ma’am. I think, honestly, it’s up to anybody to take from it what you want.”Renck said he had a “firm idea” about the skeletal spaceman with the bejeweled skull, but he didn’t want to impose it on anyone. “So the answer is: maybe.”
The director began working with Bowie after deciding that he wanted a childhood hero to score the opening credits of his new drama, The Last Panthers, coming to Sundance next year. It turned out one of his collaborators had an in with the shapeshifting songsmith whose posters have hung in Renck’s room over the years. Bowie got in touch about the project quickly, while Renck was shooting a prison break in Suffolk, England.
“I hadn’t slept in about two years,” he said. “And I get a phone call in the most depressing hotel room ever— it was so depressing, it’s not even funny… And when I answered the phone it was like [in a sultry voice], ‘Uh, hi this is David Bowie’ I think I started crying!”
Renck, who directed music videos for New Order, Madonna and others before he moved on to drama, enjoyed returning to the format. He said Bowie was an easy collaborator – and one of the only artist/celebrities he has met who didn’t disappoint. “He’s genuine, he’s curious, he’s playful, he’s smart, he’s funny, he’s profound, he’s truthful – all of it,” the filmmaker gushed. “So it’s not intimidating, because he’s not trying to impose anything on you.”
During the creative process, Bowie and Renck spoke over Skype (yes, Bowie likes to Skype) and referenced Russian directors like Tartakovsky and German, among others. “Jodorowsky was obviously thrown around (Holy Mountain, for anyone who likes that stuff) and there was some Crowley stuff there– but that’s mostly me, because I like Crowley.”
There was an unlikelier influence, as well. At one point, Bowie sent Renck a YouTube clip of an early Popeye cartoon and said he wanted the video’s dancers to emulate the way the characters bobbed in place due to the primitive animation.
An audience member pointed out that the film’s influences were pretty diverse. “From Popeye to Crowley!” Renck agreed.
As mentioned when we gave you the heads up about the screening, Bowie’s new album, also titled “★,” comes out on his 69th birthday, January 8.