Memorable turns such as the loveable glam-rock trans-woman Kitten in Breakfast from Pluto and shell-shocked dashing-but-disturbed sweetheart William in The Edge of Love have made Cillian Murphy‘s name synonymous with brave career choices. He lit up the small screen most recently as brooding gangster Tommy in the BBC’s Peaky Blinders but the 37-year old County Cork-born boy is anything but a cult icon.
While zombie fighting, space exploring, Batman taunting roles have brought him massive international success, legions of loyal fans continue to be won over by standout performances in implacable indie flicks as much as those well-timed blockbusters. Artistic integrity and a relish for challenging work has continued with his directorial debut – the recent video for “Hold Me Forever” from Manchester maestros MONEY.
The Bella Union-signed four piece released their first long player The Shadow of Heaven this summer. A dreamy, ethereal and highly intelligent piece of work that both provokes and lulls the listener, it’s very much in keeping with Murphy’s own ethos and style. I catch up with the actor and director on a day off from shooting Ron Howard’s In The Heart of the Sea to find out more the origins of the MONEY project and discover that his interest in music stretches much further than we might expect.
We’re big MONEY fans at Best Fit and I’d like to start by talking about the video for “Hold Me Forever”. It’s an absolutely beautiful visual. How did you become involved?
Well I’m friends with Simon Raymonde and I love that label..Eventually he emailed me and was like “look you keep going to all my gigs we should have a cup of coffee”. We met and we really got on and then he suggested we should do something and he sent me all the new releases…the MONEY album just knocked me out.
It was one of those records that immediately connected to me and when it came to the second single I happened to have a bit of time and I listened to the song over and over again. I’ve never been to the ballet, but for some reason I thought of ballet dancers.
And I met up with Jamie (Lee, frontman of MONEY) and we talked about it and we shot it in a day.
Jamie is a really charismatic front man so was the decision to not feature the band meant to take the song to another place? To give it a life, a visual identity rather than its primary function of being a song?
Well there’s two answers to that. First of all, videos I like generally don’t have the band involved or if they do they’re not playing instruments they’re playing roles.
Like that amazing Atoms for Peace video, where Thom Yorke is just dancing. The fella that directed that is a friend of mine and I love those videos.
He’s Hammer and Tongs isn’t he?
That’s right yeah. I thought those two videos were really really special. And the second part of the answer is that I hadn’t seen MONEY perform, I hadn’t met Jamie either so I didn’t realize what a firecracker of a front man he is, you know? If I were to work with him again I would probably involve him in some way. So they are the reasons.
You also have to think practically: We made that video for £1,200. So you have to figure out how you can do this for no money, quickly. That’s also part of the creative concept.
The fluidity of ballet and of the song works, but when did that idea come to you?
Well I was listening to the song over and over again with a glass of wine and there’s something about their music that is very fragile…a sort of fragility and a sort of strength to it and that’s what you get with ballet dancers. And also trying to transcend the human, the restrictions of the human body which ballet dancers do. It felt like that song particularly – you know, “Hold Me Forever”, which is an impossibility – it felt that those two were connected.
I’ve always loved performance videos as opposed to strictly narrative videos or a band playing. I like something that is a visual accompaniment to the song but not necessarily anything to do with the song.
The video feels like a real journey: from the rigorous group training to the focus on individual dancers, then the rehearsals and finally the stage. Did you storyboard the video moving and taking shape as the song does?
Yeah I mean I never actually storyboarded it by actually getting a storyboard out and doing it but I had it very clear in my head, worked out and I worked with a choreographer quite closely who we discovered on Twitter.
Yeah I’m not on Twitter but the guys from Bella Union just put out a request for somebody to come and help us out with this video and he was like I’d love to help so we got the English National Ballet and we got the room through Max (Westwell – choreographer) and everything. And he helped me, I know I wanted two dancers and then I also wanted a group and my whole thing was about as getting as close to the bodies as possible. I love Terence Malick films and I love the way he just let’s the camera be an observer and just move around the actors and I wanted it to be something like that.
