Interview: Chris Cunnigham
03-11-05 Revista de Prensa
(Publicado originalmente en Pitchfork)
Story by Ryan Dombal
Based on his iconic, mind-fuck-squared music videos for Aphex Twin's "Come to Daddy" (the alien monster, the tiny Richard D. James-faced midgets causing havoc), Squarepusher's "Come on My Selector" (the futuristic mental ward, the dog switching brains with the security guard) or Björk's "All is Full of Love" (the pristine black-and-white Björk-bots having sex with each other), it would be reasonable to assume director Chris Cunningham is one insanely effed-up dude. Not so! Well, not exactly. Turns out he's quite the English gentleman: witty, pleasant and self-deprecating. And did I mention he loves the White Stripes?! The maverick filmmaker recently returned from an unofficial creative hiatus with the release of a six-minute short film called Rubber Johnny about a huge-headed mutant imbecile trapped in a basement. Backed once again by the music of Aphex Twin, the clip (and its accompanying photo/sketchbook filled with grotesque body formations) fits into Cunningham's deep-space-weird canon as it follows the title character (played-- reluctantly, it seems-- by the director) through a quick edit phantasmagoria of splattering night-vision images. I called Cunningham at his English home recently to chat about Johnny, his videos, working with Stanley Kubrick, and the dearth of activity that's left hungry fans salivating for his next round of visual feasts. "I feel like I'm about to get busy again," he says. An army of freaks rejoice.
Pitchfork: How did the Rubber Johnny project develop?
Cunningham: In my spare time, between a couple film projects I was developing, I fiddled around with it and did extra shots for it because I endlessly tinker with things. Before I knew it, it ended up being almost a video. Eventually I finished it and Warp wanted to put it out but I wasn't sure it was enough to put out on its own so I made a book and ended up getting carried away with the book. I think the book justifies putting it out.
Pitchfork: I thought the film was comical more than anything else: A guy in a wheelchair with an oversize head doing crazed dances and snorting a ridiculously long line of coke. What gave you the initial idea?
Cunningham: I listen to a piece of music and really get inside it and let it suggest a little universe to create. I loved that track [Aphex's "Afx 237 v.7" from Drukqs], it sounded like a certain level of hysteria and I wanted to capture it.
Pitchfork: The editing is so fast it's almost like an animation, was it tedious to complete?
Cunningham: Since I was working on it every now and then it seemed to go on forever and it became an extreme chore. I've got a lot of patience and I'll always try and finish something if I can but I considered giving up on this since it was so technically time consuming.
Pitchfork: Do you often think of an idea but have trouble realizing it?
Cunningham: Always, it's rare that I'll manage to realize something fully. My videos, in varying degrees, are approximations of what I had in my mind.
Pitchfork: How long did it take to edit?
Cunningham: Six months maybe. I kind of gave up because there's another three-and-a-half minutes that I edited. I spent three of those six months editing a piece of video I didn't use in the end. I scrapped it because it was going to take so long to put the post effects on it so I thought, "Fuck it." I cut the video in half and put it out like that.
Pitchfork: What was included in the stuff you cut?
Cunningham: It had a female version of the character, them playing outside really fast at night. It was pretty bizarre compared to the first half. I made it for virtually no money; people could only help me finish it when they had free time. It would have dragged on for another year probably and I just wanted to get on with the film.
Pitchfork: How many people would help you shoot it at a given moment?
Cunningham: Three or four, just my best friends.
Pitchfork: Was it fun to shoot?
Cunningham: No [laughs]. It was awful, I was in a wheelchair and it's very hard to direct when you're in front of the camera.
Pitchfork: Did you consider putting one of your friends in the wheelchair?
Cunningham: Yeah. Under normal circumstances I would have forced one of my friends to do it but I couldn't because they all had full-time jobs.
Pitchfork: What was it like wearing that head prosthetic?
