Michael Stipe's impetus for R.E.M.'s Collapse Into Now Film Project aren't all that lofty. He just wants "to try to reimagine what an album is in 2011."
"The challenge to me is, 'What is an album, and how can we explore that in the 21st century,'" Stipe told Billboard.com before presenting nine of the 12 films created for the songs from R.E.M.'s new album, "Collapse Into Now" on Wednesday night as part of the South By Southwest Film Festival. "How do we take a group of songs that were created together and update what [an album] is with the available technology, with the Internet, with instant access on a device that any of us have in our pocket at any given time. For me, the go-to thing is to take artisan filmmakers I know and whose work I admire and ask them to interpret or collaborate with the band and interpret one of our songs. That's what I did."
The films Stipe presented Wednesday were broad in both technique and approach, from Dominic DeJoseph's treatment of "Mine Smell Like Honey," to Sam Taylor Wood's "Uberlin," which features "Nowhere Boy" star Aaron Johnson dancing acrobatically through city streets, to the swirling, colorful computer graphics of "Discoverer" (by Stipe and his sister Lynda), Jem Cohen's moody and impressionistic "Oh My Heart," Tom Milroy's mysterious "It Happened Today" and Sophie Calle's provocative "Walk It Back," shot entirely with an iPhone and featuring an extended sequence of a horse urinating. For "Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter", directed by Lance Bangs, Stipe and guest vocalist Peaches donned garish, estravagant costumes.
A pair of films by Academy Award-nominated actor James Franco and another by Albert Maysles are nearing completion, Stipe told the audience at Austin's Alamo Ritz.
"I know everybody," Stipe said, "so it was just a matter of figuring out which song I wanted them to do. I said, 'I'm here if you have any questions about what the song is about, if you want direction, guidance, if you want me to step in as producer - let me know. But otherwise it's yours. Take it and have fun. Do what you do.' And I have to say everyone really, unbelievably, rose to the occasion. They're absolutely stunning."
Stipe said he and bandmates Peter Buck and Mike Mills had already decided they weren't going to tour after "Collapse Into Now's" release before the film project was hatched. "They basically said, 'You go do your art thing and let us know how it turns out," Stipe recalled with a laugh, adding that Mills "helped" him with some of the more controversial films. "I had to kind of get approval from the band to move forward with full frontal male nudity or a horse pissing for a a minute and a half onscreen."
Mills and R.E.M. adjunct member Scott McCaughey were in the audience for Wednesday night's presentation.
While the films are gradually becoming available online, Stipe met with Warner Bros. Records executives to talk about their possible future as a product. "I'm sure there will be some kind of DVD that comes out that is a collection of all 12 pieces," he said.
"But it might be something different than you might expect." It could also include some footage of R.E.M. performing some of "Collapse Into Now's" songs live in the studio in Berlin, which was shot by Banks and DeJoseph. And while he stepped up to co-direct "Discoverer," Stipe told the screening crowd that after producing some 20 films he has no desire to move into directing feature-length works himself.