On Elisha Cuthbert, Really Quick Cuts, and the Simplicity of the Thing
If you've watched music television at all in 2005 or 2006, you've seen a video directed by Marc Webb. He's probably best-known for his work with My Chemical Romance, including “I’m Not OK,” which pays widescreen tribute to Rushmore, the funereal (and highly theatrical) “Helena,” and the lavish Saving Private Ryan homage “Ghost of You.” But what really unifies his work is a propulsive sense of rhythm and a consistent engagement with his artists and their audience, whether that means aping the style of a teen-movie trailer, creating a sly origin myth for Weezer, or running All-American Rejects singer Tyson Ritter through a dozen different locations every second. This year he’s one of five nominees for the Music Video Production Association’s Director of the Year award. (UPDATE: Webb took home the MVPA's Director of the Year award at the May 11 ceremony, and "Move Along" won in the Best Pop Video category.)
You got your first MV job after a video commissioner saw one of your short films. Does that mean you didn’t have a specific desire to make music videos?
That’s fairly accurate. I had done a bunch of short films in college and I met somebody at a party who said they commissioned videos. I started with this band called Blues Traveler – it was one of those things where the commissioner had $10,000. And when you’re in college, with $10,000 you think you’re going to make Titanic. So that was the beginning. I went on the road with No Doubt and with Sting and spent a lot of time shooting performance and creating very stylized documentaries that parlayed themselves into video work. When I got out of school, I was editing for money, because I wasn’t making any money directing. I re-cut a lot of videos at A&M Records, and they had a vault that was full of directors’ reels for music videos and commercials. I would watch every single reel. I became obsessed. That’s where I watched all those great reels from the late 1990s ‘ the Finchers, the Tarsem and Jonathan Glazer and Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. That was a great era for music videos and commercials, and I just kept on watching those and got inspired. It fueled that sense that this was what I wanted to do.
Can you talk about the process of working through how to represent an artist in a video, or how to best get the song across?
Sometimes the label has an idea of how they want to present the band. But usually it’s very instinctual. It’s a gut feeling. There’s usually a visual key, some way to unlock the song, whether it’s an image or a theme or a tone ‘ it’s funny or serious or emotional or inspirational. There’s usually one simple thing, whether it’s a technique or a feeling, that I try to expand everything from. I think it helps the viewer, because it’s simple. I really think that simplicity is a great ally in music videos. That doesn’t mean you can’t be complicated in rendering that simplicity, because there’s a lot involved in making something come off as simple. But I’m doing the work so the viewer doesn’t have to.
In the All-American Rejects video ["Move Along"], it’s a very simple idea – this one person that changes into 100 different outfits. But the execution is fairly complex. There’s a lot of variables that you have to be in control of, there’s a lot of locations, and there’s a crew who’s kind of confused about how this is all going to cut together. But sure enough it works out. When I’m making a video, I am a viewer. I always keep the end product in mind. I always think of what it’s going to be like to sit in front of the television and watch this.
Does the video in your head bear a lot of resemblance to what you get or are there a lot of surprises along the way?
It’s a very specific idea. What made that video was the coming-together of two ideas: the fast stop-motion editing effect, and the guy falling backwards into the pool. I thought the song was inspirational. One of my friends had said that adage, “Jump and the net will appear,” and it kept sticking in my head, and I was like, “What does that mean visually?” And that’s where the idea came from of him falling backwards into the pool ‘ that sensation of letting go and moving ahead. It’s hard to vocalize it, but it’s about a person in a vast array of different situations having to do the same thing. It’s a complicated idea that can be expressed very simply visually ‘ but I’m having a little trouble expressing it in words. I think more in pictures. It’s important to communicate what you’re trying to accomplish, but I don’t think the band completely understood what we were trying to do until after it was done.
You’re not only thinking in pictures, but in moving pictures. It’s not just the image and the composition in the frame, but it’s about the image changing at a breakneck pace.
You’re creating a feeling, and people will always describe that feeling in different ways. Ultimately it’s just this gut thing that you’re trying to express. That’s the most exciting part about doing music videos ‘ you’re bringing abstract things into reality. Another video that was kind of complicated, that people didn’t really get while we were shooting – the label and the artist understood it better, but it seemed like a strange, random chaotic process – was the Daniel Powter video for “Bad Day.” There’s all these different shots, and a symmetry we were working with, and we had to shoot it out of order. It was a free-for-all. But I feel it really worked in the end. Everything was planned out and storyboarded, but when you jumped in it was a little bit scary. “God, I hope this works.”
You get a lot of mileage out of people’s faces ‘ paying attention to them, holding on them or cutting the hell out of the footage really quickly. But still, you get an intimate sense of this guy who’s looking forlorn and maybe confused.
You bring up an interesting point. This comes into editing and working with talent. There are moments in a song when the best way you can communicate is just to [have a viewer] listen to this guy emote, experience this connection with the singer, or with anyone in the band. There is something very, very powerful about eye contact, about the simple act of vulnerability in someone performing a song. You have to give that context, and it can be overused. But there are moments, typically in breakdowns – and “Move Along” is a good example of this, where the guy just sits and looks at the camera and then falls backward – where there’s an uninterrupted connection to the artist and you really feel like he’s saying something to you. That’s a very important thing ‘ certainly in my videos. But it’s something that can be overused. It can get dull.
