Ahead of the release of the A Head Full Of Dreams documentary, we caught up with its director, Mat Whitecross, about making the film and meeting the band two decades ago.
Hi Mat. You must be pleased with the response of the fans to the announcement of the A Head Full Of Dreams film?
It’s a bit like whenever we do a music video together, I feel really moved by everyone’s enthusiasm and then I remember it’s nothing to do with me, it’s to do with the band!
Well, it is a *bit* to do with you!
Thank you. But, yeah, the response has been incredible. We’ve been working on this film slightly undercover of darkness for many years now, so finally getting it out there and having people respond the way they have responded is great. I hoped people would be excited by it, but you never know when you work on anything and you’re always in a tiny bubble. But it’s been lovely, I think Coldplay fans’ enthusiasm and passion for the band is amazing.
The trailer does a great job of capturing the spirit of the film in just a couple of minutes.
It’s interesting because Phil [Harvey] really got involved in making the trailer. He gets involved with anything that the band does, obviously, but he was particularly anxious that the trailer should be as good as it can possibly be. Part of my brain was thinking that it was just a trailer and we needed to concentrate on the film, but we spent a long time going through different versions of the trailer. I think partly it was because this was the announcement and fanfare for the film, but also he said as a side note that this is the only bit of the film that Chris is ever going to see. So there was another imperative to get it as good as it could be, so that Chris felt enthused by it and didn’t feel he’d made a mistake in trusting us to tell this story.
So as we stand, Chris has still not seen the film?
Yeah, my understanding is that he will never watch it. But who knows, in 20 years he might finally crack and watch it. But he got a bunch of people he trusted to see it on his behalf. It’s funny, because I’ve known him for a long time and his mind works in unusual and fascinating ways and he kind of decided – which I think was very brave and admirable – that Phil primarily, but also his family and friends and me were going to have to decide this one for ourselves. As he says in the film, “If I actually get my hands on it, I’ll chop myself out of it and it’ll never come out”. At certain points I think the rest of the band did want him to watch it, but I think it’s amazing that he said, “Do you know what, I’m just going to trust everyone else. If you guys think it represents us and our story, then that’s what it is.”
Can you understand why he feels that way?
Sure. I don’t read reviews of films I work on any more. Whatever they say, you only ever believe the bad press. And I think Chris is the same. So I completely understand where he’s coming from. But I suspect with my sense of curiosity, if I was him I would probably crack at some point.
Perhaps everyone at a cinema screening on Wednesday should keep an eye out for a tall English guy in a trench coat and sunglasses.
Haha, exactly! You never know. But for a long time he was adamant this film would never come out. Every time we discussed it, he said we’d only make a film like this when we’d officially retired and we were all sitting on our porches in our rocking chairs. I think there’s part of his brain that thinks if you look back, then it’s over. It took me, Phil and the rest of the band to politely twist his arm for a while.
Why did you disagree? Why is now a good time for a film?
Well, purely for selfish reasons most of the time! I really wanted to tell that story. And I just realised that after each album, Chris has a mental process where he kind of has to feel like that’s the last thing he’ll ever do. And if he doesn’t put every single last ounce of passion and graft into it, then what was the point? So he’s empty at the end of it. Then suddenly a few months later he starts getting the itch again. But every time they’ve finished an album in the past, they’d have that moment where they’d say “Well maybe this is it”. And I’d say, “Well if you genuinely feel that way, then maybe it’s time to look back?”.
So what happened to finally make them agree to it?
I was in the middle of finishing Supersonic [the Oasis documentary Mat also directed] when Phil asked me to come out to the US and film a Coldplay show for a live stream that was being shown in China and the Philippines. We got out there and shot the gigs and I was cutting Supersonic inbetween backstage. Chris was looking over my shoulder, because he knows Noel and Liam, slightly sniffing around. It wasn’t quite finished but we ended up organising a screening the next day with the band. Everyone really liked it and that was when Phil said, “Well maybe it’s time to tell our story”.
You must’ve been pleased with the response to Supersonic?
Yeah, that was amazing. It was a film that we didn’t really know what we were making when we went into it, other than that Noel [Gallagher] wanted to make something. There was no remit and people didn’t really know when we were making it. So when it came out and there was that lovely response to it, that was really nice.
Did your experience with Coldplay help inform the Oasis film and vice versa?
Definitely. Having been around Coldplay so long, I’d got a good sense of what band dynamics were like. You probably couldn’t find two more different bands than Oasis and Coldplay, but in both cases they weren’t really sure what story they thought we should tell. With Coldplay, because none of them have wrapped guitars around each other’s heads, or physically attacked each other – at least not recently – I think Chris was worried that there wasn’t enough story. And I think the rest of the band had a similar attitude. They’re not chasing the limelight in the way that other bands are.
