Emails reveal confusion over Lady Gaga's video shoot at Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle’s Neptune Pool is no longer being filled in an effort to save water. The shallow end of the pool had dipped below the ladder in January 2014.
Hearst Castle’s Neptune Pool is no longer being filled in an effort to save water. The shallow end of the pool had dipped below the ladder in January 2014.

Less than two days before Lady Gaga was set to begin filming a music video at Hearst Castle in February, the project was nearly derailed amid concerns that the video — which called for refilling the famous Neptune Pool — would contradict the governor’s call for water conservation, according to emails obtained by The Tribune.

But in the final hours, Steve Hearst, the great-grandson of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, offered a solution that allowed the video shoot to continue.

“I have been informed of the turmoil with respect to the Lady Gaga shoot,” Steve Hearst wrote in an email to Nick Franco, the State Parks district superintendent, on Feb. 9, the day before the shoot was to begin. “I have offered to replace any water that would be lost as a result of topping off the pool.”

While the stacks of emails that circulated around that event reveal the complexity and confusion the video shoot entailed, they do not reveal why Franco, who approved the event, was put on administrative time off with pay for two weeks — or why he was not allowed to be on the set of the video shoot.

But sources close to the event said having Lady Gaga fill a half-empty pool for a video shoot contradicted a pledge State Parks had made to empty the pool as an example of water conservation.

Until Hearst’s last-minute offer to supply the Castle with water from his adjoining Hearst Ranch, the plan had been for Lady Gaga to pay to truck in 160,000 gallons of water to refill the pool.

The governor’s office and higher-ups in State Parks’ Sacramento headquarters had not initially been notified of the Lady Gaga plans, and Franco believed he didn’t need their approval to pursue the video shoot.

“I believe I have the authority to make the decisions I did and I believe they are consistent with law and policy and in the best interest of State Parks and the castle,” Franco wrote in a Feb. 9 email to Hearst.

Despite the confusion — partly because of Lady Gaga’s tight scheduling, which required unusually fast action from a state bureaucracy — the video was filmed, giving the Castle massive exposure to younger audiences. Meanwhile, Lady Gaga’s recently released public-service announcement on water conservation has garnered more than 60,000 full plays.

“The bottom line is it ended up being a really positive thing,” said Vicky Waters, director of public affairs at State Parks.

Behind the scenes

Hearst Corp.

While a commercial project had not been filmed there since the 1960 film “Spartacus,” the idea to shoot a music video at the Castle originated with Lady Gaga (Stefani Germanotta) and friend Joe Lonsdale, an entrepreneur and a member of the Hearst Castle Preservation Foundation’s advisory board.

The preservation foundation helps preserve the Castle’s vast collection of artwork.

“Our board thought it was a great idea,” Remar Sutton, another member of the advisory board, wrote to The Tribune from Denmark last week. “Good for the Castle, good for the foundation, good for California. And some of us have known Lady Gaga as a person, not a celebrity, and like many of the causes she supports, from art to jazz to helping kids.”

Anne Hearst McInerney, William Randolph Hearst’s granddaughter and a foundation director, had discussions with Lady Gaga and approved of the plan in late January, with filming to begin in early February.

On Jan. 27, Sutton discussed the project with Hoyt Fields, the now-retired museum director at the Castle. As part of the deal, Sutton noted, Lady Gaga would donate $250,000 to the preservation foundation.

The next day, McInerney wrote an email to Fields about Lady Gaga: “She is passionate about art and seems to be OK with doing something to help promote the Hearst Castle in the future … FYI: The song is very sexy. There will be a big crew including professional dancers, a choreographer, extras and lord knows who else.”

Water worries

Gov. Jerry Brown, however, had previously called upon Californians to reduce water use by 20 percent.

Then, on Feb. 6, the state General Services Department issued a news release announcing plans to empty the Neptune Pool, which had been leaking, to conserve water.

While some State Parks employees in Sacramento knew about the plans to add water to the Neptune Pool for the Lady Gaga video, higher-ups at State Parks and the Governor’s Office did not — that is, until the day after the news release was issued.

“It was a miscommunication,” Waters said.

In light of the news release, refilling the pool for a Lady Gaga video stood to present a public relations nightmare for the Governor’s Office, which was expecting a visit regarding the drought two weeks later from President Barack Obama.

At the same time, those involved with the Castle knew Lady Gaga — with 42 million Twitter followers — could help the landmark appeal to a younger generation.

“I have to tell you that everyone feels like it could be a stunning coup for the Castle, as long as the end video is appropriate,” Sutton wrote to Fields on Jan. 23.

Deal is reached

“The donation from Lady Gaga and her parents, who personally gave $125,000 of the $250,000 donation, was one of the largest donations the Castle and our foundation have ever received,” Sutton told The Tribune last week. “All of that money is going to restoration, so the impact is huge.”

Terms of the shoot forbade any nudity, did not allow anyone to touch the marble statues on the property and prohibited music loud enough to disturb tours inside the Castle.

Lady Gaga would stay at the Hearst Ranch in the Senator’s House — the one-time residence of George Hearst, William Randolph Hearst’s father.

Lady Gaga would top off the pool, which was down about 160,000 gallons from its total of 350,000, and would participate in a public-service announcement about water conservation, along with a video about Hearst Castle.

