‘Purple Rain’ Director Talks Prince’s Weird, Wonderful Masterpiece
“The first thing [the studio] said was, ‘Is it possible to ask if John Travolta can play Prince?'” recalls Albert Magnoli
As Prince’s death has reminded us, Purple Rain was a landmark: a film that blended gritty cinematic intensity with one of Hollywood’s most eruptive original scores. Released in 1984, the film – which has returned to over 200 theaters since his death – turned Prince into a movie star and grossed $70 million at the box office, making it the 10th highest-grossing movie of that year.
But it’s also easy to forget that, over 30 years ago, the idea of making a movie around a pop star – especially a relatively new one like Prince –was considered a risky move, and Prince and his managers faced numerous hurdles in getting it made. Albert Magnoli, the then-upstart film school graduate who directed the film, looks back on the intense journey that went into the creation of Prince’s cinematic breakthrough.
Given you hadn’t directed a feature film yet, how did you land the job of helming Purple Rain?
Bob Cavallo, one of Prince’s managers, was shopping a screenplay around Los Angeles trying to find a director. You can imagine back in 1983 how difficult that must have been for him. Hollywood was very skeptical when it came to making a motion picture with a rock star. He was getting passed on by directors – A-list, B-list, C-list.
I was working with James Foley, one of my colleagues at USC film school, and he passed on the project; he said the script didn’t work. Bob got angry: “I don’t understand. I got a lawyer in Los Angeles who gave me a talent agent who gave me a series of clients. I don’t know why we’re getting stonewalled.”
I told him I’d like to read the script – this was June 1983. I called him and said, “I think I can help you understand what went wrong here.” We met and I said, “You need a writer-director to get to Minneapolis and talk to Prince and the rest of the musicians, and talk about what it means to those kids who live in this strange part of the country that no one was paying attention to.” He wanted to know what the [new storyline] would be. I told him the story and he said, “That’s a heck of a story.” I said, “You need to send me to Minneapolis,” and I left the next day.
Steve Fargnoli, one of Prince’s managers, met me when I got off the plane. He said they had a commitment to the other script for a million dollars. Management was putting up $500,000 and Prince was putting up $500,000. Steve said, “Kid – that story you told Bob? I don’t want to hear a word of it. You’re here to tow the line.”
When did you finally meet Prince?
I was brought to a hotel where Prince was staying. Steve was joined by Chick, Prince’s bodyguard. At exactly 12 midnight, the doors opened and Prince stepped out, all alone. I was able to watch him walk from the elevator to Chick in a long left-to-right pan. And in that moment, I felt a massive amount of vulnerability and shyness, a reticence, coming from him. He was just walking.
Prince looked over his shoulder at me, nodded and walked out the door and we drove to a restaurant. At the restaurant, I was sitting on the other side of Prince and the managers. Prince looked at me and said, “What do you think about the script?” I said, “I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about a story I told Bob yesterday in Los Angeles.” Prince was very surprised. He looked at Steve and Chick and he must have been thinking, “What the heck?” I launched into another storytelling session: Suddenly I saw the violence, the dysfunctional relationship with his mother, his father as a musician writing music and hiding it in a box. Prince looked at me and said, “Okay.” And he looked at Steve and Chick and said, “You take off and you [Magnoli] drive with me.”
Where did you go?
We got in the car, a blue BMW. He drove. We pulled out of the parking lot right on the freeway and we were on the freeway quietly for three minutes and we suddenly turned left. I realized later we were driving to a cornfield and it was totally dark because there were no lights. He was quiet and I was quiet. He asked me, “Do you know me?” I said no. “Do you know my music?” I said, “Just ‘1999.’” And he said, “Then how is it that you essentially tell me my story without knowing me?” I said, “I don’t know, but if you’re willing to commit to this story we have an opportunity to make a great picture.” He said, “Is that important for you, my father hitting me?” I said, “Yes.” He said he was willing to commit. He paused and we kept driving.
Was the music already discussed at this point?
He said, “What about the music?” I said, “We want at least 12 songs. Do you want a double album?” He said he didn’t but that he had about 100 songs and they were all ready to go. He brought me back to my hotel and I had a message from Steve that said, “I’ll pick you up at 9 tomorrow morning and you can go to Prince’s house and listen to music.” I walked into his house that morning and went downstairs to his studio and we listened to 25 or 30 songs. I said, “There has to be a good reason for you to be onstage in a musical number. It has to be about the story of the character and how it drives you to the stage.” He said, “Okay, I understand.” We shook hands and I left with a few cassettes of 100 songs and a lyric sheet. I still have the cassettes in my storage space.
When did Warner Brothers Films get involved?
Cavallo realized there might be studio interest in the material, so they wanted me to come and speak to various studios. I didn’t really want to do that. I felt that once a studio is involved, then you have the studio interference thing. I said, “We have a million dollars,” and Bob said, “If we don’t have to spend our own money that would be fantastic.”
The first meeting at Warner Brothers was with the head of the studio and production and some executives, and the first thing they said was, “Is it possible to ask if John Travolta can play Prince?” I looked at [Prince’s managers] and thought, “This is what I’m talking about. Welcome to this world.”
I said to the Warners guys, “Guys, this is not going to happen. This is unacceptable. What we have going for us is authenticity.” They were shocked. I said, “Next question.” The development people came to me and said, “The script is sexist and misogynistic and violent and erotic, and it puts down women.” They’re looking at a PG-13 concept. I’m saying, “No, it’s an R. It’s a brutal story with a lot of darkness in it.” I was on my way to the airport when Cavallo called and said, “You’re going back tomorrow.” They said they’d like to go forward: “We understand what you’re saying. Just go make the movie.” Then I went back to Minneapolis. I worked 24/7 the entire month of August interviewing Prince and all the musicians.
