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"People are always trying to make us something. Why won't they accept us as being four people?" — Bono

The @U2 Interview: Gary Koepke

For a guy who's made only two music videos in his life, Gary Koepke has done so with two of the biggest names in the business: David Bowie and U2.

And the two experiences couldn't be any further apart: In 2002, Koepke shot the video for Bowie's "Slow Burn" in an afternoon. Last year, Koepke and his team of about 20 people put in about 2,500 hours of work over almost four months to create U2's "Window in the Skies." The end result is a video that features almost any music legend you can name singing along to U2's song, except U2.

Koepke is the co-founder and creative director of Boston-based Modernista!. His portfolio includes work for MTV, The Gap, ESPN and Hummer, and chances are good that you've seen one of his commercials on TV in the last few months. He's also a U2 fan, and was simultaneously thrilled and alarmed when Bono invited him to do a video for "Window in the Skies."

"When a band that I've admired for so long calls," he says, "the first feeling is like, 'Great! They called!' And then it's, 'Holy crap. Now what am I gonna do?' Their standards are high in everything they do, and I wanted to uphold that."

By most accounts, he did. Many U2 fans consider "Window in the Skies" to be one of the band's best, if not the best video they've made. The video inspired fans on the Web to start a "Where's Waldo?"-esque chase to name all the performers that show up in the video. During a recent phone call from New York, Koepke spoke with @U2 about watching U2 fans try to sort out who's who in the video, how the video was pieced together, and the band's concerns over having other artists sing their song.

MM: I guess the logical place to start is at the beginning. When and how did you and Modernista! get involved with the project for this video?

GARY KOEPKE: We got involved with Bono and Bobby Shriver doing (RED), the initiative raising money for the Global Fund to get pills to Africa for HIV/AIDS. I had been doing that, and Bono called me one day and said, "I've got this song that I want you to think about doing a video for." I said, "Sure."

We talked a little bit, and then he sent me the song. It was this song that was about everything that everybody was ever doing in music. And it was just an idea -- I thought, What if everybody else performed the song? Because they [U2] didn't want to be in it that much. That was what Bono said to me. "You know, we're always in these. Is there something else we could do?"

So he sent me the song, and it's a great, uplifting song. A couple weeks later he called me and said, "What's going on? You got any ideas?" I told him, "I have this one idea to have other people perform the song and I have an editor at work on it, and I think it's gonna work!" And he says, "Really?"

The whole thing was that he wanted to be sure that it wouldn't be too self-aggrandizing, like, We think we're as good as these people. And I said, "No, I don't think it feels that way. This is like a celebration of everything that all artists have ever done since the beginning of music, really. And rock 'n' roll just kinda takes this passion, this love and dedication -- I think it'll work."

So we just started like that, and then the next thing was -- How were we actually gonna accomplish it? [laughs] And then, Who's gonna allow it? And there were a lot of skeptics, except the group was very much behind it. There was a time where they considered not doing it, and somehow a pleading, passionate e-mail got them turned around.

What was their concern at that point?

Well, just that they'd be too self-aggrandized. They definitely did not want this to look like they think they're as good as all these other bands or that these other bands are worshipping them [U2] in any way. And Bono had this idea, "Well, maybe we could be in the audience." And I said, "That's a great idea. You guys could be cheering along."

And in reality, what happened was, this video just made itself. And we just got out of the way of it. It was spawned by an idea, and then it was just up to Business Affairs -- Jeff Estow, who works at Modernista! in our Business Affairs department, took it upon himself to make this happen. And a couple editors, David Brodie and Max Koepke [Ed. note: Gary's son], just went crazy going through DVDs and video files, finding actual moments that cut together like that.

Okay, so Bono calls, gives you the song and you get to listen -- and it's you guys that come up with the idea for the history of rock 'n' roll and then you present that back to them?

Yeah. But it's not necessarily the history of rock 'n' roll, but the love of all musicians, you know? And the song's so brilliant. It's amazing. The song holds it all together. How else could you put Vladimir Horowitz, Jay-Z, and Frank Sinatra in the same video?


And what became more and more evident is that that song was pulling it together. It wasn't breaking down. You know, some ideas break down as you get into them a little bit deeper, and you think "It was a good idea, a nice try, but it's not gonna work. It's getting a little corny." But this got stronger and stronger. And all Bono would say is, "Let's get out of the way and let it happen." And it did happen. It was pretty much done through sheer willpower.

Did U2 have a wish list of artists they wanted in the video?

No, there wasn't. We had a Chuck Berry clip in there, but we couldn't get in touch with him; he was impossible to track down. James Brown was impossible to track down, as well. So, a few things fell out. But it was like -- people say, "How did you decide?" Well, it was kind of easy, you know? To have Nina Simone in there makes sense to me. They're great artists. You have Marvin Gaye...and Jackie Wilson...the MC5...Iggy, Chrissy Hynde, Patti Smith...suddenly, it just made itself. You just knew who not to put in there and who could be in there.

