Jonas Åkerlund Talks 10 Years of Britney's 'Hold It Against Me'

"She was at that place where she had a lot to say about her situation."

It feels like everyone’s talking about Britney Spears right now, largely prompted by the recent release of Samantha Stark’s Framing Britney Spears, the sixth episode of the Hulu/FX docuseries The New York Times Presents. There’s lots to say at a later point about the film itself, not to mention the spin-off headlines it’s inspiring. My biggest (and very on-brand) gripe with it, as I wrote in my otherwise positive review for AwardsWatch, is that it largely skips over Britney’s actual art:

With the exception of a couple clips from her breakthrough in the late ‘90s, we aren’t treated to any of her musical or visual output. This matters because it was the main channel through which she fought back and attempted to reclaim aspects of her narrative during this time. In largely omitting it, the film inadvertently makes it seem as if she sat back and watched as [Justin Timberlake released and promoted his “Cry Me a River” video], and as she became late-night’s favourite punching bag. (This was simply not the case.) The omission runs the slight risk of discrediting one of the film’s prime arguments, which is that Spears has never been as helpless or malleable as many have liked to believe.   

That final hyperlink above is to Britney’s video for “Hold It Against Me” (2011), directed by Jonas Åkerlund. The video—in which Britney pretty heavily alludes to her tabloid rise, fall, and ongoing recovery—played a substantial role in my thesis on Åkerlund’s film and music video work (which was more or less about surveillance technology and culture, including paparazzi culture.) We unfortunately never got to it when he and I spoke last summer, so I reached out to him again when I remembered that it’d be turning 10 today. He gave me a call just after Joe Biden’s inauguration last month, a day or so before the trailer for Framing Britney Spears dropped. Here’s that conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Since we last spoke, you’ve been hard at work on Clark [his forthcoming Netflix series starring Bill Skarsgård].

Yeah, I’m doing this series. And we got delayed because of COVID, and because we got delayed, we got this snow and stuff. We shot three episodes and I’m editing now, and then we’re gonna go back and shoot in about a month, so we have three more episodes to shoot.

And that’s all going well?

I think so! It’s a lot of fun. I wrote it, and it’s a lot of fun to actually work on the stuff that you write. You have an idea and it becomes your own, and then you finally get to do it, so it’s really fun.

You’re filming it in Sweden. Is that a nice change of pace for you, work-wise?

Yeah, for sure. I mean, I’m Swedish and all, but I haven’t worked in Sweden in 20 years or so. So [everything] is a little bit new for me. But it’s good, it’s fun.

And it’s nice to be able to work in your first language, I imagine.

Yeah, exactly.                                                                                                 

So, this is officially three Skarsgårds under your belt, right? We’ve got Alexander, Valter, and Bill?

[Laughs] You’re right, I didn’t think about that, but yes, that’s true. I’ve been friends with Stellan [Skarsgård] for 20 years, so I’ve known the family for many, many years.

I think the internet would probably break if you put Stellan in a Lady Gaga video or something.

Yeah… actually, there’s a [fourth] Skarsgård and that’s in Clark for the first few scenes when Clark [Olofsson, the Swedish gangster] is a young boy. [Bill’s] little brother, Kolbjörn, is playing him—Clark—as a child. So I have four Skarsgårds under my belt.

That’s exciting. I’ll add that to my notes. Did you happen to see Gaga perform earlier at the inauguration?

Yes, I did, of course. I’ve been glued in front of the computer.

What did you think?

It was great. Didn’t you think it was good? It was great, huh?

I liked it. I liked her outfit among all the coats.

Yeah, I’ve said it before but she can pull off anything. She’s the kind of artist who can just do anything.

Yeah, she’s really a chameleon. So, I wanted to chat with you again because your video for Britney Spears’s “Hold It Against Me” turns 10 in a few weeks [on February 17], and you should know that it’s an extremely loved video among her fans. A decade ago today, you would have been a couple days out from shooting it. What do you remember of that shoot?

