‘Purple Rain’ Director Gets Deep About Working With Prince: ‘How Is It You Just Told My Life Story?’

This weekend marks the 35th anniversary of the release of “Purple Rain.” But talking to the film’s writer-director Albert Magnoli, it seems like yesterday — at least in terms of the level of detail that he brings to his recollections of the development and production of Prince’s masterpiece.

Not only does the filmmaker remember all of the political and personal minefields he navigated in order to transform William Blinn’s script, “Dreams,” into the vehicle that propelled Prince to global superstardom, but he recalls the vibe in the rooms and the reactions of nearly everyone involved in its conception. But then again, given that Magnoli acquired his first professional endeavor as a director through what by any measure is a combination of feverish inspiration and calculated bluffing, maybe it’s not so surprising that he remembers the experience with such specificity.

Magnoli, now in his mid-60s, first learned of what became Prince’s first film project in the summer of 1983, while he was quietly entering the industry after graduating from the University of Southern California film school. “I was an editor on a film called ‘Reckless’ that was being directed by my colleague from film school, James Foley,” he tells Variety. “I had delivered the editors’ and directors’ cut in record time — that’s specifically from the training I received at USC film school, where you’re working on an extremely tight schedule — and I was screening it for a lot of people. One of those people was [Prince’s then-manager] Bob Cavallo, who was looking for a director for the script he had that was going to star Prince, ‘Dreams,’ written by William Blinn. He wanted to see the film with the intention of perhaps offering [Foley] a directing job.”

At Magnoli’s encouragement, Cavallo sent Foley the script. He wasn’t impressed. But when Magnoli called to break the news, Cavallo insisted on getting his opinion on Blinn’s draft as well. “I read it and I understood immediately what was wrong: I said, ‘This should be a film about music and the people who create that music and their struggles and tribulations.’”

Magnoli subsequently agreed to meet Cavallo for breakfast, where he charmed the seasoned manager with some unexpected and unfiltered honesty. “[Cavallo] comes walking in and says, ‘Why am I here again?’ And I said, ‘Because I don’t know anything about the film business, but I know more than you.’ And he laughed.”

Magnoli told Cavallo that he should disregard Blinn’s script and start over from scratch on something that exuded at least the authenticity of a musician’s life and work. “I said, ‘What you need to do is hire a writer-director to go to Minneapolis and sit with everybody and really understand what it is they’re doing, and find if there’s any dramatic narrative that then can become a motion picture. You’d have to start from the inside-out, instead of from the outside-in.’

“Then he said, ‘What would the story be?’ And within 10 seconds I pitched a story that just came to me, which became the infrastructure to what eventually became ‘Purple Rain.’”

Cavallo, impressed by the young editor’s chutzpah, offered Magnoli an unexpected opportunity. “He said, ‘Okay kid, what are you going to do about it?’ I said, ‘You’re going to put me on a plane to meet Prince Friday night and I’m going to tell him this story. And if he digs it, then we’re making a motion picture.’”

Sure enough, two days later, Magnoli flew to Prince’s hometown of Minneapolis for a first meeting with his future star. But he soon learned that Prince co-manager Steve Fargnoli was decidedly less enthusiastic about starting over from scratch on the project.

“I’m met by Steven Fargnoli, and standing next to him is Chick [Huntsberry], Prince’s 6’6” bodyguard. He immediately zeroed in on me and said, ‘We are not doing your story. The film we’re doing is the script and that’s all there is to it. I’m going to take you to the hotel where Prince is staying and he’s going to come down the elevator at exactly midnight and you’re going to meet him,’” Magnoli remembers.

“But when the elevator doors opened and Prince emerged, I was struck by how vulnerable he was and how uncertain he [seemed]. So these three guys are staring at me, and Prince says, ‘Tell me why you like my screenplay’ — which is a tacit way of saying that he endorsed the [original] screenplay. And I said, ‘I’m not here to talk about that story. I’m here to talk about the story that I told Bob Cavallo two days ago.’”

