CC Rider - The Imagestorm of Chris Cunnigham

(chris was interviewed by famous dutch photographer Anton Corbijn, who also wrote this article and made the photo)


Chris Cunningham is priceless. Not only has my favourite videoclip-director already been working for two months on the new Aphex Twin-video (and will he need at least another two months to come to a satisfying result), he also arrives at our meeting exactly on time, practically naked, in a wheelchair, and with an Elephant Man-esque forehead. “Sorry, I thought you would have been here later.” he apologizes whilst I am laughing my ass off. When I am able to speak again (from all that laughter) I tell Chris I should just leave the interview at this to keep his public image intact. Because Chris Cunningham is considered ‘weird’.

Half an hour later, when Chris is fully dressed and without artifical bodyparts, and he is leading me to his room in the office of director Ridley Scott’s filmcompany in London, he returns to that subject. He explains he looked that way because he is working on an Aphex Twin-video where he himself will be playing in. We talk about the word “weird”. Altough the word means more than simply it’s dutch translation ‘vreemd’, it is used by everybody to describe things that are somewhat unordinary, and by the use of the word ‘weird’ become easy to categorise.
For instance people call David Lynch’s work weird, and thereby people are placing David Lynch in the same category as a Marilyn Manson-videoclip. The concept of “weird” eventually looses all it’s meaning because more and more things are considered weird. Also people won’t truly make an effort anymore to truly analyse and understand things because it’s easier to just call them “weird”. Chris is absolutely right when he says he hates the word ‘weird’.

I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a huge fan of Chris’ work, and I tell him that I really love the fact that he uses both high-tech and low-tech, but also human behaviour and emotions. You don’t see the combination alot; for that reason he is in my opinion the only person capable of filming William Gibsons work.
According to rumours Chris is working on Gibsons book “neuromancer”. How is that coming along?

“The project means alot to me, I have already been working at it for months and have met Gibson many times. We have alot of discussions, but somehow we can’t seem to really get this project started. There is by no means already a script or something like that. I worry about it alot. Sometimes I wake up and then I think it could be the greatest sciencefictionmovie ever made, but on other days I think I just feel the whole project is pointless and it will never work. William is one of the nicest persons I have ever met and I would very much like to do something with him.”

According to me the problem is that most directors don’t have a clue of how to portray something that is set in the future (you just have to think about how horrible the movie called “Johnny Mnemonic” was when Francesco Clemento filmed it). I try to convince Chris to make a film about Neuromancer.
“Yeah, that movie looks pretty awful. That is something that never ceases to amaze me; that sciencefiction always attracts the wrong people, people who come flying at something shiny like a magpie. Something like: gee, there is technology in this movie so let’s use a flying car. Whilst the exciting thing about people in the future doesn’t lie in their environment. So I am very surprised when people say something like that is based upon books from William Gibson. When I finally read his work, I thought: this is not at all an inspiration-source for that type of movies. His books are so rich in atmosphere, they run so deep. It is NOT the futuristic technology that makes his books so interesting. I am crazy about the idea of once filming a sciencefiction-movie using only a 200mm lens, so that you never get to see the backgrounds.”

Starting with Clive Barker’s ‘Nightbreed’, where he designed the monsters, Chris wound up on the set of ‘Alien 3’ (David Fincher) at the age of seventeen, where he also made rubber models. After ‘Judge Dredd’ he eventually ended up at Stanley Kubrick.
“Already at a very young age I was fascinated by the technical aspect of a movie. I was fixated on special effects and the process that lies behind the making of a movie, so I went from one department of a movieset to another. I observed all the different techniques, so that they all became a second nature for me. This allows me to fully focus on an idea when I am making my own videoclips and moviethings.”

About Spike Jonze, who we both think is really good, Chris remarks that always with him only the ideas count and not the esthetic side and that is what he likes so much about Spike.
“It is at the same time depressing and positive that when someone has found a personal and unique esthetic style, it is immediately copied by everyone else. Then everything starts to look the same. And then you realize that filming is not about the visual aspects, because when that becomes the most important thing, things start to go wrong.”

When I was making cheap videoclips with Depeche Mode in the 80’s (this is Anton Corbijn talking), they had to compete with the kind of videos that Micheal Jackson was making, full of expensive technical novelties. The only way to get airtime on MTV, was to make sure that you had a better idea. Not that it mattered that much in the end, but ideas last alot longer then some new technique. I tell him about my slogan ‘imperfection is my perfection’, and that you often have to be open to accept things that you don’t expect.

(now this will be Chris talking ;-) It gets a little confusing at times. Maybe when you put this on your site Phobiazero, you should make the things that Chris says a different color or extra bold or whatever. Or you should leave this text in it, kinda like on the druqks-artwork where Richard says the copyright info should be in the same font as size as the rest of the artwork ;-))

“The myth about Kubrick is that he wanted perfection, and that that was the reason that he often made 50 attempts to shoot a scene. But infact the only reason he did this was that maybe during that 50th time something would go wrong. THAT was what he wanted to use. It might be a form of perfectionism as well, but not the common kind.”

How was your relationship to Kubrick?

“I did research and development for him, and I met with him every week during a period of 1,5 years.”

