Interview: Director Mat Whitecross on the Paradise video
10 November 2011 9:11 pm
Mat tells us the inside story on the video he made with the elephants...
Hi Mat, how are you?
I’m good, thanks. Although I’m in the process of packing to move house, which isn’t much fun.
So, the Paradise video. How did you come to direct it?
Well, I think there were a couple of other attempts at videos which didn’t quite work out, for whatever reason.
And you’re the emergency number for last-minute Coldplay videos?
I think I must be! The video hotline! I got a call from Chris, who was in South Africa, at just after midnight. He just said, “What are you up to?” And weirdly I was in the middle of cutting some live footage for them for something else, so I said, “Well actually, I’m working for you.” He was like, “OK, is there any chance you might be able to hop on a plane to South Africa tomorrow morning?” And, weirdly, I had a clear week until starting work properly on the Spike Island film I’m working on.
So you said yes?
I asked him what it was for. He said they had a bit of a video emergency and needed to make a video for Paradise within the next day or two. He asked if I could come up with an idea in the next couple of hours, then let him know what the idea was and get on a plane to South Africa in the morning to make it. They had two days off and they wanted to shoot it during those.
I know! But on every single video we’ve done, I think it’s been pretty last minute, so I suppose I’m used to it. This did take that to a new level, though. The video for Paradise was already two weeks overdue and we still didn’t know what the idea was. So I sat down for a couple of hours trying to come up with an idea, which felt quite tricky under that pressure! I wrote down a couple of ideas and emailed them to Chris. And just as I pressed Send, I got the longest text I’ve ever had in my life.
Yes. It was about 400 lines long and it was saying, “Don’t worry about it, I’ve come up with the idea, I’m going to dress up as an elephant on a unicycle. You need to bring four elephant suits and a unicycle with you”. And then he fleshed out the story. He seemed to have it all in his head already. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if he was winding me up. I knew he was jetlagged. So I texted back asking if he was serious, and he replied saying he totally was.
So then you had to find a unicycle and four elephant suits, in a hurry?
Exactly. We had the whole Coldplay team helping out - Vicki and EJ and Phil - just trying to get hold of everything and, of course, the plane tickets to South Africa. I called up Chris Ross, a really good friend of mine who shot Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll and asked if he was available to get on a plane with me in four hours’ time. Luckily, he’d just had a shoot postponed in Manchester, so he was able to come. We got a lot of weird looks in customs because of the elephant suits.
Where did you get those from in the end?
Well, I’d kind of imagined it would be quite a sophisticated, realistic elephant suit. I’ve worked with this guy who does special effects and prosthetics, so I rang him and asked if he could design an elephant’s head that looks real and beautiful and everything. He said, “Sure, that’ll probably take about two months to build, how long have you got?” So I was like, “Um, about three hours. I’m on my way to the airport now.”
What did you do?
EJ had found this suit on the internet and Chris sent over a pic. I was like, “Don’t be ridiculous! That’s totally naff!” But he was convinced it was perfect. Which is when I realised he wanted it to look as lo-fi and spontaneous as possible. So we bought that one from a costumes website. We managed to hire the one Guy was wearing - which was a bit more expensive - and even though it’s much better quality, it is actually far less expressive.
And Chris rode the unicycle himself, right?
Yes. I’d asked him about finding a local unicyclist and he said that he’d done it as a kid, so he’d do it. He hadn’t done it for 20 years, but he seemed to think it’d be like getting back on a bike. Even if he was dressed as an elephant. So we drove out into the middle of the savanna and he got on the unicycle and I was ready for him to fall on his arse and that be the end of the video! But he was amazing. The rest of the crew were still setting up somewhere else, so me and Chris just started filming.
A lot of people have assumed it wasn’t Chris the whole time.
Oh it totally was. There was definitely something quite perverse about having one of the most recognisable faces in music covered up by an elephant’s head. I kept asking if he could take the head off from time to time to make it clear that it was him, but he was really reluctant. He said the whole point was that people couldn’t see it was him. But I told him that some people would just assume he was too busy to film the video. Eventually, after a lot of persuading, me and Phil managed to get him to take it off for one shot, which is the one in the video.
