Twenty-five years ago, R.E.M. released Out of Time, which eventually sold over four million copies in the United States and transformed longtime college radio darlings into a mainstream concern. It was the album’s first single “Losing My Religion” that definitively turned the group to artistic and commercial leaders of the burgeoning alternative rock movement. Up until this point, the group’s singer Michael Stipe had directed their music videos, or had entrusted them to people rooted in the art world like Robert Longo, James Herbert and Jem Cohen. Stipe had also stated publicly that he would never lip sync in a video — a claim he backed up in every video during the band’s first ten years.
Though the band and their label sensed that this was their potential crossover moment, they selected Tarsem Singh to direct “Losing my Religion.” Singh (credited as just Tarsem) was finishing up film school at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena while nearing the age of 30 and selling cars in the summer to afford tuition. He had previously directed only two videos for record labels — for Suzanne Vega and En Vogue — but the young director managed an artistic triumph. “Losing My Religion” would go on to win six MTV Video Music Awards, including Best Video and Best Direction as well as the Grammy for Best Short Form Video.
After “Losing My Religion” Singh would quickly depart from videos to produce commercials and visually stunning films including The Cell and Mirror Mirror. Here Singh tells the story of how the captivating and confounding video for “Losing My Religion” came to be.
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Tarsem Singh: I had done a Suzanne Vega video [for “Tired of Sleeping”], I really liked the song and I wanted to do something in the style of the photographer [Josef] Koudelka. The Czech Republic was just opening up. My college professor at the time was from the Czech Republic and I told him, “You want to go there for a week? We can shoot this thing in the countryside. They don’t seem to have a working currency. We can sleep in a bus and do it.” He said, “OK.” That landed with the R.E.M. guys and Stipe was a fan of Koudelka. They approached me to see if I was interested in doing a music video.
The reason I only did [a small number of music videos] was I never really was a very good music video person. I’m quite the opposite from people like Mark Romanek and David Fincher. They always had a team of people and did it correctly. I never wrote [a treatment] for a song, ever. I would just have this idea and I would assume that when the right song comes along, I’ll do the music video. Later it kind of created not-so-friendly situations where bands that I love and adore would know that I liked their music and would send me a song. I would hear it and go, “That’s great.” Then I would spend some time and go, “Oh, it doesn’t fit into any of my ideas.” And everybody would say, “It’s supposed to be the other way around.”
For R.E.M., I had an idea. Then [Warner Bros.] asked me if I’d be writing it down and sending it. I said that was why I hadn’t done any videos since [“Tired of Sleeping”]. They said that [R.E.M.] live in Athens and I could go visit. I called my sister because I hadn’t been to Europe for so long and I was so excited I was going to see my family; then, of course, the day before, I find out it’s Athens, Georgia. But I said, “No problem,” because I’m in college and I’m getting paid to go somewhere.
I went and saw Stipe and the guys for probably a day and a half. All I wanted to see was where he stays, where he lives and what he does. Something was missing from the idea, one little piece. I spent a day with him, in the evening we went clubbing. I saw him dance and I thought, “That’s the missing element!”
He thought that I was procrastinating and not pitching the idea. When I was leaving the next day, he said, “When are you going to…?” I said, “I’m not supposed to tell anybody the idea, but if you want, I’ll try to explain it to you.” I told him there’s a story by Gabriel García Márquez called “A Very Old Man With Wings” in which this freak angel arrives and nobody knows quite what to do with it. So it’s that story, told abstractly through the style of these guys called Pierre et Gilles, who are these iconic gay photographers that take how Indians do their gods and goddesses, then they do that to the Western gods. I said that it would be interesting to have an Indian copying two French guys copying Indian work. That’s the style of one piece [in the video], that’s the heavenly abode. And the place where the angel lands, it would look like Caravaggio, whose lighting I really like. Then there’d be propaganda posters, which is a third group of people who might see this event, but might misinterpret it or come up with a different solution altogether. I said [to Stipe], “I didn’t know how the three will be cut with each other, except I saw you dance, and I think that can be interesting.” And that was my pitch. I’m sure it made no sense.
One of the things that happened at that particular time was that [R.E.M.] were in a bit of a tough situation. They were the darlings of everybody cool. Matt Mahurin had done a couple of videos with them that I adored. The problem was that Stipe had gone around saying that he would never lip sync. The thing that changed him was he saw the Sinead O’Connor video [for “Nothing Compares 2 U”]. It doesn’t have anything to do with what the song is about, you’re looking at a person’s face.