You’ve done several very widely seen videos with My Chemical Romance. What makes that collaboration successful?
There’s a deep mutual respect. They have good ideas, which not all bands do, but ultimately they’re very respectful of what I want to do. We were talking about the WWII video [“Ghost of You”], and Gerard had some ideas, and he’s like “This is what I have, take it, do whatever you want with it.” He never questioned my judgment. I feel like he defers to me, and I feel like I own those videos. We have a common love for theatricality, for theater. And we love the same movies. It’s always fun with them, and they’ll always stand by taking chances.
“Ghost of You” got some press for being a big-budget video in an era of music-industry belt-tightening. Was it the biggest production you’ve worked on to date?
Do you generally have the money and resources you need to get these things made?
Oddly, budgets have gone up for me. But listen, they give you a number, and you have to make it work. Labels typically trust that I’m going to get the most out of it. I’m not coming in grossly underbudget ‘ I always cut it pretty close. But part of your job is to maximize your resources. And bitching about it isn’t going to do anybody any good. In the last year, I’ve used 98 percent of the set-ups I’ve shot. Every shot is there for a reason. I know that before I go into it, I know it in the budget process, and I always deliver what I promise. I take a lot of pride in that. Yeah, I wish there was more money. There’s never not an argument about budgets beforehand, because I always want more. And that’s part of the process. It’s not about bad blood. It’s just the way it works. Frankly, I think there was, at one time, some waste as far as the bands’ demands went, and on catering and certain other things. There’s better places to use that money.
In the Weezer video, “Perfect Situation,” there’s a special guest star, Elisha Cuthbert. Is there a difference directing a trained actress compared to directing musicians?
Yes. They’re just more intuitive. But it varies. Gerard in My Chem is a great actor and knows how to work the camera and understands subtlety. But the training process you have to go through with non-actors is much more elaborate than you do with Elisha Cuthbert. She knows how to hit her marks, she knows about nuance, she’s funny, she gets the process, and she understands what coverage means – all those things you have to work on with bands who aren’t as familiar with the process. It takes time. And it’s cool – it’s fun. But she’s great. And she just looks good on camera.
Does she have an energizing effect on the band members?
Yeah. First of all ‘ and it happens whenever we get an actress ‘ everyone has a crush on her, myself included. And everyone’s kind of nervous, but she’s really nice and everyone gets comfortable. Weezer has made so many videos that they totally get the process, but it’s fun to watch how they interaft. I think Rivers was a little bit intimidated at times, which worked perfectly.
Weezer has a reputation for wry, very funny videos. How do you do funny?
I tend to have more of a deadpan sense of humor. You just don’t overthink it. You go out there and have a set that’s fun. You allow the actors to feel safe, which I think is very important, and the band, and you create an environment where everybody can have a good time, and it shows. What’s interesting about music videos, which is different from commercials, is the humor has to be rooted in a visual way. Slapstick works really well. But also subtle visual gags. Like somebody’s head-turn can make people laugh. Every emotion has some sort of concrete manifestation. It’s amazing how well visual gags work if you shoot them correctly. Slapstick works every time.
It’s getting the timing right, too.
And also being close up enough to read their expressions. If they’re making gestures, you have to frame them properly so you can see their hands, or if their shoulders slump. If she rolls her eyes, you have to be close. All those beats have to be accounted for without making it look artificial. Just don’t overthink it. It’s a gut thing.
How much can you do in the edit as you learn new things about how the images work with music?
There’s always shifting and playing around, but in story videos it’s harder to cheat. If you’re cheating, you’re usually covering something up. I’m a big believer in efficient shooting, Sometimes an editor will grab an expression [and move it to a different part of the song] and somehow it works, and it’s great to have that input. But I try not to cheat. You can usually tell on set if something’s going to work.
You recently traveled to Iraq. What was that like, and what did you do while you there?
I was doing research for a documentary, but really I was a war tourist. It was kind of stupid in a way. But very fascinating. It really challenged the way I thought about the war and the people who were there. I met so many thoughtful, intelligent, sensitive people, all different sides. I met these marines who were awesome. They were so ‘ they totally got what everybody thought the U.S. military didn’t get. They were everything that you would want in a marine, everything you would want in someone representing your country. They were tough and strong and very logical, and yet compassionate. It really challenged the way I felt about what was going on. I kind of wanted to see for myself. I felt like people’s opinions are, a lot of times, not their own. And people argue and bullshit with each other but nobody really understands what’s going on. It’s very complicated, granted, but I wanted to have a more informed opinion.
What have you seen lately that has inspired you?
Brick. The tone of that movie was fantastic. And what he created – it was so much fun to spend that couple of hours in that world. As confusing and confounding as it was at times, I had a blast watching it. That’s what independent film should be.