R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe: YouTube Has Replaced MTV
On the eve of the release of R.E.M.’s 15th studio album, Collapse Into Now, frontman Michael Stipe swung through Austin’s SXSW Film Festival to present a new film project inspired by the record’s twelve tracks. Stipe recruited artists and filmmakers James Herbert, Sam Taylor Wood, Jem Cohen, Tom Gilroy, Jim McKay, Chris Moukarbel, Valerie Veatch, Dominic DeJoseph, Sophie Calle, Lance Bangs, James Franco, Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan to produce short pieces tied to each of the songs, while he co-directed one himself with his sister Lynda (a piece Stipe describes as a “1971 version of Tron” for the first track, “Discoverer”).
A few hours before the film's premiere at the Alamo Drafthouse, Stipe was sitting on the patio of the AT&T Hotel talking with THR about summoning the spirit of Buster Keaton, R.E.M.’s first 1986 flirtation with the art film, the death of the music video and how you may soon see one of these short films play as a trailer in a theater near you.
The Hollywood Reporter: Is this something you wanted to do with previous records? Why now?
Michael Stipe: It is. I have often thought about and talked about the idea of sonically breaking down a record, doing dub versions of it, releasing those or remixes before the record comes out. Just in talking with the band and friends of mine who love music and love what technology is offering us these days. For me, this seems like a natural extension of this album, and kind of perfectly in line with something that R.E.M. would do to try to re-imagine in the 21st century what an album is and then present it in a way going to, for me, the most obvious place, which was film.
THR: Well, you’ve produced movies, you have always been at the forefront of trying to do original things with videos and things like that, it seems like such a natural thing for you. So I was curious to know why you didn’t do this before.
Stipe: Thank you for saying that. It’s because I was doing other things, and it takes a long time to set up a tour, for instance, and this time it’s been the better part of three and a half months of working with eleven different artists and filmmakers to make this thing come together. It’s a lot of work.
THR: Was that after your work on the album, or during, was there any overlap?
Stipe: There was some overlap. Two of the pieces were filmed in Berlin last summer. We brought two of the directors, Dominic DeJoseph and Lance Bangs, to Berlin while the band was recording at Hansa Studio and recorded us performing, I think, nine of the new songs live in the studio. So there was this whole kind of film day that happened. I asked them if they would stay over a couple of days and wild shoot on the street.
THR: With you guys?
Stipe: Just with me. And I got Peaches, who is on one of the songs, to agree to come and be filmed with me on the streets of Berlin. It was boiling hot, unbelievably boiling hot. And we went and found all these beautiful, wild architectural wonders that exist everywhere around every corner of Berlin and shot this kind of homage to the song “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter,” which Peaches guest-vocals on. Shot this homage to that and kind of brought in a little bit of the spirit of Buster Keaton. So that is one piece.
THR: At that point did you know that you wanted to put together a package thing or was this its own thing?
Stipe: No. I saw the footage that came from that and I thought, I wonder if I could actually do this. Could I actually find twelve different directors and have them each interpret one of the songs on the record, and how could I do that.
THR: But that sort of came out of that footage?
Stipe: No. That was successful, and then we shot footage of me falling up a flight of stairs in slow motion—in kind of still images that are brought together that are animated and brought together as a film. So we shot those two pieces in these couple of days following the live performance by the band in the studio. And then I went on vacation with Sam Taylor Wood and her boyfriend Aaron Johnson and their new baby, and my boyfriend. And we were sitting around listening to the tracks and everything is a little bit rough, but Sam said, “If there is anything that I can do to collaborate with you on the next record, please let me know. I would love to do something for this.”
And I think that might have been where the idea was born. Because she’s amazing, she is so incredible as an artist and now as a filmmaker we know she is capable of. The idea of working with her and the idea of basically handing over the control… Not handing over control. For me to let go of the songs and trust people with them is not that easy because, obviously I’m doing it representing the band, but I would have to go back to the band and say, “This is what we did.” So I chose very carefully the people that I wanted to work with. But the idea of being able to go to someone like Sam Taylor Wood or like Jim Herbert—again, who we’ve worked with since 1983 or ‘84, and he was my art professor in college before and during the first years of the band. Jim Herbert goes back with me 31 years.
THR: Have Peter and Mike ever tried to nix anything? Obviously you do all these things outside of the band that are extensions of the band—have you ever brought anything back that they nixed?
Stipe: Of course. We work by veto, so if somebody doesn’t want something they’ll say so.
THR: If somehow they feel like it doesn’t reflect the identity of the band.
Stipe: Yes. There were a few moments with these films where I had to make a call and say, “Are you OK with this?” And their response back was, “It’s not a music video, it’s an art film and it’s an art film of a song and it’s by this well-known conceptual artist who shot it on an iPhone”—Sophie Calle, one of the best-known conceptual artists of our time. If she wants to shoot a horse pissing on an iPhone and we call that a film that goes along our love song, fine! Done!
THR: Is that actually one of the pieces?
Stipe: That’s one of the pieces.
THR: You just piqued my interest even more.
Stipe: It’s one of the most beautiful… The effect the piece has on the song is astounding.
THR: What song does it go with?
“Walk it back.” She’s really good.
THR: How would you define the difference between these works as visual art pieces versus a more traditional music video?
Stipe: For me the time of the music video has come and gone. The revolution the MTV brought in the 1980s and ‘90s is profound. I hate the word “literally,” but MTV provided a common language for all the countries of Europe to be able to speak English when there wasn’t a go-to language. And MTV did that. And there are other incredible, progressive things that having that as a cultural force provided us. Mostly good, some not good. But that’s OK, you take the good and the bad.