I guess I'm fortunate in that I'm probably a couple years older than those guys [U2], so I grew up in the same era of music, listening to the same things. And I really feel that it kind of explained itself. They [U2] were a punk band in the late '70s, early '80s, so I thought, How could they not have liked Lou Reed and David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix, you know? Who doesn't like those people? They're all great musicians. And then there's a few in there that -- there's a band towards the end called Apollo Sunshine, who's a new band, but they fit the mood of the spot.

What about getting permissions? That had to be a huge challenge.

That was a big challenge, and that's where Jeff Estow came in. He had to call everybody. Towards the end, we started splitting up calls. And then Bono made some calls. Bono got the Beatles in at the end -- who had originally said "no" to us. And I think that version should be going out soon. I don't know if you guys have seen that yet.

Which one?

With the Beatles in it -- we have a version with the Beatles in it.

No, I don't think that's been put out yet.

Yeah, I think it'll be soon. [Ed. note: This version has just begun getting airplay on VH1.] And it has Pete Townshend, and a better Joey Ramone. And that's where the requests came in from the band. We couldn't get the rights to certain footage, and then Joey Ramone fell out. Bono was like, "I want him in there." And then we got Pete Townshend in, and a few other things that they didn't want to come out once they saw it in. Then they had opinions.

I don't know if you know this, but once the video was released and went out on YouTube and MTV and VH1, on our web site and a lot of other web sites, fans started dissecting this frame-by-frame to figure out every artist that appears.


And, of course it's impossible with some shots that are just a pair of shoes or something. But you should've seen the discussions with people arguing, "Who's hair was that? Who's nose was that?"

[laughter] Yeah, my favorite one on YouTube was [alters his voice] "Was that Rory Gallagher at 2:37?" [laughter]

That's the exact kind of thing I'm talking about!

Yeah, everybody thought that Keith Richards was George Harrison. It was so funny. And it was great. The other thing that's great about it is -- it just was a whole moment of synchronicity, really, for the song and the band. What other band could do that song, with it meaning what it means to them? Because they're always -- they've paid tribute to a lot of people throughout their career.

There's a second video for this song, which is more of a history of U2.

I've seen it.

We're you aware that a second video was being made? And did that have any impact on what you were doing?

I was aware. Paul McGuinness made me aware. He said, "We have to do this because, what if we don't get yours done?" And there would be, like, two weeks left, and they'd say, "What do you think?" And we said, "We think we're gonna make it." So, they had to be prepared. And I don't mind. I'm glad someone else got to work with the band and make something nice, too.

Tell me a little more if you could about the actual editing of your video. Did you have people scanning through old footage trying to make sure that the mouths actually matched with the lyrics of the song?

That's exactly right. This was a process that started about three months ago, maybe four now. And it was in a constant state of change until it was done. There was never a moment where it was like, "That's it. Let's just finish it up and put it on the air." It was constantly changing up to the day that it went out. Right up until the last day we were getting final approvals. And not only did we have to get the rights from the artists, but we also had to get the rights from the person that shot the film.

Oh, jeez. Amazing.

Yeah. And then the band in the audience -- that was fun to shoot. That was my favorite day, and one of their favorite days, so they say. What was great about that day was we were down in Australia, and we had this crowd of people with a big TV screen on a stage at this club. Before the band came down, we played it [the video] for everybody, and they went crazy. This was still a rough edit, but it was pretty tight at that time. It's changed a lot since then, but it was tight.

Then the band came down, and I think what was amazing for them -- I don't think they've been in a crowd with fans before that loved them. But it wasn't like people ran up to them -- I told them [the fans] that nobody could touch, blah-blah-blah, -- we went through this whole thing with how to behave, you know? But once the song started and people went crazy to make it look like a concert, they [U2] were actually in a concert hearing their song and feeling the way people feel in their concerts.

And I remember [laughs], we got back to the blue [waiting] room, and it's like [alters his voice], "Man, that was the best thing that happened in 15 years!" I think is what Bono said. And he couldn't believe it. They couldn't believe that energy, because they're always up on stage. They reach down and touch someone's hand, or one person gets to come up on stage -- but they were so exhilarated at being in that crowd. It was just a great moment.

Were they easy to direct?

Yeah, they were great. You know what? I've never met a better organization. Everybody in that organization -- Principle Management, the band -- everyone was so polite and kind. The three days we were out there, they would invite us to the after show dinner parties. It runs like a family. That's the best way I could describe it.

I don't think I'll ever do anything like this again. Like I said, it was a moment in time. Everything converged, and as Mr. B would say, [alters his voice] "God's wind was at our back."

© @U2/McGee, 2007.