Myke Weiskopf Interviews Adam Bernstein
MYKE WEISKOPF INTERVIEWS ADAM BERNSTEIN
Weiskopf: How did you first meet the Giants?
Bernstein: In 1986, I had just left my day job and I wanted to direct a music video, and had saved up about $1500. I was going to clubs and calling around, looking for a band to work with. A guy named Mark Boyer grew up in the same town with the two Johns, so he suggested I go see them. I went down, saw them at Darinka, and immediately liked them; I thought they were very funny. I went backstage after their set, said hello to John and John, and told them that I wanted to work with them. Then I picked up this cassette tape that they had on sale at Finyl Vinyl (the 23-song tape). A week later, Flansburgh came down to my apartment to talk about the video. Flansburgh was wearing deep dark purple nail polish, and he looked at me and he said, "I'm gay." So, we mapped out what we wanted to do. Flansburgh told me that he either wanted to be a rock star or an art-world bully. We put together "Puppet Head", which we shot in and around the Williamsburg waterfront area for $1500; I think the Johns bought a couple hundred dollars' worth of film stock. We cut that and, through some crazy fluke, made it onto MTV before the Johns even had a record out. It was during an unusually liberal window in MTV's programming. Then, through Jamie, they got some connections with Joe Franklin, and Joe played it on his show. The video made a little splash for everybody. The next one I did for them was "Don't Let's Start" , "Hotel Detective", "Ana Ng", "They'll Need A Crane"... I think they were all escalating budgets, because "Ana Ng" was $9000, "TNAC" was $16,000, and after that we did "Birdhouse" and "The Statue Got Me High".
W: You're one of the only people that continued your professional relationship with the Johns after Bar/None.
W: Tell me a little bit about "Ana Ng". If there's one thing I learned from "Ana Ng", it's that Linnell has giant front teeth.
B: (laughs) That was an interesting one, because I was really inspired by the Cold War, that weird espionage theme. There are a couple of things that went into that video: One was the location, which was the Ward's Island Fireman's Training Center, which is a location that I had known about for a couple of years and had been dying to use in a video. There's something about that song that suggests this "Man From U.N.C.L.E." world/Cold War secrecy somehow. That location became perfect for it, because it looked like some sort of spy headquarters with the numbered buildings. Then there's a protracted use of these extreme close-ups. I had been watching a great David Fincher video for Foreigner that used all these great, extreme close-ups. It was my little homage; the use of the close-ups was very interesting. That was my inspiration for getting macro-close on all of these objects. I just went to a really big, shitty prop rental service called State Supply with a shopping cart and filled it up with junk so that we could prop that weird John and John office area. The Johns brought that weird Cheng Kai-Shek statue in the fishtank, and one of the telephones. The maps I got at the Map Center in midtown Manhattan; that was an aeronautical map of Romania, or some bizarre Eastern European country. It was fun; we shot it all macro-close so that everyone thought it was completely fraught with significance. The best thing about music videos is that all you have to do is suggest this heady meaning in the imagery.
For every video, the Giants would cook up their own synchronized dance step. We had a much more advanced synchronized dance step for "Don't Let's Start", and for "Ana Ng" they did that great Ukrainian folk stomp in front of the building. The next time we picked up the synchronized dance step was for "Birdhouse", when we did the massive synchronized dance step with all of the people. It's fun working with the Giants because they are very contrary. They have a real aversion to the imagery having any direct response to the lyrics. They want to be as oblique as possible, and with their music, it's gotten increasingly oblique to the point of complete impenetrability. That was always fun; it was a nice thing to muck around with, being not completely on-the-head. They are real tough customers; it's very hard to sell them something, because they're very into controlling their world. It was good directorial practice, because if I had an idea, I had to figure out exactly how to phrase it so that I wouldn't set them off. Or, you have to figure out how to sell them so that they would eventually like the idea.
W: What's nice about it is that you were able to make these in-jokey videos, yet people still thought they were great.
B: When I initially tried to do a video and gravitated towards doing one with them, there was a certain amount of shared sensibility between us: the New York, sardonic, ironic, Northeastern, artsy, liberal establishment outlook. I tend to be more broadly comic than they are. The thing is that their constant litany is "We are not a joke band!! We are not a comedy band!!" and they would be really adamant about that, but the minute you turned the cameras on it became like Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. The minute they're performing, they immediately want to act as funny as possible.
W: "They'll Need A Crane" seemed to be a parody of '60s merseybeat videos, with the syrupy close-ups of John Linnell...
B: That video, they hate.
W: Tell me about "Hotel Detective".
B: That was animated by a guy named Joey Ahlbum. We had a whole budget of $7,500, and he did over a minute of full-fill animation. He did a pretty amazing job. That was another one they didn't seem to like very much... They did their own video for "Rabid Child".