But at all other times in the video, it is him?
Yes. He insisted on it being him. I kept telling him that nobody would ever know if it wasn’t, and he just said, “I’ll know”! So, yeah, he did the whole thing. Even when we did the bits back in London on the tube, that was all him.
How did people react to that?
Well, in classic style, Londoners are too cool for school, so they mainly refused to acknowledge that they were sitting next to an elephant on the tube or that there was a camera pointing at them. He was sat next to a nun at one point. She never once looked over, but when she got up to get off she came past and said, “I really hope I haven’t ruined your film.”
Was the plan always for it to be in South Africa and London?
Yeah. Chris’s idea was always that it was about an elephant that escaped from the zoo to go and meet its mates.
Which zoo did you film it in?
Weirdly enough, we found this place called Paradise Wildlife Park, which was just outside London and filmed it there.
Are you pleased with the video?
I really am. And the response has been fantastic. It was so nice to do something that fast with so little thought. It was like being back at college. When we were at uni together, if they’d recorded a track, me and Chris would literally go out that evening and I’d film him doing things like messing about in a supermarket trolley or something and then we’d cut the video the next day. When we did that, we’d just be coming up with ideas while we were filming. With proper music videos these days, everything is much more planned in advance. So it was nice to go back to literally making it up as we went along.
And the rest of the band were involved too?
Totally. Bless them, they had one day off in South Africa and we drove for three hours into the middle of nowhere, got to the spot I’d picked the day before only to be told we weren’t allowed to film there, so we got back in the car and drove for another 90 minutes until we’d almost lost the sunlight. They never once went, “Hang on, you’ve dragged us out here, driving for four and a half hours, and you’re not even going to show our faces?” They seemed to be really into it.
And, as you say, the response to the video has been great.
It does seem to have been.
A lot of people seem to have had a very emotional response to it too. There’s been plenty of talk of tears.
Aw, that’s nice. It’s definitely nice to have done something nobody else has. We were slightly worried that U2 might post a video of giraffes on pedaloes just before us, but luckily not. I think Coldplay sometimes get accused of taking themselves too seriously. They do take their music incredibly seriously, but they really don’t take themselves seriously. I think it was just nice for them to have a bit of a laugh. It was like being back at college for them. But that band dynamic still comes across, I think.
So it all sounds like quite an adventure for you.
It really was. At first, I thought there was no pressure, because it was all so last-minute that even if we’d completely cocked it up, it wouldn’t have made that much difference. But when you’re out there, you realise you don’t want to let them down.We had a lot of fun making it, but we had to make sure that the finished video was good too.
Which, happily, it was.
Thanks man. It was certainly an experience. Like, the bit where the elephant is dancing in front of a graffiti wall is in a really, really rough area of Cape Town. The security couldn’t believe we were out there, but Chris just put on the elephant suit and did his thing. And we turned up at that bike shop literally five minutes before we started shooting and asked the guy who was fixing the bikes if he’d be in the video. He was really shy, but he got more and more into it. It wasn’t until Chris took his head off that they all realised who it was. They’d even been to the gig. So, yeah, it was fun, man. It’d be nice to try and make something else in a similar way some day.
Finally, who played the zoo keepers in the video?
Well, we auditioned over a hundred actors for the part, but inevitably nepotism won the day and Chris plumped for Coldplay's fifth band member Phil Harvey and Tim Crompton from The High Wire. He'd been impressed by their hip thrusting Elvis impersonations on Christmas Lights, as well as their punctuality. But above all they were willing to work for free. The original intention had been to reunite them with Simon Pegg, but sadly the Tintin megastar's monstrous ego and unreasonable rider demands made this all but impossible.
Coldplay's new album, Mylo Xyloto, is out now - get it from iTunes at cldp.ly/itunescp