Interview with Chris Cunningham

Chris Cunningham wonders how anyone manages to see his music videos since they're all banned or remain to be distributed. It's true that his only video available to wide audiences in the U.S. is his video for Madonna's, Frozen. But, he emphasizes, If people are managing to find such videos as the Apex Twin's Come to Daddy and Squarepusher's Come on my Selector, despite their unavailability, then those are the people he wants to view his work. I spoke with Cunningham about all this via phone after three attempts to nail him down. He may not be busy distributing his work, but he's certainly busy creating it.

UD: What are you working on right now?

Cunningham: I'm working on a script with William Gibson. He's over from Canada.

UD: How's that going? Are you just working on the script right now?

Cunningham: That's right, really early stages.

UD: So will this be your first feature?

Cunningham: I don't know if it will necessarily be the first one I make, but it's certainly the first one I'm involved with, yeah. You never know whether these things are going to happen or not. I mean, films get up to almost shooting and they collapse. I don't want to be negative, but I think being English, I tend to look on the dark side.

UD: If you're English you have pessimism automatically built in?

Cunningham: Absolutely. So you eliminate disappointment, you know?

UD: Oh, that's horrible! I'm from California, so I have optimism automatically built in.

Cunningham: I know. American's say "yes" to everything, don't they? I'm sorry, Californian's say "yes" to everything. I've never heard the word "No" spoken in California, actually.

UD: No, really? I think New York is much more pessimistic. I've been here for a few years and I have to say that New Yorkers are much more pessimistic. So what else are you working on?

Cunningham: I'm working on a short film, a short kind of abstract music film.

UD: Is it a film or a music video?

Cunningham: It's definitely not a video. It's a short film, but it's more like a music video than a film. It's totally abstract. I'm just beginning on it.

UD: I heard a rumor that your Come on my Selector video was banned somewhere.

Cunningham: They banned it in Japan.

UD: Really? Why?

Cunningham: They said it was insulting to mental patients, and to asylums.

UD: Where has the video played over here [in the U.S.]?

Cunningham: I don't think it was played over there in America at all. I think it was played once or twice on M2.

UD: So it really hasn't gotten much exposure.

Cunningham: No. I'm always shocked when people say they've seen it because I can't work out quite how.

UD: I saw it on another Web site.

Cunningham: You'll have to forgive me, but I'm not a Web person, I know nothing about the Internet.

UD: Have you been online Chris?

Cunningham: I've been a couple of times, yeah.

UD: Only been a couple of times?! Oh my God, we need to get you online. It's the best thing for film right now because it's a complete grassroots means of distribution.

Cunningham: Yeah, but I hate film

UD: You hate film?

Cunningham: Are you talking about if you're a film fan?

UD: Well, yeah, if you're a fan, but I think it's good for filmmakers because you have control over your own distribution and a more accessible way to reach your audience. You don't like to watch films?

Cunningham: No.

UD: Why? Because you're in front of it all day?

Cunningham: No, not at all. I just lost interest in watching films about 6 or 7 years ago.

UD: So why are you a filmmaker?

Cunningham: Because watching films is completely different from making them.

UD: What's the distinction?

Cunningham: To me, the buzz I get is definitely in the doing. Once I've done it, I don't tend to pay attention to what happens to it afterwards. I'm a compulsive creative person, I always have to be doing something. Film is quite a good thing for me to do because it's got so many stages to go through to get the end result. I love all the levels of stress and how difficult it is to get an end result. But, I am actually kind of a disenchanted film fan, you know?

UD: It's that English pessimism thing again?

Cunningham: No, I think it's just the fact that most films these days are absolutely crap. I'm definitely frustrated. I suppose because I became a film fan in the late ‘70s when I was a little kid, and I reckon that was a really rich time for film. And if you compare the films that came out in 1977 to the films that came out in 1997, it's fucking shocking, the difference in quality. I love it when people recommend films because I reckon I can keep going well in my '50 or ‘60s and never have to watch a modern film. I can keep going back to watch films from the ‘60s, ‘70s.

UD: How old are you?

Cunningham: I was born in 1970. I'm 28.

UD: You're pretty young to be doing as well as you are.

Cunningham: It's hard to tell really. I suppose if I was a musician, I'd be quite old. But being a filmmaker, you're still considered a baby when you're 30. I never ever stop to think about whether I'm doing well or doing badly.

UD: Do you have any other artistic endeavors?

Cunningham: I used to be a sculptor and a painter, I still do a bit of drawing and painting and I do music at home. I spend most of my spare time doing music to be honest.

UD: Like what?

Cunningham: Just electronic music.

UD: Anything you want to pursue professionally?

Cunningham: No, no. You never know what may happen, but I'm really quite adamant about keeping it as a hobby, because everything I've ever done in my life that I love has turned into a job.

UD: How did you end up doing the Madonna video?

Cunningham: After Come to Daddy I was offered virtually everything you can imagine, the majority of which was very dark, similar types of things as Come to Daddy. Doing the Madonna video seemed like something significantly different. I always want to try to explore other aspects of my interests. Come to Daddy was more about having a laugh.

UD: Having a laugh? It was extremely scary. Scary and funny at the same time.

Cunningham: Well, it was supposed to be extremely funny, but not extremely scary. That was almost a bi-product. I thought it was just going to be funny. It was so weird that people weren't laughing and they were saying, oh that was really gross.

UD: How did you put Richard James' face on all those little kids in the Apehx Twin video?

Cunningham: They're wearing masks. I really am at a loss at how people can't see that they're just wearing masks. They look so fake to me. If anything I feel a bit guilty towards the people who made the masks because I'd criticized them so often in the process. Everyone thinks they look really good and I remember seeing them and thinking, fuck, they look really phony.

UD: They don't look phony at all.

Cunningham: Well, I used to be an FX person. I spent a year and a half making a mechanical robot for Stanley Kubrick, so I suppose I'm incredibly critical.

UD: What's going on with doing videos with violent little girls who kick the crap out of people?

Cunningham: The only video I've done with violent little girls is, uh…wait it's true! I've done two actually. But, if you're talking about the Aphex Twin they're not girls, they're fucking little monsters! They're not girls at all. They're meant to be little Richard James', but one of them happens to be wearing a dress because it's sick in the head or something.

UD: No, they're all wearing dresses.

Cunningham: They're not all wearing dresses. About three of them are.

UD: They scare me.

Kiley Bates for Urban Desires, 1998