When Gaga Calls, You Run: Nick Knight Remembers 'Born This Way'
Born This Way

When Gaga Calls, You Run: Nick Knight Remembers 'Born This Way'

by Bernd Fischer

It's been 10 years since Lady Gaga gave birth to Born This Way, her Grammy-nominated and chart-topping second album full of queer dancefloor anthems, iconic visuals and boundary-pushing live performances. PAPER is celebrating its cultural impact by hearing from some of Gaga's closest collaborators, experts and fans.

Nick Knight is back in his hometown of London after spending four days shooting in Scotland. With lockdowns in the UK steadily easing, it's not unreasonable to assume that the renowned image-maker may have taken a trip up north for work. "Sort of," Knight answers on a recent Friday morning over the phone. "Yes and no. I've taken photographs for myself. It's different to being asked by somebody else to take pictures for them." Knight is starting a project on landscapes, the beginnings of which, he says, can be seen on his Instagram.

Roughly 12 years ago, that somebody asking to be immortalized by Knight on film was megastar Lady Gaga. "She phoned me," says Knight about how the start of their collaborative union began. "Actually, Matthew Williams [then the creative director of the Haus of Gaga] phoned me and then passed her the phone, so it was a simple phone call." Knight's recollection is modest compared to how Gaga once marvelously described the experience in an interview with Vogue Hommes Japan. The singer, while on a tight deadline for The Monster Ball Tour, was in search of "someone who can create videos and visuals who is really a genius. So I just called Nick and said, 'I'm in trouble. I need to phone God to help me get all this done in time.' So naturally I called God, I called Nick Knight."

While on this seminal tour, Gaga began writing music for her second studio album, Born This Way, which this month marks 10 years since its release. To launch the new visual identity for this era, Gaga again turned to Knight, insisting from the get-go on his distinctive style to birth (quite literally) the imaginings of her — as she labelled the record — giant musical-opus theater piece.

This responsibility — to be tasked with opening the visual floodgates of an era-defining Gaga moment in pop culture — was not lost on Knight. "I knew it was incredibly important for her," he says, with an obvious sincerity in his tone of voice. "It wasn't just another pop song, another video. It had something important to say." He does stress, however, that he didn't set out to create these pieces, from his perspective, for the audience. "You do it for the person you're working with. I had to make Gaga love it. It has to be her mind that they see, not mine, so I'm working very, very hard to take everything she said to me, everything that she's talked to me about and reinterpret that to her audience. You are also aware that there is an audience, but the audience is to some degree an abstract."

Knight produced both the arresting Born This Way album shoot and, of course, the iconic music video for the record's titular self-acceptance anthem that served as its lead single. As we now well know, Gaga's postulation for the video, as is proclaimed by the performer in the film's "Manifesto of Mother Monster," sees her birthing "the beginning of the new race... a race which bears no prejudice, no judgment, but boundless freedom."

Like this new race, at conception, Knight's approach to Born This Way was autonomous. "I never storyboard. I hate storyboarding," he laughs. "If you're not open to responding to what's in front of you, and you're forced into a pre-written story, then how can you respond to the amazing things in front of you?" And, as Knight has witnessed over the years, you need to keep pace with Gaga. "I've never come across this in any other artist in that you start the session on a Saturday morning and you finish on a Monday morning. And she has been in front of the camera all that time, nonstop. It's not like she goes upstairs and changes into another outfit. Everything happens in front of the camera and you try to keep up."

Just as her dynamic live acts have demonstrated in dramatic fashion, no amount of full makeup and hair or exquisite designer garbs — in this instance, it included prosthetic cheekbones and a slime dress by Bart Hess, to name a few — can slow down the 5'2'' star from performing for the gods. On the set of the album's photo shoot, when all the key players involved in the Gaga-making machine have played their part in bringing that day's persona to life, things suddenly just evolve.

Knight recaps: "You just keep on shooting. She keeps on performing. I do try and bloody well keep up because there isn't another way. She doesn't stop for anything, so the whole of her life is committed to your camera. I worked for those Born This Way pictures with a ring light, an old metal one, that would wrap around the lens, but it would mean that my assistant would hold it. Now it got so hot that my assistant had to wear asbestos gloves to hold it [laughs]." Knight didn't get out unscathed, either. "I was working on a medium format camera, a Hasselblad, which you sort of stoop over and look down into the viewfinder. And every time I put my head down, I touched my forehead onto the burning hot ring flash [laughs] and kind of scarred myself."

Knight compares the experience to being in a boxing match — in the nicest possible way, he's sure to add — where you're really physically trying to keep up. He danced and moved around Gaga in an endeavor to find all the angles to shoot. "It's completely, completely exhausting. I mean physically exhausting. But at the same time, you're riding this sort of energy from her and she's appearing in these amazing outfits from all different designers. It's a bit like being in a — I don't know — I don't know how to describe it, but a sort of contemporary art whirlwind where you're seeing references to American culture, to high art, low art, to trailer trash, to the most elevated comments on American democracy. It is performance art," Knight eventually determines.

