As condolences poured in following the news of Prince’s death on Thursday, we hopped on the phone with Antoine Fuqua, who directed the singer’s “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” video in 1995. (He has since made the movies “Training Day,” “Olympus Has Fallen” and “Southpaw,” among others.)
Fuqua hadn’t met Prince when he was approached to work on “Beautiful Girl,” but what followed was a magical mystery ride at Paisley Park, the singer’s Graceland-esque home and recording studio. The song went on to become Prince’s final Top 10 hit, around the same time that nasty record-label contract disputes inspired him to write the word “SLAVE” on his cheek during performances. But Fuqua saw none of that drama rear its head: The Prince he knew was that of a warm, if enigmatic, collaborator.
When and how were you first approached to direct “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”?
It was in ’95. I was working with a company at the time that did commercials, and I got a call from Anne-Marie Mackay at Propaganda Films. She said that Prince wanted me to do a video for him. So I wrote an idea, but then he said he just wanted me to fly down to Paisley Park and talk about it. It was not the normal approach for a video. Usually you come up with the idea, you write the treatment and you collaborate, and then you go through the process. It was more like he just wanted me to come there and get into it, not overthink anything.
He flew me there to Minneapolis. It was the dead of winter. I think it was minus-20 degrees. You wouldn’t believe how cold it was. So when I got there, I got picked up and jumped in the car, me and my DP. We went to Paisley Park, and when you go in there, at the time, there were so many women all around. It was almost like a weird dream. It was just women everywhere, hanging out and sitting around. It was like walking into a Warhol painting with rock stars hanging out. It was kind of wild.
Who were these women? Models?
Yeah, they were models, and some women just looked like they were normal, pretty girls. Everybody was just hanging around, and I remember walking in and I’m looking for him, since obviously he’s the guy. I went to this back area, and finally somebody started walking down the steps and said, “I’m ready.” I looked around and looked up at the steps, and it took me a minute because all I saw was this red, paisley-type outfit. It was like something out of an amazing Fellini movie.
Out of thin air.
Yeah! It was wild. He came down the steps and he walked toward me and said, “I’m Prince.” And I introduced myself, and he said, “So where’s your crew? You ready?” Just like that. I was like, “To shoot? Like, right now?” He said, “Yeah. Ready?” And I’m looking at him going, “Uh, my crew’s not even all here yet. I don’t even know what we’re doing yet.”
He had his own soundstage, so we went to the back and looked at the soundstage. We were looking at his outfit because you could see through that outfit. If you look at the video, he has it on. So I said, “OK, well, I need to organize a little bit and we can do it.” He said, “All right, I’m gonna call you when I’m ready to go. I’m gonna go jam a little bit if you want to watch.” And then he went into a recording studio. His guys came in there, and all the girls were in there, and we just kind of jammed and hung out for most of that day, just talking. He was really interesting, you know? A cool dude. A regular guy.
Then, that night, I don’t know if it was 1 in the morning or 2 in the morning, but I’m at this little bed-and-breakfast he’d put me in ― a really nice place. It’s freezing outside, and my phone rings. I pick up the phone and hear, “What are you doing?” I said, “Who is this?” He has this deep voice. He said, “The boss.” I was like, “Boss? Whose boss?” He said, “Prince! You ready? I’m ready.” I said, “All right, let me wake up Giorgio,” my DP.
So you got out of bed and shot the video?
It’s Prince! Of course you’re going to jump out of bed and go. Hell yeah. I got out of the bed and we went to Paisley Park, and all these people were there. All the girls were around. We walked in, and he was ready to roll. It was a realization for me of why he was so special. It was like time and space didn’t matter. I don’t know if Prince even really paid attention to time. The moment of creativity is the moment, and you go at that moment.
By the time you got back over there, did you have a concept in mind?
I had an idea because he wanted to have a lot of women. We wanted all different types of women. So it was percolating as we spent time together that day. It was like being in a place with an artist who was collaborating on a painting. It was like, “OK, throw some blue in there. Now a little red. That’s nice. What do you think about that? Now let’s put this girl in a veil. OK, now I’ll call up this girl -- she’ll come over.” It was that kind of collaboration happening. But we knew we wanted all types of women in there, not just models or anything. He was trying to say something to all women in the world: that they were beautiful.
He’s that kind of guy where you just need to be up on your toes with him because he’s going. And you’re lucky to be going along with him. It was just one of those magical things.
Did you shoot the whole thing that night?