I don’t remember so much of the pre-production. I remember that we were meant to shoot it on location but we ended up shooting it at Paramount, in one of the big studios, which was probably the best because we had so much to do in one… I can’t remember if we shot that video in one or two days [two days, the weekend of January 22 and 23], it was a very quick shoot. We had a lot of stuff to shoot in one day or two days. And I remember all the fittings because there were so many different [outfits, styled by Åkerlund’s wife, B.], and then all the dance choreography. It’s one of those ideas that’s more of like a visual treat, and just trying to make sense of all the different sets and all these different things. And then all the stunts, like with the fight sequence and all that. It was a lot of physical pre-production, and then maybe it doesn’t show in the video but that set when her dress becomes really tall and she rises up—that whole set with the cylinder-like room with all the screens and stuff, it was huge. That set was so big. It’s probably one of the biggest sets I ever had, actually. It was really, really big. It looked spectacular in real life, I wish you could have seen it in real life. It was just spectacular, the size of that thing. It was a monster.

It seems like the video would’ve been a technical challenge, between the dress, and the paint, and the dancers, and the huge rig that lifts her up.

Yeah, exactly. That’s what I mean, and all the press was probably mostly focused on that. All the focus [was] on getting the choreography right, getting all the technical aspects. That cylinder room was filled with screens, and getting the picture on those screens—that was a big challenge. 

You sort of put 2011 Britney in conversation with her past eras and videos there. Is she someone that you’d paid attention to as she was coming up in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s?

I mean, how couldn’t you? Of course, she was always around. We talked about working together for a long time before we actually did it. She had all this backstory with the lyrics from the song, so there was the whole idea of reflecting back on her life and her creativity. And she had just come out of all those difficult years that she had, so there was a lot to build on. But we did it in kind of an artistic way, and she expressed herself with the [dance sequences].

It was a comeback video for her of sorts. It’d been a couple years since she’d done anything. You depict her as this meteor hitting the earth at the beginning.

You’re right. As a video director, it’s like a dream to work with an artist like that. She’s multi-talented, she understands the value of videos, she has an ambition level that’s high, she’s a dancer, she looks great… all those things are everything I need to do something great.

She’d wanted to work with you for a long time before then, as you’ve said. Apparently, she was a huge fan of Madonna’s “Ray of Light” (1998), like a lot of people. Is it fair to say that that video opened up a ton of work for you?

Of course. That was my first American job. But it was a combination of the timing in the world. Music videos [were] important, and there [were] a lot of jobs around, and a lot of people got the opportunity to work around that time. But coming out of Sweden, and all my Roxette work, and all the Prodigy work that I did… I did a video with Moby and then Madonna and Prodigy basically at the same time. To have three videos coming out at the same time… it was momentum that was impossible to create or plan out. The timing with everything was perfect.

I should tell you, I really loved the Roxette Diaries (2016) film that you made. I feel like that probably would’ve been an emotional job to put that together.

It was, but I think mostly for [Roxette’s] Per [Gessle] and for Marie [Fredriksson] and Åsa [Nordin], Per’s wife, who actually shot most of it. But it was kind of fun how that came about, because every summer… we have a summer house here in Sweden, which is very close to Per’s summer house, and every summer we meet and we do dinners and we hang out. When I came to his house, he kept telling me, “I have this box in the basement with all this footage from our tours,” and I’m like, “Okay, that’s interesting.” And I kept telling him, “You should probably back it up. Tapes are not good in the long run, you know. They fade out.” And then after him telling me this for like… years and years, I said, Okay, this time I’m not gonna tell him, I’m just gonna take this box with me when I leave, and I’m gonna do it for you. [Laughs] I took the box with me when I left, and then I started to digitize all the footage and I was like, Wait, this is way too good for the fans to not see it. This is like a smorgasbord for the fans. The ultimate behind-the-scenes [footage] from a decade of success with one of the biggest bands from that time. So, I cut together this very long version of it, basically lining [the tapes] up. Per really liked it, and Marie, too. So that’s how that came about.