Have Jonny, Will and Guy seen it?
They were, again, slightly reluctant – whenever I’d talk to Jonny about it he’d be like, “Oh God, I hate seeing myself in these things” – but in the end they did. Liam loved watching the Oasis film and was inviting lots of different friends to see it, but Coldplay have a very different attitude to celebrity and stardom. But, yes, the films definitely informed each other. From making the Oasis one, I felt confident that we’d find a story in the Coldplay one even though we didn’t know quite what it was in the beginning.
How would you summarise the Coldplay film in a few lines?
For me it’s a story about love and friendship and how that affects you over the years. The ups and downs. And I think increasingly as I get older I feel like that’s a really important and worthwhile story to tell. It’s not as sexy a subject as drugs and groupies and angst and anguish, but I think the reality is that is most people’s lives. And I find it very moving to see those early childhood images and then to see them now and how they’ve evolved. You look at those videos of them when they were a struggling band and you see them now, it’s an amazing journey to have been on. So for me I think that was the main thing. That’s why it’s a compelling story to tell.
You also directed the upcoming Live In São Paulo concert film, which is your first time at the helm of a Coldplay concert film.
It is! Which was a real honour. I thought that we were only making one film so it was a real treat and hopefully a surprise for the fans that we actually ended up doing two. I watch a lot of live films and I really love them and there was something special about this particular tour. I’ve never seen gigs like that. It was almost like a spiritual thing. People could walk in with a cynical heart if they’d been dragged there by their partner or something, but by the end they’d be in tears and getting themselves a Coldplay tattoo on the way home!
It’s quite a big responsibility to try to capture the power of those shows for a television screen, though.
No, it really is like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. But we deliberately shot footage for the documentary and the concert film in Argentina and Brazil, where the fans are so amazing. And I’ve never seen the band go out and give it less than 100%. They just throw themselves into every show in a way that I’ve never seen from other bands. They feel a responsibility to their fans. Even when were lining the cameras up to film, the band would take show real concern that nothing would interfere with the fans’ enjoyment of the show by getting their view blocked.
Do you remember when you first met the band?
I remember meeting Chris, Jonny and Will in the first week at university. Probably the first day that I arrived in the halls of residence, actually. I wouldn’t necessarily have known they were going to be friends of mine for life. I remember it was impossible to avoid Chris. He was this amazing, gangly, energetic figure who was running around and he was immediately everyone’s best mate. He was shaking people’s hands and telling them what he was up to. He was into music and always asking questions and showing interest in what you were doing.
And you became friends immediately?
Well, he was so lovely and brimming with enthusiasm that I wondered if it was some kind of act. I really loved it, but I remember wondering what the real him was like. But he is like that. That’s the real him. I think he did polarise people, though. There were people who he rubbed up the wrong way. It’s quite an un-British thing to open your heart to other people like that when you’ve only just met them. But he did that from the first time I met them.
And he was already playing music?
Yes. I remember in the first few weeks I was heading to one of my lectures and he bumped into me in a corridor and he had his guitar out. He grabbed me and dragged me into one of these communal bathrooms they had, which had big tubs in the middle of them. He got me in there so we had some privacy and sat me at one end of the bath, fully clothed I should add, and he played this beautiful, melancholic acoustic song which I’d never heard before or since, and he probably only played that day. But it was incredible.
Yeah, it really blew me away. He said “What do you think?” and I said, “Who wrote it?”. I couldn’t believe he had. It seemed far too accomplished. And he told me it was him and I said it was stunning. And he had a moment of soaking that up and listening to me, but then he was like, “I knew it. It’s fucking shit. I’m talentless.” And that’s still him. He hasn’t changed. To this day he still does that! He can’t accept a compliment.
Totally. There was a scene in the film that we ended up cutting because there wasn’t really enough time, where he presents a new song to the rest of the band and it’s beautiful. It’s something that he’s come up with in the moment in the middle of a jamming session on stage during soundcheck. He runs back and starts playing it to them and they all jam along and I was thinking, “Wow, I’ve just seen a song being born” and at the end, the rest of the band start looking at their watches because it’s time to get ready for the show and Chris immediately channels that and says, “Oh God I knew it, it’s shit. Sorry for wasting your time”. So he’s changed immensely – they all have – but at the same time they haven’t changed a bit. I find that fascinating.
Obviously you’ve filmed them A LOT and not everything could make it into the film.
