Sometimes a song begs for more. The emotion, the lyric, the tune’s raw beating heart lets you know that it deserves a bigger canvas. That’s exactly how Imagine Dragons singer Dan Reynolds felt about his band’s emotion-packed ballad “Next to Me.” He didn’t know what visual would fit the song from the Las Vegas group’s third album, 2017’s Evolve, but he knew it needed something different.
“We put the call out to see what people came back to us with to a bunch of directors, and we like Mark [Pellington] — he was just the most impassioned director we’ve ever had reach out about a music video in the history of this band,” Reynolds tells Billboard about the legendary director behind iconic music videos from Pearl Jam (“Jeremy”) and U2 (“One”), as well as the new all-star drama Nostalgia. “He said, ‘You have no options. I must do this video.’ And when he heard the song [he said] it had a lot of personal value for him too.”
That off-the-bat passion, connection and the gut-punching treatment from Pellington resonated immediately with Reynolds and the rest of the band — and subsequently became an 11-minute mini-movie. They were all excited, if a bit scared to step outside of their comfort zone to play dramatic roles in the short about fear, desperation, love, harsh consequences and, maybe, redemption.
“Whether it’s ‘Jeremy’ or [Dave Matthews’] ‘Gravedigger,’ certain songs you hear in your mind and it just starts to race with ideas and this was one of those,” Pellington tells Billboard. He describes how the lyrics dug into his bones on an emotional level and led to a voluminous 11-page, abstract treatment in which he didn’t try to censor his stream-of-consciousness flow of ideas (a typical music video treatment runs 2-3 pages).
Pellington wrote a script that traces the story of Reynold (played by Reynolds), a desperate man fallen on hard times who makes a tragic mistake that lands him on death row, far away from the love of his life, played by the singer’s real-life wife, Nico Vega lead singer Aja Volkman. The director says the story asks whether someone who thinks they have done something terrible can truly be forgiven at the end of their life.
Reynolds and Pellington had a series of very late night conversations about the film, which confirmed how passionate the director was about the project and, Reynolds says, spurred him to reflect on how the trials he’s had in his personal life over the past two years dovetailed with the vulnerability he surfaces in the video. Though the lanky lead singer’s outsized personality easily fills arenas these days, Reynolds hadn’t really acted since some bit parts in middle school and a smattering of high school Shakespeare. Whatever it is he tapped into for this project, however, must have been deep, because he recalls how during the shooting of a handful of scenes there were “multiple people off-screen” who were in tears because they felt the emotion Pellington helped him exude.
“Mark really pushed me into an uncomfortable space and in a lot of ways he opened up my eyes to a whole different world,” Reynolds says of his gritty, trigger-pulling character, whose frustrations explode once he’s trapped in a tiny prison cell. The four-day shoot — the longest in the band’s history — included three days in Los Angeles and a grueling one in their home city of Vegas at a currently shuttered prison where Reynolds had to literally face his worst nightmare. “The cells were tiny and I’m extremely claustrophobic because I was locked in a tiny box as a prank by one of my brothers when I was little when he was doing a magic trick and he kept me in a box too long,” says Reynolds.
In keeping with Pellington’s calling card, the story doesn’t play out in a neat, linear fashion, but instead pushes into a realm of duality, suggesting two very different outcomes to the story, with enough layers that viewers can pick their own adventure upon repeated viewings. “The basic through line is of a man seeing all this before his execution, being forgiven and loved by his wife and nature and the end result being what he wanted — but also allowing himself to go to that dark scenario,” says Pellington. The director also notes that he was inspired by everything from such classic prison movies as The Shawshank Redemption and Cool Hand Luke to the lyrical voiceover in Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line, Dust Bowl imagery and American painter Andrew Wyeth’s iconic “Christina’s World” painting.
The drama is heightened even more thanks to the haunting orchestral score written by Dragons guitarist Wayne Sermon, who doubles as the victim in the film. Sermon played cello on the score alongside drummer Daniel Platzman’s violin, and Reynolds says he doesn’t want to brag too much on his bandmates, but he’s incredibly proud of their work: “We wanted to create this fictional western world that had that romantic feeling and vibe of a lot of old country western movies like the ones I watched growing up, like Lonesome Dove, and I’m just so proud of [Sermon] and the heart and soul he put into this.”
With the grueling, but rewarding experience behind him, Reynolds says he has definitely been bitten by the acting bug again, and he is looking at some screenplays written by Volkman that the couple are thinking about turning into “homemade indie films.”
Check out the video below.