The focus when he lifts her is astounding.
At the beginning I was fascinated by how their feet looked like little armies of weird tiny men, they don’t look like feet when you shoot them out of context, these little sort of foot soldiers, literally I suppose.
And their flexibility, it’s as though they’re double jointed…
Yeah it’s amazing and you know all these girls who were in it, they’re not the prima ballerinas they’re like the chorus line, I know that’s not the correct term, but for them they were delighted to be given the spotlight for a change. They were so lovely to work with and so cooperative and we had a real laugh doing it. We hung out with them a lot beforehand, myself and Jamie and everyone did it for free.
I’m very into collaborations between artists that don’t have any commercial gain. This isn’t about commercial gain, it’s just about “I like your work, you like my work let’s make something” and it happens very rarely nowadays because it seems that everybody’s in there to make some profit, but here the cameraman and all the crew worked for free, it was great.
Was directing dancers tricky, seeing as you’re not a dancer yourself?
Me and the choreographer worked together but I would just give them a mood. I think the best directors that I’ve worked with are not prescriptive they just sort of have confidence in you, they give you a brief and then there you go. People who micromanage or sort of pick up on every little fault, they’re not really directors. It should be about whatever the best idea in the room is. It might not be the director’s, it might come from the grip, you know?
Did the dancers actually move and perform to the track?
We did originally perform with the track on speakers but then after they got the rhythm it was just to the click, just to the actually rhythm but they had listened to the song over and over again so they knew it really well. I knew they would come together in the edit. I had a really great editor as well, so I knew that as long as I had enough material, we had an hour and a half worth of dancing and the song is only five and a half minutes long so I knew that if I had enough material that I could put it together in the edit.
When you were directing, did you consider that most people will watch it on a computer?
We did but nevertheless we shot it like a movie, we shot it on the Red , I wanted to shoot it on an Elixir but I couldn’t get that for free and I had a great cameraman, an Irish cameraman, who shot it for me and he shoots films so we lit it and shot it for film.
Inevitably these things will be watched online but I still think you should shoot them as a film, that’s just my point of view. When we were grading it we did have it up on the big screen and it held up beautifully, so at least watch it in HD that would be my only desire you know.
That’s a very interesting question, I hadn’t thought about that. I hadn’t thought beyond the final shot of the empty theatre. Which for me is what all performance is about whether it be theatre or dance or being projected in to a theatre in film, it’s always about the audience. So that’s me with a full stop, an ending of the piece. So no I hadn’t thought beyond that.
But I would love to do more, I’d love to do more music videos because I just love music so much and it’s a great way to cut your teeth. There wasn’t strictly a narrative with this piece so it was a nice way to learn how to do something like that. I feel like it’s very hard to make a short film with a narrative because it needs to be more impressionistic generally, if you get a mood or an emotion from a five minute visual piece that’s enough.
I don’t think you need necessarily a beginning, a middle and an end, you need an emotion or a colour you know what I mean?
Watch five of Cillian Murphy’s favourite music videos above. ”I couldn’t narrow down to five – these are just a selection,” he explains. “I could have picked hundreds!”
Both Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze moved on from music video to direct features – do you think there’s that expectation now or are you just ignoring all the assumptions?
Oh I’d love to direct a feature film someday but I’m not actively searching for the story…I think it’s very easy to learn how to make films but it’s very hard to learn what to make films about and that’s the difference.
You need to have a great story and if I find a great story or the story finds me then I’ll try to do it.
Going back to what you were saying about the mood and colour of a piece…do you think music videos can be as profound and challenging as features? I remember when I was a kid watching Jonas Akerlund’s Smack My Bitch Up and being knocked back.
