Prince remained holed up at Sunset Sound for almost the entirety of February of 1984. At some point, however–sessionographer Duane Tudahl estimates between Tuesday, February 21 and Sunday, February 26–he nipped back to Chanhassen, where he continued to work unabated at his Kiowa Trail home studio. The result of this brief homecoming was “Traffic Jam”: a slick instrumental with a title ironically more evocative of the Southern California sprawl he’d just left behind.
Principal photography for Purple Rain was scheduled to begin on November 1, 1983, but it actually got started a day early: To take advantage of the beautiful fall weather in Minneapolis, Prince’s manager-turned-producer Bob Cavallo rented a helicopter for aerial shots of the star and his leading lady riding his soon-to-be-iconic 1981 Honda CM400A Hondamatic. “We spent the day shooting the shit out of the motorcycle,” director Albert Magnoli recalled (Light 2014 113). Everything was going so smoothly, in fact, that one could hardly tell the original lead actress had left the production in the lurch.
As we’ve seen, relations between Prince and Vanity had been in choppy waters since at least the 1999 tour. By the time Magnoli met the aspiring actress in early August, “It was obvious there was a strain, that her agent was putting doubt in her,” the director observed. “She’s looking at the next door, but she’s not sure she wants to go through” (Light 2014 106). Vanity remained attached to the project for at least the rest of the month; she’s in Magnoli’s draft screenplay, dated August 29. But sometime in September, the other shoe finally dropped: Martin Scorsese had approached her with an offer to play Mary Magdalene in his adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ. Magnoli was upfront with her: “‘This is my first picture. It’s a musical. Martin Scorsese? Okay, I don’t want to steer you wrong here, but gee whiz, that’s a great opportunity,’” he recounted. Less than two days later, “she was out” (Tudahl 2018 131).
From its original treatment, the story of Purple Rain had always revolved around three characters: Prince (a.k.a. “the Kid”), Morris, and Vanity (later replaced by Apollonia). Yet, in the early stages of production, Prince and director Albert Magnoli envisioned a broader depiction of the Minneapolis music scene, with subplots for the various supporting players. There was even talk of the accompanying album including tracks from associated artists, along the lines of the later Graffiti Bridge soundtrack. In the end, of course, this ensemble version of Purple Rain was not to be; the final album and film are both unambiguously Prince’s show. But Magnoli’s draft screenplay made plenty of time for one supporting player in particular: “Jill,” the First Avenue waitress played by Prince’s real-life backing singer and paramour, Jill Jones.
In the months since Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were dismissed from the Time, the group’s morale had reached an all-time low. Singer Morris Day, in particular, was all but fully checked out: “When we started switching musicians,” he later recalled, “it wasn’t my favorite band anymore” (Tudahl 2018 72). Only the promise of a costarring role in Prince’s upcoming film kept him from leaving the camp entirely–that and, he admits in his 2019 memoir, a burgeoning cocaine habit (Day 83).
The powder keg was primed in the summer of 1983, when Day and the rest of the movie’s principal cast were enrolled in mandatory acting lessons with coach Don Amendolia. “He had these exercises,” Day writes. “Pretend you’re a weeping willow tree. Pretend you’re a butterfly lost in the forest. Well, I didn’t wanna be no weeping willow tree. I didn’t wanna be no butterfly lost in the forest. I thought that was some dumb shit and said so.” Eventually, Day’s “cutting up” got back to Prince, who “said this was some serious business and I better not fuck it up or I’d be out on my ass… He’d banish me from his empire” (Day 86).