ENTERTAINMENT
07/07/2020 07:00 BST | Updated 07/07/2020 09:17 BST

'We Weren't Out To Shock People': Rock DJ Director Vaughan Arnell On Making Robbie Williams' Outrageous Video

It's been 20 years since the all-singing, all-dancing, all-stripping, all-vital-organ-eating video made its debut.

By the turn of the millennium, Robbie Williams had well and truly cemented his place as one of the brightest stars on the British music scene.

With his Take That days long behind him, Robbie entered the year 2000 having released two hit albums and scored two solo number one singles, the aptly-titled Millennium and She’s The One, not to mention his first Brit Award win as a solo act.

So when it came to his first output of the new millennium, the chart-topping singer started as he meant to go on, by shocking absolutely everyone.

Rock DJ served as the lead single from singer’s third album, Sing When You’re Winning, and quickly topped the UK charts, bagging him his third number one.

However, it’s the song’s outrageous music video that people probably remember best.

 

The horrifying/hilarious (delete as applicable) clip sees Robbie entering a roller disco, and quickly trying to bag the attention of the DJ. His dancing, posing and stripping fail him, and he only succeeds in wooing her by – of course – peeling off his skin and chucking his vital organs around (which are promptly eaten by the models circling him on their skates). By the end, all that remains is a dancing Robbie skeleton. 

In honour of the clip’s 20th anniversary, HuffPost UK spoke to its director, Vaughan Arnell, for a bit of insight into the creation of a music video that’s still shocking people 20 years after its release. 

I actually met Rob when he was still in Take That

“I directed the Back For Good video for Take That. We shot it in the rain, and they all had fur coats on, and Rob just really pounded it out. And then, obviously, there was the split, and I became a fan of his, I really liked him.

“And then we did Angels together, and Let Me Entertain You, which was fantastic, and after that I did the Millennium video too.” 

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Robbie with the rest of Take That in the Back For Good video

His team sent me the original treatment for the Rock DJ video when I was on holiday

“It was one of the few videos I’ve done where I didn’t write the treatment. I think Rob was doing a Pepsi ad, and the guys doing the ad [came up with the idea]. So, Rob and the management came to me and said ‘Rob’s seen this idea about him taking his skin off, it was written by two French guys, would you be up for doing it?’. So I looked at it, and I thought it was really exciting. 

I did make a couple of changes, though

“I think [the original treatment] was a little bit more French, they had Rob walking into a disco with a poodle or something, and the girls didn’t notice him so he started taking his clothes off, something like that. I thought it was nice, but I changed it to a roller-skating rink, with Rob coming up into the centre.

There’s a film called Rollerball, where they used to fight going round on rollerskates, so I had rollerskates in my head because of that. I worked on the treatment when I was on holiday – I remember thinking I’d not be able to do the video, because I couldn’t get back in time, but they said they’d wait for me – and I literally got off the plane and went straight into all the prep on it.”

 

It was daunting, because it was such a technical operation

“But they had the money, which was brilliant, so we could afford to do it properly. It was daunting, though, because all of that skin had to be body-formed on him, all the prosthetics. So he had to have his whole body put in a plaster cast, and then his head too. I think his head was in plaster for something like six minutes, with straws and stuff coming out. And he was actually encased in plaster all that time. Most people freak out doing that, but they said he was amazing.

“I think it was a four or five day shoot, and he was in prosthetics for nearly four to five hours every morning.”

The biggest challenge was just the sum of all the challenges

“It was such a monster, you had prosthetics, you had really amazing hair and make-up, you had teams of prosthetic artists, and then a giant set that was 360 – normally on a set you point one way or the other, but this was 360 degrees.

“Then we had an artist who probably had to get up at four o’clock every morning, come to the set for five-thirty, and be in make-up for five hours, and then go on to perform at 11 o’clock at night for three days running. And he had to keep his energy up the whole time, so when he does rip his buttocks off, or he’s eyeing up the DJ, or whatever, you keep the energy going and keep the fun.”

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Robbie makes a dramatic entrance in the Rock DJ video, before things take a turn

On the last night of the shoot, Robbie went out in the prosthetics, covered in fake blood

“When you put Rob in the prosthetics, you’d just burst out laughing because he looked so good – and then he’d put a pair of Ray Bans on or something, there was always a gag with it.

“If you watch the ‘making of’ video, on the last night, he went to a garage and asked for 20 Marlboro and a box of batteries, fucking covered, dripping in blood. And the guy just served him, really fucking calmly. And he taps his body, sort of looking for his wallet like ‘sorry, I’ve got no money’, and then he runs out.

“And then he’s outside a pub, smoking, and you see a police car going towards the garage, and then they put the camera through the window of a pub, and he goes in and has a drink, standing at the bar. It was so funny! He was really good at carrying it off.”

And the funny thing was, the prosthetics only came down to his calf muscles

“If you look at his feet, he’s got normal Robbie feet, but from the calf muscles up, he’s the peeled Robster.” 

