The director behind U2's groundbreaking new concert film, 'U23D', Dubliner Catherine Owens has helped spearhead a new medium that will doubtless herald a new era for the live concert film, and indeed for movie-making in general. Having worked on visuals for every U2 tour since ZOO TV, Owens has a unique collaborative relationship with the band. Relaxed and chatty in person, she recently joined Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen JR in Dublin for the European Premiere of 'U23D', where she spoke with Steve Cummins about her experiences working with U2 and in making the acclaimed film.
So Catherine welcome back to Dublin?
Thank you! I've been in New York 20 years now, though I'm over and back quite a lot. I have a house down in Waterford so I love getting down there whenever I can. I'm originally from Dublin of course and a lot of my family have been working in the arts industry in some form. My brother started up The Event Guide here, which is of course still going strong, while my sister works in PR.
SC: So how has it been touring the world with this film?
CO: It's been fantastic and it's great to be home, here in Ireland with it. We all had great fun in Cannes and at Sundance promoting the movie, and then we bring it to London on Friday which is the last major trip with it. It's just great now to have it out there, and to get people's reactions from it. It's really exciting to be bringing it home though, to Ireland. There's just something about being home, for both U2 and myself. It's where everything began and it's just very exciting.
SC: You're worked with U2 now for quite a while, how did your working relationship with the band come about?
CO: Well, we've known each other for such a long time. I think it's something like 25 or 26 years. I kind of really began working properly with them in the early 1990s, doing the visuals for the ZOO TV tour. My relationship with them came about way before that though.
I was in Art College, and after I left that I went to college up in Belfast. Around that time I did a group of murals for them, for a room they used. They asked me to do a set of paintings for them and that really was the start of us doing anything together.
Then on the ZOO TV tour I customised some of the work on stage, and brought in video people. Then it sort of incrementally built after that for each tour. On the last tour I began making things, mostly the political segments that ran through the show.
SC: In terms of scale, and because it had never been done before, 'U23D' most have been a massive task?
CO: Well, this was a big big... well you see I'd directed a video for them in 2006 ('Original of the Species') but this was a huge undertaking really. I'm not sure that any of us knew exactly what we were getting ourselves in for, but seeing as we like to just do things on a whim it was a typical, typical, typical U2 idea. You know, it felt like a good idea and mostly when we, or I, work with concepts, it's all about how it feels. If it feels right, we go for it and if it doesn't we don't.
SC: Presumably U2 are very open to your ideas?
CO: Oh completely. The way this came about was that a company in America came to us with this idea. They were developing this technology, this 3D technology, for use in the sports world. So they came to us and asked us if we'd be interested in trying out the technology.
So at the time I was asked about it, I was working on a limited edition book for the 'How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb' album, and we were working on the artwork for that. Bono and I were talking and I just thought, let's give this thing a go. So he said 'yeah, if you think it's going to work we'll do it. The worst thing that can happen is that it doesn't work, and if that's the case then we just won't put it out.'
So you know that kind of attitude is very refreshing because a lot of times what happens with projects such as this, especially in the commercial world, is that they are evaluated, they do a study on it, they look at every which way that it might not work. Now if we did that, nothing would ever happen. Really the way U2 works is, does it feel right, do we know what we're doing, we sort of know what we're doing, we'll do it, and then just see where it goes.
SC: So generally U2 would take a gamble on something as long as it felt right?
CO: Yeah, and I think in a way that if you were to logically look at this film, you'd never have done it. But to sort of want to venture into this new medium and art form with too many 'sensible' people, we just absolutely would just never have got it done.
SC: In what way do you mean if you looked logically at it, it wouldn't have got done?
CO: Well you know, someone might have said, 'Catherine's never directed; they've never done a 3D shoot; the people on the cameras have never had more than two cameras in the one place at one time; the people putting up the money have never made a film before.' Like there's so many things that if you were to look at that on paper, you'd go, 'no way, let's not take the risk.'
