On Friday, Lana Del Rey’s short film Tropico—a 30-minute music video that mixes three songs from the Paradise edition of the singer’s debut album with surreal imagery, '60s Americana iconography, beat poetry, and more—was released. The film was a collaboration between Del Rey, who’s credited as the writer, and director Anthony Mandler. It’s not the first time the two have worked together, either—Mandler, whose other credits this year range from the "Holy Grail" video for Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake to those Ray Liotta spots for 1800 Tequila, and who has directed high-profile clips for Rihanna, Eminem, and Taylor Swift, among many others—also directed Del Rey’s "National Anthem" and "Ride" videos.
It’s a curious-sounding collaboration, as it’s the rare musician who receives (or properly warrants) a writing credit on their own music video. But, Mandler says, it’s well-deserved in this case.
"All three projects that we’ve worked on together, they’ve started with a document that she created—whether it was just kind of stream-of-consciousness verbiage or whether something like this, that’s a little more fleshed out," Mandler explains. "It’s always a process. My experience of her is that the way she thinks, in both minutiae and vastness, is in a written form. It’s a very visual written form, and my job is always to kind of boil it, deduce it, match it, link it, and then visualize it. It’s borne from her and filtered through me, and then we execute it. Really, it is her creation, from a written form, which is very rare: I don’t know that I can think of one artist that I’ve worked with that really deserves a writing credit, in the sense of being that involved in the initial creation. An artist will tell you, ‘I’d like to do this for this video, or this project,’ but rarely is it that detailed."
The details, in this case, resulted in a fairly surreal final product: Tropico opens with a conversation in the Garden of Eden between John Wayne, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Jesus, as they discuss humanity with their respective accents. The colors are heavily saturated and full of glaring high-contrast that’s almost harsh, and Del Rey and her co-star, model Shaun Ross, wear leaves as they writhe around the garden. If all of that sounds conceptually bizarre, well, that’s part of the point, according to Mandler.
Mandler, whose "National Anthem" video for Del Rey reimagined both Kennedy’s "Camelot" and his assassination with Del Rey as Jackie and rapper A$AP Rocky as JFK, says that Tropico is inspired by the assassination, and the way it shattered American culture.
"The Americana vision of the last 50 years obviously starts with Kennedy," he says. "For so many people, it’s almost like the first page of a new Bible—a new testament—when it comes to the idea of pop culture, which was kind of the death of the American icon, and the shattering of the kingdom, and what that spawned."
For Del Rey, whose persona has been so shrouded in stylized affectation that her first appearance on Saturday Night Live was mocked for the fact that she seemed unable to know what to do with herself as a corporeal presence, all of those concepts are at the core of what she does. That’s something that Mandler was determined to capture visually.
"The way that this veneer is pulled back to show something that’s dark underneath has been very influential in Lana’s creative education and music evolution," he says. "There is this woman who has this outside, and then the songs she sings about represent something completely different. The two don’t really go together, and all the mystery of who she is and where she’s from, and what she’s singing about. There’s that really incredible duality, so with that, kind of framework in mind, we’ve explored different versions of that archetype—the pulling of the veneer, the search for truth in yourself and in the world around you, and ultimately being disappointed in what you have and how you find something better."
Mandler’s not afraid to drop terms like "Fellini-esque" when describing his own work, but a project like this requires a fair amount of pretension. There are big ideas at work in Tropico which play themselves out in curious ways: After the film leaves the Garden of Eden, all of the heady themes that Mandler describes are juxtaposed with shots of Del Rey as a stripper, or of twerking African-American women having their asses slapped in slow-motion—not exactly an unseen sight in the year of Miley and Robin Thicke—or of convenience store employees mired in poverty.
Taking that sort of imagery and using it to make points about the world spawned by '60s pop culture is audacious—some might call it appropriation—but Mandler says that there’s more going on here than merely glamorizing real-life squalor.
"We’re essentially retelling the creation of the universe, but by starting with the pop icons of the '50s and '60s, that will recalibrate any sense of the norm. What we were trying to get to was that Adam and Eve are abolished from the Garden and kind of catapulted into this hell on earth, where nobody really does anything," he says. "You work in a convenience store, you strip for money, you and your friend do each other’s hair and blow smoke into each other’s face and cheer at a lowrider that goes by—nothing really happens. It’s kind of like this ultimate purgatory, and the thing is, there’s not a deeper sense of faith: You don’t feel like there’s this great moral compass—everybody’s just kind of living for the moment, and it’s paper-thin. To me, that’s a fascinating examination of the result of putting pop culture icons as your pantheon of gods."
If the squalor depicted in Tropico is what Mandler views as the result of a culture built around pop icons as gods, meanwhile, his next project is rooted much more firmly in the here-and-now. That one, his debut feature, will feature Daniel Radcliffe in the lead role in his adaptation of reporter Jake Adelstein’s memoir, Tokyo Vice, about Japanese organized crime.
"It’s on the fast-track," Mandler says. "We’re just waiting on Daniel’s dates—that will either go top of the summer, or end of the summer, but we are deep into the creative process. The book’s incredible. This guy’s experience and what he went through, and how he challenged these guys and used the pen instead of the sword to beat them at their own game and live through it."
Despite the obvious differences, though, Mandler is excited about the opportunity to apply things that he’s learned through his various projects—whether they be the 1800 Tequila spots with Liotta, Tropico, or something else entirely—into his future work.
"I’m very cautious about trying to create a continuity in my work. I want my work to be recognizable by my style," he says. "If I capture the right moment and drama in one minute in something, hopefully that’s the DNA of a longer movie. It’s about the heart and about what you’re saying: are you able to communicate that sort of narrative language? I feel more ready than ever to make that jump. It’s very exciting to me."