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

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 But that’s been replaced by YouTube.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.