This were all preperations for the movie “A.I.”, that was sadly never realized by Kubrick, and after he died was directed by Steven Spielberg. Even though I am a fan of Kubrick, I haven’t seen the movie. Chris: “I didn’t enjoy it much. It’s a real shame, because it was really excellent material that they threw away. It was one of Kubrick’s finest pieces of work, and when you look at the movie, you can see why he would have wanted to make it. That material had so much potential. And now it’s a movie with a couple of really great parts in it, while it seems that other parts were directed by your grandmother.”

Alot of people know Chris Cunningham from the videoclips ‘Come To Daddy’ and ‘Windowlicker’ by Aphex Twin. He is now busy working on the third videoclip for Richard A. James (that’s how Anton wrote it, A, not D). Chris wanted to use a track from Aphex’ latest CD ‘Druqks’ for a short film, that he wanted to make for himself. Then Richard asked him if there was any possibility that that film might become the new videoclip. But in the meantime Chris still hasn’t had another conversation with Richard about the videoclip. He also thinks that Richard doesn’t want to seem like he’s interested.

(I’ve been very careful in translating that last sentence... it’s a little tricky. In dutch it says: “Hij denkt ook niet dat Richard interesse wil tonen.”, which doesn’t necessarely mean that Richard isn’t interested. It implies more that Richard doesn’t want to seem to eager... Almost like he’s ashamed to admit that he would really like to use Cunningham’s work as his video, and therefor acts ‘cool’ and uninterested).

Like I said Chris is filming himself for this video. He also edits - like always - the raw material himself. The parts I have seen so far, look very very promising again and the videoclip will undoubtedly cause alot of commotion. Just like ‘Windowlicker’, the video that starts with a conversation between two guys in a car. Was that improvisation? “They were two actors and it was something that I’ve always wanted to do: working with people and improvising. I’ve heard that Ken Loach also works this way. You tell the actors what their role is and then you sit for three days in a studio and you improvise. You tape it all, take the best parts out of it and then you write the script, based upon their improvisation. I hate movies where the conversations are perfectly written in advance - nowadays it’s all good-looking actors and clever oneliners where-ever you look.”

Then what does inspire you?

“The director that I’ve really been excited about recently is John Cassavettes. When I had seen ‘Faces’, I walked around my room all excited for at least half an hour: It gave me the feeling that I would really like to make a movie myself. Tarkovsky is another director of whom I didn’t know alot until recently. I’ve seen all his movies now and at this moment ‘Stalker’ is my favourite, it’s SO good.”

I tell him that I spent my 29th birthday in a movietheatre that was playing Tarkovsky-movies all night long. Very depressing and also the beginning of a very bad year. That’s why I haven’t seen ‘Stalker’ for a long time now. What does he find funny in movies?

“Laurel and Hardy are the best, and when I was young I was crazy about John Landis-movies. In ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’ there is one of the funniest scenes ever made. You see a car that is calmly driving on the road. It is night and you see the children asleep on the backseat. And then you see the wife who is also sleeping. And then eventually you see the driver. And he is also sleeping!”

At this point Chris starts laughing out loud almost hysterically, and after a while admits to being a huge fan of Chevy Chase.

“I think moviedirector is not the same profession anymore that it once was. I don’t mean to sound cynical, as far as movies go, but I don’t think I’m a moviefanatic anymore. As a child I was obsessed with movies. I was a paperboy for two years to be able to buy a VCR. When I was at home, I watched movies, often many times in a row. But when I started to make movies myself, I was so sick of it that I didn’t go to the cinema anymore for about six years. Now I go like once a year. When I see movies, I often find them absolutely horrible, given the occasional exception. I prefer animations or short films.”

What do you think about the danish Dogma-films then, that try to do something different?

“Yeah, infact ‘Festen’ is one of the few movies that I did like.”

For people who are not from Denmark it is even more fantastic, because we don’t know all those danish actors, to us they are all unknown and fantastic actors.

“I completely agree with you. I would very much like to make movies with people that you’ve never seen before. When you’re using a familiar face, it becomes too much a famous actor playing a role, instead of truly a character in the film. But it’ll probably be impossible to make a movie without any moviestars.”

How does he feel about the ‘Frozen’-video that he made for Madonna now? She is big star.

“Madonna really is a wonderful person to work with, but if I had know how many questions I would have gotten about Madonna, I would have never made that video. The thing is that I get so carried away with my work and put so much effort in it, that I have to be able to dance in excitement for at least four months whilst I’m making it. If I would have to work with a big american actor, I think I wouldn’t even come out of my bed anymore after three weeks because I couldn’t get excited enough for such a project. The reason that i work with Richard’s music, is that it’s very innovative. If they would give me a normal song, with an ordinary structure, then I can’t visualize anything else about that than people playing their instruments; the music has to be really special and unique.”

After this we look at a couple of my photographs, what else am I supposed to do? Chris’ attention is drawn by a photo of Kurt Cobain with scratches on his back. He asks how Kurt got those scratches and I explain that he wanted to show me that Courtney was good in bed. “Really? It’s funny that that is someone’s idea of a good time, it would be my idea of something terrible. Popstars are like aliens. When I look at them, it’s like I’m looking at a photograph of an alien. That is because I can’t imagine what i must be like to always stand in front of a camera and being watched.”

Translated and transcribed by: surrounded