Mere days after we first posted about filmmaker Ray Tintori, his latest video for MGMT was released to the world, setting their much-loved anthem “Kids” to a barrage of unsettling images. Beginning with an epic minute-long intro and transitioning into a nightmare vision of infancy starring folk freak pixie Joanna Newsom as a crass housewife, a crying toddler, and a fleet of flesh-mangled monsters, the video eventually gives way to an extravagant animated sequence crafted by Christy Karacas (the creator of Cartoon Networks’ awesomely disturbing Superjail). The reactions to “Kids” in online discussions have been divisive, with some viewers lobbing accusations of child abuse towards Tintori, echoing the controversy over Jill Greenberg’s “crying baby” photos a few years back. We were dying to know more about Tintori and his methods, so we had a chat with the artist to tackle some of the mystery surrounding his work.
So, what are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m finishing up another music video for a friend’s band called Boy Crisis. That should be done in a couple days, and then I’m going to take a hiatus from doing music videos for a while and work on some scripts that I’ve sort of been putting off for about a year and a half. Some of it’s longer and some of it’s shorter, but there are four or five different projects right now that have sort of been put on hold after the music video thing evolved a little, after we did those first MGMT videos.
It seems like the music video world took you in positive directions, though…
I made the Tinman movie at Wesleyan, and that school is not really a production school. So, after graduating I still didn’t really know what an F-stop was. You watch a lot of films and you think about them really seriously and then at the end of it, you make film without any serious training. So we winged those two shorts. After Sundance, there were people who sort of appeared and said, “We’ve got to get you on a feature in six months!” It just sounded like a really bad idea to be the least experienced person on the set, and also be the director.
Did you learn a lot by doing these videos over the past two years?
Yeah, I just got a lot more set experience. They’ve all been on really different scales: that Chairlift video was like $2000, and the Killers video was, I think, $180,000. And everything in between. I definitely like knowing that I can handle a production on all these different scales of professionalism. I learned a lot about actually being a director.
We tried to make every video in a completely different style than the previous ones, and that’s been really fun. Each one of them was set up with a formal challenge in mind. With the Cool Kids video, we moved the camera a lot, and then on another video we’d have a completely locked off camera, and just to try to make it work. Or, we’d have a lot of really long shots. On “Kids,” we tried to shoot it really, really boring without a lot of extreme camera moves. Sort of like an 80’s horror film.
How was the event at Deitch Projects this weekend?
It was really fun! We brought up all the monster puppets from New Orleans. We shot at an abandoned high school down there, and the puppets were just sitting around that place collecting dust, so it was really fun to bring them up to New York.
With each one of these projects you make so much stuff, and you don’t really want to cut the video based around how much time you spend on each prop. They should all just serve the purpose of its function in the larger piece. Especially with those monsters—when we were watching a lot of John Carpenter films or a bunch of old Cronenberg movies, we found that those prosthetic monster effects usually work really well when they’re kind of barely seen. When you look at those scenes you realize that it’s just light scattering across them.
There’s definitely a very They Live feel to the costumes.
Definitely, They Live was a huge influence—the police officer with the zombie face was super They Live. They Live and The Thing: those were it for us. We basically got every horror movie from the 80s and cut together a master reel of all the best stuff. Absolutely the coolest monsters were from The Thing. The design of those monsters was so imaginative and really surreal.
Anyway, it was almost perfect to show the video at Deitch. Because, you know, that video doesn’t even really function as a marketing tool. They’re having a lot of trouble getting it on TV. It’s just too weird… it’s probably going to alienate more people than convert fans, you know? So an art gallery is maybe where it should be, rather than on TV. I think so far they’ve played it on TV only at like 2:00 in the morning.
What’s the reason behind that? Do they think people won’t “get it,” or are they concerned that people are going to be upset about it?
One of MGMT’s managers has been forwarding me the complaints they’ve been getting from television stations. It failed a bunch of seizure tests. They thought it was going to give people seizures… and it has a minute-long intro that people aren’t happy about. And of course, people are very, very sensitive about the treatment of the child in the video.
Yeah, I was wondering—whose child is that in the video? Did you cast for the role, or was that a friend’s kid?
We put out a casting call in New Orleans. I actually didn’t get to meet any of the kids before the shoot, so they just told me that was the kid that responded to direction the best. But when I got to the set he was completely non-verbal and afraid to shake my hand. I had picked him because I thought this was the kid I would be able to sit down with and have a conversation with, but he was just 18 months old. I think it worked out in the end, but it definitely surprised me on the day.
How did you get him to act so upset? What were your methods to produce those emotions?
Well, because he was so young, he would naturally go back and forth between being really happy and getting cranky, and getting hungry. He’s young enough that basically his only way of communicating is crying. There was really no way to tell him, “I need you to be happy,” or “Move your hand like this.” Especially the shots where he was in the back seat of the car, we just put a camera in the car and had his mom drive around in circles for ten minutes. And then went through it all and took little moments where it looked like he was reacting to something outside the window… basically, most of the editing was just to create a continuous, coherent emotional state for the kid, which is really tricky.