It was a few days. We just kept going. I gotta tell you, I don’t remember ever going back to that bed-and-breakfast, at all. I remember when we were going, Then, when I finished, I went back to LA. I stayed in touch with Prince, and I was cutting the video. Then Prince called me and was like, “Hey, could you send Giorgio back?” I was like, “For what?”
So my cameraman, Giorgio, wound up going back down there and shooting stuff with Prince. I said, “What are you doing out there? How long have you been there?” He said, “A month. At first, me and Prince would just shoot stuff, and then it turned into, ‘Hey, why don’t you do another video?" And then he just kept Giorgio down there to keep shooting. Prince decided to make other little videos, just personal things.
So Prince stole your DP, huh?
Well, he just kept going! If Prince decided that he liked you or he liked your art or what you brought to the table, it wasn’t something that ended. It was a continuation of that thing, until he went to the next thing.
Your video is the first one where Prince started using the symbol instead of his name, when he was also going through public contract disputes with Warner Bros. Did any of that impact the video? Or maybe the promotion of the song?
I don’t recall that. I remember the video being really well-received, and it did well. And the song, everybody loved it. It was a beautiful song. I don’t remember any controversy, and I don’t remember him ever mentioning it, ever. It was a weird freedom. Normally you go through the record labels and there’s a process with the whole thing. This one was more him. He was saying, “Yeah, let’s go, let’s just go. I want to do it this way and I want to kick some ideas around and not be stuck in some sort of structure.”
Do you know which of your projects Prince was attracted to that made him think of you for the video?
I don’t remember what he said. At that time, I was doing a lot of videos. I remember it happening fast. It was like, “Prince wants to do this video, and he wants to do it with you.” We got on the phone, which surprised me because his voice was so deep. I wasn’t even sure I was talking to Prince at first. I was like, “This is a joke. This is not Prince.” After hearing that high-pitched voice, all of a sudden I get on the phone, and it’s like, [deep, guttural voice] “Yeah, how you doing?” But it was very short conversation. I don’t think he loved talking on the phone. When I spoke to him, it was always about “let’s get together” -- not long conversations. He preferred face-to-face. He just wanted me to fly down and get into it and quit talking about it.
Did you guys stay in touch?
Not as much as I wish I had. We stayed in touch for a year after that, maybe a little bit more. Every once in a while, he would be in town, or I would reach out -- that kind of thing. Or Giorgio would be down there and tell me Prince wants to talk to me, and he’d put me on the phone. But it was more of that time and space, and then it was just not there. I moved on and he moved on. And Prince was very mysterious, the way he would pop up and disappear for a while.
What do you make of how elusive he became before his death?
I don’t know. I don’t know him as well as a lot of other people may claim to know Prince. I just know that when I was down there, he seemed to have a close group of musicians and people that he jammed with who were part of his world. That his was family. It’s interesting because he didn’t move to LA, he didn’t move to New York -- he stayed there. That was his world that he built, Paisely Park.
Actually, at the time, he showed me a design of a building that was the shape of a music symbol. It was a whole building made of glass. I think he was in the process of trying to build it. I don’t remember what happened with that.
Was he planing to build it on his property?
I think it was on his property. Like I said, I didn’t know him as intimately as some say they do. I just knew him from that quick time and what I walked away with. He was very private. It seemed like he would kind of disappear and go into his world, and then he would pop out again to do some genius work, and then he would go away again. It was hard to stay in touch because he was mysterious. That’s why when I heard the news I was praying. If it wasn’t him, I said, he’ll probably pop up next week. He’ll let us all sweat and miss him, and then he’ll pop up and give us some more amazing music. Unfortunately, he didn’t this time.
Do you have a favorite Prince memory?
My favorite memory is him coming down those steps. I mean, these are some pretty grand steps. You gotta picture it. It was very light inside, very bright. The steps, I don’t know if they’re marble, or what they were, but all I saw was a red thing coming down the steps, like out of a Fellini thing. And his platforms. And a really tight paisley suit. And I just couldn’t figure out who it was because there were girls all around. He just kind of appeared and floated down the steps. And then he steps close to you and it takes you a minute, if you’re a fan of Prince, to say, “Man, I’m standing in front of Prince.” And you’re thinking to yourself, “How fucking cool is that, to be Prince? To walk down those steps and say, ‘Hey, I’m Prince?’” I’m like, “Wow.” And he was very cool. He was just easy. He walked me around and showed me. It was cool, man.
This interview has been edited and condensed.