Cunningham: Just horrible. It took about an hour to glue the rubber headpiece on and getting in the wheelchair was difficult.
Pitchfork: Seems like some form of self torture.
Cunningham: It was. All the stuff I scrapped was shot at night outdoors in the winter in London. I had to go outside four nights with no clothes on and I nearly died. Then I scrapped all the footage anyway. It was pointless torture.
Pitchfork: What did Richard think of the film?
Cunningham: He liked it, I think.
Pitchfork: Did you know him before the "Come to Daddy" video?
Cunningham: No, I'd met him once but I didn't know him at all. We're pretty different types of people but we've got lots in common.
Pitchfork: What is it about his music that sets a trigger off in you head?
Cunningham: It's the closest to what I would make if I was going to make music. Ideally you want to work with music that's your idea of what perfect music is. Because my style is so synchronized to the music and dependent on the music for its tone, if I want to be experimental and push things forward I need music that's got the same sensibility...Richard's pretty music is the music that made me a fan of his, it turns out that I made videos for off-the-wall pieces but I'm a bigger fan of his ambient music.
Pitchfork: Did you have any idea of how popular "Come to Daddy" would become?
Cunningham: No. I actually just did a show with Aphex in Italy a couple days ago and put together a new mix of some of the work we've done and made a few new videos. I played "Come to Daddy" at the end and I hadn't seen it in ages. I watched it and for the first time I saw it as if I hadn't made it. When we were making it I didn't know it was going to work that well. You can't tell, it's the nature of filmmaking: No matter how much you plan or figure out how it's going to work, it's so dependent on luck.
Pitchfork: Do you think the old woman in the "Come to Daddy" video had any idea of what she was getting into?
Cunningham: No [laughs]. When she came to casting we had her be really scared but I don't think she realized she was going to have a wind machine pointing at her face.
Pitchfork: So she was a good sport.
Cunningham: She had me in stitches. I had to look away when we were filming her scene because I was laughing so much when she was being hit by the wind machine.
Pitchfork: Watching your Director's Label DVD, it's obvious that two main themes in your work are anatomy and robotics, what piqued your interest in those things originally?
Cunningham: One of my earliest memories is seeing an episode of "The Bionic Man" and they had these women that were kind of like robots and-- I must have been about six-- I remember thinking "That's the best thing I've ever seen in my life, a girl that's a robot." [laughs]
Pitchfork: As a big Kubrick fan, I have to ask you what it was like working with him on pre-production for his A.I. project.
Cunningham: I started working with him when I was 23 but I wasn't intimidated. I was at a point where I was starting to become pretty obsessed with my own plans. I was pretty distracted mentally. I'm a fan of his but I've never been a Kubrick obsessive. The first time I saw The Shining and A Clockwork Orange was when I was 18 and 19. When I was a kid the only film of his I'd seen was 2001.
Pitchfork: What was he like?
Cunningham: Normal. There's nothing to report of any interest. There's some kind of bizarre mythology built up around him but he is just a normal human being.
Pitchfork: What did you think of Steven Spielberg's A.I.?
Cunningham: It's not really my cup of tea. The first third is the best sci-fi material in the last 20 years. That should have been the whole film. But what do I know, it's Steven Speilberg, innit? You can't criticize Spielberg. [laughs] If I had been given that script I definitely would have hacked off the last two-thirds and did it all in that house-- it would have been cheaper.
Pitchfork: If they would have asked you to direct it would you have taken it on?
Cunningham: No. I've been offered some pretty big stuff but if I'd been offered that I would have had a conflict because, on one hand I'm struggling to establish my own identity and I'm a new filmmaker and I've just made a few videos-- I was just finding out what I was about starting to understand my subconscious. I feel like each time I do something I want it to be more and more recognizable that it's me so, by the time I do a film, my films will be as recognizable as someone like David Lynch or someone who's got their own thing going on. So if I had fucking done A.I. that would have been the end, I would have never been able to get rid of that Kubrick connection.
