The Princess in China music video, a duet between Coldplay and Rihanna, was one such project for Kiwi-born New York director Alan Bibby and co-director Adria Petty.
The video features a smoking hot Rihanna lying seductively on a couch – the princess in a tower; a goddess – while Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin strides towards her rescue. It is, what Bibby calls, “a brutally on the nose metaphor”.
“Rihanna had just done this video with her being an abusive relationship, so interrogating the content of the song wasn’t an option (‘We Found Love’ with Calvin Harris,). She is from Barbados, and Chris is a white Englishman, and here we were talking about weaving all these mixed Asian metaphors into the video, going literal to the lyrics,” says Bibby.
“Adria and I were torn about it because there was the risk you’re going to be accused of cultural appropriation. We decided to just go for it – full tilt, Shaw Brothers, House of Flying Daggers– all the late-night flicks we grew up on; all the stuff we love, and make it a love letter to all of those films, artists and directors. But we thought the artists were going to hate us.”
To Bibby and Petty’s delight, they loved it. Rihanna would later own her look as “gangsta goth geisha”.
He acknowledges that having the kind of star power he has worked with in the room – the likes of which include Ariana Grande, Pharrell Williams and Stevie Wonder – can be intimidating.
“I was taught this by incredibly talented friends – as the director, the artists are putting themselves in your hands; they need to trust you. The artist has put his or her soul into creating that piece of music and by asking you to represent what they are trying to communicate takes a huge leap of faith on their part,” says Bibby.
“It is so important that I help them understand that I know and respect how important this is to them. They are people who care immeasurably about their craft and how they connect with people – the reason we all create is to connect. I have to prove to them that what I am doing is not for me, or the record label, it is for you the artist. Without trust we won’t get anything.”
Bibby loves music videos as a medium because music itself has such an importance. As he puts it, “Everybody remembers what song was playing when they lost their virginity”. Music is also what has helped bring him to where he is today.
“Growing up in New Zealand, I remember listening to my dad’s vinyl. Pulling the record out of the sleeve, and poring over every detail of the artwork. That led me to graphic design, but graphic design is a very solitary pursuit – I wanted the freedom of writing, the rigour of art direction, and the collaborative nature of direction.
“Making film lets me do all of those things,” says Bibby, who has directed documentaries, short films and commercials, including the Audi Q5 React commercial, the Bud Light Platinum ‘Equalizer’ 2014 Super Bowl spot and Pharrell Williams’s ‘Yellow Light’.
“Nobody is in New York because we love living here,” says Bibby. “My sister is a doctor back in New Zealand. She holds the power of life and death in her hands, and I’m more stressed out than she is – even though what I’m doing is not by a million miles as important.
“New York is expensive, it’s cold in winter and hot in summer, but the people are driven; they are among the most interesting you’re likely to meet, and that has allowed me to do what I do – I’m lucky to have friends and colleagues who are amongst the most talented in the world.”
In typical Kiwi fashion, Bibby puts his success down to luck too. “The people I have connected with and who have mentored me take the credit for anything I have achieved. I think the important thing now is to avoid the traps, like becoming tired and jaded.”
To do that, he says, it is important to always be searching for what excites you and finding people who share that excitement
“Boredom is amazing. If I can trace any skills I have now, any success I have now, it's the idea of boredom. Out of boredom comes the desire to make something up. Without boredom you've got nothing. Don’t plug yourself into the opiate of constant entertainment because you'll never grow.
“My parents told me to entertain myself as child. It’s what made me into the storyteller I am today.”
Bibby says that each one of us is a black box summation of everything we’ve ever done, desired or experienced, but we remain mysteries to ourselves because, “You can't use a screwdriver to take the same screwdriver apart.
“But how I find my creativity and stories I think is a result of certain inputs and outputs. Both require different mindsets. I try to absorb as much as I can during this immersion phase until eventually I get to a point where it’s like flipping a switch – I trust that everything I put in there has germinated something. It’s like putting everything that's relevant to the problem into a bowl, along with everything you've ever been interested in or learned, and that’s what takes you to a place of output.
“Sometimes I never really understand something until I am explaining it; talking it through with somebody – that's where I’ll see holes in my knowledge. We are the sum of our parts, and that’s not necessarily just us, but also the people we surround ourselves with; people we trust and who trust us.”
But it’s also about the creative trusting himself or herself.
“I’ve always made the so-called wrong decisions, maybe. I have always done things because I wanted to, not because it was the right decision. It felt right at the time and you do what feels right because you’ve reached a level of trusting yourself.”