Television

'Empire' Director on Prince Tribute Episode: 'His Energy Continues'

Empire
Chuck Hodes/FOX

Executive Producer/Director Sanaa Hamri, Jussie Smollett and guest star AzMarie Livingston in the "Bleeding War" episode of Empire airing Oct. 18, 2017 on FOX.

Sanaa Hamri says Prince was a fan of the show and would have appreciated her nod to his legacy.

Talk to anyone who met Prince or spent time in a room with him and they'll inevitably talk about how the late rock icon's presence "changed the molecules in the air," or something similarly mystical. So it makes perfect sense that when Sanaa Hamri, one of the directors and executive producers for Fox's Empire, decided to dedicate the final act in the fourth episode of this season's run to the beloved Purple One, the shoot was filled with strange magic.

"We really wanted to give him a great tribute that was fun and on a very large scale," Hamri tells Billboard about Wednesday night's (Oct. 18) tribute. "The day we shot it was the solar eclipse and it all happened on that day. We felt that day was magical because you had the solar eclipse, and we were shooting with this large group of people that included Morris Hayes from NPG on Keys, Hannah Welton form 3RDEYEGIRL... that was special." 

Aside from capturing the cosmic vibe, Hamri was intent on making sure the segment near the end of the episode paid homage to Prince's various styles and looks over the decades, so she had different characters dress in Prince-appropriate outfits, from Lyon family grande dame Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) down to extras in the background. "It will be full of great surprises for the fans and you'll see his influence on everything from lighting to set design and the clothes," adds Hamri, who directed Prince's "Musicology," "Guitar" and Black Sweat" videos, among others, while developing a personal and professional relationship with the singer.

Hamri went so far as to invite Prince's sister, Tyka Nelson, and one of the late star's nephews to visit the set, with Nelson appearing in the scene with Henson's Cookie.

"One thing that was important to me because of my journey as a filmmaker, and the influence of the work I did with him over the decades, is I wanted to rev up the crowd," she says about her pump-up speech on set that day. "I said to them how important it is that we're doing this as a tribute, and I appreciated that every one one of them was there for me and for him, to remember that he was a pioneer in a lot of ways -- but especially in helping females and people of color like myself to break through." 

From Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem's (Bryshere Gray) performance of "Let's Go Crazy" to all the hidden Easter eggs, Hamri says the whole thing turned out exactly as she imagined it. A few of the surprises to look for: the backdrop of the performance set is inspired by the Around the World in a Day album cover, the "Diamonds and Pearls" sprinkled elsewhere on the sides of the set, the singer's iconic purple motorcycle from Purple Rain and stage outfits inspired by Rain, "My Name is Prince," "Lovesexy" and The Gold Experience

"I combined that with his favorite movie, Amadeus -- so if you look, people are dressed like princes and princesses from the Amadeus era," she says, hinting that eagle-eyed Princeophiles might also spot a character wearing an ensemble from his lesser-known "Mountains" video

"It was a lot of very specific things that were really him," she says of all the Prince call-backs in the birthday-themed set piece. "The whole point was [to use things] I could tell in my head [were reminiscent of him], from being his creative director for years. I know what he likes and didn't... it felt like he was there." Hamri worked very closely with the Prince estate, who she says were "very gracious" in allowing her to celebrate the singer in her own way.

"He taught me everything about the making of music," she says. "I think he would love it for sure. Everything is energy, and energy is neither created nor destroyed. His energy continues, like all our energy continues."