Director Hamish Hamilton, a veteran of live event broadcasts whose company Done + Dusted has helmed such monumental TV performances as the Victoria’s Secret fashion show and the 2012 London Olympics ceremonies, is an old hand when it comes to coordinating the movement of hundreds of people — be it camera operators, sound professionals, staging and lighting designers — but nothing could prepare him for the sort of leadership know-how he had to exhibit on Nov. 13, 2015.
That night, he was putting the final touches on a massive production: U2’s Paris stop on the Innocence + Experience tour, scheduled to beam live via HBO the following night from the AccorHotels Arena, a mere two miles from rock club the Bataclan. Following two days of lighting tests and camera blocking, the band was well into a dress rehearsal when, out of nowhere, they exited the stage. It would be the first sign that “things had started to go awry,” Hamilton tells Billboard in his first interview since the Paris terrorist attacks that claimed 130 lives.
Perplexed at the sudden disappearance of Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr., Hamilton made his way backstage, eager to find out, “Why have we stopped, and when can we start? We’ve got an awful lot to do,” he recounts. “At that point, we were told that there was a security incident and the bigger story started to unfold.”
Immediately following what has become one of music’s darkest chapters — the execution of concertgoers by militant Islamists during an Eagles of Death Metal show — U2 and several hundred crewmembers were thrust into a global crisis: unsure if it was safe to leave the arena and travel through the city or to perform at all the next night.
“We seemed to be very close to the heart this giant global event and it was terrifying, confusing and an emotional rollercoaster,” says Hamilton. “Even a year later, it’s very difficult to express the emotions, the chaos, the instability and fear. Paris was under attack.”
Indeed, as word filtered through social media and the internet that a Paris Cambodian restaurant and the Stade de France soccer stadium also were targeted, the director was not alone in considering the worst. “Would we be bombed next?,” says Hamilton. “At that moment, you’re looking around for the authorities. There was nobody saying, ‘OK, just leave by these exits here.’”
Ultimately, it was up to the band’s management, HBO executives on the ground and Hamilton to direct crewmembers (Hamilton’s alone numbered nearly 200) back to safety. “There were hundreds of decisions that had to be made in a very short amount of time,” he says. “With the producers, we strategized how to get people safely back to their hotels, which were a couple miles away.” There were many unknowns, he adds. “Would we cross any terrorist incidents that we know of? Are the roads open? This situation is unfolding and you’re hearing about it like anybody else — you’re not to privy to any exclusive information.”
After four hours, with a sense that the route was clear, mini-buses shuttled the crew to their hotels. Hamilton recalls hearing police and ambulance sirens and seeing empty streets.
The rest of the night was spent watching CNN in Bono’s room, realizing quickly that the next night’s show would not go on — a hunch confirmed by morning when the French government officially canceled the concert, wishing to avoid a large gathering that could easily serve as a target.
For Hamilton and his crew, the next morning brought reality crashing down again.
“The music community in Paris is small and we were hearing about friends of people in the sound department or in catering who were at the Bataclan and got hurt — or killed,” he says. Hamilton describes an eerie silence to the arena the next day when the elaborate stage, his 16 cameras and the giant video screens were taken down and loaded out — punctuated by tears.
U2’s decision to restage the show as a tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks, and to the city itself, was made with much conviction, Hamilton reveals. “They were quite determined to perform in the same venue for those same fans, and so was HBO,” he says. “Then came the question of how do we frame the show [to address[ the Paris attacks, which was a number of very long, quite intense discussions.”
Ultimately, it was decided that the messaging would be in French and include a scroll of victims’ names along with the now iconic image of the Eiffel Tower as a peace sign. “They’re the greatest band in the world when it comes to moments like this,” says Hamilton.
The band also extended an invitation to Eagles of Death Metal to share the stage with them for a group rendition of “People Have the Power,” the same song the members had walked out to for the start of every show on the tour. “I thought it was incredibly proper — the right thing to do,” he adds.
Several times during Hamilton’s conversation with Billboard, the BAFTA winner and multiple Emmy nominee was brought to tears recounting the events of that night. But it was his brief interaction with Eagles of Death Metal three weeks after that shook him to the core. “I was overwhelmed and didn’t know what to say or do,” he reveals. “I felt powerless. Emotionally incapable of that basic human interaction and painfully aware of the fact that I didn’t have anything to say. I had these images flashing through my mind of what they may have seen. I just wanted to cry. I couldn’t cope.”
Hamilton’s personal trauma, he says, is “channeled through [that] of others who had a direct and very personal contact with death.” But the fact that these acts of terror occurred at a music venue very much hits home for the Brit who remembers the political turmoil surrounding Northern Ireland.
The sheer randomness of it all was on Hamilton’s mind on Nov. 14, 2015, when he went by the Bataclan to survey the still smoldering embers the day after. “I’ve spent my life in music,” says the director, who had previously worked with Britney Spears, Beyonce and Katy Perry, among many others. “I’ve been to thousands of concerts in venues large and small, gargantuan and tiny. I could have been in that venue. The younger me could have been in that venue. One of my close friends could have been in that venue. It could have been any music fan in any city in the world … at any show.”
This article first appeared on Billboard.com.