Pitchfork: Yeah, even Spielberg couldn't really get out of Kubrick's shadow on that one.
Cunningham: It's hard enough to make a film without everyone saying, "Hang on, is this version as good as the one Kubrick would have made?" In peoples' minds they'll always think if Kubrick had done it it would be so much better. You don't need that extra stress.
Pitchfork: Is the Aphex Twin "Windowlicker" video supposed to be more of a tribute to hip-hop videos or a parody of their clichés?
Cunningham: I love hip-hop videos. It was not meant as disrespect. I used to watch those videos and think, "Are these guys kidding? They've got to be kidding!" But they're not and that in itself is what makes them good.
"Come to Daddy" was played quite a lot late at night in England on MTV. There was a guy who would champion the video and play it all the time, and he sent me tapes of this show called "The Party Zone" because I didn't have MTV. One day I watched it and I saw the "Come to Daddy" video amongst all these hip-hop videos and I thought, "That's ridiculous." It looks so out of place and it looks so wrong. So I wanted to make an Aphex video that fit amongst the hip-hop videos. That's not the primary reason but it had a big bearing on it. When Richard did this track that sounded summery and sunny, I thought, "Fuck. We should do it in L.A. in that style." I still don't think it looks like a hip-hop video-- I tried but I fucked it up. I knew if I used wide-angle lenses it would look like Hype Williams right away. It's kind of a cheap hip-hop video [laughs].
I don't really like it very much because it's me working in a slightly different area. It was fun though because it was just done in the spirit of trying to have a crack, I'm too much of a hip-hop fan to want to take the piss out of hip-hop.
Pitchfork: Do you get a lot of feedback from the people involved in your videos?
Cunningham: Not really. It's tricky because I'm so consumed with paranoia after I finish something that I almost don't want to hear peoples' feedback. Even when it's good it's bizarre, you're thinking, "Fuck, fuck, I messed that up." When I had to put together the videos for the Director's Series DVD it was painful having to watch stuff that I had to abandon.
Pitchfork: You've made almost 20 videos but there are only around 10 on that DVD, why didn't you include more?
Cunningham: Because [the other ones] are absolute shit. I only put stuff on there that's worth putting on there. In order to make the DVD not seem ridiculously small I had to put a couple videos on there that I hate. I felt like it's my DVD and I want to put something out that isn't gonna make me cringe even though you can't hide anything in this day in age. If there's something you've done it'll be on the fucking internet. But I don't want it on the DVD. I'm sure most people in that position would feel the same way. If you do an album you just want the best tracks on there. Those other videos are like outtakes or experiments.
Pitchfork: What did you think when they asked you to be part of that series?
Cunningham: I wasn't sure at first because Warp were going to put something similar out. Usually I want to work independent of the mainstream. The thing that made me want to do it was A) I was really flattered they asked me and B) [Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and I] are all different enough that it works as an idea. Primarily it was flattery.
Pitchfork: The video for Madonna's "Frozen" was a notoriously difficult shoot. Did that, coupled with the inherent mainstream nature of a Madonna video sour you on making videos in general?
Cunningham: Yeah, it did. The Madonna video was an experience I didn't want to repeat. It wasn't that bad. I really am being melodramatic because, compared to a lot of people, I was given a lot of respect and freedom. But by my standards it wasn't enough, I need to know that if I decide to scrap everything and have one shot, I should be allowed to do that. But when you're working with that much money and that much at stake with a big artist it's an added stress I don't like.
Pitchfork: Were there a lot of big name bands that you turned down at that time?
Cunningham: A lot of stuff. You name it. There were a lot of strange offers. I don't want to sound like I'm boasting. I also don't want to sound like I'm dissing someone, like,"Yeah, I turned those cunts down!"
Pitchfork: I was always surprised you never did a Radiohead video, it seems like your style would work with their music really well.
