A ballerina hangs delicately in mid-air. Popcorn kernels float magically above the ground. An old man's cigarette smoke is frozen still in a stuffy bar until a woman swirls it with her fingers. It’s scenes like these from Avicii and Rita Ora’s “Lonely Together” video, about a man and woman running whimsically through a world suspended in time, that earned the clip a nod for Best Special Effects at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, which air Aug. 20.
But the recognition is also bittersweet: “Lonely Together,” directed by Avicii’s longtime collaborator Levan Tsikurishvili, is one the last videos the Swedish DJ made before he died an apparent suicide this past April, and the last time the two worked together.
“I don't really know how to handle these kind situations,” Tsikurishvili says from his home in Sweden. His voice is gruff and full sighs as he talks about his late friend's vision for the clip, captured in an exclusive behind-the-scenes video below. “I'm still collecting my head, to be honest with you,” Tsikurishvili continues. “It's great to be nominated], but at the same time, its very emotional … I feel a responsibility to keep up his spirit and be there; to do this interview, for example. To not forget him, to be able to get out the message to the fans and to the people that loved him.”
Tsikurishvili, who directed the intimate 2017 documentary Avicii: True Stories, had worked closely with Bergling since the two met in 2012. But the video for “Lonely Together” came together somewhat on the fly, with the pair settling on a concept only three weeks before their deadline. There must have been 12 or 13 treatments, Tsikurishvili says, before Bergling finally threw out the idea a couple in love, alone as they navigate a standstill universe.
“Straightaway after that conversation, we started working to collect the characters, plan the] stances and everything,” Tsikurishvili remembers. “It was very, very fast. We didn't even have time to realize the shortness the deadline.”
The video wouldn’t be what it is without Bergling’s input. It was his idea, for example, to film the opening bar sequence in one moving shot to connect the characters and establish the video’s universe. “He could easily be director by himself,” Tsikurishvili says. “He was really an amazing storyteller, apart from the music. I don't know where that came from. He would always take the next step on every video we did when it came to understand the whole process.”
Tsikurishvili took a film crew to Kiev, Ukraine, where there’s an abundance amusement parks — as well as pressional actors who don’t mind hanging upside down in a perfectly frozen position for minutes on end. But the colorful carnival setting, perhaps the most visually stunning scene in the whole video, almost didn’t happen.
“I really had one day to shoot the amusement park, and we were expecting rain,” Tsikurishvili says. “The rain hit us very heavy. I was like, 'Fuck, we're not going to be able to finish this,' but luckily, the rain ended in three or four hours. We were able to shoot the whole thing – and then we did so much in post production.”
The video only took a few days to shoot — a second crew knocked out Ora’s scenes in one day — and the remaining weeks were dedicated to painstaking detail work in the studio. Those flying dollars caught in the air? They're sitting on sticks that had to be blurred out. The ballerina and that guy hanging upside down? Also on support mechanisms that were made invisible in post-production. The popcorn and the fire? That was never even there. And neither was the fly.
“It's really exciting actually,” the director says the process, “because you literally see the whole shape the video taking place step-by-step, popcorn-by-popcorn. Every single effect is coming together, and it's amazing — but we literally spent day and night in the studio with the effects artists. You lose some kind reality. You only see the problems, and it's terrible, but you have to focus on on the main thing, which is the video. I guess directors constantly struggle to be between the reality and the fiction.”
If a VMA nomination is any indication, the grueling hours and screen-induced headaches paid f in the end. For Tsikurishvili, a VMA win would be heartwarming, but not being able to share it with Bergling would also be painful.
“It's difficult,” he says. “I can't call him anymore or send him a message. It feels like life became heavier, but at the same time, I learned so much from him … The one thing he had was this honesty. He was always a very honest person above anything. It's amazing to see him in the way people want to honor him, all these different tributes … It feels weird to do interviews, but at the same time, I feel the responsibility to share the stories about Tim; to just remember him as much as possible. That's what I can do from this life, from here for him.”