Phil Harder: Low doesn't really react strongly to anything
Photo by Andy Grund
Starting with a frozen Lake Superior in 1993, renowned director Philip Harder has captured the 20 years of Low in music videos and short films. With his 16mm camera -- even through the digital years -- Harder filmed Low in color-coded films with recurring visual themes in -30 degree wind-chill weather, in a warehouse filled with slowly falling heavy objects, beneath historic bridges and railroads, and even in a bank transformed into the "Canadian Border."
From the band's extremely quiet beginnings at the height of loud grunge, Low's minimalist music with a slow build completely informed and transformed Harder's filmmaking approach and techniques. He moved from the innumerable hard, fast rock and punk videos he produced for MTV and record labels since 1985 to his signature visual storytelling via short films, his gorgeously textured, at times archival-looking cinematography reflecting his passion for foreign films.
For Low Movie (How to Quit Smoking), Harder dug up raw footage and outtakes from his vast collection of 16mm film, much of which has never been seen -- even by Low. In the 70-minute film, Harder recreated some of the videos by reassembling new material with old. He wove in Polaroids and photos taken from the '90s on by Tom Herbers, Low's lone sound engineer over nearly all of their years.
Gimme Noise caught up with Harder before tonight's screening of his movie at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival.
Gimme Noise: How did you meet Low and begin doing their videography?
Phil Harder: I was a music video director and the label contacted me because I lived in proximity to Low -- Minneapolis, Duluth -- the label was from New York. They didn't know who to hire and I came recommended so they went with it.
What was your initial idea for this film?
Because I've worked with Low since before their first record and continued to work with them over the years, it started to make sense that maybe there was a collection that could be put together.
I don't know any other band that has had the same filmmaker for that long a period of time. A lot of bands have been around that long and could compile their footage -- it's been done. But this is coming from one director. So this is not only the style of Low's unique music, but the style that goes with one filmmaker over their 20 years. Not only did they start really young, and mature over two decades, I was also doing the same thing, along with them.
Sometimes with a music video we end up using a fraction of what we shot. In some cases we had this extra footage and it became this segue film. One was the video for "Shame," in 1995. We had a guy walking around trying to hand out red balloons, and that became a short film. We went to the raw footage for the performance of "Shame," and we found a take that we had cut up originally for the music video that was a stream of takes through the whole song. We ended up re-cutting the music video with one shot. It's manipulated ways to discover new things with old footage. We also shot new things.
At one point I went to Duluth and did an acoustic performance with Al for "Death of a Salesman," black and white 16mm. I just wanted something very intimate, very simple, not conceptual -- that song clip ended up being the opening of Low Movie, mainly shot in the same way as some of the intimate performances.
More ideas came about to add to all the music videos. In 2009 I was in the Netherlands, and Low was playing in Eindhoven, and so I thought I'd shoot that as well. I got that footage back and turned them into a couple of live clips with some great concepts and animation going on too. We continued to make music videos all the way up to this year, with the new video -- it's not even out yet -- for the song, "Just Make It Stop."
How did you create the time-lapse photography of grass and ferns unfurling?
I used an animator from Seattle, Britta Johnson. She did that animation and created a tornado out of cotton balls and a wire, with a super-8 for a different Low clip. A lot of these clips evolve. We also wanted to add sound as much as possible and find the old sound tapes. In the early 2000s we started adding some audio, just little spoken intros to videos and stuff like that. They became good storytelling elements.
The storytelling in your videos is quite dark and grim, fitting for the music. Do you come up with the story around their music? Or do you collaborate with Low members on what the story and environment will be?
Sometimes it's collaboration. Sometimes its completely Low's idea. Other times it's my idea. For "Just Make It Stop," I wrote an email to them, which they liked, and is the idea that we shot. That's 2013. But if you go all the way back to "Words," the first video, I do recall writing them an elaborate treatment that they rejected. Al said, "I just want to have the band pushing a boat around on frozen Lake Superior." They knew their music, so it's like, "Well... "
Low were really experimenting with minimalism and when they came out, it was such a different sound compared to what was happening back then, like Sub Pop, Nirvana, all this loud stuff. They came out with this super quiet music but it had a lot of power, this building quiet, which needed images that weren't filling your face, I think. More subtle, longer takes, experimenting with that quiet Low build that they had in their earlier songs.
