Photo by J.B. Nicholas
Madonna blasting past Summer Stage security and heading to confront Ween.
Mercury in Nikes: Fast times at Madonna movie shoot
By J.B. Nicholas
The 50-year-old mother of four had had enough. She stood, fixed her jaw, tightened her eyes and, then, with all the raw determination of a crack kingpin preparing to defend his street-corner empire, stepped breathlessly to her business.
Madonna was on the move.
A black leather jacket didn’t cover so much as sheathe her back. The vintage eyeglasses that had adorned her face were now clenched in her closed right fist. And the easy smile that had, seconds before, been alive on her lips had been strangled by a taught, straight line. She was heading toward Central Park’s Summer Stage to personally confront the members of a band — Ween — that had begun to sound-check when, unbeknownst to them, Madonna, the Material Girl turner Material Mom turned director, was shooting a movie within earshot.
She was having none of it.
“Straight G!” I said to the Queen’s face, between shutter clicks, as she breeched the last barricade, “Straight G!” (as in “Gangsta!”)
* * *
Some days you go to work and almost get shot by the Secret Service. Other days you push open the fire door of your century-old, illegally converted loft building, step out onto the street and bump into Madonna. Such was the case last week when she brought production of her new movie, “W.E.,” to my South Side block. I’d only shot her once before, two years ago, on Governors Island at one of Prince Harry’s exhibition polo matches. I’d seen her in the distance, from the press area on the other side of the field, through my sniper-strength lens. She was holding David in her arms, the sickly boy she adopted from Malawi.
Then, out of the blue, a year and a half later, there she was, standing in the bus depot across the street, megaphone in hand, shouting directions at her film crew over the diesel engines rumbling behind her and the subway screeching overhead. The scene she was crafting seemed ambitious given this was only her second turn in the director’s chair, centered as it was on a walking, vérité-style shot that crossed Broadway before meandering down the length of a city block, but she looked competent doing it.
At one point I’d inadvertently strayed into the background of her camera.
“Please move,” she said plainly, locking eyes with me over the top of her megaphone, “Thank you for your cooperation.”
Two days later was Friday, the last scheduled day of shooting for “W.E.” Madonna and her crew were in Central Park on the Mall at the western foot of the hillock upon which the Summer Stage is set, next to the band shell.
At first, the Queen was relaxed, laughing and joking with the crew, and the paparazzi, too, mugging beside one of the movie cameras, climbing up onto one of the church-looking Mall benches in a comically sexual way, one outspread leg at a time. Then, slowly, the mood shifted. Madonna went from laughing and joking, to tightlipped scolding accompanied by florid hand gesturing. Maybe it was the actors failing to grasp her vision. Maybe it was her incompletely communicating her vision. Whatever it was, it was palpable, and tension seethed from the set.
That’s when the music started.
At first, she and the crew tried a take between the music, which blared intermittently down onto the Mall from the hilltop above. Then they tried again. This time, during the middle of the take, the music started up again.
“That’s it!” Madonna declared as she rose and immediately began stepping toward the stairs behind the band shell that led to the top of the hill.
“No, she isn’t,” I said out loud to myself as, through my camera lens, I watched her stand and head toward the steps, before she disappeared into the cloud of people that had suddenly coalesced around her.
That’s when time began to tick in my head — tick tock — and I knew that whatever I did, right then, in the next five seconds, would determine whether I got the shots that mattered, ones that were taken from in front of her, or whether I would end up behind her and miss all the action.
But I was on the southwest side of the set, the furthest possible place from the steps that I’d last seen Madonna headed for. Further, there was a crowd of gawkers, probably 200 strong, between the steps and me. And she had a 50-foot lead on me.
I pulled my camera down and ran for it, charging full tilt through the crowd like a running back, sprinting here, stutter-stepping there, even throwing in a spin move.
Seconds later I was on the concrete esplanade in front of the band shell, with the hill and the steps to my right and, to my left, Madonna and her entourage, about 40 feet away and closing fast. I was exactly where I needed to be. But this was only the start, I thought, I have to maintain this throughout. I reached for one of my two cameras and shot her at distance, before sprinting for the steps.
Like Mercury in Nikes, my feet flew up the ancient white granite.
“HEY!” a voice called out to me from behind, “GET OFF THE STEPS!”
Again — I never stop for Heys, unless I think you’re armed with both a gun and the willingness to shoot me in the back.
At the top of the steps was a metal, police-style barricade. Behind it, a burly, twenty-something, black kid stood sentry in a yellow shirt that said, “Summer Stage.”
“Sorry man!” I announced as — capitalizing on the element of surprise — in one motion, I grasped the barricade and swiftly slid it to the left, giving me a opening to slip through. As I did, I glanced over my shoulder and saw that no one was following me up the steps, which meant Madonna and her crew must have been taking the long way around. A path led in that direction and I went sprinting down it.
One hundred feet to the south, the path I was on met another, with the intersection blocked by another barricade. I had been shooting with two camera bodies, one with a fixed, 300-millimeter lens, the other a 70-to-200. I knelt, to maintain a lower profile, took the 300 off and replaced it with a fixed 50, much better for this kind of close-up, conflict-style photography. Madonna and her crew were rounding a corner down the barricaded path.
I alone was on the other side of the barricade.
Suddenly, the Queen and I were face to face, eyeballing one another over steel bars. She looked away, and then took a finger to her teeth, biting at the cuticle.
Madonna gave a barely perceptible signal to one of her guards. He then moved the barricade aside, stepped through, put his back to the onrushing guard, and held out his hand to guide her through. She stepped through, and down the path. Behind them the Summer Stage guard had sealed the gap in the barricade.
There I was, having outmaneuvered all the paparazzi, by acting first and fastest, with Madonna, the Queen of Pop, mere feet from me, with but two members of her entourage, at this moment of intense intimacy amidst chaos, as she was being the consummate artist, taking matters into her own hands, doing the total New York thing, going to confront the fools who had interrupted her moment.
Rarely do I say things to the people I take pictures of, preferring instead to let my work do the talking later. But I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to share this moment with her, and to acknowledge that she still had the ineffable thing commonly known as “It,” the thing that makes people special or successful in their own way. She may be 50, with four kids, but whatever it is that makes Madonna Madonna still beats on in her veins.
In her case, I called it “G.”
“Straight G!” I said to the Queen’s face, between shutter clicks, as she breeched the last barricade. “Straight G!”
Madonna, Louise Ciccone, the girl from Michigan, looked at her shoes.