On Lana Del Rey’s debut album, 2012’s Born to Die, she sings of loss, love, evil, goodness, money, fame, destruction and redemption. With vivid lyrics, seductive strings, and dark, brooding guitar twangs, each song sounds like a scene from a movie. With lyrics so vivid and descriptive, it’s easy for the listener to create their own version of each song’s music video in their head – but Lana had very specific visions in mind.
Through striking camera techniques and visual effects, Lana Del Rey was able to create a cinematic universe with each of the music videos from. Born to Die, which turns 10 today (January 27). Although Lana began the Born to Die era by self-releasing several videos comprised of clips from old movies, including ones for “Carmen,” “Diet Mountain Dew,” and her breakout single “Video Games,” she later connected with other artists who were able to bring her cinematic visions to life – aligning with the overall themes of the album, and helping Born to reach No. 2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and triple-platinum certification from the RIAA.
In the music video for the album’s title track “Born to Die,” the first to receive a proper budget and video treatment, we get a glimpse of Lana’s idea of heaven. Directed by Yoann Lemoin (better known as Woodkid), alongside Andre Chemetoff, who served as the director of photography, “Born to Die” was filmed at the Palace of Fontainebleau in France, in which Chemetoff and crew helped recreate a Romanian castle.
Portions of the video were shot in the Palace of Fontainebleau’s Trinity Chapel, where Lana is seated on a throne between two tigers. Lana and the tigers were filmed separately, and with the tigers, the crew “used this crane to replicate [the tigers’] moves,” Chemetoff says. “We would do several takes, but Lana was never close to the tigers.”
Additional clips see Lana and her lover, played by model Bradley Soileau, driving in a car, making out and taking a fateful trip, in the end of which, Soileau is seen carrying Lana’s bloodied corpse.
Star-crossed love is a recurring theme on Born to Die. Albeit not as dark as the title track, “Blue Jeans” tells the story of a woman lamenting a lover who walks out of her life in pursuit of “chasing paper” and getting “caught up in the game.” Also directed by Lemoine, the song’s visual is a brooding ode to film noir, shot in black and white.
Soileau also appears in this video, reuniting with Lana for another ill-fated love story – this time, poolside in a 1950s Hollywood home. In the pool, joined by two alligators, Soileau and Lana enjoy a swim, before meeting their implied demise by drowning – Lana, in the arms of Soileau. To this day, the video’s producer Oualid Mouaness says it is his most beautiful work, one he was determined to execute without compromise.
“Lana was quite present and wonderfully real in her process with us on this video,” Mouaness says. “She had worked with [Lemoine] on ‘Born to Die’ prior to this, so there was a certain level of comfort. ‘Blue Jeans,’ was, in some way, the prequel to ‘Born to Die.’ She approached the filming as an actor would. She knew she had to embody a character – one that is desperate for love and all the beauty that comes with it.”
The biggest hit from the album – and perhaps one of the most memorable songs of this era – was “Summertime Sadness.” While the album version remains one of Lana’s signature songs, a remixed version of the song by Cedric Gervais didn’t take off until over a year after the original’s release. The new version peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, marking Lana’s first entry into the top 10, and still her highest charting song to date. (Unaware of how successful the song would later prove to be, Interscope Records did not provide a budget for the song’s accompanying visual, according to director Spencer Susser.)
Lana conceived the idea for the “Summertime Sadness” video with actress Jaime King, who co-stars in the video. The video opens with a flash forward of Lana jumping to her death from a cliff. Throughout the video, King drives to a bridge, as visions of Lana appear to her in the passenger seat. King jumps off the bridge, and when Lana learns of Jamie’s death, she jumps from a cliff, joining her in the afterlife. Then, the two smile, laugh and share moments of bliss.
When Lana and King came up with the ideas, King later called Susser, who at the time hadn’t heard of Lana, to invite him to plan a treatment – along with King’s then-husband, Kyle Newman. King sent Susser “Summertime Sadness,” and within 15 minutes, Susser headed over to King and Newman’s home to lay out the concept for the video.
“[“Summertime Sadness” is] the idea of this love story, or friendship, or whatever you want it to be, that was broken up by a death,” Susser says. “And the idea that life without your best friend or your lover isn’t fulfilling enough, so you want to join them wherever they are, whatever that is.”
