In the 1980s and ’90s, music videos were the proving ground for vanguard directors to showcase their vision. You could turn on MTV and see groundbreaking work by directors like Jonas Akerlund, Mark Romanek, Michel Gondry, Floria Sigismondi, Hype Williams—and Matthew Rolston, who was recently featured on MTV’s new podcast “Videohead.” In the interview, Rolston talks about his standard-setting career as a director of music videos for artists ranging from Madonna, Foo Fighters, and Marilyn Manson to Seal, TLC, Beyonce, and Salt-N-Pepa.
The podcast is genuinely fascinating thanks to the incisive questions of host Daniel Ralston—who, given how similar their names sound, laughingly notes that he’s not related to Matthew—and Rolston’s remarkably candid, detailed answers. Asked about how he formulates a concept for a music video, Rolston explains a step-by-step process that includes holing up in his bathroom in the middle of the night, with headphones and perhaps a glass of wine “or smoking a substance that promotes meditative thinking,” and internalizing the song through repeated listenings.
Color is vital to Rolston’s visual style, and he describes the influence of artist Josef Albers and his fondness for Color-aid swatches, researching colors online (searching the color blue, for example), and pulling imagery that he’s intuitively drawn to. From this material, which his studio assistants will then print out and trim so that they’re all the exact same proportions, Rolston will physically lay out a narrative, write out and refine ideas, and arrive at a cohesive concept.
The soul of discretion, Rolston doesn’t dish on his famous clientele, but he does let fly a few witty remarks. Of working with the notoriously prickly Morrissey, Rolston notes that directing the video for “Alma Matters” meant just a day or two with the singer, but if he had to direct a whole film with Morrissey, “I might go into another room and stab my eyes out with knitting needles.”
Rolston also shares his insights into how the Hollywood image business has changed. He notes that until recently, it was photographers and magazine editors who interpreted the notion of celebrity through the way they presented the stars. “I was making a commentary on those stars by the way I put them together,” he says in the podcast. But now, stars make and control their image themselves. “In a way, star-making through imaging in photography by someone other than the stars or their immediate advisors is an old-fashioned construct,” he says.