Some videos dazzle, some are dramatic, some are sexy, and some just make you go, “Huh?”
Interpol’s “Evil” might leave you feeling all of the above – but you may never get a good night’s sleep again.
“Oh, I hope it’s creepy,” said first-time video director Charlie White. “I intended for it to be two things: spooky and not too hip.” If your ideas of those two things agree with a clip that shows the aftermath of a horrible car crash and its effects on a strangely lifelike, shell-shocked puppet who busts some moves on a gurney, “Evil” is for you.
White, an artist and photographer who specializes in meticulously planned, digitally manipulated photos that sometimes feature monster puppets interacting with humans, said something about “Evil” made him think “car crash.”
“I listened to the song and conjured this scenario because there is clearly something tragic inside of the song, but not necessarily something tragic that has happened in this same way. The treatment looked exactly like the video,” he said. “It spelled out, in detail, what the video would look and feel like, not ‘I’ll make a puppet who will sing the song and it might look like this.’ ”
White started by immersing himself in the three-and-a-half minute song from Antics for an entire weekend, playing the moody track on a loop that he paused only for meals. He had the video’s star puppet on hand to see what singing along with the track would look like.
“Not all Interpol songs would fit as well to be sung by one voice,” said White, 32. ” ‘Evil’ has a uniqueness to it that puts the song and lyrics with extreme clarity in front of the band, so when you see the puppet singing you don’t feel the absence of the band. He’s performing a bit of a soliloquy, and sometimes it’s purposely not exactly synched.”
The dapper band, which has appeared in all of its previous videos, was happy to oblige White’s vision. “We were really excited because [Charlie] hadn’t done music videos before,” said Interpol singer/guitarist Paul Banks.
“The treatment was so interesting, and when we saw the images of the puppet early on, we were sold on the concept of this artificial thing interacting in a real-world environment.”
Working with a special-effects and puppetry team, White brought his vision to life on a soundstage and in a real Los Angeles hospital operating room over a grueling 17-hour shoot in November. When we first meet the unnamed male puppet – fans on the Interpol Web site have decided to call him “Norman” – he has cuts on his face and is doing a marionette-style dance in front of the frantic crash scene behind him.
Not cuddly in the least, Norman has sad, saucerlike eyes, a flat, nostril-less nose and a wide, down-turned mouth with a perfect bottom row of slightly dingy teeth. Wearing an Oxford shirt and black chinos, his sallow skin the color of spoiled milk, he stares into the distance as paramedics tend to the human victims, then check his vital signs.
The puppet’s animatronic head was programmed to automatically sing the song while an unseen puppeteer moved his eyes and forehead in reaction.
Meanwhile, a group of six puppeteers manipulated Norman’s body, then were digitally edited out of the final product. Neither Banks nor White could quite explain it, but the way Norman sings the cryptic chorus, “It took a life spent/ With no cellmate/ The long way back/ Saying meanwhile can’t we look the other way,” makes it somehow seem less abstract.
The result is an eerily lifelike puppet that, while not based on any living person, is like an “unseen” bandmember, according to White. “The puppet was made just for this video and it’s an amalgam of the idea of Interpol,” White said. “It fits the profile for both band and fan: It’s pale, thin, with dark hair and a boyish-man quality about him.”
Banks said the band is very happy with the results, but that, just like he would never ask a musician what their lyrics are about, he never asked White what the video means.
“If it has cohesion that I can understand in an abstract way, that’s enough for me,” Banks said. “The way I always look at videos is that they are supposed to be a complement to the song, so we always work with directors who have a vision of their own, rather than ones who want to make an ad for the song. I like the idea of a separate work of art in a different medium that is a complement to the audio element.”
The shoot was easy for the band, which was on tour and did not have to participate other than watching a few early rough cuts. White took it as a good sign when he heard that repeated viewings of the clip inspired Banks to go back and listen to his own song again. An ever better sign? Banks said he has worked up a pretty good imitation of the scarecrow dance the puppet does in the ER near the clip’s end. “He inspires my moves,” Banks said.
“When they’re cutting his shirt and putting in the IV, or when the nurse touches him as she transfers him to the operating table, these are crucial to building a real character,” said White. “If you watch it once, it’s OK. If you watch it three times, it’s a totally different experience. It’s like a scene in a movie, and hopefully, in the end, you empathize with him.”
But, yes, even Banks is a bit creeped out by Norman. “It gets under your skin a little bit. The puppet is not super easy on the eye. He’s not cutesy.”