Inside the making of Halsey's folk-horror film 'If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power'

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Inside the making of Halsey's folk-horror film 'If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power'
Halsey stars in "If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power." HBO Max

Director Colin Tilley and executive producer Jamee Ranta break down the inspirations and challenges behind the singer's big-screen debut

"My assistant director turned to me and said, 'There's no way you're going to get this accomplished in 14 days. There's just no way.'"

Colin Tilley understood the skepticism. It's one thing to shoot a feature film during a global pandemic; it's quite another to do so in a foreign country, in the final months of winter, with two weeks on set and a star who's five months pregnant.

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But Halsey and her team had a vision for "If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power," created as a companion to her fourth album of the same name, which enjoyed a limited theatrical run before its recent arrival on HBO Max.

And much like the protagonist Halsey portrays in her big-screen debut, the vision proved too grand and headstrong to be destroyed by outside forces.

About eight months ago, Halsey approached Tilley with an ambitious concept: a horror film inspired by impending motherhood, drawing from eras like Marie Antoinette's France and Queen Anne's Great Britain, as well as the twisted world of 17th-century folktales.

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Halsey wrote the script and stars as the protagonist, Queen Lila, who discovers she's pregnant in the wake of her royal husband's murder and becomes vilified by the royal court.

"After our first two days on set, I realized very quickly that I was going to have to switch up my entire approach to shooting," Tilley, who directed the film, recently told Insider.

In terms of filmmaking obstacles, Tilley said the crew dealt with "everything you could ask for." Executive producer Jamee Ranta, Tilley's frequent collaborator, also told Insider that something needed to be adjusted on the fly "every single day" during the one-month shoot back in March.

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Inside the making of Halsey's folk-horror film 'If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power'
Director Colin Tilley noted "extreme cold" and snow flurries while filming. Jamee Ranta
Inside the making of Halsey's folk-horror film 'If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power'
The field scene, set to Halsey's "Girl Is a Gun," was one of the film's final shoots. Jamee Ranta

Of course, health and safety were primary concerns. No one was allowed on set without a negative test result.

On top of "extreme cold" and unexpected snow flurries, the Czech Republic had imposed a ban on gatherings of more than two people. It meant the crew needed special permission to film inside 12th-century castles in Prague as well as permits to be on the roads. (Establishing shots feature Křivoklát Castle, which was repurposed at one point in its history as a dreaded prison.).

With Halsey's second trimester well underway, wardrobe and framing posed additional challenges. The film's timeline spans at least nine months and there are several scenes where Halsey's character, Queen Lila, is not depicted as pregnant.

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And that's not to mention the scene with Halsey riding horseback through the woods after a drunken day with friends, which Tilley and Ranta both cited as a particular logistical headache.

"There was a lot of movie magic that went into this," Tilley said. "But that's all part of the process. Once you actually get into it, you have to adapt to what the environment is and what the energy's like."

"It ended up working out to our advantage," he continued. "I really love the way that the piece flows and it feels like you're really in Halsey's head. You're feeling it from her perspective, through her eyes in a really intimate way."

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Halsey, whose birth name is Ashley Frangipane and who uses "they/them" in addition to "she/her" pronouns, first enlisted Tilley to direct their music video for "Without Me" in 2018.

The surprise single gave Halsey her first solo No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was later included on their third studio album, 2020's "Manic." The tracklist also included the fan-favorite breakup bop, "You Should Be Sad." Tilley directed that music video, too.

"Watching Ashley evolve through these projects has been incredible," he told Insider. "I mean, 'Without Me' was a very different feel and different energy. But I think that deep down inside, she's had this plan all along."

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"If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power" is an industrial concept album that vacillates between two extremes: pop-punk shredding and soft-acoustic crooning; sinister and blissful; protective and destructive. The film does the same, casting Halsey as two symbiotic beings: Lila, who gives life, and Lilith, who takes it away.

Both projects ask the question that's haunted child-bearing humans for centuries: How can the most natural, essential process for survival beget such gore, agony, and social upheaval?

Inside the making of Halsey's folk-horror film 'If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power'
A behind-the-scenes photo of costar Sasha Lane on the set of "If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power." Dani Vitale

When Tilley first learned of the project, neither the music nor the script was complete, but he signed on anyway.

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In fact, the director didn't hear any of the songs featured in "If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power" until after the shoot had wrapped. While filming in Prague, Halsey was still working on perfecting the album with acclaimed producers and rockstars Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

"It was a really wild, 'go for it' energy," Tilley said, adding that the lack of rules and music "created an even more freeform atmosphere for us to create."

"I don't think it could have been done without the collaboration that we had and the kind of trust and friendship that we had already created," he said.

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The two had several in-depth conversations about Queen Lila's world, which seems different from ours on the surface, but not so much in practice. It's draped in the Gothic opulence of a classic historical drama but finds itself dislodged from any knowable timeline.

Inside the making of Halsey's folk-horror film 'If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power'
The film drew aesthetic inspiration from historical figures like Marie Antoinette and Queen Anne. HBO Max
Inside the making of Halsey's folk-horror film 'If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power'
"If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power" was filmed in Prague. HBO Max

"We didn't want to be handcuffed by a specific time period," Tilley explained. "So we were taking references from the 1300s and 1400s - for the aesthetic and location and wardrobe - but then adding modern influences into it. That's why it's such a unique world when you watch it."

One of the first specifications that Halsey made, Tilley said, was to keep their tattoos uncovered.

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"That's what it was all about: Let's take pieces of the modern world that we love and let's infuse it," he said. "We really wanted to make sure it was a very diverse atmosphere, a diverse castle, a diverse world, and kind of flip the period piece on its head. And then with this music as the backdrop, it really takes it all the way."

You can experience two different feelings at the same time. You can go through strife and pain, and still feel love. Jamee Ranta, executive producer

Although Halsey's film presents a surprisingly grim vision of sexuality and birth, Ranta said that filming one particular scene "changed my life in ways that I didn't expect."

Following the film's brutal climax - and here I must insert a major spoiler warning - Lila is offered a glimpse into an alternate universe, where transformative love for her newborn son is the only force that exists.

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After the queen was forced to give birth in a witch's hut, she was dragged through the forest, half-naked and bleeding, and thrown in the castle's dungeon. But through some mysterious, retributive power, she finds her cage open and guards slaughtered.

"The moment that stands out most to me is when she's leaving the dungeon, walking up the stairs, and ascending up to the light," Ranta told Insider. "I think that is a very powerful thing, because her character has gone through all of this trauma and then tried to seek revenge, and through that revenge, trauma continues, so it's like a moment of light in the darkness."

Inside the making of Halsey's folk-horror film 'If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power'
Halsey's character Queen Lila gives birth to a son. HBO Max

As Lila walks into the nursery, she passes by several paintings on the wall depicting her mythic journey thus far - which, Ranta noted, Halsey painted herself.

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Finally, Lila meets her child for the first time since labor. It's perhaps the only moment of brightness and true clarity in the film, but somehow, it also feels like the whole point.

"Her saying 'hi' to her baby and having that moment of love in the midst of conflict and hate and power is what life is about," Ranta said.

"Not many people talk about that, that you can experience two different feelings at the same time. You can go through strife and pain, and still feel love."

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