That's also why I thought this film would be cool, because it was something new back then to me. I grew as a filmmaker with the help of their music. With it I developed a new style. The first video really got a lot of attention because it was such an opposite look and an opposite sound.
What else do you remember about that first video?
The first one was black and white because I was using this weird titling film that's obsolete they used to use for title cards on film. It was high-contrast film that would either shoot black or white with titles on them. I also found if you shoot outside, it's a very slow film, so it made all the footage on the lake look really bizarre, like an old silent film.
When I was shooting on the lake it was so cold I could only shoot for a few takes because I didn't realize my batteries in the camera would slow down due to the cold. We'd do two really long takes; they were slow slow slow and almost stop. I thought I'd better cut it before it comes to a halt, put in a new battery and then go again.
When I got the footage back it's like this strange footage seemed to be shocked by the cold, it's so grainy and when the camera's slowing down like that the film got brighter and brighter and brighter till it did a complete whiteout. I saw the raw footage and thought, "This is great! This is really cool!"
Because my fingers were so cold, I'd loaded the 16mm camera wrong in the first reel and put this big nasty snatch in it. It was just miserable on the lake, wind chill 30 below zero and when I downloaded the first roll of film, I dumped all this film emulsion dust out of the camera. It had been rubbing on something it shouldn't have been so there's this black scratch that comes and goes.
Everything was going wrong. At one point Al slipped and knocked himself out on the ice, because the wind was blowing and it was really slick. I finally brought the film in to the colorist where we do the video colorization -- the first few frames were just white. We went in further and went, "Oh no ... I just shot a video that was completely overexposed to the max and it's ruined."
But the colorist from Crash and Sues in Minneapolis started to pull the exposure down, down, down. In this process the lake started to show up and she kept going darker and darker until you started to see this black boat show up in this weird exposure on a white lake with corners of the film exposed looking like waves coming in. It really looked like some kind of weird silent film! It was just this combination of mistakes and accidents that you couldn't make happen.
As Low progressed they started to eventually turn up the volume -- Al turned up more and more. By the mid-2000s, they were quite loud in some cases. I think they've gone back to being quieter again almost 10 years later.
How does your video work with infuse your work with other artists?
A lot of the clips I shot myself, with16mm. It makes you think about the frame, the image. The boat across the frozen lake... there's only so much you can do with it. So then it's a lot about the mood and the cinematography. It affected my cinematography a lot. Trying to be patient. Allowing long takes, allowing something to happen within the take.
With the second video "Shame," we just did a very long take where the camera came in to Mimi singing with the band. I was trying out some slow-motion thing that gives it a surreal feel, and they just stepped on the dolly I was riding on and rode along with me. She's floating above this party. It sounds like an odd idea, but when you put it to Low's music it becomes quite magical. I found, just let the music drive the visuals.
The song "In Metal," when Mimi sings about not wanting the baby to grow up, there's a beautiful montage of a child growing up. Was your son in part of the video?
Yeah. I actually shot Mimi singing the song. The footage on 16mm film is of my own son, every birthday for like 16 years, I shoot a couple rolls of silent color16mm. It seemed the right concept to put her singing with quickly a fast-forward of day one to about 13 years in, all in a matter of about one minute. "In Metal" is obviously about her own child, but it relates to any kid. It's the idea is that she wished that the child could stay young forever. "In metal" being casting the baby's shoes in metal.
Spending 20 years working with them, do you tour with them?
No, but Tom Herbers does, their sound engineer. He met them on a film short I was doing in 1994. Low came into his studio, watched the film, and played along with it live. That became the soundtrack for that film short and he's been working with them ever since. He goes everywhere with them. He supplied a whole history of photos of the band on the road and we're added several of these photos that were all added by Tom.
How do you tell such a rich story in a short period of time?
There's an interesting story about the "Monkey" video. I started out with an idea they'd be playing in the middle of a road at nighttime in a lonely wooded area. Cars would come and drive right through them. We'd do a dissolve so they'd be these ghosts on the highway.
