Johan Renck on directing Bowie's final videos
When Swedish director Johan Renck contacted David Bowie to write the theme tune for Sky's diamond heist drama The Last Panthers, he didn’t just get a great score - he also ended up collaborating on what turned out to be Bowie’s very last videos…
One simple request sparked a remarkable collaboration. One which, especially after the passing of singer and performer David Bowie, left behind a legacy of particular meaning.
“I wanted a hero of mine to write the music for The Last Panthers,” explains Renck when asked how he and the singer started working together. “David Bowie was my youth icon.” Fully aware it was a long shot, he contacted the artist and to his surprise Bowie agreed to come on board.
No doubt Renck’s reputation played a big part in this. The director’s credits include episodes of Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, music videos for stars such as Beyoncé and Madonna, and award-winning commercials for brands such as Nike and H&M.
While Renck’s original idea was for Bowie to write the theme tune for Sky's diamond heist drama, which the Swede directed, the two quickly found “weird common creative ground” and ended up collaborating on what turned out to be Bowie’s very last videos.
The music Bowie delivered for The Last Panthers was “dark, brooding and beautifully sentimental”, a perfect match for what Renck describes as his style of “quintessentially Swedish dark melancholy”. It wasn’t long after this that the – admittedly smitten – director ended up at the helm of Lazarus and the 10-minute Blackstar video.
"There was a lively exchange of ideas and Bowie had many thoughts which ended up in the finished video - he is very much an explorer of ideas and a collaborative person by nature. He is a genius, a brilliant man with an exploring mind and a clear idea of the look and feel he is trying to achieve.”
The intensely creative period resulted in the poignantly surreal Blackstar video (the first song released from the album of the same name) and the captivating, brutally honest Lazarus, now interpreted as Bowie's heartfelt parting gift to his dedicated fans.
Blackstar was shot in New York and Bucharest, and part of the success is due to the brilliant work delivered by production designer Jan Houllevigue who works on all Renck’s projects. “I may not have the same DP but my production designer never changes. I tend to work with the same people regardless of the genre.”
Renck made a name for himself as a prolific music video director for the industry’s biggest names, which also include Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams and British rock band New Order. But working with David Bowie was different. "To be honest," says Renck, “I did not consider Blackstar a music video as such. It is nothing like the videos I have made before.”
When looking at the future, a change can be felt. “I am engaged in TV and movies now and feel I have completed the music-video-making chapter in my life. I have done what I could do with regards to that genre.”
“I come from Sweden where everything has a sense of darkish mood and melancholy, and this seems to be what I am drawn to in TV and film work.”
The director is currently developing something new and searching for more projects over which he can have creative ownership, such as The Last Panthers, which Renck also exec-produced.
No doubt he will succeed, but regardless of his future work and the big names he has already collaborated with, he will forever be admired and thanked as the one who directed the great David Bowie’s last goodbye.