The White Stripes, Conan O’Brien, and a squished up red Saturn. Gangsta.
In my last post, I told the basic story: how I ended up in Michel Gondry‘s video for the White Stripes‘ “The Denial Twist,” how the video will look, the basics. Today, it’s the fun stuff: what I thought of the whole enterprise and everyone involved.
Conan O’Brien: Conan is exactly who you’d hope he would be off-camera, which is to say that he’s pretty much exactly the same way he is on-camera. He’s quick and funny and self-deprecating and charming. He kept dropping one-liners all day. Seeing me dressed like him, lumbering around 25-pound platform boots: “That’s actually how I walk.” Finding out I was writing about all this stuff for the Voice website: “Leave my racist rants out of there.” If you need to clomp around for hours under ridiculously hot film lights, it’s a lot easier when someone that funny is nearby. He came to the set late, after everyone had rehearsed the whole video a few times, and he was rocking the rarely-seen tough-Conan look (leather jacket, striped T-shirt), which was weird. It was vaguely reassuring when the makeup and wardrobe people made him look like his televised self, putting that enormous swoop back in his hair and slapping a suit on him. Everyone on the set seemed to be star-struck, including the actual stars. When Jack White walked up to him to talk about stuff, he didn’t seem to be comparing notes; he seemed to be seeking approval. Conan still looks about 23 on TV, but he’s 42, and you can sort of tell in person; his face has all these little microscopic lines that you can only see up close.
Jack White: I was vaguely hoping that he’d be as weird and introverted as he seems, but no, he’s pretty normal and sort of dorky. He was always excited, always running around the set and asking Gondry questions and eagerly watching the playbacks of the takes. I didn’t hear him talk about old blues records or furniture or the evils of technology once. Jack’s pencil-thin Vincent Price mustache is either mostly or entirely painted on, so he doesn’t look all that freaky when he doesn’t have makeup on (though he did end up looking like a Scandinavian metal dude in the cell-phone pictures that my brother took with him). He’s also totally diesel; it’s not so surprising that he was able to beat down that dude from the Von Bondies so hard.
Meg White: She’s absolutely gorgeous, easily the prettiest girl on a set absolutely overrun with pretty hipster girls. When she got there, she told the band’s assistant, a New Zealander dude in a ridiculously sharp black-on-black suit, that she didn’t want to bother with hair or makeup before the shoot. She ended up putting getting makeup done, but she really didn’t need it; she showed up to the grimy Greenpoint soundstage looking like she stepped out of a magazine. She didn’t hang out much when we weren’t shooting; the quiet-and-withdrawn thing isn’t just image. But she’s very pleasant and polite when you actually talk to her, and she seemed happy to bum me a cigarette. Both she and Jack totally keep the White Stripes dress code going even when they’re not onstage on on film, which is fun to see.
Michel Gondry: I’d met Gondry a couple of times before, and I like him a lot. He’s a funny schoolboyish French guy who seems tiny even though he’s probably close to 6 ft. tall. He’d shot the video for Kanye West‘s “Heard Em Say” last week, and I asked him about it. Apparently, it takes place in Macy’s, where they filmed for two nights, and it involves little kids and magic; it was hard to tell what he was saying through his accent. When he’s directing, he doesn’t actually do that much directing; he leaves that to Tim, his assistant director, a barrel-chested, bearded American dude who basically ran the show and yelled at the crew when they fucked up and basically acted as Gondry’s badass consigliere. It was funny to watch; Gondry would mumble, “Um, maybe zese people should walk over zhere,” and Tim would yell, “OK, you people, walk over there!” By the end of the night, most of the crew was about ready to kill Tim, and nobody had anything bad to say about Gondry. I really liked Tim.