Where as with U2, it's like, 'well, none of those things are in place that should be in place, so we'll do it.' You know, they'd be like, 'well, if anyone's going to make this work, it's gonna be us.' So it's that sort of mentality that is so refreshing because, I think why the film is so different in a way is that it just doesn't follow any rules or regulation; it doesn't even follow the filming rules or regulations. You know we just did whatever the hell we wanted.
SC: Unlike other live shows which have been recorded, it isn't one single show.
CO: No it's seven shows recorded in South America. We brought them together from seven different shows. The only definite thing is that each song is a song from a particular show. In other words if Bono's saying 'Hey Mexico', that whole song is from Mexico, all the crowd are Mexicans, etc. So we've tried to give each song its own identity, if that makes sense.
SC: Did you use each show to get different shots?
CO: Yes exactly. We started with two cameras in Mexico City to get medium close shots. Then in Chile we shot all Larry, and then in Brazil we had middle-arena shots. Then the band also gave us what we called a 'phantom shoot' where we took 10 of the songs out of the 26 that we were recording and did all our close-ups. Really the reason why we did that was because the band don't really like to have cameras on-stage when they're performing in front of an audience. They don't really think it's fair on their audiences.
SC: So that 'Phantom shoot' was done behind closed doors?
CO: Yeah it was done in a stadium but without an audience present. It was done the day before the Argentina gigs.
SC: Was there a huge pressure on you in that you were directing really for the first time and you were also using this new technology for the first time?
CO: Yeah, well, everything was kind of set out and quite specific. I was incredibly lucky in that I had a great Director of Photography, Tom Krueger, who set up all the cameras exactly as they needed to be done. Then we invited Mark Pellington over to co-direct the live shoot, and so he came and he was a great help.
Then, you know when you're shooting in 3D, it's not really that much different than to shooting in 2D. I mean each rig is two cameras, a right eye and a left eye, but you're calling shots the same way as you'd call for 2D. You're only looking from one eye, but that's not that different. The key thing in the 3D world is when you get into cutting for 3D. It really is an entirely different world. So that's really when my fantastic team kicked in.
SC: How was the actual shoot for you as a first-time director?
CO: It was pretty good. Because of my history with the band and that, I knew all their crew and that so we pretty much did what I'd call an 'inside job'. I mean, we made the film from the inside out. U2's lighting designer lit the set the way we wanted, the film team worked with U2's production team to make sure that they were where they should be. We really did do an inside job, which made it much easier for me.
SC: Would you have done anything different?
CO: Well, I think if I were to go back and shoot it again, the only thing that I would do differently is that maybe I would have taken a few more liberties with the band. I pushed them to a point where I know that everything is acceptable. You know there're certain things that you can really get out of them as long as you don't overextend yourself. They're very willing. There's sort of a fine point though of them really working for you and then you being in the way. It's a very fine point.
SC: What sort of things would you have pushed for?
CO: Well, I think I'd maybe have pushed more for a couple of things; a couple of performance things because now we know how 3D works. You know, at the time we'd know idea how it would work. So, maybe I'd have looked for some individual moments that I may have separated the band out for.
SC: Like pointing into the audience and such?
CO: No, not so much that, because we were trying not to go into the 3D tricks department. But, for example, in 'The Fly' we took the background visuals that are used in the show and we rebuilt them in the 3D space. I thing I'd play a little bit more with the band, knowing what I'd be doing in terms of special effects.
Like there's a little piece in 'Love & Peace', where Bono leans down and he draws in space. There we added an overlay animation where he draws a TV screen and the turns the dial. It's a beautiful, beautiful piece and a very successful combination of live action and post-production 3D special effects. I'd maybe have a couple more of those instances in the film.
SC: How involved were U2 in the edit and the production as a whole?
CO: Very, they were very involved. You know, full time involved throughout all the review process. Now, the band were involved initially and then Edge and Bono were involved in a micro way as we went along. Mostly it was to ensure that the performances were believable.
You know, we lost a lot of songs in this show because they didn't feel the performances were believable. Bono would sit down and look at the reviews and say, 'you know, I just don't believe Edge there.' Or 'I just don't believe our group performance at that moment', or indeed he'd say 'I don't believe myself, so therefore I don't think the audience are going to believe it, so therefore we won't have that song in the film.' It was very interesting.
