Interview: Coldplay video director Mat Whitecross [part 1]
Part one: Oxfam’s Esme Peach talks to director and friend of the band Mat Whitecross on baths with Coldplay, making movies, and dancing politicians. Part two will be published tomorrow.
Esme: What ho, Mr Whitecross! Thanks for chatting to me for Oxfam on Tour.
Firstly, massive congrats on Paradise winning Best Rock Video at MTV’s VMAs! Those elephants have developed iconic status for Coldplay fans – we’re always seeing elephant heads on tour and the fans wearing them tell us how much they love that video.
Why do you think it’s been such a big hit with people all over the world? Is it because everyone loves a lonely furry elephant?
Mat: I’d love to pretend it’s all down to the video, but it’s the song that people love, really. If there’d never been a video, the track would have done just as well. To give you an idea – the band released the song on YouTube a few months earlier but with a simple title card and no images – and it reached 40 million hits on its own!
But with the Paradise video, I do think people enjoy the fact that the band clearly don’t take themselves too seriously – they take the music and the causes they support seriously, but they’re more than happy to run around the desert on their day off dressed in elephant suits. And as much as I love Thom Yorke and Bono, I bet neither of them can unicycle in a big furry outfit. Although I’d love to see them try…
E: How did you start making music videos for Coldplay?
M: I met them in my first year when we were students at UCL (University College London). We were all in halls together, and I remember meeting Chris when he dragged me into a communal washroom and we sat in the empty bath fully clothed while he played me a new song.
I used to turn up and film their gigs on a handycam. Every so often we’d shoot a video – one time I ended up pushing Chris around central London on a supermarket trolley for a track on their Blue Room EP called ‘Such A Rush’.
After they were signed, we shot a video for ‘Bigger Stronger’ – it was pretty terrible; I didn’t know what I was doing, but they were very sweet about it. I went off to work on films, they went off to become one of the biggest bands in the world, but we stayed friends and I’d always see them when they weren’t on tour.
They were always good like that – keeping in touch with all their old friends from college. I lived in Guy’s room for a while in Highgate when I couldn’t afford a place in London, which meant I could stay here and work as a runner. And then years later they invited me back to film them recording Viva La Vida in the studio.
E: My favourite music video of yours is Coldplay’s Violet Hill – Dancing Politicians. Tell me about the inspiration behind that and how it all came together…
M: When I was filming the guys in the studio for Viva, Chris mentioned Gwyneth’s brother Jake had seen a clip of the former Russian President Boris Yeltsin dancing, and they’d talked about how great it would be to use it for a music video. I sat with a researcher for a few days and pulled all the best clips of dancing politicians we could find. I’m sure there are more we didn’t have time to source, because it all came together really quickly – they wanted to get it out before the album launched. As with most of the videos I’ve done with the band, the initial idea really came from them, and then they left me to get on with it.
E: What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt about making music videos that you wish you’d known when you started out?
M: I grew up wanting to make feature films, and I think my main mistake when I started doing shorts and music videos was doing too much – I’d try and cram a whole film into a 3-minute track. Writing a short story or a poem is a completely different skill to writing a novel, and I think the same’s true of film. Be ambitious, by all means, but don’t try and squeeze in too much – the beauty of a short, whether it’s a music video or a drama, is you don’t have time to explain everything, so you can be as mysterious and surreal as you like. Embrace your limitations!
E: When you’re not making music videos for Coldplay, what else do you get up to? What projects are you working on currently?
Ashes is a road movie thriller starring Ray Winstone as a man with Alzheimer’s, and Jim Sturgess as his long-lost son, who decides to spring him from a mental hospital and take him back to see his wife, Lesley Manville. It’s a really great cast – we also had Jodie Whittaker and Luke Evans in key roles. It was a really hard film to put together, a very personal story, and I’m proud of the way it turned out.
Spike Island is a coming-of-age story set in 1990 about 5 kids in a band who will stop at nothing to see their idols the Stone Roses play their biggest ever gig. They can’t get tickets, so it turns into a heist movie – but instead of breaking into a bank, they’re breaking into a festival. It’s a really lovely bitter-sweet script by Chris Coghill, which is premiering at the London Film Festival next month.
I’m currently working on an adaptation of David Peace’s book, GB84, which is being written by Paul Viragh and produced by Andrew Eaton at Revolution Films. It’s the most exciting project you could imagine – a thriller set against the backdrop of the miners’ strike, about how MI5 colluded with the government to destroy the union movement and the miners’ way of life. It doesn’t get any bigger than that. It’s a throwback to the American conspiracy movies of the ’70s, like The Conversation or Parallax View; for me, it’s the kind of smart, relevant, exciting television that we’re constantly hailing HBO and other US channels for making, but that’s very hard to get financed over here. So we’ll see.
I’m also working on a TV drama with the writer Simon Stephens for Kudos and the BBC – it’s a multi-stranded drama in the vein of Traffik or Amores Perros, and all the protagonists are women, which feels like a breath of fresh air. And there’s a horror film I’d like to shoot set in a hospital.
E: Wow! How many hours in your day?! Anything else?
M: Well now that school’s begun, I’ve starting working on a documentary about the children in Kids Company, a charity which Coldplay support. The idea is to chart a year in the life of these kids’ lives.
And since I’ve finished on Spike Island, I’ll start pitching on music videos again. They’re always fun to do, and a real antidote to the years of development hell you tend to suffer on a film. With a video you might have the idea on a Monday, shoot on the Wednesday, and stick it online on the Friday. Bliss…
Come back tomorrow for part two of Mat’s interview…