Amid the questions about what Grammy categories Halsey belongs in with her increasingly alternative-leaning music, there’s at least one division where she’ll likely be in contention that cuts across all genres: best music film. She starred in and wrote “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power,” a 50-minute film that premiered in IMAX theaters Aug. 26 and had its streaming bow on HBO Max Oct. 7. The movie tells a narrative about a expectant queen who falls afoul of her country’s ruling class, with plenty of interstitial silences — pregnant pauses, if you will — and a few bits of dialogue to further set apart a highly ambitious project that had Halsey’s own second-term pregnancy as both a challenge and a boon in filming.
Colin Tilley, the film’s director, and Jamee Ranta, its executive producer (who also took on the role of creative/line producer), talked with Variety about a Prague shoot that was obviously very different from the many music videos they’ve worked on together (including numerous ones for Justin Bieber’s latest album, “Justice,” like the Diane Keaton-starring “Ghost”). “If I Can’t Have Love…” falls somewhere into a netherworld between short subject, video album and feature-length film, but if that makes it less easily categorizable for some, it’s a sweet spot for these filmmakers.
In separate interviews, they discussed a range of subjects relating to the film, including the practical effects and FX they used to both hide and heighten Halsey’s pregnancy (she was five months into it at the time of shooting, but the film portrays her in stages ranging from pre-conception to ready to give birth, and after), and how the record company dealt with such a dark film (spoiler: Halsey gets what Halsey wants, but Capitol supported her vision).
Tilley: What’s so amazing about working with Ashley (aka Halsey) is she’s such a risk-taker and she approached this film from the very beginning saying, “I’m not going to do what a normal pop artist would do. That’s what everybody expects. I want to do something that I truly love, and that I would watch and that I would want to be a part of.” And she stayed true to that from the very beginning. And that’s why I was onboard from the very beginning, because one of the first things that she said was: “This film is going to end with me guillotined.” And that’s what this whole concept was built upon. And so from the very beginning, it was always going to be dark.
Ranta: Halsey does what she wants. [Laughs.] But I will say that it is a risk to take on a project like this for a record label. And usually we get pushback, and they were all on board and very supportive of this concept and this idea, and it was really nice as a creative team to be able to receive that type of support from the label. Because that’s not always the case. So, shout-out to Capitol Records and their whole team.
Tilley: Halsey reached out to me to work on this project probably three months before we ended up going going to Prague. She had this whole kind of mood board written out, as far as kind of the structure of the way that things would work. Based on that concept, I worked with her on the storyline as she was writing the script, putting it all together into some kind of narrative structure. She was still working on the music, and I didn’t hear any of that music or even find out that Trent and Atticus were doing the music until I actually got to Prague to start shooting. It was really just having to kind of trust your gut as far as like, how am I going to tell this silent movie, the story for a silent movie, without actually knowing what the full songs are going to be yet? So it was a really, really interesting process. But I knew the lyrics, and I knew the intentions of each song that Ashley was writing.
Ranta: I feel like this (film) is a fine0art piece. You have custom-designed Vivienne Westwood pieces. You have the top stylist in Hollywood right now as part of this. The artwork and every painting in the castle and every fabric has been very strategically chosen and placed where it is. The makeup that Halsey did herself was very calculated and well thought out to create these looks. This is like a fashion horror film that has music-video elements to it. So you can’t quite define it or put it into any specific genre. It’s an hour long, so it’s not like a full, full-length feature and it’s not quite a short film. It’s just a new medium. And her album release was at the net. Even our photographer on set was very, very careful about how he styled and framed things that were meant for the album artwork.
Tilley: I read the story that she was trying to accomplish, and I was like, okay, this is a very interesting take on what it’s like to be somebody in the spotlight, and getting pregnant, and all the perception that happens there. But then she basically took that concept about what’s currently happening to her and flipped it to back in the day in the 1300s or 1400s, where it was a whole different ordeal. But still nothing has really changed. It was just more extreme. So, it’s really like a modern-day horror story in that sense. Being pregnant at that time was horrifying, for so many reasons, and that’s what we were leaning into telling here.
Ranta: I presented Romania, Croatia, France, England and Ukraine, and I really did a thorough search and reached out to some production companies and some people I’ve worked with before. But Prague area and Czech Republic have a very, very strong production base. I really felt like Prague was the location that we needed to shoot. We ended up shooting in two different castles, but the main castle is an 11th century castle that I’ve always been wanting to go to, just as a tourist. They typically wouldn’t allow filming, but because the country was shut down during COVID and thad no tours scheduled, we were able to really maximize on that opportunity.