Thinking back to the "Born This Way" music video, shot in a sub-zero New York about a month after the album art, has Knight laughing over the phone yet again. It was the same schedule, he says: starting on a Saturday and working through until Monday morning. "But films are a heavier beast," he adds. "You have a team around you and teams need to stop and take rests. And there were very profound makeup changes, so there were more physical breaks but the conditions are much, much harsher. We were in a disused warehouse down in some rather underfunded part of New York in the freezing cold." The session was, he says, just like the album shoot but the film version of it. "You film what's in front of your camera. Gaga is an amazing performer, so she performs and she will do everything she has to do there and then, and then I had the pleasure of just really working with her to capture it in movement."

As for the post-production work that ensued, Knight says they'd all meet in the morning for breakfast in a hotel room and start looking at the rushes. "We just applied effect after effect after effect on the film, and I would go through and choose the effect that I liked, and..." — this may jolt some close observers, who've on YouTube alone, contributed to the approximately 280 million views the video currently has at the time of writing — "we created the intro to 'Born This Way' out of... stuff."

If you're not the talented Mr. Knight, perhaps you're astonished by the idea that Gaga's now legendary prologue in the film — backtracked by the sound of American composer Bernard Herrmann's prelude from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo — was made of "stuff." But again, this is Knight and team. Gaga, as mentioned, sought out the prolific image-architect likely for this very reason. Because to the rest of us, there isn't a single second of footage one would regard as merely the makings of stuff.

"And it's the best way to work," Knight immediately continues explaining. "It's how I work on films. You invent as you go along. You work together, you create visions and then afterwards in the edit you sew them together and you also create more. There's a fantasy about image-making — both about photography and about filmmaking — that it all happens at the moment that the camera shutter goes off or the film starts churning. It doesn't," he says rather decisively. "That's just one point on the creative journey. And afterwards you can take that same file and you can twist it inside out. That image looks different at that point. How would you ever have known that when you were shooting it? You don't. You're just working on feelings and emotions and some kind of connection, but you don't know what the camera is recording, or you don't know on that file the premises of it."

This inventive manipulating of imagery that's so integral to his process is how, according to Knight, effects including those seen on Gaga's skin came about: the same blown-out image of Gaga with her skin resembling that of white emulsion paint was transformed to give the performer a look that showed her in a deeper, olive-y, blue color.

What can't be manufactured, though, is the reality of both Gaga and Knight's standings as fashion oracles. You can't, by any means, frame the work of either artist without taking fashion into serious consideration. It's at their core. Knight's canon of masterpieces includes striking and iconic collaborations with Yohji Yamamoto, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. Gaga, as we know, has long surpassed simply being just a fashion tastemaker. The result of Knight's expertise in relation to how he perceives and produces an era-defining body of work for Gaga can be summed up by quoting the "Born This Way" video: it's "a birth of magnificent and magical proportions."

"The fashion that Gaga wears and that we worked with is so full of references and meanings," elaborates Knight. "When a designer makes a piece of clothing, they pour their heart and soul into it. When somebody like Gaga puts it on, then she is living that and bringing it to life, so you have a whole world of references just in the clothes. She puts on this sort of amazing dress, that suddenly, she looks like Marie Antoinette in space. How would you know that until she wore it? And then, when she turns around in it, she spins around in the dress and suddenly it turns into a kind of bird. So, the best way for my way of working is literally just pull the ingredients in, whisk it around [laughs] and then start inventing — and that inventing keeps on going until they prize that bloody film or picture out of your hand to hit their moving deadlines."

"['Born This Way'] opened up a channel to be able to say: actually, you are fine and you are amazing the way you are, whatever way that is."

"But," and Knight pauses, "you get caught up in that whirlwind of Gaga and everything that goes around her." Naturally, there's the excitement of adoring Little Monsters swirling around New York, trying to catch any glimpse of what their queen had in store for Born This Way. So, after the film shoot wrapped, Knight says, the team spent six weeks in one hotel where they completed post-production. Just talking about it has Knight laughing affectionately once more. "We couldn't go anywhere. Her fans — bless them — are so obsessive about her. We didn't want to risk anything being released beforehand." According to Knight, people he spoke with later were shocked that the video made it to its official release date without leaking online.

When it comes to a pop star of Gaga's magnitude, there are business and commercial concerns that cannot be avoided. Though Knight says he doesn't have much love or care for that side of the process, he's aware of it. "Of course there's umpteen amounts of people screeching and squawking in the background about money and release dates etcetera. But Gaga, to her credit, would just push them back until it was ready. Because it was important to get it right."

But despite all this, upon reflection 10 years on from Born This Way, what mattered most then — and now, still — is what the album stands for and how it continues to permeate culture. The single of the same name directly and explicitly addressed marginalized groups, especially the LGBTQ+ community, which is arguably at the heart of Gaga's fan base. "I realized the importance of that," Knight says. "The emotional importance of what I was doing for a lot of people who really have struggled with how to work out who they are, why they are, where they are and how they are — and 'Born This Way' is a song for those people. It opened up a channel to be able to say: actually, you are fine and you are amazing the way you are, whatever way that is."

As for where we stand as a society today? "I think we've just started," he says without thinking twice. "Humanity has such a long way to go, still. We need to really, really be in love with humankind and its achievements. And that's got nothing to do with power, money, fame — none of those."