Cunningham: I'm just not a fan. I recently bought OK Computer-- I'd never heard it-- and I thought it was amazing. There was one song on there that I thought, "Fuck, I would have loved to have made a video for that song."
Pitchfork: Which one?
Cunningham: "Subterranean Homesick Alien". At that time I was so into Aphex and Squarepusher and Boards of Canada-- my head was in a completely different place.
Pitchfork: That's ironic because after OK Computer they tried to incorporate some Aphex-type elements into their music. Have you heard Kid A?
Cunningham: No, I've heard odd tracks. I've heard enough to know it's not my cup of tea at all. I think they're fucking incredible, just not my taste. I love guitar music, I think I'm more into rock to be honest. The band I really wanted to make a video for was Pavement. I met with Stephen Malkmus and we came close to doing it but it never happened. It would have been something from their last album.
Pitchfork: Are there any other bands you wanted to make videos for?
Cunningham: There are bands that aren't around anymore like Nirvana. I would have crawled over broken glass to do one for them. I nearly did a video for Audioslave. There was one song of theirs I particularly liked, it was called "Cochise".
Pitchfork: Yeah, Mark Romanek ended up doing that video.
Cunningham: That's right. I had agreed to do it [but] they thought I wasn't going to and they gave the job to Mark. I really wanted to make a performance video because I made a lot of bad performance videos early on. I wanted to go back and make a good one. That was quite a rough rock song, I quite liked it. I'm a big Tom Morello fan, I think he's fucking god...There's a song on the new White Stripes album that I really wanted to do something for. It's called "Instinct Blues".
Pitchfork: Yeah, I love their bluesy jams, like "Ball and Biscuit" from Elephant.
Cunningham: It's funny you say that because that's exactly the track on the last album that I wanted to make a video for. Those are my two favorite White Stripes tracks. And I really like Michel's "Hardest Button to Button". I wish I had made that.
Pitchfork: Did you think about a treatment for the White Stripes?
Cunningham: No, because I'm so wrapped up in other stuff I'm working on that it's a daydream.
Pitchfork: You haven't really made many music videos in a while, what made you slow down?
Cunningham: I worked on two feature film projects that I then abandoned. That counts for three years. Add another year working on Rubber Johnny. In that time I was also working on a longform video with Squarepusher that's not finished yet. And I've been making music myself-- learning music and learning lots of new techniques with digital editing and generally improving my craft. I've always tended to have periods where I'm on a sabbatical or something-- I'd just disappear for a couple of years and then suddenly come back and have intense periods of productivity. Before I did a lot of my videos I had been sitting around for a couple years not doing much and then I suddenly worked like a dog for two years. I feel like I'm about to do that again actually. About to do a period of putting loads of new stuff out like a feature film. Get busy again.
Pitchfork: Was it frustrating to work on those features for so long and to not really have anything to show for it?
Cunningham: Yeah, it pissed me off. At the time it didn't piss me off, but now I look back and think, "Fuck, man. I wish I hadn't wasted that time." There's nothing you can do about because if you work on something, you're enthusiasm goes and there's no point in carrying on with it if you've lost the energy.
Pitchfork: Are you just having a lot of trouble adjusting from short videos to a feature-length film?
Cunningham: I think I'm smart enough to know that when I was doing videos I understood instinctively that you have work with bolder strokes and make an impression in five minutes and be more extreme. It's almost like being a comic book artist: You're not using reality as your medium, it's more like a fanstasy. Whereas with features you have to sit down and adapt your skills. Editing pictures to sound is one skill but that's of no use in film because I'm working with story and performances. I have to now apply my technical abilities to a completely different set of parameters. That's one of the reasons why I haven't made a film: I haven't yet found a story that checks all the boxes in all the things I'm interested in and is a strong enough to hold and hour and a half. It would be really easy to make a bullshit abstract film or something that's really visual. I do really love stories.
Pitchfork: Do you have any feature ideas in the pipeline?
