Ariana Grande's magnum Mean Girls opus
As gorgeous as the Fourth of July and packed with more cameos than a Kälteen Bar has calories, Ariana Grande’s highly anticipated “thank u, next” music video finally bent and snapped its way into existence Friday afternoon, ending weeks of anticipation after the 25-year-old pop star promised the kindest breakup song in history’s accompanying visual would include references, actors, and costumes from classic teen movies Mean Girls, Legally Blonde, 13 Going on 30, and Bring It On. Now, the video’s director — Grande’s “breathin'” collaborator Hannah Lux Davis — tells EW the untold story behind the making of one of the year’s biggest musical projects in the gallery ahead. So get in, loser! We’re going bopping!
Grande was like, so obsessed with Mean Girls
Grande’s love for the 2004 teen comedy opened the floodgates of creative inspiration when she and Davis began brainstorming ideas for “thank u, next” while working on the “breathin” music video earlier this year.
“She played me the song and I was like, ‘Holy sh-t, you really went there, and you used names in a way that turns everything into a positive,’ which was a cool spin on redefining a breakup song,” Davis remembers of her first impression of the then-unfinished tune. “I [knew] the video had to be tongue-in-cheek because the song is so playful at the same time.”
The process then graduated to Grande’s living room, where the pair’s idea ballooned to incorporate more classic movies they were both raised on, like Reese Witherspoon’s Legally Blonde, Kirsten Dunst’s Bring It On, and the Jennifer Garner-starring 13 Going on 30.
“These other movies that we grew up with came to the surface from this era and were in the same vein, all about girls who’d gone through breakups, but came out on top,” Davis says. “We both grew up on these movies, as did a lot of people in our generation, so to create something nostalgic was a goal, but we also wanted to make it personal to her.”
Rewriting the Burn Book
The idea to incorporate Mean Girls (plus hunky actor Jonathan Bennett from the original film), Legally Blonde, Bring It On, and 13 Going on 30 might have sprung from Grande’s nostalgic appreciation for teen cinema, but Davis says you shouldn’t read too far into the character’s Grande herself plays in the finished version. Grande instead wanted to recontextualize the petty, confrontational elements of the story — and that meant giving Mean Girls‘ catty Burn Book an uplifting makeover in tribute to her real-life past lovers.
“She wasn’t being Regina George, she was being Ariana Grande as Regina George. She wasn’t totally becoming [these characters], she was putting the Ariana Grande spin on every one of them. You can tell in the details: in the Burn Book she’s specific about what she writes about [exes] Big Sean, Ricky Alvarez, and Pete Davidson in a positive way,” Davis stresses. “She’s saying ‘thank you!’ It’s the ‘thank u, next’ book [instead]. It’s about gratitude and what she’s learned.”
Thus, Davis scaled down the campiness of the references in favor of giving them a heartfelt remix that paid tribute to Grande’s real-life support system instead of going overboard on cameos. “The reason why Ariana’s friends are so in the video — like Alexa Luria, Courtney Chiopolone, and Elizabeth Gillies — is because it was personal to Ariana. They were the ones who got her through this crazy time in her life.”
“At the end of the day,” Davis continues of the foursome behind the updated version of the Mean Girls Plastics originally played by Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, and Amanda Seyfried, “she wanted to create a video that was so much fun and that everybody could watch and feel good about, but that she could also look back and say, ‘Those were the girls who were by my side at this crazy time in my life.’ She just wanted to be able to look back and see them doing the dance [from Mean Girls] and being silly, ridiculous, and having fun.”
What, like it's hard to cast a familiar face?
Still, the “thank u, next” video is rife with high profile guest appearances, from Legally Blonde star Jennifer Coolidge to Kardashian clan leader Kris Jenner. But it nearly contained one more memorable role reprisal.
“We tried to get the real Warner, [Matthew Davis], from Legally Blonde, but he wasn’t available. He was shooting in Atlanta,” she recalls of attempting to incorporate Elle Woods’ snooty ex-boyfriend into the finished product. “We were all really bummed! We wanted to get him, we reached out, and he was down, but he just wasn’t available.” (Representatives for Matthew Davis did not respond to EW’s request for confirmation).
Landing a "cool mom"
Davis has one word of advice for celebrities everywhere: “Open your DMs!” At least that’s how she says initial conversations regarding a cameo by Kardashian momager Kris Jenner — who plays Regina George’s pink tracksuit-wearing, camcorder-brandishing “cool mom” (originally portrayed by Amy Poehler) in a Mean Girls-inspired section of the video — started.
“She was fantastic. I never know when a bigger celebrity comes on, how much they’re going to be down to participate in the fun and not take themselves too seriously, but on the first take she was dancing and in it,” Davis remembers of Jenner’s scene, which sees her grooving in the audience during a recreation of the “Jingle Bell Rock” dance sequence from Mean Girls. “She was fearless and it was cool to see her in action. She’s a smart lady and it was really fun to be around her and her energy.”