I also love your narrative features, obviously, but I think your editing style really injects something interesting into the doc format. Just to get myself back on track, Britney stands out among some of your clients because you’ve only ever worked together the one time. You generally seem to be a repeat collaborator kind of guy otherwise, but is that just the timing issue?

I think so. If she asked me, I would say yes because I think she’s great. But I also know that right after that time, videos were kind of fading away a little bit. And then I know she did her Vegas thing, and I started to do more movies. It’s always timing. I don’t think there’s a lack of will there, it’s more of a timing issue.

There are several points in the video where you digitally enlarge her mouth, in a way that makes some of the stills very funny.

[Laughs] That’s funny.

There are fans out there that think that was sort of a message on your end, like her having this fake, digitized smile, but I was wondering what you had to say about that.

Oh, no. I think that was more… the basic idea of the video is like, everything is over the top. Everything is a little bit too much. She becomes 20-feet tall and she fights herself like a crazy woman and she’s doing all these over-the-top things. I think it was more of like a visual treatment, I guess, like a fun detail. I do love when the fans see those details because I spend a lot of time coming up with these small, fun things for fans to find, and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they do. It’s really fun when they do. But there was no deep meaning in those effects at all, other than just making a fun, cool video.

With these fans, especially of pop divas—and you’ve worked with a lot of those—they’re watching things a thousand times looking for secret messages.

Right.

There’s another shot in the video when she’s fighting her double and her double kicks her in the knee, and some fans thought that that was on purpose, too, because she had this knee injury in 2004 that’s this cursed moment in her story.

Yeah, I don’t know if that was meant to be, either. The fans that analyze my videos are way smarter than I am. [Laughs] And sometimes I go with it, and I’m like, “Yeah, exactly, that’s what I meant.” But most of the time, it’s not like that. The knee thing was probably just part of the choreography. That was a challenge, as you can imagine, because she was actually fighting herself and we needed to put that together in a really smart way, so that’s a really technical scene to get that, the way it looks. We did it together with the choreographer and the stunt coordinator. We figured out the choreography of the fight. That itself is a pretty big deal, and then to execute it’s obviously even bigger.

Twins and doubles appear in a lot of your work, and I know last time you told me that it was a weird coincidence that you ended up having twins of your own. But you have a lot of videos where a star has a duplicate. “Gets Me Through” (2001) is like that, where Ozzy Osbourne’s seeing himself in all of these rooms. So is P!nk’s “Sober” (2008), where she’s making out with herself. There are creepy twins in Beyoncé’s “Haunted” (2013). Was there meant to be a meaning behind Britney’s double in the video?

We all know the problems that Britney had back then, and I think there was an idea that she has some sort of inner conflict. I think the easy explanation is that you have an inner conflict and you’re arguing with yourself. And I think one [Britney] is blue and one of them is red, or something like that. Traditionally, it’s always black and white, but we made it blue and red. But I don’t think there was much deeper meaning [to] that. I created a lot of that video in the edit, like all the footsteps and cutting the music. And also Britney letting me edit her music, because sometimes the artist doesn’t like to add sound effects and do all those things that I did on that video, but she was fine with it, which was cool.

I wondered about that, because there’s this long interlude where there’s a remixed version of the song. It sounds like you’ve maybe followed some of the #FreeBritney movement then?

I mean, totally. Like I said, the video had a lot of meaning to it at the time. She was at that place where she had a lot to say about her situation.

Right, it’s interesting because I think quite a bit of your work with Gaga seems to have been inspired by the same tabloid culture, and perhaps even Britney specifically.

Oh wow, that’s a tough one. I do see them as very different types of artists, I guess. They’re both talented and they both can do anything they put their heads to, but I don’t know. I think if something comes back in any of my videos, it’s probably more me than the artist. I might repeat myself or I might get reminded of something. I think it’s a little bit more that than comparing the two artists. I would never compare them, or any other artists I work with. I see them all as very unique and very special.

