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Meet Emma Westenberg, The Director Behind Janelle Monae's "PYNK" Vid

“We got the pink!” sings Janelle Monae in her recent single, “PYNK”, which captures queer sexuality using pop-meets-psychedelic beats. The track, from Monae’s upcoming Dirty Computer album, also features electronic goodness from Grimes, and this isn’t their first collab; the duo also teamed up in 2015 for Art Angels’ “Venus Fly”. This time around, the banger’s corresponding music video imagines a futuristic desert town in which queer sexuality is seen through a playful, pink lens. In the video, Monae and her girl crew dance in trousers shaped like vaginas, hang out in her bedroom wearing their underwear, and drive around in a convertible.

As the flirty and fun single quickly went viral, I wondered who was the mastermind behind its soft aesthetics and understated stills, such as a bubblegum bubble being blown, grapefruit and melted ice, and a pink frosted donutand what the inspiration was behind the music video. 

In this interview, Milk sat down with Emma Westenberg (represented by HALAL and Partizan), the Amsterdam-born LA-based director of “PYNK”, to find out how her collaboration with Monae came about, how she translated the lyrics of the song into artful visuals, and what her experience was working with the pop singer on this project.

When did you initially start making films?

I started filming with my mother’s video camera when I was about 8 years old. I made documentaries about my not so interesting cement suburb and cooking shows featuring my cat, who I pretended to cook. In high school I made videos for school projects, but I never really thought of it as a possibility for a future job as none of my family or other people in my environment worked in film or art. I figured I would go to university but didn’t know what I would study yet, so after high school I went to Brazil for half a year to travel and think about it. That was an amazing and eye opening experience. I thought, if I’m always drawing, filming and making stuff, why not go to the art academy? So I applied to the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. During my studies there, I found out film was my favorite medium and that’s how I got into film.

What do you love most about filmmaking?

The cooperative aspect of it. I love developing a project with other visionaries, musicians, technicians and making this thing in my head come to life.

How did the Janelle Monae collaboration come about?

Through a music video commissioner. I pitched to direct the project and then went back and forth with Janelle and her team over the creative assets.

What was it like working with her on this project?

From the beginning, it was very collaborative and fun. In developing the video, Janelle, her Wondaland team and choreographer Jemel Williams and I worked together very closely. We started by sending treatments back and forth and later, I stopped for meetings at the dance rehearsals, and then ultimately worked together on set. Janelle is an amazing, talented performer. As a director she was incredible to work with — She was sweet, laid-back, communicative and pleasant. In between shots, she was having lunch with the cast and crew in her bathrobe.

Where did you draw inspiration for the visual narrative of the music video?

“PYNK” is about female sexuality and the lyrics were the biggest inspiration for the visuals. A visual reference from the Wondaland team was the movie Holy Mountain. We liked the abstract, spacey vibe in the desert, which relates to the futuristic aspect of the story of “PYNK”.

The video is part of a longer story, every song on the album has a video and together they form the motion picture Dirty Computer. The storyline is a creation of Wondaland, from which we developed the visuals together.

How did you translate this reference into the video’s visual details? The detail shots were my favorite part of the video. Can you tell us more about them?

The lyrics of the song are pretty self explanatory and fun. I tried to make a visual poem to go along with the vibe and meaning behind it. The detail shots were symbolic to the lyrics of the song. They reference female sexuality, sometimes in a critical way (such as the shot with the underwear that says sex sells on it) and show how beautiful womanhood is: sweet, celebratory and funny.

What other projects have you worked on recently? Have you done any work for brands?

I’ve made editorials for Vogue, Levi’s, Asos and Hardeman. Last summer I shot my first feature film and I’m also working on a comedy show at the moment! I like to work different fields of film, commercial, narrative and documentary!

What’s up next for you?

I have a full plate at the moment, and have to time manage properly. So maybe get an agent first (anyone?)

Who are some filmmakers or photographers that inspire you the most and why?

Gregg Araki, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Francois Ozon, because they are/were totally original, smart and funny. Also they never made the same movie twice, they are experimental and inspirational makers.

Images courtesy of Emma Westenberg

Stay tuned to Milk for more creative badassery. 

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