Shooting with a kid that young, especially when he’s standing up and able to walk around, it’s just like having a completely chaotic, uncontrolled person at the center of your entire production. Wherever you want them to go, they’re going to go in the exact opposite direction. If you want them to be happy in a shot, they’re going to start crying. If you need them to look scared, they’re going to be, like, laughing and eating peanuts. So it was definitely tricky.
Was he actually afraid of the monster masks?
No. He definitely got that the monsters were puppets and was playing around with them, punching them and growling at them. Most little kids like monsters and understand what make-believe is. It’s just that at a certain point, you don’t want to be under hot lights any more having people tell you what to do, having a whole crew of people going, “Come on! Come on, Zachary!” When I was a little kid, my parents worked on movies and they would try to put me in stuff…. So I completely understood why he was upset at certain points, but it wasn’t fear. It was never fear. It was just crankiness, I’d say. And in pretty much every shot, it’s cropped so that you can’t see his mom’s hands holding him. They really were very careful about following all the child labor rules and all that.
It’s funny, I haven’t been out there trying to dispel the possibility that maybe it was a completely out of control shoot and what happened was terrible, because it’s really affecting people… they’re getting really worked up about it, and it’s kind of funny to see that. But no, it wasn’t like, a satanic torture experience.
Was the band or management ever concerned about the people who think it’s child torture or something?
No, I mean—Andrew [VanWyngarden] said that the first time he watched it, he was disturbed by the kid’s performance, and that the whole video really disturbed him, so he thought that was a really good sign, because he had come up with the idea. The thing that’s cool about the MGMT videos is that I’ve known them for a really long time, so I’m able to actually sit down with them and come up with ideas for the video in a collaborative way. Usually they come up with the first structure for the video, like “It should be about kids living in a post-apocalyptic utopia, but I want to kill a lot of monsters in it. And there needs to be surfing.” And we work on it from there.
Since you used one of the Oz books as inspiration for Death to the Tinman, are you inspired by children’s books, and what were your favorite children’s books growing up?
Children’s films and books in general are just… the interesting ones are really great, because they get away with stuff that would be hard to deal with even in a film that’s supposed to be more mature. Usually before I start storyboarding, I like to watch a little bit of Babe: Pig in the City. I just love the way it was shot and the whole way that movie is put together. A lot of the George Miller kids films are great: Happy Feet is not a perfect movie all the way through, but it has some of the most viscerally upsetting staged scenes I’ve ever seen in it, of these little penguins being tormented by a series of really scary much larger creatures.
As far as children’s books, I really liked that book The Pushcart War when I was a kid. It’s very political—it’s a kid’s guide on how to start an insurgent war in Manhattan. Definitely the Maurice Sendak books. I really like In The Night Kitchen. With kid’s books and films you can put stuff in the subtext that’s so heavy or radical, and because it’s a kid’s project, a lot of times it seems to fly by. You understand it on some level as a kid, even if you don’t understand everything about it or why it makes you feel that way.
With the Tinman story, that was a story that I had heard a lot as a kid, but I’d never read the book. My dad had told me that story when I was a little kid. When I actually went and wanted to make the film I went and read the book for the first time, it’s funny because it’s really different than the way that he had remembered it, or he had emphasized certain parts of the story that weren’t so huge in the book. That movie’s sort of based more on my mis-remembering of his mis-remembering of the story. The concerns of the book are pretty different than the concerns of the film. The book is interesting because everyone knows that character, but no one really loves that book. Baum was really sickly when he wrote that book and either hallucinating or having death-bed type experiences. So the book isn’t really finished, it feels sort of like a draft of something thrown up on paper. It doesn’t feel like a finished thing.
It was nice to do an adaptation of something that people didn’t love and didn’t really know, you know? When you wanted to change stuff, you knew you weren’t going to offend a bunch of people. I’ve always just liked the basic story of that book, the basic love triangle. You come back from being completely destroyed and find that the person you loved has left you for your completely empty doppelganger, and she’s happier than she was with you. That was really compelling to me. I knew it was going to be a short film, so it had to be a story you could tell really simply. If you could tell it in six sentences, you could fit it into 12 minutes.
I love how your short films lay that out really quickly and then just get to a bunch of fun action right away.
Watching a lot of student short films, it’s often the case that there’s a choice a character must make but you know what the two options are within the first minute, and then you spend the next ten minutes watching them go, “Well, should I do Thing A, or Thing B?” And then at the end they decide to do Thing B. But you know what’s going to happen—it’s going to be one thing or the other, and you’re just waiting. It’s really hard to stay ahead of audiences, because everyone watches so many stories that they figure out all the different ways things could possibly go as soon as you show them the possibility of what could happen. I wanted to make a short film where we were really staying ahead of the audience. And one that ended in a place that was completely different than where it started. The moment there was some suggestion of what was happening, I would instantly dash it down.