Wheel of Time
The Wheel of Time (Credit: Prime)

Sanaa Hamri is one of the voices behind The Wheel of Time. In addition to directing several episodes for the acclaimed fantasy series, she’s also an executive producer. In the last year alone, she’s directed two major season finales for The Wheel of Time and Gen V.

We could talk for hours about her career and barely scratch the surface. Her body-of-work includes producing and directing a good of deal of Empire, as well as a long list of high-profile videos and films such as Just Wright and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2.

Across different genres and mediums, one element has remained consistent throughout her directing. Above all, she wants to tell stories that matter. In an interview with Immersive Media, Sanaa Hamri told us the personal reason why she wants to direct meaningful stories on a large-scale.

Throughout your career, you’ve been very adaptable, just varying forms and genres. Was that always the goal? 

Wheel of Time
Director Sanaa Hamri

I’m a filmmaker that cares about story and what I’m saying. To me, it’s more about what the story is, what the challenges that the characters are going through and building new and fresh worlds. That is why I feel like I’m not placed in the box, because I went from a music soap about a family in the music industry, Empire, to Wheel of Time, which was a fantasy show about women in power with all these special effects.

I did Rings of Power [season two], too. Yes, it’s along the lines of fantasy, but it’s a different kind of approach. My inspiration when I was filming Rings of Power was Caravaggio versus when I was doing Wheel of Time, it was more David Bowie, rock and roll vibes. 

Ultimately, with content, I want it to matter. I want our audience to really have fun and enjoy themselves, but for it to matter. Every theme matters in Wheel of Time. The women, the women have the power, and the struggle between good and evil. Gen V, it’s about young kids coming of age in a world filled with corruption and about how becoming strong and challenging the world. 

I’m open to all types of genre, and the fact of the matter is, I can do any type of genre. It’s about what paints you’re going to paint with. You’re given the colors and you have to stick within those colors, but what is the painting that you create?

Wheel of Time
Jaz Sinclair in Gen V (Credit: Prime)

As someone who’s crafted plenty of action sequences, as well crafted these larger-than-life images of pop stars, how do you want to create a sense of scale with the camera?

Scale to me is literally about depth and where you place the camera to accentuate, whether it’s the architecture or the actor. I could place a camera on a certain wide angle lens, very close, low angle for a shot that involves a movement that makes it larger than life. You learn when you’re working in a visual space where you’re making artists larger than life, like superheroes. Prince is a superhero, Mariah Carey is a superhero, Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, they’re all superheroes. 

They’re superheroes unto themselves with the music, but when you place a camera on them, you have to make sure they always look larger-than-life. It’s the same thing when filming these worlds in Wheel of Time or Rings of Power. You’ve got amazing, amazing worlds that once you place your camera, and where you block it to the camera, it feels larger in life.

The other thing is, it has to feel like it’s real. I’m always aware of that. I always try to bring an organic quality, whether it’s to the lighting or to the movement of the camera and how it’s blocked. It can’t feel like, oh, it’s a staged event. It has to feel real. In Wheel of Time or Gen V, it should feel like it’s happening now. This is the real slice of life, even if it’s at a bigger scale.

With the artists you worked with, you clearly understood their appeal in pop culture. How is that comparable to working with actors on Wheel of Time or Gen V, in terms of understanding character and how to best present them?

Here’s the thing. When you’re dealing with musical artists, they are the product themselves. When you’re with actors, it’s their character. That’s the product that they create. The actual actor, they have to embody this character. It’s a little different. The good news is that what I love about actors is that you can tell them, “I need this line here, turn here.” They’re very technical, especially the ones who are so well-versed in the camera. I can really play with them because I’m a very technical director. 

How do we kind of entice that audience? To me, that’s me making them into these superstar, superhero people. It’s why I am doing genre because it’s already in my wheelhouse. Being a director at Amazon, they recognize that even though I had never done genre, I can expand.

I like being at a place where they are open to me expanding. As an artist, I don’t want to repeat myself. I’m always trying to find the newest thing. I think that’s part of the past music video world where we always wanted to have the coolest, the brightest and the biggest things.

What’s another example of where you really satisfied expanding your style on a project? 

When I did Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass.” They wanted to cross her over into more of a pop thing. Nicki had met me on another video I did with her and Rihanna, “Fly.” Nicki Minaj was like, “I want you to do this. I want pink. I want Barbie.” This is before Barbie. I told her, “I don’t know. Why don’t you have Hype Williams? Do it.”

Nicki goes, “No, I want your version of it.” And I go, “Oh, I get it. Hmm, let’s do ice.” Those were real blocks of ice in the video, the motorcycles. Those were not fake. That motorcycle she was sitting on was melting. Super cold. She was such a trooper, but that was one of her most successful images. 

Nicki was right. “Fly” was more my style than “Super Bass,” but no, she said, “I want a Sanaa Hamri video out of it. You’re going to do something different.” That’s what I love about these artists, like rappers and all that. They think differently. 

A good lesson there, right?

It also groomed me in the most positive way to be able to approach film and television differently. I’m always thinking, “Okay, how do I answer this question in the least expected way? How do I make this special and nobody else has done it?” I mean, these are the things I try.

When you started off directing, what was the ambition? What did you want to achieve as a storyteller?

I will say from the beginning of the journey, even when I started as an editor, I wanted my work to be able to speak to the masses. Maybe it’s because I come from another country. I was born and raised in Morocco, cross-cultural parents, and just growing up in a poor environment, coming to America, being able to be a self-made person and just being conscious of how the world is, I always wanted to have the microphone. And if I get the microphone, what am I going to say? Especially with streaming where it’s in everybody’s household, my art is able to reach billions of people. That’s important and why I’m very conscientious of what the message is. 