Yeah I think they can. You’re obviously a lot younger than me. But of course for me it was Thriller. That’s effectively a little movie…and nowadays the form for them is generally on the computer. It’s not about MTV or getting airplay for the artists so you can afford to be a little more experimental, or abstract of avant or whatever the word. It’s not about putting the artist at the front and selling records.
Everything in the music business has changed so much. That’s why I think music videos have become a very fertile place for creativity and imagination.
I do think though that since the invention of MTV in the 80s you’ve got a lot of beautiful music videos and rubbish music videos and challenging music videos but it’s like there’s less live shows recorded now. Would you ever consider shooting a music documentary like The Last Waltz or something like that?
Oh I’d love to. I mean I love music documentaries and I’m very allergic to biopics as I think they never, they very really succeed but a really good concert film or a really good documentary on an artist reveals so much more than a compressed two hour version of an artist’s life. The Last Waltz is an amazing example of that. Or the Scorsese documentaries on Bob Dylan and George Harrison.
Do you have any dream bands you’d shoot a doc of?
Gosh there’s plenty. I’ll wait for them to come to me.
You were in bands when you were younger. I remember you wrote the exit music for an early movie you were in and you often sing in movies too. Do you think you’d ever try and write a soundtrack?
Oh I don’t know if I’d have the confidence to do that. I mean I mess around and I still play the guitar and I mess around with my friends and occasionally I’ll write songs, not very prolific at all. Any chance though in a movie to get in front of a mic I will.
But you know, music kind of keeps me going. It’s the second most important thing to me after acting. I use it in acting all the time. That’s why directing music videos is also just an excuse to hang around with musicians . Music is hugely important to me but I’m not out there saying I want to write soundtracks or release or do any of that but if something comes along where I can get involved musically I will dip my toe in to it.
Soundtracks can really make or break a movie top. Do you have any favourite soundtracks, maybe from films you’ve worked on or otherwise?
Oh yeah there’s plenty, plenty. I guess the most recent one was Peaky Blinders – our theme tune is Red Right Hand by Nick Cave. I’ve always been a bit resistant to contemporary music on period pieces but the director was very strong and he put it over that opening sequence in the first episode, it just seemed to fit.
Also I did this movie Broken, which Damon Albarn wrote the soundtrack for. The girl who’s the lead in the movie sang on a Blur b-side so it became a theme for the movie and it just worked beautifully.
So yeah it’s so powerful when it works but then there’s the opposite side of it, which is to sling all the hipster tracks on a bad movie and try and make it cool and that’s a false economy.
At what point did acting take over from music for you?
When I was 20 they both came to a head in the same month I got offered a record deal and a part in a play and I took the part in the part and that was the end of the music professionally.
What were your biggest musical influences growing up?
Well it all started for me with The Beatles, my Dad having the records as a kid and then just totally immersing myself in their world and then from then it was everything really…Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, loads of jazz and blues, Tom Waits.
It’s a constant journey isn’t it, music? You’re always discovering and that’s the beauty of it. It never ends.
New music discovery is a really big part of what we’re trying to do as a website – championing bands and providing a platform by trying to balance the bigger artists to help bring attention to smaller ones. You working with MONEY has obviously helped them reach a wider audience. Have they taken you out for a pint?
Well I missed the last London gig …but myself and Jamie keep in touch. They’re playing London soon so hopefully I can go along then. I think he’s a brilliant guy and they’re a very important band and I Simon has impeccable taste. Bella Union is such a wonderful label that it’s great to be involved with those guys.
Yeah, as a label it has a really cohesive identity.
For me if it says Bella Union on it, I’ll buy it. That’s probably the only contemporary label that I’ll do that with.
Have you been approached by lots of bands to make their music videos?
No I haven’t actually, rather disappointingly . I’m being facetious. I would love to do it, but it would have to be the song. It would always be the song. That song…I never get tired of listening to it. I must have listened to it 200,000 times and I never get tired of it so if there’s another song that speaks to me like that then I’ll do it.
The Shadow of Heaven by MONEY and Peaky Blinders Series One are both out now.