"The vocal glides gracefully between recognizable language and fluent Bongolese -- semilinguistic scat forming temporary bridges over lyrical gaps."
-- Brian Eno
A Conversation with Catherine Owens
December 22, 2011
As part of our celebration of the 20th anniversary of Achtung Baby, we published a Q-&-A with Catherine Owens, who directed U23D, the groundbreaking live concert 3-D film that U2 released in 2008 following the Vertigo tour. She continues to work with the band to help shape their tours and visual identity. Here is the rest of our interview with her.
What are your thoughts on U23D, and will the band release it for home use?
Three-D technology is extraordinary and I'm constantly updating myself, which we always did with U2. We worked with some very primitive technology with U23D, although at the time it was so far ahead. But now it's vastly simplified and far more cost-effective. We did things you can't do today because the technology has moved on in such an automated way. Basically we made the equivalent of a haute couture handmade piece of jewelry. You just can't do that today because there isn't the time and there isn't the money and nobody would be foolish enough to do it. There are some things you're just never going to get that we got on that film, which is probably why people keep going back and saying, "Oh my gosh, it's so beautiful." It was literally hand-stitched together frame by frame by frame.
It will eventually come out on home video. Bono laughingly has sort of said he wants to put it in every dorm room. But there is no point in doing that because it would just languish as "That film that came out 10 years ago." When the home market, especially for 3-D, is big online and on the iPad and phone, there will be a reason to rerelease it in that format. I think rightfully so. There's money to be made when that moment happens and there's no reason to have that happen before. I think it will happen, but I think it will have its natural moment.
You have worked with the band on their tours since Zoo TV. What are your thoughts about the 360 tour?
One idea on the last tour, on 360, with Bono, we were talking about his conversations during the show. I said, "I think maybe let's give your main conversation over to someone else on this tour." He said, "What do you mean? Wow, I can stop talking? Tell me, what can I do?" I said maybe we should invite somebody else to speak through the screen. It's all going to be about the screen. That's a platform for a beacon. I think the single most important living person who totally does as he speaks and puts his money where his mouth is is Desmond Tutu. I think he's the last in the line of true, true advocates and I'm not sure if we're going to ever see somebody like him again. I think we should have him more in the show. Bono's like, "Oh, we have to have Desmond in the show." OK, who do we call? "OK, I know the person." And the next thing you know we're in London shooting Desmond Tutu. He was beautiful, he's really lovely.
So it's the fact that you can say something, and in a nanosecond it becomes a reality and the next thing you know it's there. That is at the core of who U2 are. It's about no compromise and not taking no for an answer. It doesn't matter how high the bar is. Another example is Maya Angelou, who graciously allowed us to use a piece of her work for the "Your Blue Room" video piece we called "space junk." And I'm not kidding you when I say this: Bono and I talked about the concept on a Monday, on a Wednesday we had a test and he needed it to be approved by Friday for a show in Boston. And within that time it was confirmed. There's a lot of good will out there for them. You pick up the phone and go for it.
I stepped away from the tour at the beginning of the last round (early 2011). I'm in love with 3-D and some very exciting things are going on for me there. To work with U2 it is devotion. That takes a lot of energy. So I needed to redirect that energy.
Bono feels like these kinds of things aren't necessarily great, when people say, "I'm going to change now and go over here and do this." He feels like that is the end of certain conversations, which I do agree (with). But at the same time, things change.
Up until the 360 tour, the band poured over each and every item, as they do on everything. 360 became a very different kind of animal. It just became so huge. There were a lot of staffing changes that precluded the same kind of intimacy that we would have had before. But times change and things change and people move on. So we had a very good long run being pretty extraordinarily creative.
How do you feel you've contributed to the band over time?
My primary relationship with U2 is really my friendship with Adam that we've had since we were 18 that we have to this day. He is a person who I'm quite sure I'm going to know forever and a day. We have a separate conversation all related to art. He's a fantastic art aficionado and has a beautiful art collection. We spend long hours talking about art and concepts and the meaning of things, different artists' work. Adam's quite fascinating.
Within the U2 touring structure is the conceptual conversation. I have a really extraordinary relationship with Bono and have had for many years. I feel like I am able to give him a layer and a level to his thinking that allows me to do what I do best, and that's to be a conceptual thinker. That allows us to have a joint conversation that feeds both of us to a very interesting degree. He is one of the most extraordinary minds I've ever met. He trusts my vision, so I know when I come to him and say, "I've had an idea," he's like, "OK, what's that idea?" And when he'll say something to me like, "Well Catherine, I'm thinking about you because I …," I'm going to be jumping up and down because I know he has something amazing cooked up.
