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"Great ideas are like melody lines to me. I'm attracted to ones that have a force and clarity and feel inevitable." — Bono

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
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."

That wasn't the only change of plans involving the "Vertigo" video. Originally, Alex & Martin planned to do the shoot in an American desert.

"We wanted to shoot in a real atomic practice area. But it was too expensive and the band also [said they] would like to stay in Europe. So we tried to find a similar area not too far from France."

They ended up at an area of Spain's eastern coast called "Punta del Fangar (Delta de L'Ebre)," where they were forced to make even more changes to their plans. They had intended to build the video's oversized "target" out of concrete, but that wasn't allowed because the location was environmentally protected. So they settled for using two colors of gravel to build the circular "stage" on which U2 would be filmed. And then, of course, they had to deal with the well-documented weather problems. High winds made the work difficult and uncomfortable, and Alex & Martin's crew ended up building a mini-studio so they could shoot close-ups of each band member.

Difficulties and changes of plans aside, U2 was impressed enough with the "Vertigo" video that Alex & Martin got the call this year to shoot a live performance video for "City of Blinding Lights."

The clip, which is currently in rotation on video channels worldwide, is unusually dark -- the lighting often obscures any detail from the band's faces. Alex & Martin say that was part of the plan.

"We wanted to reflect the mood we've seen at the concerts, so we played with that lighting knowing that you are more blinded from a light if it was darker before," they said. "And also, nobody plays a song like U2, so you know it's them."

"City of Blinding Lights" was filmed in late April in the controlled surroundings of the GM Place arena in Vancouver. "It is always easier to shoot indoors because of the weather," the directors say. "You have more control." More than 3,000 people responded to a radio and Internet announcement to be extras in U2's video. A live shoot like this, Alex & Martin say, still presents its own set of challenges.

"The main challenge resides in the fact that you don't have many takes. As it's not a playback, you can't say 'Cut! Let's do it again!' So you optimise each take you can. Actually, we had two concerts shot and, thanks to the band, one extra afternoon for close-ups where we were able to be on stage and do several takes.

"The difficulties were very different from 'Vertigo' to 'City.' The first one we had to deal with the weather, which was hard, but [we had] two full days of shooting. The second one was only two times seven minutes, and a few hours extra, and 20,000 people, so that was a lot of adrenaline. Both of them were great exhilarating experiences."

Alex & Martin dispute recent online reports that they were in Dublin filming U2's shows at Croke Park, but they do say they are "always ready" to work with the band again. And if they could choose a song to make into another music video?

"We love 'Love and Peace or Else.' That is such a great, powerful song."

U2 hasn't called Alex & Martin about that, but it's okay. They can wait.

Since our interview, Alex & Martin have also been nominated in the "Best Direction" category at the upcoming MTV Video Music Awards for the "Vertigo" video.

© @U2, 2005.