The National Find Meaning in Collaborative Video Project Working With Director Mike Mills

Wednesday 21st, August 2019 / 07:00
By Maggie McPhee with notes from Trevor Morelli

Photo by Graham MacIndoe

It began with an email.

Director Mike Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women), ever the audiophile, slipped into Matt Berninger of The National’s inbox insisting they make a video together. Having wrapped up all the visual assets from the band’s 2017 offering, Sleep Well Beast, Berninger threw a bunch of unreleased songs back at Mills, planting the seeds for what would become a pioneering project for both men: I am Easy to Find, a mid-length film and an accompanying album, available now on the band’s website.

Blending rich, beautiful melodies paired with Beringer’s soothing baritone drawl, The National are known for their ability to create emotional connections with their lyrics and music, inspiring visual elements of life, death, sacrifice and redemption.

Mills and Berringer collaborated for more than a year while the band was on tour. “It was high pressure in some ways,” bassist Scott Devendorf tells BeatRoute. “But I think having the film as a touchstone or inspiration to work with helped.”

The beauty at the start lay in all the unknowns according to Mills. They had no idea what the end result would be and they went into the work without applying any restraints. The only condition, Beringer has said, was that Mills do all the hard thinking. This open-mindedness gifted Mills with his first opportunity to produce a record. His film sensibilities stripped the album of any grandiosity to craft subtle and spacious sounds, cinematic stories perfectly suited for the short film of the same name.

In the beginning, the director pulled from stem files, unfinished lyrics and vague notions of “The National themes” to come up with the film’s premise. Black and white vignettes punctuated by moments of pure colour weave together the birth-to-death life of a woman, played by Alicia Vikander (Tomb Raider), as she navigates the slow-burning questions of being human.

Telling an entire life in 24 minutes creates drama, Mills says, when faced with the terrifying choice of what to include and what to omit. Mills, in the end, highlights the seemingly insignificant details that comprise a life, from stories shared, to the sound of a voice, to the memory of a vase and the connections, or lack thereof, with people along your path.

Photo by Graham MacIndoe

Mills’ first rough cut sent the band into a creative frenzy. Every character from the short, even those who flash on the screen for a few seconds, feel fully formed and complex. The empathy with which Mills crafts his characters made it easy for Berninger and his wife and co-writer Carin Besser to walk in each character’s shoes. They would write songs from the protagonists parent’s perspective or a from particular subtitle or shot which would then compel Mills to make changes to the filmlike “playfully hostile siblings that love to steal from each other,” as Mills once put it.

The fabric of the film fed the last third of the album. It imbued the record with intimacy, populated each song with a chorus of characters, and pulled Berninger further from the self-centered safety of his seven previous albums.
“We were kind of more focused on making this an art project in a way,” Devendorf says. “As opposed to Sleep Well Beast, where there was no film, there was no ancillary material.”

Even though the film tells the story of a woman, and the album includes a rich tapestry of female vocalists (Lisa Hannigan, Mina Tindle, Kate Stables, Sharon Van Etten and others), Berninger insists neither work is an attempt at a feminine perspective. They’re much more interested in wondering “what a person is.”

Whether intentional or not, I am Easy to Find feeds a growing need for female protagonists.

The National perform Wednesday, August 28 at Deer Lake Park (Burnaby)

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