Yeah, I think we had over 1,000 hours of footage. Which is crazy. There was barely enough time to watch it all, let alone edit it. We could’ve made a mini series. In fact, we did actually consider that at one point. But I think Phil particularly thought it should be concise. He and Chris have a watchword that they shouldn’t waste anybody’s time, and that albums should be short. They’ll cut amazing songs to avoid having some kind of bloated epic double album. So, yeah, there was a ton of stuff and me and my small team just all sat down and waded through it.
Were there any limits on what you could use?
Phil said that he knew the band would feel slightly anxious about any footage from the early years making it out, because as with everyone we all had dodgy haircuts and were wearing student-y clothes and looking slightly gawky. He said to send him the worst stuff I had, the bits where we’re really spotty and look like we’ve slept in a skip and said he’d show some of that to the band. And then if they like it, maybe it’s time to do the film. So I sent him a couple of clips – one of which was that moment of Chris talking to camera and uncannily predicting their future success almost to the day – and I immediately got a call from him saying, “Thank God you’ve shown me these! Please burn all those tapes and never show them to anyone!”
What made him change his mind?
Well, about a week or two later, he said he was scanning through that bit of footage on his laptop and Chris happened to be passing and saw it over his shoulder, and he watched these supposedly embarrassing clips and said, “This is great! Have you got any more of that?”. So Phil then felt maybe he didn’t need to be as protective.
Did you originally start filming them just because you were a wannabe film-maker? Were you filming everyone?
Yeah, pretty much. They were all my friends. I really love music, so even though I don’t think I’ve got the genes or the talent or the guts to be a musician myself, I’ve always loved being around musicians. And there were a lot of musicians in that first year – friends like Kris Williams and Tim Crompton started bands too – and I filmed everyone.
And you kept it all?
Well it was tricky because none of us had a huge amount of money, so I had five tapes that I would just use and reuse. I’m sure I must’ve taped over some gold dust or lost tapes along the way. But God bless [Coldplay crew member / documentarian] Miller, when the band were on their rise I gave him all my stuff and he kept it and preserved it. I think somewhere in London he’s got a Raiders of the Lost Ark lockup which has got everything in it. I think I’d have probably lost them by now if he hadn’t taken them on.
Ah, so that’s how they’ve survived!
Yeah. And some other stuff was in my mum’s attic. And Kris Williams had shot a bunch of stuff, and a bunch of friends along the way had taken photos. And obviously Debs had taken pictures and people like you had done interviews, and all these people had collected things along the way.
And did you know Coldplay were destined for big things?
At the time, I would move from thinking they would be the biggest band in the world, to thinking Kris Williams’ band would be, to thinking no, this is never gonna happen for any of us and we’ll all end up working in 7-Eleven. It wasn’t like everyone knew that Coldplay would be the band that would make it, or that any of them would. They all had the talent. But you start to realise that it’s not just talent you need, but it’s drive and luck and the stars aligning at a particular moment in time.
It’s amazing to have been on that whole journey with the band.
Totally. And they’ve evolved so much. I think they often get flak because they’re a big band as if that’s something to be ashamed of, but I think that every single album that they’ve released has been experimental, but in a very different way to other bands. They somehow manage to just land on their feet in a big way that captures people’s imagination. But I don’t think they’re any less experimental than a band like Radiohead. They just do it in a different way.
So, what are you hoping people will take away from the film?
At the moment, it feels to me like we’re living through quite bleak times. There’s a lot of stuff happening in the world that makes me pretty depressed – with the rise of the right and what’s happening in terms of different governments around the world, but actually I feel like there is also a lot of cause for optimism. And every time I see something that makes me depressed, I listen to music or I hang out with my family and my friends. These things give me cause for optimism. And I feel the same way about Coldplay. I get a euphoric feeling from hanging out with them or seeing them live and from their music. And I hope people might take something of that mood from the film as well. There’s an amazing coming together of different people at every single Coldplay gig and that’s kind of how the film ends, with Chris’s message that there’s more that unites us than divides us. That’s a lovely sentiment in this day and age.
And now that the film is done, does that mean you can finally stop filming them?
Haha! Well they haven’t asked me back yet. But, no, I’d love it if we can keep on doing this for the rest of our lives from time to time. I’m sure after me having hounded them for this last twenty years and breathing down their necks on this tour – along with Miller and [cinematographer] Marcus Haney – for a big chunk of it, I’m sure they could do with some time off. But you never know what’ll happen next.
So we could see part two in another 20 years?
Sure. I’d definitely be up for it. They have an amazing ability to surprise their fans and the world around them. I don’t know what they’re cooking up yet, but I bet it’ll be different and I bet it’ll be amazing. So I’ll happily be there with my camera!
If you'd like to keep right up to date with all the latest Coldplay news, gigs, releases and competitions then sign up to our mailing list and we'll be in touch.