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It took the prosthetics team four to five hours to get Robbie looking like this

My biggest memory from set is riding on the back of a golf trolley, spraying everybody with red paint and throwing rubber organs in people’s faces

“That’s how I’ll always remember that. Basically, we had a golf trolley going around Robbie – this is going to sound so sick – but I was on the back, with two or three buckets of red gel and bits of prosthetic rubber, and I was throwing them at the girls, and they were grabbing them and ripping them and chewing them.

“And they were rollerskating, so you had to be careful not to get anything in their eye or anything like that.”

It was all a bit of a laugh – we weren’t going out to shock people

“This was a time before things ‘went viral’, and you ran a fine line of what was outrageous and what was show-able, because the main outlets were still terrestrial television. So you couldn’t really fuck with people too much. Like now, you can do whatever you want, and the more outrageous it is, the more clicks it’s going to get. But this was a fine line.

“So you had the record company going ‘we just don’t want it to look like a peeled rabbit, it’s not going to look bloody, is it?’. And you have to sort of say ‘don’t worry, it won’t’, but in the back of your head you knew it was going to look like a peeled rabbit.

“But you knew with Robbie, whatever we do, we try and do in the best possible taste. So it wasn’t going to be like a realistic horror movie, it was going to be Robbie singing Rock DJ covered in blood, with a wink in the eye. It was almost done with a little bit of irony, tongue-in-cheek style.

“When he rips his bum cheeks off we had little blood splats on the camera and stuff like that… he could have have ripped anything off, but we decided it should be bum cheeks, it was just funny. And if you listen to the track, the track’s quite up and dance-y. So the video was done more for entertainment than shock.”

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"He could have have ripped anything off, but we decided it should be bum cheeks"

His team were loving it

“I’m really sad to say one of his managers passed away a few years ago, but his two managers at that time, David and Tim, they were like really proper big old-school managers, like naughty schoolboys. And the more controversy that they could create with Robbie, or the more fun they could have winding people up, [the better]. They would just sit and chuckle, rubbing their hands together.

“So the team were really up for it, everybody was. When you’re shooting, and you look around and people are smiling, it’s really exciting.”

The tiger on his pants was my idea

“And now I think he’s got loads of them! Nowadays, they’d probably try and do product placement, and he’d have Calvins on, but when you see he’s got a tiger on his pants, instead of it just being trendy... you keep have to keep pulling the rug out all the time, so people don’t take it too seriously.”

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Vaughan says the tiger design was his way of "pulling the rug out" to stop people taking the video "too seriously"

It turned out none of the models could rollerskate

“When we did the casting, the first thing we asked was ‘can you rollerskate?’. Every fucking girl said yes, and then I remember, I literally got off the plane, they’d built half the set, and then I got there, and the girls came out, and none of them could rollerskate. They were all falling over each other everywhere, it was like a car crash on the M1, it was so bad.

“But Arlene Phillips choreographed the video – she was fantastic, and so nice. And she looked at me, and she said ‘don’t worry Vaughn, it’ll be fine’. And so we had to grade them, based on their skating.

“And then I remember on the golf trolley, we had a bar that the girls could hold onto, that you couldn’t see on camera. So we could just drag a lot of them around. But every time we said ‘cut’, they’d all fall over again.

“And if you look at the video, there were bumps on the floor… so, even though it looked like a roller disco, it wasn’t as sophisticated as it looked. But we got away with it.” 

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The Rock DJ video was never shown in full on music channels at the time, due to its graphic content

I think Robbie and I were wanted for cannibalism in Papa New Guinea or something

“It was really weird, the way they spun things with the press, which was quite funny. I think it was the front cover of The Sun and things, so it’s like… fuck, I didn’t think we’d do this, didn’t think we’d get that.” 

And then winning a Brit Award for Best British Video was amazing

“I think Rob’s won about 20, hasn’t he? I remember going round there, he used to keep his Brit Awards on the fridge. Like bottles of milk all lined up. And then I think he gave them away to people, he gave one to Wayne Rooney, when he broke his foot just before the World Cup.”

Only Robbie could have pulled off the Rock DJ video

“I think it worked because it was Robbie, and Robbie was such a household name, I couldn’t see many people [pulling it off]… maybe Justin Timberlake, but I think only Robbie could have done that video, in a way. Freddie Mercury would have done it just as well as Rob. But I couldn’t see Paul McCartney doing it.”

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By the end of the video, Robbie is replaced by a CGI skeleton

I feel really lucky to be able to work with an artist throughout their career 

“It’s always great fun working with Robbie, whatever you do. One minute, he’s ripping his skin off, and the next minute, he’s saying he’s got Nicole Kidman for the [Somethin’ Stupid] video, and it’s like ‘fucking hell’. So it’s a rollercoaster, it’s amazing.

“Normally, I [try and come up with] something he’d enjoy doing, or something he’d see the fun in. He’s done so many videos now, so you just think ‘what would Rob really like to do?’. And he always likes a challenge... we did the Feel video, where he’s a cowboy. That fucking bloke, he couldn’t even ride a horse before we did that video – he got on the horse, and within seconds he’s doing galloping shots, and then at the end, he got the horse to rear. Everybody was so gobsmacked.

“He’s always really good at becoming an expert in something within an hour, it’s really annoying. I always like to try and think of things he can’t do, but I swear to god, if he did a video where he was tightrope-walking, he’d pull it off.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.