There was a weird rumour that TMZ started after the shoot the you’d had to use a last-minute dance double for her, and you and Britney both had to put statements out in response to that.

Ugh, that’s such a typical thing. I don’t know why that’s even interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with… I mean, unless you do some heavy stunts, it’s very rare in music videos to have any sort of double for anything. Especially when it comes to dance choreography. When you work with an artist like Britney, she’s a better dancer than all the dancers, so why would we have a double? We always work with stand-ins that [can] stand in for light and try [on] dresses and stuff, basically to save time for artists and for us. Obviously, for the fight scene, that’s stunts. She did most of those things herself. It was very popular for a while to try to catch faults in music videos, or wrongs in music videos. I remember people going frame by frame looking for something that was wrong. But I have a very clean conscience… I haven’t really done that. I look to my artist and work with what they have, and [make] the best out of it. On that video, we definitely didn’t have any dance doubles.

That’s nice to hear. I don’t think that’ll surprise her fans. I only have a few quick questions left, and they’re mostly burning questions that aren’t about Britney. I’ve wanted to know for a long time: with Beyoncé’s “Hold Up” (2016) video, did you direct the underwater segment or does your segment start when she opens the doors?

I did the underwater stuff. I did two segments on that one: she jumped off a building and landed in the water and we did all the underwater stuff, and then we did the part where she opens the doors and the water flows out.

So the end of “Pray You Catch Me,” that’s you… all the way through to the end of the monster truck part [in Lemonade].

Yeah, exactly. She drives away with the monster truck.

Wow, I didn’t realize that but that makes sense based on the editing in the underwater sequence. Is it true that the house that’s featured in A Bigger Splash (2015) was yours? I read that online and I was curious.

What’s A Bigger Splash?

Luca Guadagnino’s movie with Ralph Fiennes. It says that on IMDB.

That that’s my house?

Yeah, it says that it’s your house. [Laughs]

No, that’s not true, but it sounds cool. [Laughs]

I was just curious. You’ve named Jean-Baptiste Mondino as a major inspiration.

Mondino, Tarsem, Tony Kaye, Jean-Paul Goude, and a few more were probably the main reason why I do what I do today. I was very, very inspired by their work and excited about everything they did. I was like, Damn. They started way before me, and I loved fashion and I loved photography and I loved everything that they were doing.

In the music video space, are there any artists or directors coming up in the industry now whose work you really admire or are paying attention to?

I wish I could answer that. Up until only a few years ago, I knew everything and knew everybody and knew exactly what was going on, and who’s hot and who’s doing cool things. But I think this is like an old man syndrome thing, I’ve just lost track. I don’t know what people do anymore. I do see interesting things and it’s like, Wow that’s cool, but I don’t really know who’s doing what and what’s what anymore. I’m sorry. I wish I was ten years younger, believe me.

No, that’s okay. You’ve also been busy with your features and with your Netflix deals and whatnot.

That’s true. To be honest, my focus has been slowly switching over to the longer-format stuff. And writing, I do a lot of writing now. You’re right, that’s one of the reasons, too.  

Right, well, I can let you go, that’s all I need from you today.

Where are you?

I’m in Toronto.

Is that where you live?

Yes.

Nice, I’ve spent a lot of time up there.

Yeah, I know that Polar (2019) was filmed here because I recognize a lot of the city in that film.

Yeah, exactly. I stayed there for six months or so. I’ve been there a few more times. I was there with Billy Idol last year shooting one of his live performances there. And then I shot a music video there years ago with James Blunt, remember him?

Yes, I do.

Alright, cool. I like Toronto. ●

Mononym Mythology is a newsletter about mostly pop divas and their (visual) antics. It now lives over at Ghost, so that’s where you’ll want to subscribe. I’m also on Twitter and Instagram.