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Interview with director Jonas Åkerlund

The Swedish director tells us about his videos for Magic and True Love

02 Sep 2014

Interview with director Jonas Åkerlund

Acclaimed Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund has made the videos for Magic and True Love from Ghost Stories. We called him up to find out more.

Hello Jonas, how are you?
I’m very good thank you.

How did you come to be involved with Coldplay?
To be honest, I think there’s been a will between me and the band to work together for quite a while. We could never figure it out with timings and ideas and this and that. But with this campaign, we spoke very early. Even before they decided what the single was going to be, we listened to songs and spoke about different ideas and concepts – mostly with Chris. And this is my favourite way of doing it, when you really are involved in the release.

Had you met Chris before?
It was the first time we worked together but we had met before and spoken on the phone a few times about some other ideas. It’s very much like we knew each other right away. It was great.

For those reading this who don’t know, you’ve been making videos for a long time.
Yeah! I’m like a dinosaur!

How did you get into making music videos?
Well, I’m from Sweden and back in the 90s, I did a lot of commercials. But I came from the music world and I knew a lot of musicians. So basically I was the guy who knew how to handle a camera and how to do an edit. So it was a natural thing for me to go from commercials to music videos. My plan was never to do music videos, but I always loved working with musicians and other artists.

Who were your first videos for?
Right now Swedish music is booming all over the world, but back then it was really just a band called Roxette. My thinking was that music videos are a lot of work and they take a lot of time, so I decided I’d only do it with bands where the video is actually going to be shown. I was lucky enough to hook up with Roxette early on. I did a lot of their videos and that kind of segued into some indie bands and eventually I did the video for the Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up. That got the attention in America, so I started to do some work over there. My first American video was for Madonna’s Ray Of Light.

That’s not a bad start!
It was a great start! Because not only was it Madonna, but the timing of where she was in her career and that song and the video, and everything. And I think I’m the only one from my era of music videos that still does them. The truth is I don’t do it that much any more. I do maybe one or two music videos a year. I’m quite selective when I do it nowadays.

Does that mean you’re a fan of Coldplay’s music? Do you pick your projects based on liking the artist?
No, I don’t. Making music videos usually has nothing to do with personal taste! Hahaha! But I have always been a huge Coldplay fan. I don’t do the American thing where I tell my artists that I’m a fan, but with Chris I had to! On several occasions I’ve told him how much his music has meant to me. I realise that he gets it all the time, but I had to tell him that his music has been with me ever since their first album.

When it came to Magic, it’s not too hard to see the link between the title and the video. But how did the whole concept come about?
Well, when we started to talk about the idea, it was more about creating characters and a love story. And then slowly he became a magician, and slowly it became a carnival and then of course it’s called Magic so we thought let’s do some magic. I realise that the idea is a little bit on the nose for a song that’s called Magic, but sometimes that’s OK. Music videos can be very literal with the lyrics or the title or something else.

We talked a lot about the story and then eventually we kind of got to this place where we thought the look should be a little vintage and they should live in tents. We have this designer that I love to work with who’s called Greg Lauren and we thought maybe Greg could make the clothes because everything that he does looks very vintage and kind of circus-y. And then I wanted them to live in tents and before you knew it we were doing this carnival with these magicians and this love story within this look. So it kind of grew.

Was it always going to be black and white?
We always liked black and white, but to be honest the first edits we worked with were in colour. And then in the very last minute Chris and I were like, “Oh, black and white is really beautiful, and makes it look really classic and old”. So we ended up doing that.

How did you decide to have Zhang Ziyi play the magician’s assistant?
Well, we were doing casting all over the place to find the girl, and I was in Paris having dinner with Zhang Ziyi because she’s an old friend of mine: I made a movie with her a few years ago. At the very end of the dinner, it just hit me and I said, “You don’t happen to be a Coldplay fan, do you?” And she was like, “I love Coldplay! I’d do anything for Coldplay!” And the timing was just perfect. She was going to Canada for some job and it wasn’t a problem for her to pop down to Los Angeles for our shoot date. And of course it was fantastic to have her there.

So you put quite a lot of effort into picking the right actress. But you had to rely on Chris being a good actor. Was that a bit of a risk?
Well, I had my feeling that Chris could pull anything he wants off! I don’t want to say anything bad about Chris, but he was very negative. “I’m not an actor, I’m not an actor”. And I said, “Yes you are! You’re in costume in front of a camera playing a character, so you are an actor!”.

And he has to carry the two lead characters.
Yeah, and me and him could argue this forever, but I keep telling him that he’s a great actor. He took it really seriously. And we did it the hard way too. Because of the long turnaround on his make-up, we shot first one character over the shoulder of a double, and then we shot the other way the day after. And that’s hard for any actor. It’s not an easy thing to pull off. But the way he did it was brilliant. He’s very much an actor. And you put him next to a great actress like Zhang Ziyi who can act without using words, with her face, and I think Chris is very brave that he did it.

How did you work out the stunts and the magic?
We did it very traditionally. I’m trying to think if there was anything special…

Did actual knife throwing happen?
Er… I cannot reveal the world of magic! But we didn’t do any special effects. We had a magician on set that helped us with these different machines and showed us different illusions. And Chris learned all of them. So all the tricks that you see are made the real way. None of it is film trickery. Well, except the levitation at the end.

You mean to say Chris didn’t actually fly off into the sky?
Well, he did – but on wires!

It’s nice how you can see the modern city in the background throughout.
That came about when we were scouting. I come from a circus background – because I used to direct circus shows – and I always thought the circus is an amazing world, but it’s kind of stuck in time. It always looks the same. Even today circus people actually live in tents and caravans and move around. So I thought this is not supposed to be happening in the 40s or the 30s, it’s actually happening today. So we put a Rolls Royce car in there – which is actually my car – and then we had the city behind it, as a really cool backdrop.

