She may have announced that "the light is coming" on her recent anthem with Nicki Minaj, but when it came to Ariana Grande's "breathin" music video, the singer embraced the darkness. "She called herself 'emo Ari' and was all about a very moody video," director Hannah Lux Davis reveals to Bustle in a phone interview. "Ariana really was onboard to be emotional and very much in a place where I feel like this was cathartic for her — knowing that she was going to time capsule this moment of where she was at."
Following Grande's emotionally taxing year — replete with the shocking September death of her ex, music producer, Mac Miller, followed shortly after by a high-profile broken engagement with ex-fiancé Pete Davidson — the four-time Grammy nominee put full trust in Davis, her frequent collaborator, to "take the reins" on her new video. The director has been behind such massive Grande clips as 2014's "Love Me Harder," 2016's "Into You," and the same year's energetic hit "Side to Side" (also with Minaj), and she tells Bustle that for "breathin," "I was obviously very much inspired by the song and that feeling of anxiety and just feeling disconnected and not really aligned with things that are going on in the world around you."
After all, Grande has been openly vocal about the fact that "breathin" (off of her chart-topping August release Sweetener) was inspired by her own mental health struggles with PTSD and anxiety attacks, following the devastating May 2017 bombing attack at her Manchester Arena concert. As she explained during an August interview on NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon:
"So, "breathin" is about breathing, like when you're anxious. It's about anxiety and... You know when you feel like you can't get a full breath? It's like the worst feeling in the whole world. It's a song about that feeling."
To convey that "disconnected feeling" in the music video, Davis employed motion control, shooting multiple takes at different frame rates, which made the extras appear to be out of focus and streaking past the 25-year-old Grande. As for a setting, she couldn't think of a better fit than a place that had "a Grand Central Station feel," because, after all, where is there more rush-hour chaos than that? "It's a great metaphor for how we get from place to place, whether that be a moment in our life or just feeling like everything is moving past you so quickly," Davis explains.
After trying unsuccessfully to get approval to film in New York City's actual Grand Central Station, Davis found what ended up being "the perfect location" in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood for the video's two-day shoot in late October. (Fun fact: Director Michael Gracey filmed a scene for 2017's The Greatest Showman in the same space.)
Davis — who first worked with Grande more than four years ago on the music video for "Bang Bang," her smash collaboration with Minaj and Jessie J — knew how to get the perfect performance from the "No Tears Left to Cry" singer. For one of the "breathin" video's opening scenes, which shows a sleek, high-ponytailed Grande parked in front of a dimly lit bar, Davis initially directed Grande to give her "lots of an angsty energy, where you’re kind of just like thrashing around and are really distraught." She admits, however, that something didn't feel quite right.
"So I asked her, "What would you do if you were standing in a crowded place and you had crazy, crippling anxiety? What would you do?"" the director recalls. "And then she goes, ‘I would just stand there like this and hold my arms really tight.’ And that’s exactly what ended up in the video."
As for giving Grande "an amazing cloud moment," as seen in the shots where Grande is seated upon a swing, the sky was literally the limit, though Davis says her inspiration would be no mystery to loyal Arianators. Noting that the singer is "obsessed with clouds" and even has a perfume called CLOUD, Davis recalls, "It was one of those things where she was like, ‘yes, let’s do it. Done, done, done. Let’s do it,’" After Grande saw a preview of the cloud scenes, she was in love with the concept, and requested Davis make the scene "even moodier."
Not everything was quite so serious behind the scenes, though. "Ariana's a comedian, straight up," Davis reveals. "She has really great comedic timing. She’s constantly cracking jokes and making everybody laugh. There’s been a lot of serious, but she’s also shown a lot of personality, and I feel like people know now that she’s funny, especially with her Instagram Stories."
What might be more surprising to the public, however, is that Grande is able to make split-second wardrobe decisions with ease. For the "breathin" video, Grande, with the help of stylist Law Roach, selected several looks, including some from designers Emilio Pucci and Jimmy Choo, but Davis says there were "no crazy fittings" prior to the shoot: "She tries on like one or two things and knows what's going to fit on her body and what she likes. She will literally be in hair and makeup, and as soon as that’s done, it will take her two seconds to find something that she likes. I'm talking like 10 minutes, start to finish."
How did Grande react to seeing the final cut of the sophisticated, effects-heavy music video, which took Davis only two weeks to complete? "Oh my god, she loved it," adds the director, who's also worked with Ciara, Drake, Lil Wayne, and Miley Cyrus. "Ariana is an artist who is very smart and involved with every step of the process, which I really respect. And when she saw the video, she freaked out with excitement."
Fans are equally as pumped for Grande's new music and videos, with the recent release of the singer's ode to her exes, "thank u, next," and a promise made via Twitter that she's "finishing things up" for her next album. As for whether Davis will be involved with the upcoming project's visual, the director plays coy, teasing, "She’s got a lot of new stuff coming out — so you’ll have to wait and see!"
Arianators will surely be waiting — with bated breath, no less — for whatever magic Grande (and, quite possibly, Davis) come up with next.