<I>Madame X</I>: Making Madonna's Paramount+ concert film
Issue: November/December 2021

Madame X: Making Madonna's Paramount+ concert film

Madame X is a new concert film that captures the live experience of Madonna’s latest tour. Shot in Lisbon, Portugal, and Paris, France, the film is a combination of singing, dancing, moving set pieces and projected visuals, all of which support the star’s on-stage persona of Madame X, a secret agent who travels around the world, changing identities while fighting for freedom and bringing light to dark places. The show touches on many of today’s hot topics, including police brutality — something she first called attention to with her Like A Prayer video back in 1989. The show also deals with diverse world cultures, human rights and politics.

Madonna has been creating visual experiences for nearly 40 years. She is a pioneer of the music video format, often using it as a storytelling device, so it was no surprise that MTV recognized her influence with a segment at this year’s Video Music Awards, coinciding with the network’s 40th anniversary. The show open drew parallels between the artist and the network — both got their start in New York City, came from nowhere, and went on to redefine the world of music and pop culture. 

Photo (L-R): Nuno Xico and Sasha Kasiuha

The directing duo of SKNX — Nuno Xico and Sasha Kasiuha — have been working with Madonna on many of her recent efforts, particularly Xico, who says the relationship dates back seven or eight years, when he helped out on a video documentary that focused on the audition process for her team of dancers. That led to a steady stream of work for Madonna, including directing another documentary explaining the theme for her 2019 studio album, “Madame X”, and the music video for the song Crave, which appears on the album. 

He then created the visuals that appear as projected imagery during her Madame X live show. Recently, the duo completed the aforementioned MTV VMA open, and spent a year directing and editing the new feature, Madame X, which began streaming on Paramount+ in early October.

“We started working together — like, a lot!” says Nuno Xico of his relationship with the entertainer. “At some points, it was like, ‘OK, you’re going to shoot this thing for me because I think you’re going to be good at shooting this.’ So, she started giving me small shooting jobs, and then she started giving me bigger directing jobs. Then she gave me a music video, and editing was always [a part of it], so it was just an evolving relationship and process," he recalls.

“When Madonna released the album, she actually did a documentary that explained her moving to Lisbon and the whole process of her connecting with the musicians there,” he continues. “She did a documentary at the very inception of the album, and I directed that documentary, [which] was shot in Lisbon. Then I directed a music video for this album, and then I worked on the projections for the tour.” 

For the Madame X feature, Xico and Kasiuha had access to Madonna’s past videos, archival material, unused footage from past productions, newly-shot material, and of course, the live performances. Most of the live performances were captured in Lisbon and Paris, with Ricardo Gomes serving as director. Multiple cameras were used during the shoot — between four and five — along with a few GoPros and Gomes’ own iPhone.

Xico points to the song “Batuka” in the feature as an example of one that draws material from many sources, including the official music video, b-roll and shots that never made it into the music video edit. In addition, the feature includes footage that the audience doesn’t see at the live performance.

“There was a music video that was shot for that song, but we also shot a segment for that song in that documentary that I told you about in the beginning of the album, before she had shot any music video,” Xico explains. “So in the actual film, we see, juxtaposed, the footage of the music video, but we also see some shots from the documentary. You actually have a few different layers…things that you see in the film were not necessarily part of how the stage was.”

Sasha Kasiuha points to "God Control" as another highlight of the film. The official music video was directed by Jonas Åkerlund.

“I used some parts which [had] not made it into the cut of the music video itself,” says Kasiuha of the film’s presentation of the song. “You have access to whole takes, so we were able to choose the best and what made the most sense.”

Xico’s began editing in 2003, first with Apple’s Final Cut Pro and then learned Avid software. He later switched to Adobe Premiere, as he felt it was the most “intuitive”, in his opinion. Kasiuha, on the other hand, had always edited in Premiere. 

Madame X runs more than 90 minutes and spans 20 performances. Madonna set the Brooklyn-based directing duo up in a house in Beverly Hills, where they worked on the edit for one year, beginning in September of 2020 and finishing up just a month before the feature’s official release. The duo split the material, each working on their own collection of songs. Using iMac Pros running Premiere, the sequences came together, first by creating initial edits, then fine tuning them and viewing them numerous times on a range of devices before showing them to Madonna.

“I was doing one song, Sasha was doing another song,” says Xico. “We were never editing each other’s songs, but, we would play them for each other.”

Madonna would check in every few days and provide feedback. Xico says the artist is incredibly collaborative and wants to hear ideas, but also knows what she likes for the final edit.

“Depending on the song, she would probably want to see more of the close ups, more of the dance/choreography,” Kasiuha explains. “It all depends on the song and how you edit it first. I did [a] song — I had zero notes! She loved it right away and it was approved. Some songs, we were going back and forth.”

Xico adds that he was always conscious of “making sure that she looks great, the show looks great and the dancers look great.”

But, he adds, “We have to tell the story in there.” 

Madonna’s feedback, he recalls, might be, “’OK, I love how the story is told, but we’re losing choreography. So, let’s keep this story but let’s bring choreography in.’ And then we would do that…’Okay, now there’s way too much choreography, and now I’m not in the song enough, so now you need to bring me back in.’”

Xico describes the evolution of the edit as a process — one that hopefully starts with a strong foundation and only gets better. He recalls one segment that he worked on, where he felt he really nailed it.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God. This is the best edit that I’ve ever done! It’s incredible! I’m so proud of this.” 

Madonna agreed that the base was good, but now they needed to “take it to the next level.”

The feature’s final run time comes in at 92 minutes, the length needed to execute Madonna’s vision of what Madame X should be.

“It’s her movie, and once she sets her mind…You know, it’s artistic choice,” says Kasiuha.

“I feel like, of all the artists in the world, if there’s someone who would be like, ‘F--- you! This is what I want it to be!’ They would have to accept it or not,” adds Xico. “If someone told her, your film has to be an hour and a half, she would make it three hours!”

Rather than keep the entire film on their timelines, Kasiuha and Xico exported final song edits as QuickTimes, freeing up resources within their editing systems.

“And that’s basically what we were assembling at the end,” says Xico of the files.

Company 3 handled the color grade and conform. Visual effects were created by The Artery, and Harbor, in New York City, completed the final mix.