To shoot the video, Susser used a camera with 16mm film, an iPhone 4S, an iPad and an app to create “super 8” effects. Clips of King and Lana dancing and having fun at a party are interspersed throughout the visual, sequences shot by Newman on an iPhone at a party in the home of film director Eli Roth.
The scene with King contemplating suicide and jumping from a bridge transpire within the matter of seconds, which is about how long the crew was able to film this part. According to Susser, while he, Newman, King and Lana were filming, he heard a helicopter flying and noticed a light moving past King’s face.
“I thought, ‘Oh, maybe it’s a camera thing,’” Susser says. “As I go to take my eye off the eyepiece, this loudspeaker, like the voice of God says, ‘What you’re doing is illegal, get off the bridge.’ And I look up and there’s this helicopter hovering over us. And they’re talking to us on the loudspeaker. So we scram, and it was quite dramatic.”
To close the Born to Die era, Lana Del Rey released the video for “National Anthem,” a short film inspired by John F. Kennedy and Jackie Onassis Kennedy. In the Anthony Mandler-directed clip, Lana channels both Marilyn Monroe and Jackie O, alongside rapper A$AP Rocky, who embodies JFK.
The nearly eight-minute long visual shows Lana and Rocky partying, dancing in an Oyster Bay mansion and on yachts, and spending time on the beach with their three children. Toward the end, Rocky is shot off-screen as he and Lana are riding in a car; Lana then reads a forlorn monologue from the perspective of Jackie O, reflecting on her time with Rocky’s JFK: “I always got the sense that he became torn between being a good person and missing out on all of the opportunities that life could offer a man as magnificent as him… And in that way, I understood him and I loved him.”
The video was shot in New York City, with Lana’s creative team only having two weeks to plan and execute the shoot. “The creative was and is not an easy type of project to pull off in a short period of time,” says Heather Heller, a producer of the ‘National Anthem’ video, “especially with the locations and storyline needed. How do you re-create the JFK assassination with A$AP Rocky as JFK in a music video in less than two weeks?”
The “National Anthem” video was unlike anything Heller had ever worked on before, but ultimately, the challenge of the shoot is what excited her about the project. “We set out to find the locations that would look like Texas and Cape Cod in New York, and ultimately we did. I had always been fascinated with Camelot and the entire era and story. It’s both so tragic, yet romantic and glamorous at the same time. When I read the concept I was completely hooked.”
Heller, Mandler and crew filmed the video using super 8, 16mm and 35mm film. Lana’s longtime stylist, Johnny Blueeyes, helped her recreate Monroe and Jackie O’s aesthetics – but according to Heller, becoming these icons “was all Lana,” as she easily assumed form after the production team set the stage.
Heller would later produce the video for “Ride” and a short film called “Tropico,” both of which accompany an extended version of Born to Die subtitled The Paradise Edition. “All of the videos we made during that period were more like films than music videos,” Heller says. “It definitely tested me as a producer, and I don’t know if I have made anything as great or difficult as these three pieces since.”
Although the Born to Die era is often associated with its old-Hollywood references and motifs, Heller remembers Lana as someone who values her looks and image, but always makes sure it doesn’t overshadow the message of the work. “She is not looking for a designer wardrobe or the most perfect hair,” Heller says, “she is looking to become the character that she is portraying.”
Born to Die helped Lana garner a cult following, and even helped popularize a “Tumblr girl” and “Instagram hottie” aesthetic. Over the past decade, Lana has played around with her look, and although she’s traded in the flower crowns, croptowns and white gowns for sweaters, baseball caps and mall dresses, the cinematic quality of the music videos from this era is undeniable and inimitable. Having undergone several rebrands after recording music under the names May Jailer and Lizzy Grant, Lana Del Rey’s reintroduction of herself to the world set a high bar to a new audience, creating visual elements that would still feel iconic 10 years later.
Lana Del Rey “will work until she drops,” says Hellet. “She will give you everything she has, and she is magic on screen…Music has changed so much in the last 10 years, especially for female artists and what we see in her is a woman in charge of her own voice, touching on all aspects of the female psyche—sexuality, beauty, strength, frailty, power and freedom. She speaks for women in such an authentic way. She doesn’t pander to anyone. She is completely, unapologetically Lana.”