"Trying to explain is as impossible as holding onto to water," says Alma Har'el of her experience directing Icelandic band Sigur Ros' latest video for "Fjogur Piano," off the album Valtari.
The director, repped out of Tool, has trouble articulating her thoughts behind the fantastical piece of work, perhaps because it uses dance as language. "With time, if I do more work and develop my language people will find ways to describe it better," says Har'el. "Isn't that how it always is?"
Har'el says the video is not made to be easily described, because it is about things that are unspoken, and the feelings she gets when she heard the music.
The seven-minute video stars actor Shia LaBeouf and dancer Denna Thomsen as a drug- addicted couple and follows them in the throes of their passionate yet, troubled relationship. Sensual, NSFW scenes of their lovemaking are interspersed with lyrically choreographed dance sequences (by Ryan Heffington, who also appears in the video). The piece climaxes with a crazed drug trip that manifests as a wild, underwater drive.
It's "erotic, trippy, hypnotic, painful and misunderstood," says Har'el. "Like certain relationships we have with ourselves or with people and things."
The video is Har'el's first project since her celebrated feature debut, "Bombay Beach," which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and won the 2011's Tribeca Film Festival's documentary competition. Set in the Salton Sea in California, the film presented affecting portraits of three eccentric protagonists: a young boy diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a teenage black aspiring football player and a former oil field worker addicted to whiskey and cigarettes. The film contains music by Bob Dylan and like "Fjogur Piano," is heavy on the dancing.
Har'el has also shot for the Obama campaign and World AIDS Day. "Fjogur Piano" marks her return to music videos, in which she's already made her mark through collaborations with Beirut lead singer Zach Condon on multiple music videos, including 2010's runaway hit, "Elephant Gun."
Har'el spoke with Creativity about her latest piece and discusses how she got hooked up with Sigur Ros, the strapped budgets of music video-making, and what it took to get Shia naked.
Creativity: How would you describe your point of view when it comes to your filmmaking?
Alma Har'el: For me, it's knowing what each project is about. I don't approach a commercial the same way I approach a documentary, a music video, an art film or a narrative.
Each one calls for a different muscle group. I don't like commercials that make me cry in order to sell me something, but I find them to be exciting when they visually excite me or make me laugh or think.
With a film it's quite the opposite, I don't like making empty visual exercises in a film. I prepare everything to the last detail. People make fun of the documents I send to every department. Sometimes, I also edit the whole thing before I shoot it, using only text title cards.
But unless it's a commercial, I don't do storyboards. Things have to come to life and if something happens that is better than what you planned it's always an option.
C: How did Sigur Ros and you get together?
AH: We didn't. I never met the guys from the group. I had finished "Bombay Beach" and I was trying for a few jobs, so then John Becks, who manages Sigur Ros, contacted me about this project. They were choosing seven directors and letting them choose one track from the album, and do whatever they want with it.
The budget was $10,000 per director. And I figured, if I'm going to do a music video and not get paid for it, I might as well be able to be creative.
C: How did Shia LaBeouf get involved?
AH: Shia contacted me. He was at Amoeba Records in Los Angeles and picked up "Bombay Beach." He watched it and he was interested. He emailed me and said "Hi, I'm Shia LaBeouf, and I want to work with you."
C: Didn't you think it was a prank? I would have.
AH: I was positive it was a prank. I said, "How do I know it's you?" But we ended up going to dinner and he asked what I was working on and I told him. So he said, 'I'll do it."
My father struggled with alcoholism and his father struggled with addiction, and we spoke a lot about romance in the shadow of drugs.
C: How did the music help you get to the concept?
AH: I was really taken by how the track was made. Each band member was given a track, and each recorded their reaction to that piece of music. Then, they combined the reactions to create the final track. I just found the piece so evocative and started to feel a lot when I heard it. But I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with it. Originally, what I thought about doing was shoot four pianos and then shoot a fifth instrument that would interact with them.
But then I got this image in my mind of two people, locked in a room surrounded by dead butterflies. I find dead butterflies to be these beautiful creatures that live very short lives. It takes so long for them to become the butterflies, and then they only live for a few days or hours.
Every day, they keep waking up. She wakes up before him and notices that things are not going the way they should. And every time, she tries to make him understand. There's a lot of pain, a lot of frustration.