How has your career journey compared to what you expected or hoped? 

The journey is always surprising and unexpected. I am also a producer. I love finding new shows. I’m constantly reading material, so I’m a creator, and there’s no blueprint for that. Eight years ago, I was directing, producing, and taking meetings. I’d say, “Well, I want to meet so-and-so. Let me have a general.” I’d hear, “Oh, no, no, no. That’s not how we do it.” Everybody’s telling me how this is not how we do it, but I mean, this is not how we do it, either, you know what I mean? I like to trust my gut. 

[Producer] Lynda Obst wrote, “Ride the horse in the direction it’s going.” That’s something I say a lot about the industry. It’s been a theme for me, because sometimes there’s been surprising turns. Not always in a bad way. Sometimes it’s, “Oh, I’m going to Prague to do this fantasy show. Never done that, but let me ride the horse in the direction it’s going.”

My agents asked, “You do genre?” And I go, “Yeah, I really loved it.” They’re like, “We were wondering because you’ve never done it before.” I really enjoyed it, but it was because I had faith. 

I tell people, things are always up and down. It is riding the horse in the direction it’s going, because eventually, it’ll stop. You’ll get off and you’ll find another horse. I hope that’s a good message for people.

It all goes back to what you’ve said about getting out of music videos, knowing when that era was going to end and, as a director, to seek out what’s next. 

It’s the same thing now with online and streaming, but I’m open. I’m open because I also haven’t lost focus of what the intention is. If the intention is great quality, meaningful work, it doesn’t matter what platform it’s on, it is that people will find it. Even if it takes a long time for them to get to it, it is totally fine. Anything you do, art is eternal. Especially digital, it will live in perpetuity.

Wheel of Time
Wheel of Time (Credit: Prime)

“Musicology” was the first Prince album I bought, so I remember seeing that music video vividly. That piece of work definitely matters to me. If you don’t mind indulging me, any memories of collaborating with Prince around that time in his career?

Oh yeah, I could talk about that. Prince reached out to me to meet. He had kind of disappeared right before “Musicology.” I met him in Chicago; he flew me out there and just got to know each other.

Then I went to Minneapolis to Paisley Park, and he said, “Look, I think I’m going to come back out with an album.” He knew he had the songs and wanted me to listen to the songs. Remember, before that, he was just kind of doing side releases. So, we listened to the album, [the song] “Musicology” came on. I was like, “That’s the album.” He goes, “Great, take the song. Write the concept for it.”

He told me a little bit about his life, not the hearsay of what’s in the tabloids or whatever was misconstrued online. Prince told me about when he was listening to the records as a kid, and his father would come in and take the records. He would get really mad at Prince. He told me everything about his childhood.

So, then I wrote the treatment and basically took what he told me about his childhood and placed it in there. I was a little nervous, like he’s going to say, “I’m not going to do it. I was personally talking to you.” So, I emailed him the concept. He wrote back, “I love it as is.”

How’d the shoot go?

We shot in Los Angeles, my interpretation of “Musicology.” From just getting to know Prince, we had the little boy and him tap-dancing. The idea was actually from Fatima Robinson (Dreamgirls), who was the choreographer. She was like, “Oh, we got to do tap. We got to do this.” And then, we stopped the song in the middle and did the tap-dancing. I didn’t know what he would think, because that’s me cutting into his song and going, “Wait a minute, lemme do an extended version, the remix.”

Thankfully, he totally got it and loved it. I edited the video myself with him here in my house. I would cut it, send it, then he’d come and he’d do his little adjustments with me. It was the first foray into us working together on a certain level.

I creatively directed his concert, “Musicology.” I don’t think it was on that album, but we also did “A Million Days.” It’s one of my favorite songs of his, which is kind of biographical for me, that music video. He let me do whatever I want. And then, of course, we did a comeback with “Black Sweat,” which we shot in his house in LA. It was right up the street from mine. 

Prince was like, “I want to shoot a music video for the weekend.” I was like, “It’s Thursday.” And he said, “Well, get it ready for the weekend.” I responded, “Okay, but where should we shoot?” He goes, “Oh, at the house.” He sends me the song and goes, “You’re going to like this song. It’s however you want it. Just make it simple.” That was “Black Sweat.”

I love that sense of play, though. Even at that point in his career, to just say, “Come over and let’s just do it.”

I know. Prince would sometimes challenge me in a way, like, “Oh, are you scared? You feel like you can’t do it, right?” And I’m like, “Now I can do it.” And that’s the other thing, working with artists. When you get into film and television, everything is so much easier. We have lives. When you’re shooting a series, there are weekends. When you’re doing music videos and stuff, we’re shooting on weekends and around the clock. 

Prince got the Billboard Icon Award in Vegas for the Billboard Music Awards, and I actually directed his segment. They flew me out there, and it was like, my God, I’m cutting this package for it to air in two minutes. I did that for him as a favor. I was straddling, I was already in the film and television world. The whole time when I was in Vegas with him, I was like, “Oh my God, how did I survive doing this for years?” 

Jack Giroux

In high school, Jack would skip classes to interview filmmakers. With 15 years in film journalism, he's contributed to outlets such as Thrillist, Music Connection Magazine, and High Times Magazine. He's witnessed explosions, attended satanic rituals, and scaled volcanoes in his career, but Jack's true passion is interviewing artists.