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R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe: YouTube Has Replaced MTV

The film producer and singer-songwriter presents "Collapse Into Now"-inspired film project at SXSW.

Michael Stipe
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

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's Michael Stipe interview is continued on next page