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Q&A With Dolly Video Director Steve Lippman

With her new “Jesus & Gravity” music video just hitting the airwaves, Dolly’s music continues to inspire people around the world with a little help from the video’s director, Steve “Flip” Lippman. Having worked with other legendary artists such as David Bowie, Carly Simon, Rosanne Cash and Bette Midler, Lippman also directed Dolly’s previous “Better Get To Livin’” video which became an instant YouTube hit, also making Newsweek’s Best of 2007 list along the way. Fresh off completing his second Dolly project, Flip sat down to chat with us about making the music video for “Jesus & Gravity” and getting the second chance to work with the lovely Miss Dolly Parton.

You’ve now directed two of Dolly’s music videos back-to-back. How would you compare this video to the last one, “Better Get To Livin'”?

Dolly Parton's 'Jesus & Gravity' music videoThey are two different songs and videos on every level, except one might argue that they are both inspirational, though coming from separate point of views. And, of course, they both star Dolly Parton. That said, each were individual and unique experiences. If you mean the process of making the videos, both had opposite production needs. “Better Get to Livin'” was very stylized and required a much larger crew. Thanks to my amazing and resourceful producers Jeremy Kotin and David Bartolomi, the help of Dolly’s team, Amy Sedaris and our group of very patient ladies, we pulled it off in 2 days.

“Jesus & Gravity” was shot for the most part documentary-style using non-actors and their real environments photographed in primarily natural light. We had a very small compact crew, to preserve the intimacy of each set-up. Dolly’s performance was also completely organic and not “broken down” shot by shot, as is the norm with most music videos. We filmed uninterrupted takes of the song, beginning to end, and then edited from the best moments of all. She was really able to build in each take, and it was a beautiful and privileged thing to watch. Either way, there was a lot of work and logistics that went into both videos, but we came at them from different work and aesthetic processes.

Tell us about making the video for “Jesus & Gravity”.

Dolly Parton's 'Jesus & Gravity' music videoWe filmed all the people over the course of 4 days in New York City. In every instance, each person was photographed in his or her own home or work environment, or in an atmosphere that is indicative of their daily life. We first approached each person as moving portraiture, with equal weight and no judgment. We then captured them doing things that were important or personal to them. At some point, we would film the whisper. Last, but not least, we had each subject sing the choir part of the second half of the song.

Our iPod woman (Deidra Chiverton) who opens the video was the only “staged” portrait in the piece, though it was inspired by a real-life image — that of a lone woman standing on a street corner listening to her iPod, in a very contemplative mood. That mental snapshot was the influence for the video’s bookend device, and the catalyst for the chain of faces to come.

Dolly Parton's 'Jesus & Gravity' music videoOnce all that was filmed, it was edited into a dual panel sequence that had its own thematic arc, revealing the characters one by one. We then took this down to Nashville, where Dolly was rehearsing her tour, and projected it behind her while she performed the song. With the added element of the performance footage, we reinserted that into the already edited “character” sequence. Some faces were re-ordered slightly in the edit to create a different balance, but the vision remained on track. The idea of Dolly being whispered to by her niece Rebecca at the end of the video was a last minute inclusion, and it works beautifully. In my opinion, it’s a small but effective punctuation that connects Dolly to the overall human mosaic.

What was your favorite part about making the video for “Jesus & Gravity”?

Meeting all those people, and being invited to photograph their lives with such generosity and intimacy. And, of course, getting to work with Dolly again.

You took a less obvious route for this song by showing Dolly against a largely urban backdrop as opposed to filming inside a country church for example. Whose idea was it to give the video a broader, more universal feel, showing a wider range of people and situations?

Dolly Parton's 'Jesus & Gravity' music videoDolly, her manager Danny Nozell, and her creative director Steve Summers gave us tremendous freedom, and we’re very grateful for that. With that, my collaborators and I never approached it as solely a country song, but just a great song that can appeal to everyone. The setting is not the focus of the video, it’s the people, and Dolly.

Individuals everywhere have their own private and shared versions of faith, spirituality, and the things that ground them, whether in big cities, suburbs, small towns or villages. With the exception of unique examples of filming in, say, New Orleans, which would carry larger meaning, we could have filmed most anywhere with different, yet equal effect.

Dolly Parton's 'Jesus & Gravity' music videoWith that in mind, I didn’t want to limit the video concept to conform to just one specific audience. I know with any creative work, it will please some, and not others. But if you set out to please everyone, I believe you wind up pleasing no one. Either way, I welcome the comments, pro and con. I love hearing both sides. It means people are really thinking about the song and video, and arriving at their own interpretation as they listen and watch. While the video first functions to promote the song, and hopefully boost sales, it’s also a portal for discussion, identification and inspiration, just like the song and Dolly’s performance of it. I’ve been reading the reactions on Dolly’s message boards, and there was one particular posting that I was very moved by for its observation, but I won’t single it out by name or content, because in the end, there is no right or wrong.

