Kaotican Alphabet

Interview: Director Mat Whitecross on Charlie Brown

Mat gives us the inside line on the Charlie Brown video

Charlie Brown is available for just 59p on the UK iTunes Store this week

Hi Mat, how are you?
I’m good, thanks. Just back from Manchester.

Oh, have you been up there working on your Spike Island film?
Yes. We start in a few weeks, which is really exciting, but also a little bit terrifying.

So, let’s begin with a follow-up on the Paradise video which you also directed. That’s done rather well!
Yeah, it’s amazing really. It seems like a very, very long time ago that we did it. I think from that night when Chris rang me at about 1am and said he’d had an idea to do a video about an elephant that rides a unicycle, I thought it could’ve gone one of two ways! But I’m very glad that people are into it.

The single ended up going to Number One. And certainly the video seems to have helped it get the attention it did.
Oh, I hope so. Yeah, it’s amazing really. You never really know how people are going to respond to things. And that was such an unusual idea.

It’s on 85m views now. That’s an incredible number.
It is. I’d like to say it’s all to do with the video, but I think it might have more to do with the song!

And so to the Charlie Brown video, which you also directed. How was that to work on?
It was good, actually. What tends to happen is that you have a bit of a brainstorming session. I’ll meet up with Chris and sit down and he’ll say, “Well, I love parkour, can we do something with a bit of that?” And then I loved the idea of someone stealing a car and driving it, just the sense of kids in an urban environment rebelling against the decay around them, and colour and graffiti and all the things you get a sense of from the album anyway.

So then it’s a question of trying to gather those ideas together?
Exactly. We throw all these ideas up in the air and see which ones kind of connect. And I think what’s lovely about Chris is that he gets completely involved. But, yeah, it was pretty easy this time. I was pretty full-on prepping on Spike Island. But then we got delayed suddenly on the film and there was this gap of a few weeks, so I was able to work on the video.

Did the idea of the video change much as you went along?
Well, originally he wanted kids to come from all over town, running through the streets doing parkour and maybe someone going ahead leading the way with graffiti. We shot a lot of that, but as it all came together there was so much story that there wasn’t really that much of the band. The parkour runners were amazing, but it felt like it was just a bit too heavily weighted towards them.

Which meant cutting a bit of that out?
Yeah. We’d got Elliot and Antonia as the two main characters in the video, and they’re actually two of the leads in Spike Island. They were up for doing the video at the very last minute. Then Chris came back and said that instead of making it about all the people travelling, we could just make it about those two. So we reshot it with the parkour runner as Elliot.

The first that most people heard of the Charlie Brown video was when the advert for people to be extras in the video became news.
Yeah, it did. What the band had said was that they wanted the video to have a rawness to it, like a no-holds-bar, anything goes feel. They wanted to be among the crowd as if it’s in a club and it’s all kicking off. So, with that in mind we were talking to the guys who were bringing in the dancers and we said we weren’t sure exactly what we’d need on the day, or how far we were going to push it, so we need the option to do anything. I think they just put the topless thing in as a kind of, “What if?” And suddenly it became this big deal about Coldplay making a porn film or something! That was never quite the idea.

Haha! Maybe for the next video.

So, there isn’t a smutty Director’s Cut version of the Charlie Brown video which you’re holding back?
Well, if you pause it, there’s lots of subliminal frames with some pretty gratuitous shots.

Oh, yeah, totally. You’ll need really high speed broadband to see them, though. And it was only the band that were nude in the end. We let the dancers off. And I always direct naked anyway. I just think it’s important to make everyone feel comfortable. It really breaks the ice.

Of course, with Antonia being in the video, quite a lot of people have noticed the similarity between it and the Channel 4 show Misfits. Was that intentional?

It’s really strange – and I’m not sure people will believe this – but it’s completely coincidental. The cameraman that I often work with – who didn’t shoot this but is doing Spike Island – actually shot Misfits and he’d worked with Antonia. I’d seen a couple of episodes of the first series so I knew that she was a great actress and he kept talking about how fantastic she was and how I should think about her for Spike Island. So we ended up casting her for that.

