“They want more? Well, I’ll give ’em more…”
Britney Spears can order ice cream off the streets of New York City, teach dance classes to little girls on weekends and nearly drown while frolicking unattended in 6-foot waves on the shores of Hawaii.
It wasn’t so long ago, however, that her life was, truly, a circus.
In 2007, following her divorce from Kevin Federline, Britney couldn’t step out on the scene without being flanked by scores of paparazzi, shouting and running and tripping over themselves, all trying to get a piece of her as she did even the most basic things: gas station bathroom breaks, shopping trips to the mall and pitstops for Starbucks frappes became loud, frightening flashbulb blitzes. She was effectively ostracized from society by her own fame.
In that time came a masterpiece: Blackout, and the Jake Sarfaty-directed music video for “Gimme More,” the lead single from Britney’s icy robo-opus, has since been cemented in her catalog as an iconic, rebellious relic of that dark era.
It’s a gritty clip, as the brunette pop princess twirls, hair-flips and giggles ominously to herself on a stripper pole alongside her dancers — a major departure from the high-gloss pop videos that colored her discography up until that point. Coupled with her wobbly, critically panned performance of the song at the 2007 MTV VMAs that year, the state of Britney’s career never felt more dire.
She’s rebounded since, of course: “Britney’s back” became a narrative used with each album cycle until, finally, time distanced Britney from those late night paparazzi chases and her career took shape as a full-time Las Vegas headlining entertainer. But “Gimme More” remains mysterious as ever, as more fragments of the video surfaced over the years.
Fans turned to conspiracy theories to justify the unfinished-feeling final product: What was that outfit she wore on the sidewalk, and why didn’t it make it into the video? Was there a funeral scene? Was she acting erratic on-set? Why were there different cuts of her pole-dancing? Surely that wasn’t it.
A few months ago, Theo Hand, a photographer largely rooted in the skateboarding world who was unexpectedly enlisted as the on-set photographer that day, posted a photo on Instagram of Britney filming one of the unreleased scenes of “Gimme More.”
“The whole experience was very surreal and eye opening to say the least,” he wrote. Naturally, I had to know more (moah). I spoke to Theo about that day, the seemingly shady situation on set, and what, if anything, we didn’t get to see from the outside. He was also kind enough to share some exclusive new photos from behind-the-scenes of “Gimme More.”
How did you get involved?
It was an unusual set of circumstances. I work in various aspects: TV, film, documentaries, portraits — I made a lot of connections. One of my good friends needed help on a music video. He didn’t tell me what it was. I said ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll come help you out to be a key grip.’ We get to set, and it turns out that Jake [Sarfaty], the director, is somebody that I’ve known for a long time from skateboarding. We grew up in the same circles. Right away, he said ‘You still shooting photos?’ I came out here to help out Uncle Johnny” — he’s not my uncle, but everyone calls him that. A total key grip name. He’s like ‘We need a photographer for set. We don’t have one. Can you do it?’ And I’m like ‘Yeah, sure.’ It was kind of those fly-by moments. There was no contract. It was an unconventional job.
Did you learn at that time that it was a Britney shoot?
By the time I talked to Jake, I’d known. When I get on set, I knew right away. I wasn’t a huge Britney fan. I was more into skateboarding, punk rock, hip-hop….I don’t think I’ve heard an entire album.
At that time, paparazzi culture was arguably its most insane, and that video was at the forefront of TMZ culture. Was it crazy on set?
Not on set, because none of those guys were on set. It was crazy outside. It was like a 2 or 3 story brick building, kind of a warehouse. On the sidewalk and across the street, there was anywhere from like 15 to maybe even 50 dudes out there. It was insane. It was a bit overwhelming as far as the amount of people to get shots for somebody. I guess it made sense because she was in the news quite a bit prior. There was one scene where she had to walk down the sidewalk. That was a bit chaotic. I wouldn’t say I’m anti-paparazzi, but it’s kind of the antithesis of what I feel photography is. They’re taking pictures. They’re not photographers. It’s very leech-like. It’s just not my thing.
You mentioned the sidewalk scene, which is one of the few glimpses people got because, obviously, the paparazzi were there. Was the instruction really just to walk through the sidewalk? There were rumors at the time that it led to this whole funeral scene.
I kept hearing that on my Instagram. I never really knew, or was privy to, a funeral scene. I never really talked to Jake about scenes. It was kind of just whatever scene was happening, I would shoot it. As the photographer on set, you’re the only person that’s kind of in the way, so to speak. I just shot whatever. I don’t know of any funeral scene. Nobody told me about it or talked about it. The scene I posted of her on the bed with the cat — that was one of, like, three or four scenes. I didn’t know what was going in or what got cut. I could call Jake and ask him.
Is Jake still doing music videos?
You know what? I don’t really know. We talked for maybe six months after that. I was trying to get some other images. They took the memory cards right there — they were pretty adamant about that. I was doing Jake a favor….it’s their gig, I’m here to shoot photos. There were photos I wanted to get back that I couldn’t get back of her dancing on the pole.
They wouldn’t send them to you?