Where was it filmed?
In downtown Los Angeles.

Did the filming itself go well?
It was an extreme shoot, because it was a night shoot and we shot it all in just two nights. Night shoots are always brutal for everybody. Usually you stress to have sunlight, but we were fighting to have darkness, because the sun was coming up quick.

But it all went OK?
It did. Nothing really went wrong. We were very well prepared. But there were a lot of costume changes – Zhang Ziyi changed her make-up and hair pretty much every scene!

Do you watch the reaction to a video when it comes out?
It sounds very ignorant of me to say I don’t, but I kind of don’t actually. I tend to move on. By the time a video comes out, I’m already working on something else. It’s not that I don’t care – because I really do care. And I’ve been getting a lot of information about the Magic video from Phil and Chris.

It’s certainly gone down well with the fans.
Well, I do actually like YouTube comments. All my life I’ve been working, not knowing what people think of my videos, because they’re at home watching TV. So I should actually spend more time on it.

And you’re pleased with the finished video?
Yes, this is a good one. I do like 30 projects a year, but working with Chris and getting to do a story like this is fantastic. I love the music and I think Chris is such a great guy. I’m very proud of this video.

Having made the video for Magic, how did the True Love one come about?
Well, between these two videos, we kind of kept in touch. The editing took quite a long time and I also helped them with a campaign for Target.

Ah, did you direct the A Sky Full Of Stars advert?
Yes, exactly. So we stayed in touch and we kept talking and listening to more music and discussing what we could do. And then we started to talk about True Love. And it kind of came about in the same way as Magic did. One thing I said early was that I wanted it to be very different in tone from Magic. But related somehow because it has a story.

Do you prefer your music videos to have a story?
Actually I don’t prefer it, it’s totally what works with that specific moment and song. Obviously Coldplay’s music – at least in my mind – you really listen to the lyrics and you make up your own story. That’s what I’ve always done when I listen to Coldplay.

Where did the idea for the body suits come from?
Well, Chris actually came to me when we were shooting Magic and said he went to a circus show with his kids and saw these guys performing in these outfits. And he said, “I love it, we’ve got to do something with it!” So, I found the guys with the outfits and we created our own ones. But I wrote the story not really thinking about the outfits. I just wrote a story that I think worked for the music – basically a pretty simple love story. But then there were these outfits, which made it very different.

There’s a running theme in the video about life as a large person: not being able to get on the bus, or sit in your theatre seat. Is it meant to be an exploration of what it is to be overweight?
Well, the way we approached the story and this whole idea was way more about just being different in the world, where life is a struggle and then you meet somebody who understands you and then it all falls into place. Then you understand that they are very talented, and that together they are stronger. That’s what I was kind of going for as a message or as part of the story. I wasn’t really thinking about the overweight thing. Although of course when you say it, that’s what it’s about as well.

And like Magic it’s about a couple coming together with a happy ending. So there is a similarity with the narrative. Was that deliberate?
Well, I liked the idea of making two completely different videos in tone and look, but still have them kind of belong to the same family. That’s what I was going for. And we did the same thing with this one as we did with Magic, with me writing a proper short film script rather than writing a standard music video treatment.

And again Chris acts it well.
Yeah, absolutely. And all those years of yoga were paying off, because that outfit was pretty brutal to have on and then do all these tricks, like spinning around!

Ah yes, how does that spinning trick work?!
Well, I shouldn’t tell. It’s another magical trick!

Did you have a choreographer for this video?
Yes, we actually had one of the best choreographers in the world! Her name is Blanca Li. She’s a fantastic ballet choreographer out of Paris. And once again we were so lucky, because a few months ago Coldplay did one Paris show and I spoke to Blanca – who really is one of the best in the business – and I asked her on the phone if she’d like to go and see the show, and she was like, “Yes!”. So she went and she met Chris and they hit it off. And she then came to Los Angeles and helped us figure it out with these outfits.

And how did Jessica Lucas come to be cast for the female role?
Well, we knew we were going to be shooting in Los Angeles, and we wanted to cast someone from there. We actually did it like you would on a movie: we had a list of great actors and then me and Chris sat down and discussed it. And we got stuck on Jessica, because we’re both big fans of her movie Cloverfield. So I managed to get her to come down to have lunch with me and Chris. He put on his best charm and we got her!

Did you tell her about the body suits before she agreed?
Er, yes! Literally about halfway through the lunch I got out my computer to show her a photo. And we thought she was going to stand up and leave!

But she carries it off really well. You almost forget they’re in suits by the end.
Yes, absolutely. That’s a good effect.

How many of the suits did you make?
It’s actually less than you think. Three for him and three for her. He’s got his skateboard outfit, his janitor outfit and his tuxedo at the end.

The skateboard scene did seem like a dream come true for Chris as a big Back To The Future fan.
Yes! Exactly. We did it really early in the morning because we didn’t want any paparazzi to take pictures of it. That would’ve ruined it. We didn’t want any pictures of the suits to come out and people having opinions about it before the video was done.

Keeping videos under wraps must be a lot harder these days, with cameraphones and social media.
Well, for me, because I work so much in Los Angeles, I have the same crew, so I don’t get so much problem. But if you’re on location, there’s always paparazzi. There’s more paparazzi now in LA than anywhere else! So, yes, that can be a problem. But we got away with it for this one.

Before you go, we always ask interviewees about their favourite Coldplay song. What’s yours?
I’d have to say – because of a long story – the Scientist. That’s probably a lot of people’s answer, but all I can say is that it was sent to me to possibly do the video and I had never heard it before. I was in a car in Sweden and just popped in a CD. That song was amazing from the first time I heard it. It just stuck with me. It became the theme song for me and my wife.

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