SC: Did that frustrate you if you yourself thought a song looked great, particularly on a visual level?
CO: Well, not really because in general they're generally spot on, so not really. I mean, there were songs we had to let go of, 'Mysterious Ways' being one of them, that I really liked. Bono just felt that we never really got there. We were on our way to getting there, but actually then when we built the set-list, we just couldn't find the right place for it so he was like 'we can't find the right place, I don't love the performance like you do' so we were like, 'fine', and we left it out.
SC: Did the band overdub any of the live tracks because the sound is amazing?
CO: No, no overdubs. No overdubs! It's just the band entirely, but also the audio producer Carl Glanville is a master. Both Carl, and my editor Olivier Wicki are symbiotic geniuses! The audio edits followed the visual edits pretty tightly. So if we had a piece of footage from Brazil, and it was followed in the same shot from a piece in Argentina, Carl would literally take the piece of audio from Brazil and Argentina and marry those two pieces of audio together.
SC: Obviously then continuity must have been a major issue?
CO: Yeah, continuity was a huge, huge thing for us. That went down to ensuring that they all wore the same clothes for the seven shows. I mean there are things in the film where the continuity is kind of off, but generally we've made it so that the performance is so believable, it doesn't matter.
SC: Why the decision to shoot in South America?
CO: Well South America was a choice that the band made for a couple of reasons. Bono felt that it was just such a fabulous part of the world that the energy from the South American audience would bring a whole different quality to the film, which it totally does.
There's kind of an abandon in South America. You see this one shot where there is just this sea of 80,000 bodies jumping up and down. There's just not that many countries that will feel that comfortable with each other. They were literally sardines in a can all moving together with joy.
Now, I mean, the Irish audience were probably the only other place that we could have got that. The only other place we could have got that energy and total abandoned joy would have been Croke Park, but we weren't ready to shoot at that point.
SC: Presumably, you'd love to use the 3D medium again?
CO: Well I've definitely been bitten by the 3D bug. It's a beautiful, beautiful medium. It's a gorgeous piece of paper. Like when you're drawing and you find some great paper, you kind of know what you're going to get out of that. 3D is kind of like that. So it'll all depend. The idea is key. If the idea is ground-breaking, then it's a good thing to do.
SC: I'd imagine a host of bands will want to go down this 3D route. Would you work with another band?
CO: I don't know. I'm not sure. You know, U2 are a band, and I am an artist. Our collaboration or conversation is fairly sophisticated over 20 years worth of talking to each other. I'm not quite sure how many bands I want or could have that kind of relationship with. I don't see U2 as a band. I look at them as performers. I come from a performance background, though performance art and installations so to me, they're in that world. I'm not sure. I think I'd do projects in 3D but I can't see what they might be.
SC: What's your next project?
CO: Well I'm currently working on a sculpture which is a project for the Kinsale Arts festival. It's a collaboration project with an architect whereby we're going to build a beautiful little space for people to come and do things in. I'm quite looking forward to that. It'll bring me right back to earth.
SC: Have you heard any of the new U2 record?
CO: Well they're still working on it, but I believe that I'm going to hear some tracks this week. We're beginning to talk about the next tour. I've heard very good things from Adam about it so I can't wait to hear it. I think it'll be very interesting given the politics of the world right now. I think it'll be an interesting project. Working on a new tour will be interesting. It has to all still be debated, but now that we're all had this new experience it's going to be interesting to see how the tour goes. We tend to roll things over from one process to the next so it'll be interesting to see what we take from this.
SC: Presumably your visuals will be – and have always been - very much influenced by whatever music U2 make?
CO: Oh yeah, it's always driven entirely by the music so that's why I'm as excited as anyone else to hear the new material, to see where it'll take my input or what direction I'm going. It's exciting, it always is!
Read the 'U23D' review here.
For a chance to win an official 'U23D' cinema poster signed by Catherine Owens, see here.