No. It was shady — the whole thing. There was a lot of fuckery going on. I didn’t enter it with a contract. Coming from skateboarding, you just go by honor. You shoot a photo and you print it, and they pay you. At one point, some of the paparazzi — I don’t know who it was, I think it might have been TMZ — offered me a lot of money for the memory cards. But it wasn’t even a question. I was like ‘Hell no.’ It was like maybe six figures. But I’m not throwing everybody under the bus, including myself. Morally corrupt. I was like ‘Nah. I’m good, man.’ I’m not wealthy. I come from the skate world — a check like that, of course, raises a few eyebrows.
They were vultures at the time. Nothing was off bounds. They took photos of everything, obviously.
Here’s an interesting thing, though: Jive Records had those photos. Nobody else did. So I’m looking around the Internet. I saw them pop up on a few websites. A few shots. I think I wrote about that at the end of my Instagram. Somebody got paid off for those. My assumption, or guess, would be that Jive Records cut a deal because there’s money in that. And that’s the reason they’re all there. I looked online and found paparazzi sites that had my photos. I got like 300 or 400 photos that they did give me from that day. It’s just that one scene that they didn’t want me to have, I guess, because it’s sexy photos of her dancing. Maybe to keep it for themselves, so they could sell it.
Did you get to interact with her at all?
Yeah, yeah. We talked a bit. It was work, work, work. It took a long-ass time. At some point, she actually left the set. It was kind of crazy. It was a fucking long ass day. But we all had stuff to do. The only weird kind of interaction — and I don’t know what was up with this — but I think she wanted me to be in the video or something?
She asked you?
No, some lady. It was like her publicist. She was like ‘Would you wanna be in the video?’ And I’m like ‘Not really!’ [Laughs] I think my response wasn’t what she wanted to hear. I was like ‘Not really, unless you’re going to pay me a shitload of money. I’m good.’ [Britney] was super nice and humble, but she seemed super frazzled from all the people around her. I mean, it was pretty amazing and eye-opening. Just to be real: she’s not the most overtly talented musician or singer. Or she was, but when that dies out, there’s that outside push to get ’em to do crazy shit, or have drama to keep them interesting. It’s fucking horrible. She seemed normal. Everyone else seemed kind of vindictive. Ulterior motive. Not everybody, but I kinda got that vibe.
Did they say or do anything that made you feel some kind of way?
I think just being there was enough. She’s obviously gone through a bunch of stuff, and they have her in this video doing all this work on a long, hard day. She should be chilling somewhere and handling her life stuff. It was more like a vibe, and sort of seeing her just kind of seem — I hate to use the word “victim” — but almost kind of a…willing participant victim, I guess you could say. You know? You know what you’re signing up for when you get in this business for the most part, and then when you get in, it’s a different thing. Some people can handle it and some people can’t. There’s a lot of people who have nothing but dollar signs on their mind, so you’ve got to keep your circle small.
She seemed sweet to me. I thought it was a good vibe off of her. She was cool. I liked working with her. She’s nice. The cat scene was funny, because the cat kind of lunged forward and she got kinda freaked out a little bit.
I was wondering about that, because she was smiling for once. She didn’t seem happy on set.
That was one of the only moments where she seemed like nervous and relaxed and then funny, because we weren’t sure about the cat. Then she warmed up and started having fun and chilling out. I got a photo of her leaning on the edge of the bed, and she looks at me and she crosses her eyes and kind of makes a dorky face.
All of the pictures that came out, and of course the video itself, were very dark and serious and kind of alarming. It’s nice to hear there was some levity.
Yeah, that was cool. And Jake is the man. He’s such a cool guy. They got along famously. It was cool to see somebody I grew up with directing music videos. I hadn’t seen him in a long time — and that was rad to see them interact. As a director, that’s a huge element of the job, is interaction with the talent, so he had that in spades.
One of the rumors at the time was that she seemed drugged or drunk on set. Did you feel that at all?
No. Not at all. Nah…she seemed like a little tired, I guess, but not at all. That dancing scene was demanding. That was a lot of work. Those girls were killing it. They did a bunch of takes. It was a full physical workout. I think if you were drunk or on drugs, you wouldn’t be able to pull that off. If you watched all the raw footage, they were pretty on point. I definitely don’t dance, but that shit was impressive to me.
It was a one day shoot?
I think it was two. I’m trying to remember. It kind of bled together. There was one, like, 16 hour day.
There was an odd scene for a half-second where she’s at the bar watching herself in a wig. Do you remember that at all?
It’s weird. That’s the scene they were talking about trying to get me in it. The bar was right next to the pole. I don’t know if they showed that. It just seemed like there was a lot of stuff we did that day.
That’s what’s made it so mysterious — pictures have leaked, and paparazzi shots, and kind of just word of mouth that there were other things. And what ended up coming was not a lot of those scenes. So everyone’s always been like “What happened on set?”
Yeah. I think people’s imaginations will create more stories. She was going through some shit. She’s got a million things on her plate she doesn’t want to deal with. And it’s like overwhelming. She’s tired, she probably just wanted to be, I don’t know, chilling somewhere. I don’t think there was much to it. I don’t know her. I don’t hang out with her. That’s just the vibe I got. But she seemed cool.
All photos provided by Theo Hand. For more of Theo’s work, check out his official website.