Director Jamie Thraves had only been out of art school for a few years when he was approached to direct the video for Radiohead’s “Just,” a single off their 1995 album, The Bends. Thraves got the gig through his new job at Oil Factory Productions, a video company run by John Stewart (the brother of Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart). “John sent my films to Dilly Gent, the commissioner of Radiohead,” Thraves recalls. “She sent me ‘Just’ to have a listen.”
Soon Thraves ended up directing one of the most iconic music videos of the Nineties — a strangely compelling short film in which a man lies mysteriously on the sidewalk in London, unable to explain why. A crowd builds around him, as the members of Radiohead watch from a window above.
On the 25th anniversary of The Bends, Thraves spoke with RS about directing the video. “I felt an absolute chill race up my spine when I realized the ending of the story would work perfectly to the ascending guitar solo,” he remembers. “Other people have told me they have felt the same chill. [I’ve] been chasing sharing that feeling in my work ever since. It’s addictive.”
Who thought of the concept for the “Just” video?
I wrote and directed the whole thing from scratch. It was written as a 10 page-script with dialogue. It was originally going to be my next short film, but when I heard “Just,” my story and the song suddenly exploded in my head and collided, like they were meant to be together. There was literally an explosion in my brain. I kinda went blind for a split second, dazzled.
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How long did it take to shoot the video?
Two-day shoot. One day in a studio in London for the band performance. A whole apartment was built — I wanted to look at the band from every angle. The set was built on a raised platform, so we could look up at the band when they peer out the window.
Second day was on location around Liverpool Street Station, London. I messed around with costume, design, and grading, because I wanted it to be difficult to place where and when the video was filmed. I wanted it to have a timeless feel. The look was largely inspired by [Alfred] Hitchcock movies and [Bernardo] Bertolucci’s movie The Conformist. I even cast the main actor lying on the ground because he reminded me of Jean-Louis Trintignant.
What was the atmosphere like on set?
It was very exciting. Everyone was blown away by the song, [but] everyone knew that we were working on something special with a band that were going to be huge. Radiohead were my generation’s Beatles or Stones, the U.K.’s Nirvana perhaps, a groundbreaking band. Even though they were relatively unknown at the time, we all knew there was magic.
What was it like to work with the band?
They were excited about the idea. I think they knew it was going to fit the song well. They told me they had had a chat before the shoot and had agreed they were really gonna go for it performance-wise, and they did. After every take, we’d walk back into the set and there seemed to be this charge in the air, like the song and the band had rearranged some particles. I remember my skin tingling.
I also remember Thom sitting on the bed on set and playing me a tune on an acoustic guitar. I can’t remember whether it became anything famous or not, but I remember he had the most unusual way of playing rhythm guitar, like nothing I’d heard before. Odd, staccato, hypnotic. It was like an alien was playing the guitar.
Fans have always wondered what the man reveals at the end of the video that causes the crowd to collapse on the sidewalk. What was he saying?
I haven’t told anyone in 25 years. I had no idea the video was going to cause so many people to ask what the man said, I really didn’t. At the time, I simply felt I had no choice but to subtract what was said, it created the magic. To reveal the answer would kill the video. There’s a very real logical and simple answer though, a concept, however — no matter how good the idea is, it will always disappoint someone if revealed. I’ve told a few close people things over the years.
Sometimes I’m very tempted to go online under a pseudonym on YouTube and plant the exact truth amongst all the conjecture. Perhaps I’ve done that already. Look, I’m getting on a bit now. I’m considering telling my two sons, Thomas and Harvey, 15 and 12, to pass on the secret, to keep the family secret alive, but to be honest, it’s quite a burden. To be constantly asked and have to say “No, sorry, can’t tell you.” So I’m not sure I really want to pass that onto my kids.
I will probably take the answer to my grave, unless a rich billionaire Radiohead fan wants to buy the secret from me. I might actually seriously consider that, but it would cost them a fucking hell of a lot of money, and they’d still need to sign a contract to keep the secret. I do actually want to reveal the answer, you see, that’s why it’s been a strange burden and yet also wonderful to be the only person who knows. It’s like I stumbled upon the answer to the universe, perhaps I did. Please don’t make me tell you. You don’t want to know.