Tilley: I’ve never experienced a feeling of focus like that in my life, because before this point, I’d go back-to-back on videos where every week I’m shooting a different video. So naturally you have a little bit of set ADD. I think that it’s getting close to 300 music videos I’ve done at this point; I stopped counting after 200. And in the last 11, 12 years that I’ve been directing, I’ve gotten two days on set, three days max, in order to execute a storyline. So for the first time in my life, I’m like, oh my gosh, I have two weeks on set to shoot something? The amount of prep work was unlike anything I’d experienced, but it was the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life. After I left, I said: This is where I want to live. This is the space that I want to be in.
Director Colin Tilley, producer Jamee Ranta, filmmakers for Halsey’s “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power”
Tilley: Shooting in IMAX was incredible. The amount of information that those cameras take in is unreal, so when you’re shooting in castles from the 1100s and you’re shooting these huge sequences with all these people in them, you get to hold that quality. Yeah, the cameras are a little bit bigger, but Elias, my DP, grew up working with IMAX cameras with his father, so he was super-used to the process. We just had to basically bulk up our post machines as far as the way that we’re downloading all the information. I want to shoot everything on those cameras now. Even when you’re doing more intimate scenes, the information that you take in, again, it makes it that much more intimate and that much more vulnerable. When I’d be talking to Ashley about different shots, I’d be like, “Hey, this is a closeup, but remember, your face is going to be like a hundred feet tall on the screen here. You have to make sure to sell every centimeter of your face, as far as expressing your different emotions.” It was really fun to be able to play with all of that in a whole different light, because you’re not watching this on your iPhone… well, people are now, but doing it for IMAX was a very, very cool experience.
Ranta: We had over 200 cast and crew. So we had to make sure everyone’s protected, we had COVID testing, PCR testing, just like we do here in the United States, and everyone made a very enclosed pod where we didn’t see or talk to anyone outside of the people we were working with and their direct, immediate families. We had no crew cases and very few cases of COVID among our general background extras, in which case they were obviously replaced prior to ever being in person. And that was a challenge. Halsey was pregnant during the process. We wanted to make sure that she felt safe. We wanted to make sure that she is healthy as she’s nurturing a baby inside her while we make art about the birthing process.
[On how Halsey was made to appear more pregnant or less pregnant]: That’s movie magic, baby! [Laughs.] That was a very, very intense strategy and calculations and collaboration on everything from our first AD scheduling things to the way we designed the shots with our director and cinematographer, as well as the conversations with our stylist, Law Roche, and the designer of the dress. One of those dresses, the main teal and maroon dress, is a custom Vivienne Westwood gown. So, paying attention to the way things are cut and angled for each period or each month and each stage of pregnancy. So it was a mix of that as well as a mix of aamera angles, lenses and VFX enhancements. You know, movie magic. We can’t give away all the tricks. We’ve got to be mysterious.
Tilley: Yes, she was five months pregnant, and by the time we were done shooting, she was about six. But that (stage) is just a really small pocket of this film as far as the timeline (for the character). So it was definitely a lot of practical effects, whether it was different pregnancy stuffings that we could put in her dresses, but also her main stylist did an incredible job being able to hide that belly with some of these wardrobe pieces. That was something that was extremely helpful for us, because yes, there is stuff that we can do in post effects to be able to make her not look pregnant, but we wanted to make it feel as real as possible on set. And a lot of times I would be shooting a scene and be like, this is crazy, because she does not look pregnant here. And it was just such a genius job on the wardrobe side of being able to hide that and really manipulate it.
You know, your body is going through so much when you’re pregnant. And it was definitely like, we were working in some pretty extreme conditions. It was like extremely cold at times; it started snowing one day. and I was so impressed that Ashley was able to push through every single day, no matter what. It was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen, where I was like, I’m curious what’s actually going to happen here. And yes, I did have to change up the style that I shot this, because sometimes I would have two hours blocked out to shoot a scene the way that I was hoping, and then it’s like, oh wait, it’s freezing cold here — I can’t have her on-set for even close to that long. I have 15 minutes to shoot this scene. And so I’d have to flip the entire way that I approached shooting this entire piece. And I think it really worked to our advantage as far as some of these longer takes and some of the choices that I made as far as the way that we blocked out the camera.
Ranta: We’re currently involved in a transition phase of moving into more long form work. I’ve done a couple of features myself. We’ve done some (other) short films together, like “Mr. Happy” with Chance the Rapper, and a lot of our music videos lately have been narrative-driven, like the ones with Justin Bieber, We’re pushing the envelope and breaking the mold of what long-form cinema can be. It doesn’t have to always follow the same structure or model of the studio wave. We’re be excited to come and be that outlier or that niche team to kind of move into that space.
But I was in an interview and this guy was like, “Yeah, enough about all those music videos. Tell me about this feature you did. “And I thought to myself, he has no idea, because when you do a music video, like a studio picture or a blockbuster film, you may also have explosions and helicopters and a crowd of 60, 70 people and all of these things — and we pull that stuff off all the time with three days of prep.