Bolstered by that first impression of Prince coming out of that elevator, Magnoli refined his 10-second pitch into something richer and more complete. “I said that the character had a father who made music, and that the father’s violence was put onto the mother and there was a cycle of violence in the house. This kid would feel vulnerable and he would feel isolated. In the third act, the father puts a gun to his head and kills himself. And yet you rise from the ashes because you’re onstage, finally reconciling with your bandmates. And Prince responded, ‘How is it that you just told me my life story in the last 10 minutes?’”

From there, Magnoli and Prince worked closely together to develop the foundations of the script, the musical elements of which Prince had already begun in earnest, writing some 100 songs he handed over to the filmmaker as a backbone for the story. During that first visit Magnoli couldn’t initially listen to all of them, but with the first 20 or so, he’d already heard “Darling Nikki” and “Let’s Go Crazy.”

Despite such fortuitous discoveries, the filmmaker soon realized he might have bitten off more than he could chew. “Prince said, ‘If there’s something that you need and it’s not here, I can write it. But are we going to be able to start this movie in September?’ It was already June or July!

“I’d planned to come back in August and start interviewing everybody for the script and start shooting in November,” he continues. Prince was even more surprised that he would want to shoot in his hometown, but Magnoli insisted it was essential to telling the artist’s story, even if it meant shooting in the bitter Minnesota cold.

“This is where you’re from,” Magnoli recalls saying. “We’re making the movie here.” Prince was sold. Cavallo was thrilled. Even Fargnoli was convinced. So with $1 million in development funds, Magnoli set up shop in Minneapolis and began conducting interviews with Prince and members of his band, the Revolution, in order to create the dramatic verisimilitude necessary to tell his story. Meanwhile, Magnoli still needed the song that would unify all of these disparate ideas into a rousing, cathartic anthem that would encapsulate the themes of the story and close the film.

“So on August 3rd, I’m in the mezzanine at First Avenue,” he said, referring to a now-legendary benefit concert performed at the long-running Minneapolis nightclub that would feature heavily in the film. “One of the songs he played that night, as soon as the concert was over, I ran downstairs and said, ‘What’s that song? It sounds like a Bob Dylan anthem.’ He said, ‘It’s called ‘Purple Rain.’ I said, ‘That’s the song I’m missing!’ He said, ‘That’s great — can we call the movie that?’ And that’s how fast the title came into being.”

So they had a story, a title and a signature song. But they still didn’t have a distributor. Cavallo begged Magnoli to join them for a round of studio meetings, a chore that the director didn’t want to be part of for multiple reasons, not least of which because he was supposed to be passing off a completed script to the production team he’d hired. “The first meeting we had was with Warner Bros., with Edward Rosenthal and Mark Canton, VP of production. They go, ‘We’re interested in what you’re doing, but we have some concerns. Also, would you consider John Travolta playing Prince?’” Magnoli recalls.

“Essentially, it was the same at every studio,” he says. “But Warner Bros. and Cavallo worked out a deal to make the movie with a budget of $7 million, and I could make the movie the way I wanted to make it — except for this one thing: [studio chiefs] Terry Semel and Bob Daly are saying that they cannot accept the father killing himself.” Understanding the studio’s position — “Purple Rain” was following Bob Fosse’s “Star 80,” the murder-suicide ending of which was eliciting bad test-screening results — Magnoli agreed to return to Los Angeles for another meeting with Warner Bros., where he retold the story of the film, this time with some minor but eventually very important changes.

“I’m driving them toward the end of the film and I say, ‘And then the father places the gun to his forehead and squeezes the trigger, but he’s not killed,’” he recalls. “I realized that it was a much more effective motion picture if he lived, because it gave Prince an opportunity to reconcile with his parents. At that moment, I realized the picture is more authentic with him living.”