I’m not an actor (at all), and I spent most of the day feeling vaguely like I was intruding on something. Everyone on the set seemed to be some sort of professional; the only people who didn’t so much seem to belong were my brother and me. Even the dwarves who played small Conan and small paparazzi guys were professional actors with agents and everything. It also quickly became apparent that my brother and me were the only people who weren’t being paid to be there, and it felt sort of shitty to figure that out. The production person I’d talked to the day before had told me that the shoot was low-budget and that they couldn’t afford to pay me, which was pretty much bullshit; I absolutely could have demanded money, since there were probably 100 actors and technicians and wardrobe people and lighting guys and prop-department people who were being paid to be there. Even if it was relatively low-budget for a big-name video, someone was laying out a lot of money. I did, however, walk away with maybe $500 worth of Conanesque clothes, and they’re supposed to buy me a pair of shoes to replace the ones that they modified, so that’s something.
And all the people who were getting paid seemed to be really, really good at their jobs. Since the video is one continuous camera shot, I could watch the whole thing in playbacks immediately, only without the stretching-and-compressing effects they’re putting in later, and I was amazed at how slick and fluid the cameraman made everything look. The art-department guys, many of whom had been there since three the previous afternoon, had built this crazy-huge set in less than a day. The set itself was intentionally stylized and cheesy; most of the props looked like they were made out of paper mache, and my tall-Conan costume consisted of a suit, some platform shoes, and a giant flat cardboard Conan mask. But a whole lot of effort went into making these manifestly fake effects look as not-fake as possible, and that’s why I had to keep the mask facing the camera even though I couldn’t see a fucking thing when I was walking across the stage. The platformed-up shoes I was wearing added about five inches to my height, which made me an absolutely ridiculous 7 ft. 4 in., and I came dangerously close to snapping my leg in half about ten times.
When we weren’t rehearsing or shooting, they kept my brother and me in a holding room with the little people, which led to some awkward conversations, mostly about difficulties finding clothes and whether I could find a casting agent who needed really tall people. Two of the guys were sort of cheesed-out mid-thirties Long Island dudes; one had thought that it was a Bon Jovi video and excitedly told all his friends. But the little Conan was a totally nice dude, a sincere younger guy trying to make a living as a stand-up comic without telling too many jokes about being a little person. He’d just graduated, gone to school for business, but he wanted to do comedy and only did the acting stuff to pay the bills. (His biggest payday yet was in a Cingular commercial where they dressed him up like a breakdancer and made him say, “Yo, pops, video phone.”) I kept meaning to ask him if he’d ever met Bushwick Bill, but I forgot.
I felt a little bit weird with the part I ended up playing in the video: the big, subsurvient black security guard who went on the Conan show with the White Stripes in 2003. Last year, I saw Amy Phillips give a presentation at the EMP Pop Conference about the White Stripes’ complicated relationship with race, and this guy’s role made up most of her material. A year and a half later, I was playing this guy. Any time a white guy portrays a black guy, it feels problematic. I was wearing a mask, not blackface or anything, but they put an afro wig on me to cover up my blonde hair. The wig made me uncomfortable in both senses of the word; the curly hair kept getting stuck in my glasses.
Most of the fun in being in the video was just sitting around and listening to people talking to each other, like when I think I may have heard Michel tell Conan that his show used to be better (not sure about that one). I can’t believe I got to do this shit; someone totally let me in the back door. I’ve been in one video before, Cex‘s video for “Kill Me.” That video was done totally on the fly, including some completely illegal shooting in the steam tunnels under Johns Hopkins University. This one was done on a brightly-lit soundstage with catered meals and an on-site physical therapist. But the two experiences were oddly similar; the excitement and glamor of the experience fades after about seven hours of doing the exact same shit over and over again, getting tired and surly and losing faith that this thing will ever get done, that I’ll ever see my bed again. But it’s over now, and I can feel happy that I contributed to something amazing. Michel Gondry doesn’t make bad videos; everything he does is completely infused with this joyous sense of naive wonder that I totally love. I love that there’s this whole system in place, all these hundreds of people on call, bands and companies willing to put up what must be hundreds of thousands of dollars, just to make it happen whenever this guy has another idea. I’m way too close to the whole thing to even make any hopeless move toward objectivity, of course, but I think that “The Denial Twist” will be one of his best videos, and I helped make it.
Voice review: Keith Harris on the White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan