"I want my work to be both trashy and precious at the same time."
20 Years of Achtung Baby: Director Richie Smyth - Fly On The Wall (Part 1)
First in a three-part series
November 07, 2011
U2 were still in the recording studio when directors Jon Klein and Richie Smyth got the call to direct the lead single from Achtung Baby, "The Fly." New Yorker Klein had the task of filming the London portion while Dubliner Smyth had the challenge of filming the band's performance scenes.
"The Fly" was Smyth's third video in his professional career. He started out as a photographer and felt that music videos were a natural step forward. "I loved music, and the idea of making images to music just seemed like a really cool idea at the time," Smyth said.
U2 came to him because they saw his second career video, "100 Boys," for The Golden Horde and liked what they saw. Smyth said, "It's a straight-to-camera performance video and they were looking to explore this direction. I got a call and the process started. I was one of a bunch of directors pitching. The band was looking at everything from high concept to straight performance. The video would be the flagship for the whole Zoo tour in that it set the visual style and tone." Little did Smyth know that this video would be more than just a coming-out party -- it was the start of the whole ZooTV phenomenon.
U2's choice of Smyth took him from the local Dublin scene to the world stage literally overnight. He described how the process challenged his creativity as a director: "Creativity is not something you can learn from someone; it comes from within. And it's a different beast to a pure process like painting or writing a novel. Here you have a client with an agenda. Working with the band challenges your creative process on multiple levels. They're all about the creativity, but there is always a marketing plan lurking in the shadows. With this kind of work I learned not to be too precious with my idea, that there's always another layer if you dig deep and not to be afraid of that. The trick is knowing when you have it and to stop. Also, as an Irish director, being asked to work for U2 was like being asked to shoot a Guinness commercial: an honor that you had to live up to. Probably the two greatest things Ireland has given the world, no pressure, you know what I mean."
With that in mind, Smyth rose to the occasion to capture U2's transformation from the earnest, heart-on-your-sleeve band of the '80s to the post-industrial, ironic rock band of the new decade. U2 weren't sure what people would think of their new look and sound, but Smyth believed it was going to be "f'ing epic." He said, "The band were just winding up the album, it was so different, new and exciting. Just the guitars alone had a new darker energy, everyone connected to the process was buzzing on it, we knew how big a step this was for them and it was infectious."
Smyth was brought in early in the process of the video's development. After pitching several treatments, the decision was made collaboratively with the band to go with the performance piece mixed with the fly-on-the-wall London elements. By mid-September, the video shoot was in full swing in Dublin with a white backdrop and lighting that would create the shadows and distortion the music called for. Smyth said, "It was an extremely collaborative process. The guys get really involved. They push you way past that line in the sand just to be sure they've got the best. Then suddenly it's over and they're happy with the creative. Once that's all agreed they give you 110 percent on the shoot. So it's actually a great way to work and that extra 10 percent is just about anything you want. On the shoot, I had Edge flung against a wall while playing and I gave Bono a medical probe lens, which is a long thin metal rod with a tiny fiber-optics lens, and he used it like a microphone to sing into. I think there's one shot in there. Effectively, Bono could put the camera inside his mouth then pull it out to reveal his face." The fiber-optic lens also allowed us all to see the world through The Fly's eyes.
This video marked the first public outing of Bono's Fly facade, a character who was already many months old. U2's wardrobe guru, Fintan Fitzgerald, was the one who got it all started while the band was recording in Dublin. Bono said in U2 By U2 that Fintan "had found this very Seventies superfly set of blaxploitation sunglasses. I would put them on whenever we hit a problem and make everyone laugh, running off at the mouth and describing the visions I'd see. I quite liked being this character, a barfly, a self-appointed expert on the politics of love, a bulls**t philosopher who occasionally hits the nail on the head but more often it's his own fingernail he leaves black and blue." It was only when the sunglasses were matched with the black leatherette jacket that the transformation felt complete. Smyth said, "The breakthrough was an old OXFAM leatherette jacket that was all f'ed up. Bono tried it on, he wrapped his arms around it and he started peeling off bits of the leatherette. He said, 'Look, I'm a fly.'"
Bono wasn't the only one experiencing a fashion makeover. The Edge had ditched his duds in favor of more studs, bling, and the now iconic black beanie. Smyth described Edge's new look: "With The Edge it's a different vibe. Cowboy hats just wasn't gonna wash with this sound; the beanie was an easy one. Edge is a warrior -- he needed something simple and street. He put the beanie on and said, 'OK, that's me sorted.' I think they were just going for it. It was all a natural progression from the music that they'd spent several years writing and recording."
The new direction U2 were taking with their look and sound helped Smyth get the performance they were looking for with the video. Smyth was able to capture the band's aggressive machismo mixed with wily confidence as it appeared to come naturally to them. He said, "The music had got dirtier, more rock 'n' roll as opposed to the earlier big rock vibe, and their performance was a natural expression of the music."
"The Fly" video also foreshadowed the upcoming ZooTV tour, and Smyth was there for the birth of ZooTV. He explained how it all came about: "There had been versions of this done previously on a much smaller scale in the form of Buzz TV. There were tons of great ideas going down. I worked, as did a few people on initial visual mixes for the show. Another director, Mark Pellington, came over to Dublin. He was the creative force behind Buzz TV. He brought a bunch of visuals he called Shash. I shot a bunch of sh*t -- burning crosses etc. We had band performances and everything from babies to falling-down buildings. There was one great night in Windmill [Lane] where, under the direction of Mark, a bunch of us hooked all the footage up to the CAR beta machines and sat down at an analog desk called an Ace. We each took a looped machine of specific footage, sort of like pre cuts and a mixer on the desk. Then we ran the tracks for the show and basically played VJs. It got very cool once we all got into 'the zone.' We rattled out all these visual mixes. It went on all night; it was a blast. I believe this is the moment when Zoo was born. The band conceived it but that night in Edit One in Windmill we gave birth and it was all down to Mark."
Smyth feels that "The Fly" video has stood up well over the past two decades, and that it doesn't seem dated, even with the band looking 20 years younger. As with any shoot, he said some great footage was left on the edit room floor. He said, "I just created an atmosphere where the guys could let it rip and that's what they did."
(In part 2 of our interview with Richie Smyth, we'll explore the making of the "Until The End Of The World" video.)
(c) @U2/Lawrence, 2011.