I think my contribution is that I've been very good support structure for some extraordinary music and some extraordinary concepts. And I'm not sure that that particular conversation could be replicated because it's more to do with the history of knowing people well. I know how he thinks, so I know when he goes into that place of like, "Oh my gosh, this is never going to work," I know that yes, it is going to work. Whereas somebody else might think if he (Bono) doesn't think it's going to work, I've failed.
What is your favorite U2 album?
My favorite album is Pop. I remember when I heard the song "Please," it was most extraordinary. I also love "If You Wear That Velvet Dress." It's a stunning song for me because it's slightly more esoteric. They put every single ounce of grit in that album. To me it's the perfect combination of who U2 were and are. It's unfortunate that that show (PopMart) went out without the necessary kind of preparation. I think it was a very ambitious gamble. I don't think critics really understood what they had on their hands. They were way ahead of their time. Many people who ever worked with U2 said that was their best show.
You also directed U2's video for "Original Of The Species." What was that like?
They were a little unsure about the ending. But I said, "No, your fans are going to love it." Three of them were fathers and they are all gorgeous. That's really a special video for all of us. It was our first attempt at motion capture. To me their songs are so divine and I think they're divine. That hasn't changed in all the years I've been working with them. I think that song captures that. And U23D captures their divinity. Every now and then you want that to seep through and not just show the big tough guy thing.
You played in a girl band, The Boy Scoutz, at the same time U2 were coming up in Dublin. What was that like?
It was a great way to meet the bass players. There weren't that many girls hanging out at the gigs at the time. The Boomtown Rats were big and U2 were coming up and there were a bunch of really great Irish bands. I think a few of us (girls) just said, 'You know, we want to contribute. We don't just want to be hanging out. We want to be part of this.' So we bought ourselves a couple of guitars and found a drummer and started rehearsing. We went to one of the girls' houses and suddenly it was like, wow, there were gigs. We were positively terrible.
Are there any recordings of your music?
RTE did a radio program on the band maybe four years ago, and they interviewed each of us, and there was no recording. Those days you just got up and played. Steve Averill was our manager at the time. He was in The Radiators From Space. He went on to design much of U2's iconic print work. He gave us our name and there was talk of a record deal. It was all really mad and then I got accepted to art college and it was in a different part of the country. So I was replaced. That happened with many bands.
Funnily enough at the time we were in the girl band, the American bands we absolutely loved and totally tried to emulate were The Runaways and Joan Jett, Patti Smith, and of course, Blondie. They were the female role models coming in from America.
What are your current projects?
I'm really, really lucky. This comes from all the work I've done with U2. I'm trained by the four of them (U2) to think in a certain way, and that training has allowed me to understand space, structure and audience, and perception, and scale, lighting, theatricality. I've taken all that and applied it to the 3-D format where it lives completely perfectly. The whole world of 3-D is about those things, scale, performance, delivery, depth, transitions. A U2 show isn't just a band playing. It's transitioning people from a performance onstage, to the lighting design, to video to the structure. They are aware of how to bring an audience member on a two-hour journey through those things. Three-D is very much like that. It's a lovely medium. It's really like working in a theatrical space and the results are just stunning.
I've got a feature film project in development with the Irish Film Board for an adaption of an Oscar Wilde story called "The Selfish Giant." We are just at the scriptwriting stage right now. We shot 3-D in India last year in 2010 for an event called Kumbh Mela, which is the biggest spiritual gathering on the planet. Fifty million people gather every 12 years. That's slowly making its way to post. We are raising additional funds for an animation segment. And there are some other very nice projects coming across my desk.
A lot of that comes out of how strong U23-D has remained in the market. It's now called iconic vintage 3-D. I'm like "Yay, it's iconic!"
What are your thoughts about working with U2 in the future?
Bono and I were talking recently in Ireland and talking about doing morning cappuccino sessions. That's going to be our next creative venture together, to do cappuccino sessions when we're in the same city. We're going to shoot the breeze, as they say. We'll talk about what fantastic things, what fantastic adventures or what fantastic ideas we can roll around over a cappuccino. I think it's the perfect scale, the perfect antidote to the last tour. It's a collaboration that's napkin-based.
I think there are other creative avenues to be mined over the next couple of years that talk to things outside of the tour. I think there are other kinds of interactive things the band is definitely going to be speaking to. I feel probably post-360 there's going to be more interest in conversations related to these ideas of thematic directions and going a little more inwards to see what's in there and bring that forward. I think it's going to be another huddling around the campfire.
At the end of the day, they are the sum of equal parts. And no matter how anybody might think that that can be different it never will be. And so that needs to be nurtured and that needs to be replenished. And that is obvious today when the four of them make music. All the fabulous bells and whistles, lights, staging, content, it just all takes a back seat to that at the end of the day. When that's strong they can go out and play on a silver dollar and it would be great.
(c) @U2/Myers, 2011.