Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Snapshot: Alek Keshishian on shooting Madonna

Everyone told her she was insane to let me make In Bed With Madonna. You have to remember, this was the pinnacle of her career. She was like Gaga, with one difference: Madonna was the woman every girl wanted to be, and every guy wanted to be with. She was this beautiful, hot 31-year-old who turned every head in every room in every country in the world, and I was just a 24-year-old upstart.

I initially got in contact with Madonna in 1988, when I was a student at Harvard, and I'd asked her permission to use her music for this pop opera I was making based on Wuthering Heights. She actually asked to see the old VHS my parents had made of the show and for the next two years she kept an eye on my career making pop videos for then ‘unknowns’ like Bobby Brown. Then one day, the phone rang and it was Madonna. No agent or anything. Four hours later, I was at the sound stage at Disney Studios watching rehearsals for her new Blond Ambition tour. This porcelain doll comes sweat-drenched off the stage and asks me what I thought. I didn’t want to seem fawning so I said it was ‘Ok.’ My agent called later, screaming down the phone: ‘Are you crazy! Madonna thinks you hate her show!’
Originally, she just wanted me to film some backstage stuff at the beginning of the tour in Japan. We really bonded out there and I ended up shooting everything on and off stage. When we got back to LA, on the next leg of the tour, I thought we had a documentary in the making.

The budget for the film was $4.5 million. This was before the advent of reality TV, and the only big-budget precedent was U2: Rattle and Hum, which was a big flop because it was too sanitized. I was young and reckless, so I asked for the say over the final cut. It’s hard to believe now that she said yes. Her agent told her she was crazy. After that, I followed her everywhere for the next four months, throughout America, Canada and eventually Europe.

Nothing happened between us during the making of the film. She already had enough people hitting on her. She was like catnip to guys. She wasn’t above going for eye candy (but they’d have to prove they were smart or she would get bored with them), although the story about her getting it on with the only heterosexual guy in the troupe, Oliver, was totally made up.
Instead, we had more of an intense, private friendship. I was among her first calls in morning and the last ones at night. I was reading The Sheltering Sky at one point and I made her read it too. I called her Kit and she called me Port, after the travelling American artist couple in that novel. Her boyfriend of the time Warren Beatty (who she’d recently met on the set of Dick Tracy) was a bit weird with me to be honest. But I ignored it. I was her diary and confidant and we never fell out.

At one point, in Paris, when I was filming her perform Keep It Together, my crane knocked her antenna out and her sound was ruined and everyone was like, ‘Ha ha, Alek’s going to get it at last!’ But I never did. Madonna’s contrasts fascinated me. Take the famous scandal on the Toronto leg of the tour when the police told her manager she had to change the show because of the notorious masturbation scene after her ‘Like a Virgin’ number. She defiantly insisted she wasn’t going to change her show, yet the minute her manager had disappeared, she was like, ‘Oh, I hope they don’t arrest me!’ She started rubbing the hand of one of her backing singers for reassurance. I was really keen to catch that vulnerability. I told the cameraman, ‘Get that hand!’
I wanted to show all Madonna’s facets, not just one. So one minute she’s being outrageous, performing a blow job on a bottle, the next you see her as the little girl (like the dynamic with her father throughout the film and when she visits her mother’s grave in Detroit), then she’s a control freak over the show, and the next she’s being maternal with the dancers. The duality applied in her love life, too. On the one hand, she wanted to be swept off her feet by a prince and on the other; she wanted to be in control.

We started the European tour in June. I thought I hadn’t captured enough of her vulnerability, so when were staying at the Ritz Paris the following month, I said to her, ‘I want to get that touching openness I feel when you first wake up in the morning and we have our phone chats.’ At first she was worried. She said, ‘Are you saying that I seem hard?’ I said no and told her I was going to have my crew in her bedroom first thing when she woke up...

See the full article in the September 2011 issue of Harper's Bazaar