Shhh! No talking in the library! Singing and writhing about the place, on the other hand, is just fine. The new Rufus Wainwright video, Out of the Game is one for bookworms and Helena Bonham Carter fans… Partizan director Philip Andelman talks to Laura Swinton
What was it about the song that conjured up the idea of the frustrated librarian?
The initial idea was Rufus’ actually. The song speaks of the contempt of an older man towards the self-centered obliviousness of youth, about that young love that torments you without even being aware of it. Rufus is an incredibly well-read artist with a great sense of humour and so from the onset, the books all the characters were reading were meant to reflect these sentiments. While Valley of the Dolls is about young women’s downward spirals as they enter the real world, the characters reading Junky and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance were supposed to parody your typical bohemian collegiate types who spend hours debating Kierkegaard and abstract thoughts of existentialism but have never even held a summer job, let alone thought about their post-collegiate lives. The book Helena reads at the end was just meant to be a quick laugh at the expense of the writer’s name.
How did Helena Bonham Carter get involved?
At first Rufus had wanted to be the librarian, and was planning on getting some of his friends to do cameos as the patrons. When he mentioned his relationship with Helena Bonham Carter and the possibility of her involvement I leapt at the opportunity and told him not to waste her talents on one quick cutaway! So I lobbied to change the roles around and have Rufus play all the readers and Helena be the librarian. I feel bad in hindsight, thinking perhaps she agreed to the project since it would just be one shot and 15 minutes of her life, and in a matter of hours snowballed into her having to memorize the song, try on a bunch of wigs, anchor the piece as a whole, and dedicate a whole day and night!
I love the humour and wit she brings to the role – she really elevates it beyond the archetypal ‘sexy librarian’. What was she like to work with and what sort of discussions did you have about her character?
She was AWESOME to work with. The subtleties she brought to the role is what really made her a more interesting character to watch throughout the piece rather than a straight-forward S&M type caricature. We talked about the lyrics of the song, the sad yearning in the verses and the bitterness of the choruses and the balance of the two. She’s not the sexy librarian, she’s a lonely librarian with repressed perversions she is embarrassed of but to which she ultimately surrenders.
The rest of the band seem to have thrown themselves into the acting too – lots of humour in their eyes. What were they like on set and what was the general atmosphere like?
The rest of the band?! That was Rufus in each of the roles! But he sure did throw himself into it. My favorite was the bohemian Johnny Depp-esque character with the hat. Each time he put on that pencil-thin mustache his eyes went wide and I couldn’t stop laughing. He really kept up the energy on the set through the long hours of the night…
The art direction and the grading really complement each other well – I love the contrast between the stuffy warmth of the library and the coldness of the toilet scenes and performance scenes… what were you trying to capture with the transitions?
The idea of the bathroom performance in front of the mirror was part of Rufus’ original concept, continuing the theme of vanity in today’s youth. I felt that it was so apart narratively from the library and made so little sense (thereby helping add even more absurdity to an already absurd piece) that it needed to be visually separate as well. While we were location scouting the bathroom which was in a separate building from the library, we found this big ballroom. I was a bit nervous about only having one setup to cut to for all of Rufus’ performances – and the bathroom to begin with was so constricting spatially so i decided to add this very theatrical setup with the three spotlights. Again, it needed to have its own feel since it was so removed from the rest of the story. I imagined both of these setups as a bit of a Greek Chorus, narrating and pushing along the storyline so these spaces really needed to be removed from the rest of the video visually.
The video really toys with the sexy librarian fantasy and really elevates it by injecting it with wry humour and great characterisation – were you ever worried that it could become too cheesy and how did you prevent that from happening?
I’m ALWAYS WORRIED about everything I do being cheesy! Isn’t that a director’s biggest fear? I think that one thing that helped immensely was the absurdity of the premise. Because we weren’t depicting a “sexy librarian” but rather a wistful, lonely librarian that dreamed of being sexy, part of the potential for cheese was erased. The beautiful emotion that Helena was able to put into the character further helped, and Rufus’s sense of camp is so good-natured that it winds up being both humorous and endearing rather than cheesy (I think!). Then again, it’s all relative and subjective….one man’s humor is another man’s cheese….
What was the most tricky aspect of the shoot?
The location! I had initially hoped to get a very cold, bleak 1970s library to shoot in, something that felt incredibly institutional and as monochromatic as Helena’s wardrobe and external appearance. Unfortunately the only day we could shoot happened to be National Book Day and every library within a hundred miles of London seemed to have planned events to mark the occasion!!!! The only library at our disposition was the one inside The London Zoo! It was really small, had huge skylights which posed problems for lighting continuity, and did not have much in terms of personality. Furthermore, we had to move around a lot of books and furniture and the narrow entrances and multiple staircases made that an incredible challenge. I really must give IMMENSE credit and thanks to our top notch DoP Will Bex and art director Anna Rhodes for helping create a unifying, continuous look to the video as a whole.
Speaking personally, what I really liked was the way that you took the idea of the librarian figure and subvert it from the traditional object of lust into an active agent, a fully formed character with her own frustrations and fears etc. Rather than being the object of desire, it’s all about her own desires, I guess? In that respect, would it be weird of me to suggest that the video is kinda feminist?
Like the cheese factor, it’s all in how you look at it. While I did not set out consciously to create a feminist piece, I really did want to make this librarian a richer, more complex character than the archetypal sexual cliche. There is such a sense of pathos in the verses of the song, and such contempt in the choruses, and I wanted the character to really evoke these two sentiments which Helena did beautifully. Trying to balance these emotions, you automatically get into something more human and real, and therefore perhaps also more feminist?
Rufus Wainwright, Out of the GameDirected byPhilip AndelmanProduced by PartizanProducer: Phil TidyExecutive Producer: Jeff PantaleoProduction Manager: Brett WebbDirector of Photography: Will BexArt Director: Anna RhodesStylist (Helena Bonham Carter): Lorraine KinmanStylist (Rufus Wainwright & Cast): Emma LampHair Stylist: Carol HemmingsMake-up Artist: Louise ConstadEditor: Maxime Pozzi-GarciaGrade: Aubrey WoodiwissPost-production: The MillLabel: Decca RecordsCommissioner: Randi Wilens