I’m excited for people to see the video in a larger format when broadcast on CMT or GAC, or when it’s available to own as a high quality file from iTunes. There’s a lot to be seen in the images in repeated viewings, which can implicitly add to the overall emotional impact and experience. Some of that can be lost in small lo-res canvases on the web. Still, Dolly and the song shine through, in any format.

Fans want to know: What is everybody whispering in the video?

Dolly Parton's 'Jesus & Gravity' music videoI honestly don’t know and didn’t want to know. I instructed each “whisperer” the same thing — that is, to say something heartfelt and beautiful and spontaneous. The only thing I restricted was that I didn’t want the recipient to laugh. It wouldn’t have fit the overall emotional tone of the video, which is simpler and more contemplative. In the end, I felt there was great power in the mystery of the unknown.

Tell us about meeting Dolly for the first time.

I had some communication with her via fax during the prep of “Better Get to Livin'”. But in person, I met her 5 minutes before our first shot. For me, her arrival on-set was like a beautiful hallucination. Dolly Parton's 'Jesus & Gravity' music video The flaps of the circus tent were opened for what seemed an eternity, and I expected trumpets to herald her appearance. She just walked in wearing that ring-mistress outfit and took her place on-set. It was funny and glamorous at the same time.

“Jesus & Gravity” was a much more intimate shoot. Other than directing her, the circumstances allowed me to steal some brief time talking with her, and I will always remember that one to one interaction.

What is your personal favorite Dolly song(s) of all time?

Dolly Parton's 'Jesus & Gravity' music videoWhat is it, something like 3000 songs she’s written? It’s hard to pick one, or just a few. Plus there’s Dolly the songwriter, and then Dolly the pop/country interpreter. Sometimes they criss-cross, but not always. On Backwoods Barbie, my favorites are “Only Dreamin’,” “The Lonesomes,” and the title track. They are great, both in their songwriting and performance. I’m a big fan of the recent bluegrass albums. My partner always mentions how it’s hard not to smile when “Here You Come Again” comes on the radio, and I agree. It’s a perfect pop record. I recently heard an old Dolly and Porter duet called “Malena” — which I believe Dolly wrote — and it really knocked me out. “Me and Little Andy” is really disturbing and touching at the same time. I guess the bottom line is that there are so many riches there, it’s hard to narrow it down. A colleague of mine called her “our great American poet” and I agree. Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. To my ears, these are some of our great living singing American poets and storytellers.

What do you think about Dolly self-releasing her new Backwoods Barbie album on her own label and the future state of the music industry?

Dolly Parton's Backwoods Barbie albumI’m not an expert, but can offer some observant speculation. People will always want to collect and own music. That’s not going away. It’s just going to be delivered differently. I’m still recovering from the loss of holding an LP cover. I made the leap to CDs like everyone else, so for now, I’m still a CD guy. I like holding the physical product, and the artwork, plus the sound quality is superior to even the best online download. Until everyone can agree how music is distributed, and with consistent high quality, then it may be chaotic for a while. The important thing is to nurture and support artists who can grow and who will stand the test of time, and not to be solely obsessed with youth and junk culture. People of all ages want to hear and discover music. It’s all about access and choice. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a fun pop song, but I also want to be able to follow someone’s career for a long time, regardless of trend, and be rewarded through that journey. Dolly has given us that, and continues to do so. I’m hoping artists will look forward to extended careers by creating singular yet evolving music rather than embrace being flavor of the month. I think there are some recent artists that have that special spark — that thing that says they can be around for a long time. Amy Winehouse is an obvious example, and there’s a brilliant singer/songwriter named Alice Smith that made me stop in my tracks when I heard her. Antony & The Johnsons are incredible. There’s amazing music to be heard every day. I will always buy it in some form or another. I can’t imagine being alone in that.

Dolly Parton's 'Jesus & Gravity' music videoAs far as self-releasing, I say, if you have the resources and the plan and the vision, then go for it. Freedom and responsibility to yourself is exciting and liberating. And it pushes you to be your best, and likely will result in memorable work. Look at Aimee Mann, or recently, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails. If no one was going to get Dolly’s great music out there the way she wants, and deserves, then why shouldn’t she do it herself?

Thanks Flip for taking the time to answer our questions. Fans can watch the “Jesus & Gravity” music video at CMT, GAC and YouTube. For more information on Flip, check out Fans can ask Flip their own questions by logging on to Dolly’s official site, and going to the “Ask Flip” forum. For information on how you can win your very own “Jesus & Gravity” promo single, join the Dolly Parton On-Line Mailing List!

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