As plans were being negotiated, news of the shoot was reported by the media. One local radio-show host sent an email to Franco on Feb. 8, saying he heard some people were upset about filling the pool.

In response, the parties involved planned to head off potential negative news by reaching out to local press. The foundation issued a fact sheet about the positive benefits of the shoot, noting that Lady Gaga would also pay $25,000 for a local water use study.

“There is a lot of sensitivity at the moment about the pool as it relates to the event,” Franco wrote in one email, requesting no Facebook photos be posted of the pool.

On Friday, Feb. 7, plans still called for Lady Gaga’s production company to bring outside water in. But that afternoon, State Parks canceled the permit for the shoot, according to a timeline Franco later assembled.

The next morning, Franco and others received an email from Aaron Robertson, chief deputy director of State Parks: “You do not have permission to proceed with the film shoot until we (Parks/Agency/GO) have worked out some details.”

Sutton said recently, “The Governor’s Office did consider shutting down the production because they didn’t have all the facts and details and because of the speed the project was moving (at).”

With the shoot in jeopardy, Sutton called Steve Hearst, vice president and general manager of Hearst Corp.’s western properties.

“The Governor’s Office was pretty upset,” Hearst told The Tribune. “Nobody on the Castle side or the Gaga side — and I didn’t know either — knew that Obama was coming to see Brown the following week in Fresno.”

Meanwhile, uncertainty reigned.

“I’m still waiting to hear if we have an official ‘go’ in this project,” wrote Stephen Lehman, State Parks deputy director of operations, in a group email at 5:50 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, following a few minutes later with: “Are we on or not!!!???”

Hearst’s idea would address the state’s public relations problem — namely, how the public would view bringing in water to fill a pool that was supposed to be emptied for water conservation: He would use water already on the Hearst Ranch property to top off the pool.

The ranch and the Castle share water rights to a spring that feeds three reservoirs. Water from one of those reservoirs would be transferred to the Neptune Pool. After the shoot, the pool water — which was previously designated to irrigate plants — would still be used for the plants.

The Governor’s Office demanded some modifications to the permit, which were completed around midnight, and the Governor’s Office approved it the next day.

“My understanding is that the shooting is occurring on Monday,” Robertson responded to Lehman around 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8.

The only difference was Franco would no longer be involved with the shoot.

Franco in limbo

Waters also included a statement that Saturday for the media, approved by State Parks and the Governor’s Office, which read: “The decision to top up the Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle using water recirculated from one of the properties’ storage facilities was not authorized by Parks Department leadership or the administration.”

Franco later sent an email, saying he would be at his office at the park’s Visitor Center during the shoot.

“Would you prefer that I don’t report to work at my office on Mon-Wed next week and work from home?” he wrote to his bosses the night before the shoot was to begin.

By 6:39 that evening, Franco still hadn’t heard about where he was supposed to be during the shoot.

“I never heard anything back, so I’ll just go to my office and do my other work,” he wrote. “If I start getting dragged into things I shouldn’t be dragged into, I’ll go somewhere else.”

‘No harm, no foul’

While the Governor’s Office had approved the shoot, there was still some uncertainty about its support.

In a Feb. 10 email to Lehman, the State Parks deputy director of operations, Franco described how the pool was refilled.

Lehman wrote, “I think they’d still be upset with the transfer of 160,000 gallons from the Hearst Ranch.”

Franco replied, “We can stop that if need be, but it’s really the same water in the same system that can only be used on the ranch or in the park, so if we don’t use it, the ranch will.”

“I’m thinking we don’t highlight it,” Lehman responded.

On Feb. 12, as the shoot wound down, Brown wrote a letter to Lady Gaga, thanking her for her efforts to bring attention to the Castle and the drought.

“I’ve called on all Californians to conserve water in every way possible, and the assistance you are providing will aid in that effort,” he wrote.

Shortly after the shoot, Franco was put on leave with pay.

Waters has declined to say why Franco was suspended, saying it was a personnel matter.

But sources say the timing of the Lady Gaga approval — just after the Governor’s Office asked for water conservation — proved to be troubling.

“It is unfortunate that you got caught up in the politics,” Hearst wrote to Franco the day before the shoot.

In an email to his staff after the suspension, Franco wrote about the exceptional event: “When you mix the state, Lady Gaga, the Hearst Corp., the Hearst Castle Preservation Foundation and water issues all together, and stir it quickly over the short time period of 10 days, there will be some miscommunication and misperceptions. ... It’s all cleared up now and I’m back at work. No harm, no foul, just a little bump in the road.”

The video for Lady Gaga’s song “G.U.Y.” — prominently featuring Hearst Castle — has garnered close to 70 million views on YouTube. Her $250,000 was designated to restore statues at the castle, and the water irrigated plants.

Funding was recently approved to repair the pool, which is now empty. And, State Parks said, Castle visitation was up 10 percent this year — roughly 60,000 more visitors.

Franco typically is the spokesperson for the park, but calls to him were referred to Waters.

While Franco received what some have called a wrist slap for pursuing the video shoot in the wake of the governor’s call for water conservation, others feel the district superintendent did the right thing.

“I’ve been there for 45 years,” Fields said, speaking of Franco. “He’s the best boss I’ve ever had. The man knows what he’s doing.”

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