"[I]n the early '80s . . . there was this rather ridiculous idea . . . that if it was big, it was bad. Which of course rules out Elvis."
Directing U2: From Vertigo to Vancouver with Alex & Martin
@U2 interviews video directors Alex & Martin about their work on the 'Vertigo' and 'City of Blinding Lights' videos
July 26, 2005
Alex Courtes and Martin Fougerole are patient men.
Though they won Grammy Awards in mid-February for their work on U2's "Vertigo" music video, when we caught up with them recently for an e-mail interview, the directors were still waiting for their golden gramophones to arrive. But that's nothing compared to the wait the pair have had to gain Grammy-level recognition. In an industry where hot young directors can rise rapidly (consider Spike Jonze, who was working with the likes of Weezer, Soundgarden, and R.E.M. in his 2nd year of music video directing), Alex & Martin, as they've come to be known, took a slower path to directing stardom.
The pair met at the Ecole Supérieure d'Arts Graphiques (a graphic arts school) in Paris, then went their separate ways into graphic design (Alex) and visual effects (Martin). After several years, they joined forces and began work on their first music video, "Cassius 1999," for the French electronica duo Cassius. The song became a popular club track. Alex & Martin earned more work with Cassius and another electronica duo, Air, as well as other artists.
But it was their groundbreaking video for the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" in 2003 that finally put Alex & Martin on everyone's radar as directors to watch.
"It was a big success, and it's true we really got noticed as music video directors in England and America," the pair say. "We think this video helped us to become international directors because the track has also become a classic."
The award-winning video surely helped Alex & Martin catch U2's eye, and led to what the directors called an "amazing" meeting with the band in the summer of 2004 at Bono's house in France. Everyone brainstormed video ideas for U2's upcoming single, "Vertigo." Alex & Martin returned home to Paris to begin detailing their idea for the music video, and went back to Bono's house a few days later to share it.
Their original treatment for "Vertigo" involved a storyline with two monsters -- one representing good; the other, evil -- that would battle as the band performed "somewhere in the middle of the desert."
"The idea behind this video is to depict, by way of a dazzling performance by U2, the state of paranoia into which we have been plunged today. Furthermore it is an exploration of the meaning of 'Vertigo' by way of a metaphorical representation of FEAR. Fear is symbolised in the form of a giant, menacing bull, that is conquered by a second monster, which is the manifestation of U2's sense of compassion. For it is only through compassion and understanding that one combats the hate and fear that have come to dominate our world."
The original plan was to film U2's performance and then use CGI effects to add in the bull, monster, and other special effects, after the shoot. Their original treatment suggested that the battle would climax near the end of the song.
"This bull, an allegory of fear and anxiety, scrapes at the ground furiously in front of Bono, who continues with his performance unflinchingly. Gradually we see that the band are creating their own vaporous monster, which is every bit as powerful as the bull that already stands menacingly before them. By the slow break, the second monster is fully revealed, perfectly formed, standing before his counterpart, even more frightening than he. They approach each other slowly. In the last part of the song, Bono falls to his knees before the demonic bull, which evaporates as he does so."
This, of course, is not what happens in the final version of the "Vertigo" music video. Alex & Martin didn't offer many details about what led to the change of plans, only saying that "Bono [said he] would like something more subtle, more simple and graphic."