What was it that originally appealed to you about making the video for singing duo The Civil Wars?
I’ve wanted to explore a narrative based on freight trains for a while and it felt like perfect territory for The Civil Wars, they were looking for an idea that wasn’t too prescriptive, or relationship heavy. The original concept was more like a series of vignettes that presented a panorama of faces and landscapes encompassing America, but as it grew and developed we realised it was going to be completely impractical. That’s when the idea of a strong female central character developed, as the song is mostly narrated from a female perspective and also it went against expectations and raised more questions about who she is, how she survives on the road, it gave another layer of vulnerability to the bitter sweet pill.
Was shooting a journey always part of the brief or did you write the narrative and in how much detail?
The brief was completely open, and the narrative evolved with the production, I was writing and re-writing up until we shot which is really unusual on a music video, but it was a liberating experience in some ways as it meant we could adapt with the creative problems of piecing the project together.
It’s looks a major production – was it? What were the main challenges of the shoot?
It was the biggest video I’ve made to date, and shooting on trains is no mean feat. It’s noisy, dangerous, slow, an itinerary of challenges, there’s also a lot of red tape around filming on a moving train which prohibited a few things we had planned, even on the shoot days. The whole shoot felt like a scene from Kelly’s Heroes, organised chaos. The biggest difficulty was making sure we spent enough time on the important scenes, not just rush through them for the sake of more pretty shots.
Did a lot of the narrative come together in the edit – the shoot feels quite spontaneous as if you couldn’t possibly have storyboarded it.
It would have been impossible to storyboard, and the nature of the shoot was spontaneous in some ways, it had to be – but we’d had a thorough tech recce with Lol, the DOP, to decide on a few things, and I had a strong idea of how the action would play out, so the rest fell into place around it. Some moments were completely spontaneous, but it was a case of making room for them to exist, it went with the territory.
How did you cast the lead?
Claud came to us from LA, the original idea was to cast and street cast everyone locally, but it was proving impossible and as we’d hinged the project around a strong central character we needed someone with some calibre to them. Claud came from LA, through a video casting session which is something I’ve never done for a lead, so it was difficult, and when Claud arrived in Oklahoma, we were all taken aback, she’s way more glamorous in real life…!
Did you know the location already or was it found for this project?
We found the location through the railway. The A+M rail is a short 100 mile or so line in Arkansas, which was great as it meant we could block sections off for the shoot and take control of it. The locations are mostly around the line, in the Ozark mountains apart from Oklahoma, which we shot on day 1 with a stripped down crew. I think there was also a feeling that it felt appropriate for the band and the song, that the setting isn’t too far from Nashville where they are from, and it has that southern charm to it.
Shooting in Oklahoma must have been tough?
Shooting in Oklahoma was difficult, on an emotional level, but people there were warm and receptive despite all that’s happened. While we were filming the house being torn down, a guy started taking photos on his phone and the first AD had to ask him to move along, only for him to say “that was my house”, but he was completely open and relaxed about it. I can’t even comprehend how that must feel, but there was a hushed and quiet reverence about the town, and we acted in accordance with that and were welcomed.
Any other memories that stand out from the shoot?
People love to talk in that part of the world, they have great stories and yarns, I felt like I was in a Cormac McCarthy novel. The chap who plays the dead hobo was an old Rodeo clown, called Norman, he’s got throat cancer and is not long for this world, but his eyes lit up when he saw an opportunity to be in the video, I wish we were recording sound as the banter between him and the big hobo, Mike, was priceless.