Before the movie began, Prince is said to have been carrying around purple notebooks with ideas for what could have been the movie.
I know there’s a lot of talk about that. But there was never a purple notebook nor was a purple notebook ever discussed. I don’t know what that was. It could have been notes on songs or performances.
You famously didn’t make Prince do a screen test. What made you think he could act?
I had seen the music video for “1999.” I understood how he looked on film. And I felt that a musician who was producing music and putting it out — whatever that artistic bent was, I felt that was a solid base to begin the process of turning him into a potential character and a performance. I just had confidence in that.
What appealed to Prince about making a feature film so relatively early in his career?
It was extremely rare at the time. The musician has created an image in one arena and they also know inherently they’re going to lose control when they move to film. But Prince realized the platform could be helpful to him and was willing to venture. It took a certain amount of moxie.
What about the songs?
I had listened to all 100 songs and began choosing the ones that would blend in with the screenplay. But I said to him, “I’m missing a few songs and I don’t have what I call ‘The anthem.'” He said, “Maybe you’ll hear it one of these days.” One night during this process, I’m in the mezzanine at First Avenue. Prince is onstage and they’re playing this new song I hadn’t heard. I knew in a few bars It was the song. I went downstairs and asked Prince after, “What is that song?” He said, “I just wrote that with the band.” I said, “That’s the song, the anthem song!” He said, “Oh. It’s called ‘Purple Rain.’ Can we name the movie after that?” The script was untitled at that point. I said, “Yep, that’s the name.” That’s how easy and crazy it was.
You filmed it pretty quickly in Minneapolis, too.
We had a $7 million budget and 42 days. Our first date of filming was October 31, 1983. We were scheduled to begin November 1st, but it was a beautiful fall day. Bob said, “Is there anything we can shoot that quickly to take advantage of this?” I said we could do all the aerial motorcycle shots. Within 48 hours, the temperature went from the mid-60s to 20 degrees and then below zero. The first snowstorm is five days later and by the time we finish shooting there were eight-foot snowdrifts. The generator truck froze into ice. Just getting to the sets meant we had three trucks paving the way for us. When Apollonia jumps into the water, it was so cold. We couldn’t get her to come back out of the water. It was too freezing. She would jump in the water in Minneapolis and we filmed her later in Los Angeles coming out.
What are some of your favorite scenes?
One was the confrontation between Prince and Wendy and Lisa and the other band members in their dressing room. Prince is playing with the hand puppet and Wendy is angry because Prince isn’t listening to their music. The other sequence that stands out is when he’s confronted by the owner of the club after doing “Darling Nikki” and he’s getting beat up. And also when his father tries to kill himself. Prince was excellent in that scene. The scene with Prince and his father, played by Clarence Williams III, in the basement, where he discovers his father playing piano – that whole scene sends chills.
Which scene was the most difficult for him to film?
There was some apprehension when we had to tear apart the basement. That was emotionally rough. One of the musicians was standing off-screen at the time and when Prince screamed he walked off the set and came eye to eye with the band mate and no words needed to be said. It takes a lot to tear apart a basement. We didn’t have the budget for a second take.
Did Prince ask for any changes in the first cut?
No, not at all. Everyone was very pleased. When it was done I showed it to him and his managers at the Warner Brothers studio on Santa Monica Boulevard. I had the sense of Prince going, “Holy mackerel.” You can imagine what it was like for him to see it. It was also a shock. It’s the first film for all of us. You’re kind of stunned.
What was Prince’s reaction to its success?
We never talked about it. We were able to screen it in front of a live audience three times, but he never went to a screening. But the producers did. The studio was concerned about the scene where Morris and Jerome put the girl into the dumpster. In the first screening the reaction was hilarious. The studio came to me and said, “Listen, we know the reaction but we think this is a bit dangerous to keep in the movie and would you mind taking it out for the second screening?” I said, “I don’t think it’s necessary, but sure.” We took it out for the second screening and nothing happens. So as we waited for the third screening, we said, “What are we going to do about the dumpster?” I said, “It’s going to go back in.”
By the third screening, they said, “Okay, we have something here.” They originally thought to put it in 200 theaters but that jumped to 900, and within a week that number jumped to 1,000.
Graffiti Bridge, the film’s sequel, wasn’t released until six years after Purple Rain. Given Rain‘s success, why do you think it took so long?
Here’s the thing: In the 1980s, there was a different idea about sequels than there is now. Now there’s no question that you move right into a sequel. In the Eighties, that was not the automatic response. So there was none of that here. There were a lot of discussions, but nothing was ever said about [a sequel]. What came up was, “What are we going to do together next?”
If you look at the credits for Purple Rain, it said, “May you live to see the dawn.” That’s what I wanted to do next with him: The Dawn. We had discussed doing a true musical – singing and dancing – a Broadway show on film. The Dawn was going to be a story about good and evil. I had basically created a fantastical city somewhere in the U.S, and in that city was police abuse, violence, crime —all the problems we’re having socially now. Good and evil would battle for supremacy. We were all excited about it. But Prince had to go on the Purple Rain tour and that took him away for the next two years. Cavallo said he wanted to start working on The Dawn, but they needed a concert film. So I said I would work on the Sign O’ the Times movie uncredited.
What happened to The Dawn?
That’s something I still want to do. It’s unfortunate that this [Prince’s death] happened.