You have to understand my mentality was of an absolute student. You have no money, no nothing. My brother was working as a janitor, my girlfriend at the time was bussing tables. You’re literally doing that and somebody comes along and says, “Here’s 100 grand.” You’re like, “Fucking hell. We are going to change the world!”
We started shooting with the band, and I had a crane and all these things. Nothing was really working. I went to the bathroom and I was throwing up. I came out and I was behind the assistant director and I said, “What’s next?” He didn’t see it was me and he said, “Yeah, I wonder what’s next.” I think the AD was thinking that I was doing drugs. I don’t drink, smoke, never have. I wasn’t mad at him, so I said, “I wonder what’s next, too” I didn’t know what to do. Then I said to everyone, “I know what the problem is. Everything we have shot already is too pretentious.” I said that we should forget everything that we’d already done and just film Stipe dancing.
I like either Bollywood and Busby Berkeley or mystic-gone-crazy dancing. I don’t like half-assed choreography. I liked his thing because it was so spastic, it was so internalized, the way he danced. He danced and, in-between takes, I was jumping up with him. I just knew that was it. The next day when he came and saw me shooting all these things that looked so kitsch and so strange, he didn’t say a thing. He said, “All right, you know what you’re doing. Carry on.”
We had no idea what we had. We said we needed ten days for cutting. We cut it from nine in the morning until three [at night] the first day. We looked at it and we said, “It kind of seems to work, let’s come back and look at it tomorrow.” I went downstairs and I remember my car was gone, it was towed away. We were right back in the morning and I had one look at it and I said, “Hmm, I think it’s done.” We only had one day with it. My editor said, “What can we do?” I said, “Let’s call the studio guys and say, ‘Come and take a look at the work in progress.’ And if they go, ‘What the fuck, are you crazy?’ We’ll go, ‘Hey, we got nine days. This is shit, we’ll fix it.'”
So when they came in, they had one look at it and said, “It’s done, isn’t it?” We went, “Yeah! It’s done, it’s perfect.” Then they sent it to the band and the only note we had was there was a guy sitting on a chair and one of the angels looked funny. They said, “Can you change that angel up?” That was literally it. It came out and just caught fire.
[The MTV Video Music Awards] was pretty nuts. I had been selling cars and putting myself through school, suddenly I was doing jobs in Europe. I was loving all of that and in the middle of it, [the awards] came along. I used to work as a busboy at Bombay Palace [in Beverly Hills]. We went out there and were eating dinner before we went to the awards. The cook came out and somebody told him, “Hey, this guy is going to be on TV.” He said, “Never forget where you came from, put this turban on your head.” I’ve never in my life worn a turban, except for my brother’s wedding. It’s 10 times bigger than my head, and I ended up on the show. [After winning the first award] they asked me if I wanted to say something. I said, “Not really.” I can talk until the cows come home, but something like that, I don’t know what to say. We went up there four or five times. The last time, we had won so many awards, I thought maybe I should say something. As soon as I was about to speak, the music came on and just cut me off.
[R.E.M.] sent me [“Everybody Hurts”] which was really a massive hit, too. The only problem was, me being a jerk, I just had no ideas that fit the song. I wanted to shoot in this particular cathedral in San Gimignano that doesn’t have a roof. I went out there, we couldn’t get the permissions in time. The Museum in London, they would let us shoot there because they were building it and it didn’t have a roof, but I didn’t like that idea. Then I couldn’t make the schedule work.
Had we just done Michael Stipe dancing [for “Losing My Religion], that was so strong and powerful in itself. If I left it just Stipe dancing, I think it would’ve had the same amount of success. I remember, four months later, seeing them on Unplugged. I left him a message on his machine saying, “I wish I hadn’t done a thing. I wish you had just danced.” There is no way anybody could’ve stopped that thing from being the phenomenon that it was. If it was just him in that room, it would probably be a lot less dated than it is now. I look at that thing, and it’s the stuff that only the audacity of student-thinking would make. It’s so crappily, horrendously wonderful. All it needed was Stipe in front of a window with a band. He didn’t even need the window in Unplugged. He’s sitting on a bloody stool and he’s playing it and he’s singing and it’s phenomenal. They didn’t need any of this, it was just in the air.