Magnoli characterized the production of the “Purple Rain” film as “1000% untroubled” — at least in terms of the elements they could control. The autumn temperatures in Minneapolis made getting exterior shots a complicated ordeal. “The blistering cold was something no one predicted,” he recalls. “Just getting to a set was rough. The first snowfalls were eight feet deep! So we had what I called the ‘Blowtorch Brigade’ for filming outside, like when Morris Day comes out of his apartment and jumps in the limousine.” Nevertheless, Magnoli developed a contingency plan for reshoots in Los Angeles for anything he deemed “impossible” due to weather or other conditions, such as, say, his lead actress purifying herself in the waters of a freezing Lake Minnetonka.

“I mean, Apollonia [Kotero] jumped into the lake and came out and was just frozen,” he said. “There was no way I could ask her to go in again — she almost had a heart attack!”

Prince was fully committed to their shared vision for the film, and he responded strongly to the director’s hand behind the camera. But given the story’s resemblance to his own life, the performer struggled through a few scenes in the film — most notably in the climactic sequence where the star deals with his father’s attempted suicide, and his own briefly imagined one, which is quickly flashed as him hanging himself from the basement ceiling. “It’s a shot that lasts less than eight frames, but that was a highly emotional scene,” Magnoli remembers. “Prince was very agitated during the entire thing, especially when I had to hang him up.

“His body had to be roped into this harness to be hung on a stud in the basement,” he says. “We put him on the hook and he was hanging there, and then I said to one of the grips, touch his body so he’s swinging — and he just went berserk. He had lost total control. That fear was coming from a real place.”

Especially after spending time with them in interviews while writing the script, Magnoli says he worked well with the rest of the cast, despite many of the band members’ inexperience as actors. “We brought in coaches for their acting,” he says. “They didn’t get much out of them, but all of it was to loosen them up for what the camera would eventually want, so they could deliver what we needed.” Their preparation for the concert scenes, however, was so thorough and detailed that Magnoli was able to shoot all of the musical numbers in just seven days.

“I’m a massive Bob Fosse fan,” Magnolia recalls, “and he called after he saw the movie and said, ‘I just can’t believe that you shot all that music in one week. Do you know how long it took me to shoot that opening musical sequence in ‘Lenny’? A month!’”

But as the filmmaker got into the editing room, he realized that he still needed one more song that would help bring the narrative together as Prince’s journey unfolded on screen. “I called Prince and said, ‘I need a new song, and this is why, and this is the lyric content that I need.’ I talked to him on a Tuesday, and the very next day he delivered ‘When Doves Cry.’” After completing his edit, Magnoli showed it to everyone involved. From the inside out, it seemed like they had delivered Prince’s story, but the question remained whether or not anyone would want to watch it.

“The executives looked at it, Prince took a look at it, my agent took a look at it,” the director recalls. “There’s excitement, but there’s a big unknown — they needed to get it in front of an audience. So they set up an audience participation screening. The response was off the charts, to the extent that Daly and Semel claim that Bob Cavallo spiked the audience! So they had another screening in San Diego and the same thing happened.”

Bullish about its commercial prospects, Warner executives expanded its theater count. But even now, Magnoli says that he was never certain about what he’d accomplished, much less that it would resonate as strongly as “Purple Rain” did, earning some $70 million in theaters and making Prince a worldwide phenomenon.

“The film was being appreciated in a way that defies conventional wisdom because it’s a mostly black cast, but filmmakers never feel confident about anything,” he admits. “You just do your job to the best of your ability and hope that the obstacles will be lessened because you gave everything you had.”

Some 35 years later, Magnoli looks back at his efforts to craft what became an Oscar-winning, landmark film with the considerable hindsight of its legacy.

“I think the most important part of all this is to make something that rings true,” he said. “And that has proven to be the right path as time has gone on, because the film constantly gets revisited and there’s a fan base that protects and cherishes it. And that starts at the very beginning with authenticity. And although success, as always, has many parents, he’s realistic about what was achieved.

“You just say to yourself, ‘There’s going to be a tremendous amount of noise and chatter, and some of it will be true and some will be made up,” he concludes. “There’ll be a lot of rewriting history and you just have to let it go and let it become what it’s going to, because you gave birth to it.”

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