C: So what are the lollipops?
AH: The lollipops are the drugs. They have scorpions inside them, this idea of something poisonous that is wrapped in sugar. It's also an animal that is very passionate, the female cuts off the male's heads while they have intercourse. They are passion, they are cruelty, wrapped up in sugar.
C: And that's a metaphor for the relationship?
AH: Yes. When you're in a relationship like that, you keep trying to bring back the beautiful moments you had. You keep revisiting them, trying to bring them back, but you cannot.
When you have passionate love in your love but it doesn't work practically, you keep reminding each other of both the good and bad things. That's what Shia and Denna are doing to each other.
C: What does Denna say when she shows him the butterfly?
AH: That is better left not verbalized into actual words. We want everything to be in words, but if you look at her face, you'll feel her anger, her despair, her frustration and her sense of crisis. She's showing him the butterfly that he wakes up with everyday. It's the same butterfly, which means it's the same thing. They have been there before. Every time they're in that room, it feels like the time they were there before.
C: What was it like working with Shia LaBeouf?
AH: He was the most professional person I've ever met. Professional is almost an insult, because it implies a certain snobbishness or that he was cold. He wasn't. He was so involved and so free, so accepting of the process. It was just so easy. I felt a calm working with him. I've never worked with an actor with that much experience, so I asked him to tell me if there was something I should have been doing that I wasn't.
C: What about the nudity?
AH: Nudity was not at all discussed. But when we were choreographing, I was impressed by how their bodies looked together. We shot the scene by the window, where she's wearing the robe and he's wearing underwear. But then, I wanted to do a sequence where they were getting dressed. And someone said, if they're getting dressed, they should start naked.
C: And was it difficult getting Shia to dance?
AH: The only difficult thing was to ask. I sent him an email before I sent him the script to make sure it's something he's willing to do and he replied that he'll "dance his ass off." I was so happy that I wanted to hug him.
Knowing him now I can't imagine there's anything he's afraid to try. If he thinks it contributes something to the character or to him as an actor and an artist he'll go for anything. He's pretty much fearless and has so many interesting layers.
We shot the takes of him crying by the wall in the robe in two long takes. He stood there and cried for almost five minutes at a time and went through every emotion. It was so nuanced and deep. I was blown away. When I got back home I told my husband I should just use that one shot as the whole video.
C: What about the scene where they're wearing each other's clothes?
AH: It's one of my favorite moments of the piece. It's such a familiar feeling in an intense relationship, where the gender gets lost, who is male and who is female gets lost. Gender and identity role play is always on my mind.
There are lots of details. There's a point where they grab their noses, and I wanted it to be a Pinocchio moment, where they've been caught in all their lies and are facing all these lies they're living. That's another one of my favorite moments.
C: What was the car scene?
AH: Ryan and Austin [Westbay, actor] are the people convincing them to take drugs. And the drive is the trip. It's like those PSAs they do about car accidents where they shoot something in slow motion. It's horrible but it's also really beautiful. It's a metaphor.
C: What was your biggest challenge working with this project?
AH: The budget. For me it always is. Chris Leggett and Jesse Schiller who line-produced this and everybody that worked on it were totally invested in it and that's what made it possible. Josh Stricklin, the production designer built everything with his own hands, including the bed they dance on. I remember it was his birthday the day before the shoot and he was sitting on the set behind a table with real butterflies from all over the world that he bought. There's a whole process that you need to go through of soaking them and then separating them. He had a huge smile on his face the whole time.
It's almost too sweet – almost corny -- but touching a real butterfly and seeing the colors and details of its wings up close is a moment of wonder.
C: What's your favorite moment of the video?
AH: Oh, I have so many. I love this video so much.
I love when the whole scene plays out in the room after they come back from their "trip". When Shia paints on her, and after that, she tries to get him to wake up. She's so intense and it's violent but Shia's performance is very tender all the way through. I always get lost in it, they had such good chemistry.
C: What are you working on now?
AH: My posture. it's terrible. I walk like a duck. I also just finished a really fun Honda commercial, and I'm also starting pre-production on my next documentary and writing a script for a second film that I hope to shoot next year. Fingers crossed and all that.