Cunningham: Yeah, I have a couple of projects I'm developing but I'm gonna keep it quiet because I've talked very much about films I haven't made. It's bullshit isn't it, you think, "Just fucking make a film and shut up cunt! Stop talking about it and just make a film." It's almost like an embarrassment to still be doing press that's like, "Yeah I'm going to be making a film."
Pitchfork: What type of film do you want to make?
Cunningham: I'd love to make a straight down the line action film at some point. Probably not for a long time but I'd love to do that because I know I could technically do it easily and it would be so much fun to blow a car up or something [laughs]. There's no denying that stuff must be fun. But I certainly wouldn't want to do it until I made a couple films that had my fingerprints all over them.
Pitchfork: What do you think about other directors that rip off your style?
Cunningham: They say you're supposed to feel flattered but I never do. I'm normally pissed off. I think the thing that's frustrating is [the copycats] normally have a big audience and I don't want those audiences to think that I've copied them-- I don't want someone to come up to me and say, "The robot in your Björk video is copied from I, Robot." The biggest problem is if you do something and everyone copies it, that year becomes known for that look and people get sick of it and you're lumped in with that.
I went through a period of being pissed off at so much stuff looking like mine and that's one of the reasons I didn't do anything for a couple years, because I got so depressed because my style had become so ubiquitous and it made me lose confidence because everything looked like what I was doing. It's pretty rough doing your learning in public, the first video I ever made was the first piece of film I ever made; I'd never made a student film or anything before, the first year of doing videos. I'd do anything to erase those videos but I can't. That's what I envy about people in the 20th century, they could destroy their early work and once they get good they can treat that as year zero. But these days you've got some bastard that'll turn it up on the internet [laughs]. I wish I could dredge up something of theirs and get them back. I'm constantly trying to find ways to make stuff that really neutral. That's something I like about Spike and Michel, they're very neutral stylistically so it's very hard to imitate them but my stuff is very visual so it's easier to copy.
Pitchfork: Yeah, with Michel, his ideas seem so simple, they always have this great childlike quality...
Cunningham: I totally agree. When I saw his video out of a window of a train [for the Chemical Brothers' "Star Guitar"], I thought, "Why the fuck didn't I think of that" because most of my ideas come while looking out the window of a train. It's brilliant.
Pitchfork: So what are you coming out with next?
Cunningham: I'm working on two long-form projects: my music and film. They're coming out next year.
Pitchfork: It's going to be a CD/DVD type deal?
Cunningham: Yeah, Rubber Johnny is like clearing out the cupboard. [What] I'm working on now is a real step away from all that video stuff. I've taken things to another level. I'm desperate to put new stuff out. Now I can push things further than before because if I have an idea I can incorporate it into the music. When you're making videos for other people, you're limited.
Pitchfork: How would you describe your music?
Cunningham: [laughs] I don't know.
Pitchfork: Is it instrumental?
Cunningham: No. It's just me. I basically had lots of ideas for videos to songs I never got sent so I decided to make the tracks myself. Most people would say the logical step would be to make a film next but I thought I had a better idea: To carry on making videos but to make the music too.
Pitchfork: So it's basically going to be a album with a video to every song?
Cunningham: Maybe, or maybe an EP with videos. I'm not sure yet because I'm still working on it. It's a total left turn, it's something that's more exciting to me than making a feature film because that's so predictable. It's just about wanting to try things you haven't done before-- you don't know if it's going to work.
Pitchfork: So you've been studying a lot of music and recording techniques?
Cunningham: Yeah, in the last five years I've learned so much about music while making videos that I realized I could produce music myself. Even if I'm making the music to my own film I still want to utilize that newfound skill.
Pitchfork: Is there anything you can compare your music to?
Cunningham: I definitely think it would be more fun to hear it cold [laughs]. But the White Stripes are the only band that I like at the moment. They're the only band that I find really exciting. I didn't like them at first but they've really grown on me, I think Jack White is fucking amazing.