Bend and she snapped
One of the most “surreal” moments of the shoot for Davis was working with comedy icon Jennifer Coolidge, who reprises her Legally Blonde character Paulette (Elle Woods’ beautician-turned-bestie) in the “thank u, next” visual. Davis says the actress joined the project after previously exchanging messages with Grande on Instagram following the pop star’s memorable Coolidge impression during a May 2018 episode of The Tonight Show.
“When the time came for this moment, their relationship was already primed and ready for this,” Davis explains. “She was so fun and was such a blast, and she was really game…. Seeing her in the same hair and makeup and having her in the clothes that are so similar [to the clothes in Legally Blonde] it’s crazy, she hasn’t aged a day! She’s still the same Paulette.”
Kicking it with Coolidge's iconic improv skills
“She is all about improv,” Davis says of Coolidge’s preparation for her mid-video scene with Grande. “I knew once we got Ariana and Jennifer together, it would be gold. Obviously, we know Jennifer is, but Ariana is also a true comedian.”
Thus, for their brief exchange in Paulette’s salon from Legally Blonde (painstakingly recreated for the “thank u, next” music video), she prompted her subjects to discuss everything from crazy date scenarios to odd sexual fantasies. They ultimately settled on an exchange that sees Grande discussing the size of an ex’s body part — which ultimately turns out to be his front tooth.
“We had [talking] points, like a crazy break up or a crazy thing that happened on a date or a crazy fetish they’d heard about,” Davis says of the otherwise ad-libbed moment. “It became a really funny back-and-forth, so we just started rolling on them and got a lot of different takes and trains of thought!”
More Easter Eggs to crack
Just when you think you’ve found every Easter Egg the music video has to offer — from the cover of the book Grande’s reading on the Legally Blonde lawn chair to the “thank u, next” posters in the Bring It On bedroom — think again. Davis promises a virtually countless number of references, secret additions, and surprises hidden across the clip. While she won’t guide your eye to the prize outright (“I want people to have fun finding them!” she teases), she urges viewers to pay close attention to the scenes at the football stadium as well as suggesting fans take a closer look at the icon on Grande’s orange laptop.
Time limits do exist
Most of Davis’ music video projects film over the course of a single day “if you’re lucky,” the director says. But “thank u, next” filmed between Nov. 17-19 “because of all the scenes and locations.” From concept to completion, however, Davis maintains the video’s production schedule was a quick one.
“It was a very fast process…. We came up with the concept back when we shot “breathin’.” I heard a snippet of the song when it wasn’t even done yet,” remembers Davis. “The initial nugget of the idea came when we sat down to do pre-production conversations for ‘breathin’.’ Putting the treatment together, location scouting, casting, rehearsals, shooting, and editing, that was around two weeks.”
You're doing amazing, sweeties!
Two of the video’s biggest choreographed routines pay honorable homage to key scenes from Bring It On (cheer battle showdown!) and Mean Girls (“Jingle Bell Rock,” anyone?). Though the former scene contains completely original steps, Davis worked with Grande’s longtime choreographers Scott and Brian Nicholson to keep the performance sweet, simple, and faithful to the scene in the film.
“We wanted to make sure we still embodied the same sentiment of the dance routine and some of those most memorable moves, like the walk, thigh slap, and the infamous moves Mrs. George does with the camcorder,” Davis explains. “We loved how nonchalant the girls were in the film, and it was important for us to capture that same attitude. The characters in the film weren’t professional dancers; they were popular, cocky high school girls performing at a talent show and thought they were hot sh-t, and we made sure we approached the scene with that same intention.”
Bring on the thematic remix
While much of the video recreates memorable scenes from the films, Davis feels the project transcends mere mimicry and creates something thematically dynamic.
“[I loved] the fact that all these people could be there in those moments, recreating these films that Ariana grew up with and was obsessed with as a kid and carried with her in her heart,” she says. “We spun them a little bit and brought the ‘thank u, next’ message into all of these films.”
I'm so f-----n' grateful for... myself!
In part, Davis thinks Grande settled on the four films that appear in the video because on first glance “all of the films have a strong female lead who endures a breakup that ultimately drives them to become a better version of themselves,” she muses. “It’s all very on theme with the song.”
But she feels the pair’s working relationship is so strong that it allowed them to push that concept further as they playfully rewrote the film’s narratives in their own way: “It was fun to throw Ariana-[inspired] twists on these iconic moments. For example, Torrance’s [Dunst] mixtape from Cliff [Jesse Bradford] in a scene from Bring It On reads ‘to Ari, from Ari.’ Instead of another guy coming in to pick her up when she falls, she picks herself up. It’s self-love and a great message for young girls!”