And then you asked her to be in the Charlie Brown video?
Well, when I’m preparing for a music video and trying to give people a sense of what it’ll be like, I tend to cut in bits of an advert or maybe footage from another music video or some stills. And we’d stuck something of Antonia in a club scene into the treatment for the video. After we cast Elliot, we asked him if his girlfriend would be up for being in it too, but she was busy. We really only had an evening to put it together, then Hannah the producer said, “Well, we’ve got Antonia in the mood edit we’ve cut, why don’t we just ask her?” We rang her that evening and she agreed. So, we filmed the whole thing and then eventually Chris made that suggestion to make Elliot the parkour runner. Then after we shot it, someone said, “Have you guys not seen the second series of Misfits with Antonia and her parkour runner boyfriend?” And we were like, “Oh man! People are going to think we ripped it off!"

Oh dear.
Yeah! So, I spoke to Chris about it and he hadn’t seen it either. But he said, “Look, by reputation it’s a really cool series, so maybe it’s fine. People will just think we’re riffing on it.” So it’s a most bizarre coincidence, but it is completely unintentional. I’d hate people to think we were ripping them off. But I’ve watched all of series one now, and the first couple of episodes of series two, and it is brilliant. The last thing you want is for people to think you’re stealing their ideas, but it really was accidental. It’s quite bizarre, because it could’ve easily not been Antonia and we almost took all the parkour out of it.

How closely tied is the video to the lyrics of the song?
Not particularly. It’s always tricky with songs which tell a bit of a story, do you wanna explicitly reference them? Or just hint at them? Or completely ignore them? With Paradise we had the same thing, I think. Chris was conscious that he wanted to connect with the lyrics on that song, but not be too explicit. I think with this one, it’s not explicitly the girl and the boy that are referenced in the lyrics, it’s more that Chris liked that sense of exhilaration when you go out and you feel like you’ve got a shit life, but you can live for the weekend and make everything feel OK through music and your friends and just losing your mind for a couple of days every week. That’s what I was getting from it. And Chris had certain things he wanted to have in the video. So at the beginning he wanted to have someone breaking into a car and stealing it. And he wanted to have some kind of warehouse party. Then as far as how they got there and who we cast and how we shot it and what the band were doing, that was up to us.

Does Chris always work like that for videos?
Pretty much. For Christmas Lights he said he wanted to be lying down, then he wanted to get up using some kind of illusion and he said that he wanted some snow in there, and a boat. And then we had to figure out how the hell to piece all that together!

Of course the Xyloband wristbands are prominent in the video. Were they good to work with?
Yeah, they’re amazing. We started off being quite subtle with them, but they looked so beautiful that we ended up just having them switched on the whole time. I remember seeing them for the first time at a gig, and it just produces such a massive, exhilarating warmth across the whole crowd. It’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen. So, yeah, they really got the dancers going too, and it made it feel like it was a real event.

More so, even, than if they’d all been naked.
Haha! Yeah, we can save that for the sequel.

I’m actually flicking through the video as we speak, looking for secret details. It seems you were driving down the M4.
Yes, that is true.

It’s the A312 turn-off near Hounslow, to be specific.
That is such an anorak thing to spot!

It’s an amazing relationship that you now have with the band, as their kind of in-house video maker.
It’s a real privilege. It’s lovely, because it’s very relaxed. It’s like making a film with friends at college, which, of course, is how we started. We just get together, throw a bunch of ideas around and then see where they take us.

So what’s coming up for you? Presumably most of your focus is on Spike Island?
Yeah, pretty much. I’ve been shooting a documentary about a charity called Kids Company, which is quite a long-term thing that we’re going to do over a couple of years, I think.

Does that take in the Under 1 Roof show which raised money for them?
It does. We filmed the show. It was amazing. We shot a lot of them on stage and some backstage stuff as well. We’ve shot an awful lot of footage for the documentary, because you never quite know what you’ll need.

How do you go through and find the good stuff?
I’ve got an editor who’s working on it, Paul Monaghan. He worked with me on another documentary about refugees coming over from Burma, which was called Moving To Mars. Of course, Chris and the band then wrote a song of the same title. So, yes, Paul’s beavering away on that at the moment. But it’s absolutely incredible to see the work that Kids Company does. You count yourself lucky when you meet these kids who’ve had unbelievably difficult lives, but are somehow still making the best of them. It certainly gives you a boost up the arse to stop being so miserable if you’ve got a camera that’s not working!