Phil Harder: Low doesn't really react strongly to anything

Categories: Q&A
Photo by Andy Grund

Starting with a frozen Lake Superior in 1993, renowned director Philip Harder has captured the 20 years of Low in music videos and short films. With his 16mm camera -- even through the digital years -- Harder filmed Low in color-coded films with recurring visual themes in -30 degree wind-chill weather, in a warehouse filled with slowly falling heavy objects, beneath historic bridges and railroads, and even in a bank transformed into the "Canadian Border."

From the band's extremely quiet beginnings at the height of loud grunge, Low's minimalist music with a slow build completely informed and transformed Harder's filmmaking approach and techniques. He moved from the innumerable hard, fast rock and punk videos he produced for MTV and record labels since 1985 to his signature visual storytelling via short films, his gorgeously textured, at times archival-looking cinematography reflecting his passion for foreign films.

For Low Movie (How to Quit Smoking), Harder dug up raw footage and outtakes from his vast collection of 16mm film, much of which has never been seen -- even by Low. In the 70-minute film, Harder recreated some of the videos by reassembling new material with old. He wove in Polaroids and photos taken from the '90s on by Tom Herbers, Low's lone sound engineer over nearly all of their years.

Gimme Noise caught up with Harder before tonight's screening of his movie at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival.

See Also:
Review: Low at Fitzgerald Theater, 3/23/13
Low's road to The Invisible Way: The influential Minnesota band release a milestone 10th full-length studio album

Gimme Noise: How did you meet Low and begin doing their videography?

Phil Harder: I was a music video director and the label contacted me because I lived in proximity to Low -- Minneapolis, Duluth -- the label was from New York. They didn't know who to hire and I came recommended so they went with it.

What was your initial idea for this film?

Because I've worked with Low since before their first record and continued to work with them over the years, it started to make sense that maybe there was a collection that could be put together.

I don't know any other band that has had the same filmmaker for that long a period of time. A lot of bands have been around that long and could compile their footage -- it's been done. But this is coming from one director. So this is not only the style of Low's unique music, but the style that goes with one filmmaker over their 20 years. Not only did they start really young, and mature over two decades, I was also doing the same thing, along with them.

Sometimes with a music video we end up using a fraction of what we shot. In some cases we had this extra footage and it became this segue film. One was the video for "Shame," in 1995. We had a guy walking around trying to hand out red balloons, and that became a short film. We went to the raw footage for the performance of "Shame," and we found a take that we had cut up originally for the music video that was a stream of takes through the whole song. We ended up re-cutting the music video with one shot. It's manipulated ways to discover new things with old footage. We also shot new things.

At one point I went to Duluth and did an acoustic performance with Al for "Death of a Salesman," black and white 16mm. I just wanted something very intimate, very simple, not conceptual -- that song clip ended up being the opening of Low Movie, mainly shot in the same way as some of the intimate performances.

More ideas came about to add to all the music videos. In 2009 I was in the Netherlands, and Low was playing in Eindhoven, and so I thought I'd shoot that as well. I got that footage back and turned them into a couple of live clips with some great concepts and animation going on too. We continued to make music videos all the way up to this year, with the new video -- it's not even out yet -- for the song, "Just Make It Stop."

How did you create the time-lapse photography of grass and ferns unfurling?

I used an animator from Seattle, Britta Johnson. She did that animation and created a tornado out of cotton balls and a wire, with a super-8 for a different Low clip. A lot of these clips evolve. We also wanted to add sound as much as possible and find the old sound tapes. In the early 2000s we started adding some audio, just little spoken intros to videos and stuff like that. They became good storytelling elements.

The storytelling in your videos is quite dark and grim, fitting for the music. Do you come up with the story around their music? Or do you collaborate with Low members on what the story and environment will be?

Sometimes it's collaboration. Sometimes its completely Low's idea. Other times it's my idea. For "Just Make It Stop," I wrote an email to them, which they liked, and is the idea that we shot. That's 2013. But if you go all the way back to "Words," the first video, I do recall writing them an elaborate treatment that they rejected. Al said, "I just want to have the band pushing a boat around on frozen Lake Superior." They knew their music, so it's like, "Well... "

Low were really experimenting with minimalism and when they came out, it was such a different sound compared to what was happening back then, like Sub Pop, Nirvana, all this loud stuff. They came out with this super quiet music but it had a lot of power, this building quiet, which needed images that weren't filling your face, I think. More subtle, longer takes, experimenting with that quiet Low build that they had in their earlier songs.

That's also why I thought this film would be cool, because it was something new back then to me. I grew as a filmmaker with the help of their music. With it I developed a new style. The first video really got a lot of attention because it was such an opposite look and an opposite sound.

What else do you remember about that first video?

The first one was black and white because I was using this weird titling film that's obsolete they used to use for title cards on film. It was high-contrast film that would either shoot black or white with titles on them. I also found if you shoot outside, it's a very slow film, so it made all the footage on the lake look really bizarre, like an old silent film.

When I was shooting on the lake it was so cold I could only shoot for a few takes because I didn't realize my batteries in the camera would slow down due to the cold. We'd do two really long takes; they were slow slow slow and almost stop. I thought I'd better cut it before it comes to a halt, put in a new battery and then go again.

When I got the footage back it's like this strange footage seemed to be shocked by the cold, it's so grainy and when the camera's slowing down like that the film got brighter and brighter and brighter till it did a complete whiteout. I saw the raw footage and thought, "This is great! This is really cool!"

Because my fingers were so cold, I'd loaded the 16mm camera wrong in the first reel and put this big nasty snatch in it. It was just miserable on the lake, wind chill 30 below zero and when I downloaded the first roll of film, I dumped all this film emulsion dust out of the camera. It had been rubbing on something it shouldn't have been so there's this black scratch that comes and goes.

Everything was going wrong. At one point Al slipped and knocked himself out on the ice, because the wind was blowing and it was really slick. I finally brought the film in to the colorist where we do the video colorization -- the first few frames were just white. We went in further and went, "Oh no ... I just shot a video that was completely overexposed to the max and it's ruined."

But the colorist from Crash and Sues in Minneapolis started to pull the exposure down, down, down. In this process the lake started to show up and she kept going darker and darker until you started to see this black boat show up in this weird exposure on a white lake with corners of the film exposed looking like waves coming in. It really looked like some kind of weird silent film! It was just this combination of mistakes and accidents that you couldn't make happen.

As Low progressed they started to eventually turn up the volume -- Al turned up more and more. By the mid-2000s, they were quite loud in some cases. I think they've gone back to being quieter again almost 10 years later.

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