The time of music video is gone, it’s passed, as far as I’m concerned. Not for Rihanna, not for Lady Gaga, who I love, or Kanye West, who I love. They write pop songs and they do these pop videos that are seen by millions of people online, but now we have online as our go-to medium, and how do we address that in the 21st century? What I was trying to do was, I’m not—as much as I love Gaga and Kanye West—I’m not going to try to compete with them, we’re not that type of band, we don’t make that kind of music. I’m not interested in doing the $2 million music video. What I’m interested in is creating interest from an arts community, from a film community, from a music community, from people who are just interested culturally in: how can you approach a dilemma, which is that from my generation and perhaps the generation below me, your 9-year-old daughter would not know what an album is. It’s a concept from the ’70s.
THR: Just hearing you talk about MTV, I mean I’m aware of it, but something about that made me feel really old. I grew up on that—the shoestring videos and the first concepts that people started using back then.
Stipe: Right. But that’s been replaced by YouTube. Its moment has come and gone, and that’s good and fine.
THR: You’ve always been tied to these art communities anyway. That was always a part of your creative life. So it sounds like more of just a semantic switch. You’re not making music videos anymore, you’re making visual art pieces.
Stipe: Well, we started making art films because R.E.M.’s reaction to MTV was, “Fuck no, I’m not going to lip sync, it’s stupid, and I’m not going to dance around like an idiot, we’re not going to have dancing girls behind us, that’s stupid. So what do we do?” For our first semi-hit song, “Fall on Me,” I shot black and white, 16mm footage of a rock quarry, flipped it upside down, played it backwards without an edit and put the words to the song over it, and we got played on MTV with that piece more than anything that we had done prior. That was 1986. That was six years into MTV and six years into the band. We kind of continued with that, and then in the ‘90s and the Aughts we did a few—and I accept our mistakes and our failures along with our triumphs and our glories—but we did a few music videos that are music videos with us dancing and the whole thing. It is what it is. It was right for that moment—or maybe it was wrong for that moment—but we are much better at making art films, I think.
THR: What do you do with these films now? Do they become an art piece, do they become a DVD, do you put them in theatres, in festivals?
Stipe: I hope they become an art piece.
THR: What about a DVD?
Stipe: I’m talking to the record company this evening, but I think everyone’s thinking along the same lines. We’re going to do something physical that can be purchased and belong in people’s collections if they choose.
THR: Was there any one of the pieces that you had your collaborators put together that most surprised you with what they came back with?
Stipe: Can I be diplomatic and say every piece? The truth is, my band, I can speak for Mike and Peter and myself in saying that we really surprised ourselves with what we did with this album. We’re all really excited and thrilled with the result of our hard work. I have to say that I think I chose very well the people that I wanted to collaborate with as artists and filmmakers. Each one of them took a task and they did a lot more than just provide me with something of their work, they really rose to the occasion. And you’ll see that tonight, the extraordinary short films that have music behind them. It’s beautiful.
THR: That sounds great to hear. You seem really excited about it.
Stipe: I am. Well, it was a lot of work, but there’s no disappointment at all.
THR: Had you directed anything like that before? You and your sister did one of the pieces, right?
Stipe: My sister was working in AutoCAD, and she invited me over and said, “Look at what I’m doing right now.” She’s working in design, so she showed me her laptop and these designs that she was doing. She’s projecting them behind her band when they perform live.
THR: What’s her band?
Stipe: Her band is called Flash to Bang Time. And I said, “This is amazing. I’m making films, and there’s one that I cannot figure out who to give it to. Can you carve out part of what you’re doing here and let me apply it towards R.E.M. And we’ll make a separate thing from Flash to Bang Time. But can we work together on this?” And she said, “Of course.”
THR: And you knew looking at what she was doing that it would be a good fit for “Discoverer” or it was just that that was the last one?
Stipe: It wasn’t the last one, but I couldn’t figure out… “Discoverer” takes place in New York City, “Uberlin” takes place in Berlin. “Oh My Heart” takes place in New Orleans. I went to Jem Cohen to do “Oh My Heart” because I knew that he was in Vienna doing a feature film and he couldn’t go to New Orleans to shoot footage. I went to Sam Taylor Wood to do “Uberlin” because I knew that she was in London and that Aaron’s schedule would make it impossible for them go to Berlin to do “Uberlin.” I couldn’t figure out who I could go to that wouldn’t want to go to New York to shoot “Discoverer.” I had a live-action idea of what I wanted, but it was going to be kind of impossible.
THR: What was the idea?
Stipe: It’s stupid. It’ll come out at some point. Sometimes these things take years. [laughs] But what I did when I saw this thing that my sister was working on, I was so blown away by it because it really in some way references many of the themes on this record in terms of perspective, vanishing point and horizon. But it’s this kind of 1971 version of Tron is the way I think of it. Because that’s what it looks like to me. To people who are architecture interns, they’re going to hate me. Because it’s what they work with 8 to 10 hours a day. And it’s just this different take on AutoCAD.
THR: Clearly you have always had a lot of things going on, but do you wish that you were making more movies?
Stipe: It’s a difficult business. It’s really hard. I certainly knew how to choose a partner in Sandy Stern, he’s an amazing producer. Between us we have excellent taste. It’s just that Hollywood doesn’t necessarily easily respond to the kind of thing that we want to make.