As we started shooting I thought, "I'm a little tired of that idea already." We continued to shoot them on the road but that night I thought, "How about an alien abduction? That would be even more spooky." But because the video was being shot the next day I didn't really have time to approach the band, "Hey, you wanna do an alien abduction scene?" I didn't know if they'd like it and change it, so I just shot the video the way I'd told them we would and at one point we blew a lot of wind on them. I shot these bright lights and told them to look up at the lights while you're playing. They're like, "Why should we look up at these bright lights?" I'm like, "Oh it will look cool. Just try it." So we have these shots of them looking up at bright lights with a lot of wind blowing. They had no idea what it was for, maybe a fashion style shoot or something. Later we added in the huge alien spaceship hovering over them. I think they were a little surprised when they saw the video.
What was their reaction?
Well, Low doesn't really react strongly to anything. The first time I met them, at a record store in Duluth, the bass player and Al when they'd look up from their shoes -- "When do you want to shoot?" "Ah, anytime, whatever." Casually. That's kind of their reaction ever since. Kind of like, "Hmm, I wasn't expecting alien abduction, but yeah, okay. That's cool!"
Have they ever wanted to change a video or turn down something?
Only the first music video. That got rejected and they introduced the minimal idea of the boat. I took my cue after that, trying to keep it minimal. They've never rejected anything since.
Sometimes they come up with a small idea and I enhance it. With the "Canada" video they said they wanted to have it be like "How many circus clowns can you fit in a car?" Al wanted it to be all the band's equipment at the Canadian border because the song's called "Canada." It was around 9/11, so there was a lot of paranoia at the time. The Canadian officials search their van and take out everything, over and over and they have to perform at the American/Canadian border.
In that video I was pulling in things from other videos even way back in 2002 -- they were pulling out the balloons, the boat. I was already kind of thinking there might be some kind of collection someday. So I often tied things together if I could, and also tried within reason to use some color-coding for each video.
Not only was I finding new ways to shoot but also new ways to edit. By the second video I choreographed it. The second video we made red, the third video, "Over the Ocean," we used a bluish set and put on a blue filter. For "Canada," I told the colorist to make it yellow ... we keep moving forward in colors. The most recent one is green. It's the mood of the song.
We weren't able to do it all the time, because the song "Everybody's Song," that is an iPod rip-off uses every color mentioned. At one point that was going to be the last video, the last film. But Low put out more songs, and I'd make more videos and we kept going.
I ditched "Everybody's Song" and brought it back out because I got hired to do the iPod commercial. It will be released for the first time in the movie. Some videos were never finished. That was shot the day after "Monkey" but we never finished it, it was just some footage lying around. Same with "Cue the Strings" -- that wasn't edited until seven years after we shot it. Probably most of those have never been released.
What were you working on for music videos before you began working on Low's?
Prior to that time period of the '80s and early '90s I only did independent music videos. They would be played on MTV's 120 Minutes at 11 p.m. I was getting more and more videos on MTV all the time and became known as an independent video director of indie music, which started kind of punk and grew into the grunge thing.
A huge change happened with Low -- it was a different style of music for me. It was still an independent record label and Low was an unknown band and it was just a progression, the music, the style of filmmaking changed for me. I think also because I'm a very avid foreign film fan, I never got much of a chance to do something like that with these loud, fast films, but Low gave me the opportunity to do that. I'd been watching these endless amounts of indie foreign films from an earlier era and it seemed familiar to me to do the first film in that style.
What was the brief punk rock section in Low Movie?
That was Low doing a joke show, covering some of their songs in Misfits style. It was some added live songs on a compilation CD they put out. For a Christmas show for fans in Duluth they played all their songs as though they were the Misfits. The songs were each about a minute long. We shot this one in about 30 seconds.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I'm hoping for Low fans, who not only get to see all this footage they've never seen, all put together in one film, but also people who want to see that relationship between filmmaker, band, and the continuation of the same idea, year after year, for two decades. I think that's part of the story as well. It's not only Low's story, but how we've worked together all those years. The other thing is the fact I was there before they put out their first record -- I didn't miss any part of it.
Low Movie (How to Quit Smoking). World Premiere Screening at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. April 12, 6:30 p.m. St. Anthony Main, 115 Southeast Main Street. Click here.
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