Interview with Director Mat Whitecross “Coldplay are definitely hatching something”
Mat Whitecross sat down with us last week to chat about his latest documentary – A Head Full of Dreams. We talk about Coldplay’s next album, fan interactions, DVD extras, unreleased tracks and much more.
A Head Full of Dreams offers a unique and in-depth look into the last 20 years of Coldplay. The film follows the band’s spectacular rise to fame from the back of Camden pubs to selling out stadiums worldwide. Whitecross, who met the four in college, has been there to capture over a thousand hours of footage over the last 20 years. His unmatched relationship with the band differs this documentary from others and shows the emotional, stressful and joyous times experienced by the band and those around them over the last two decades.
Whitecross has been vital to Coldplay’s success due to his contribution in the form of numerous music videos. Lovers in Japan, Christmas Lights, Paradise, Every Teardrop and Charlie Brown are amongst some of the many projects under his belt. Let’s not forget ‘Supersonic‘, ‘Road to Guantanamo‘ and a few Take That music videos!
Despite these achievements, he is still the kindest man you’ll meet in the industry. Fans can attest to this through their own interactions with him on social media. Whether it was spending over an hour on the phone to answer all of our questions or sending in photos to illustrate the interview, Mat has been especially kind to us at Coldplaying.
Big thanks to Mat for providing such detailed answers to our questions, First, let’s see how footage from as far back as two decades ago made it into the film:
Firstly, how did you digitalize everything? I can only imagine how many different variants of tapes you had as cameras evolved.
Good question. God bless Miller who has been in their Pro Tools sessions for years, that’s how he first started with them. He has done every single possible job behind the scenes, he moved into directing while he was with them so he started filming bits and pieces backstage but also began to archive everything they have picked up over the years. For example, Chris had a trunk full of all his precious possessions with his old notebooks, like the notebook you see in the film, all his old wristbands and tour passes and ideas for album sleeves along with everything else he had written down. He gave this trunk to Miller and he went through and carefully scanned every last one of them. On the road for the second album Guy picked up a camera and started filming everything, a lot of that ended up in the film. He gave all that to Miller so he started archiving that. Along the way, I think Miller said ‘look I’m putting all this stuff into storage and I’m starting to load it onto the computer, why don’t you give me anything you’ve got’. So I gave him everything I had as well. He had loaded it onto machines digitally, he had it on old hard drives but some of it I think had been missed.
He had been looking after all the tapes but not actually digitizing some of them. So we had an editing team, Marc, the editor I work with, who also worked with Michael Winterbottom, came on board as editor. Arturo who also worked on Supersonic did some editing but also just stuck everything in the machine. It was not easy, it was a lot of work. Hannah who was the archivist on Supersonic, did the archive on this as well and so she waded through every single one and started making selects and suggestions and she put the shout out to fans and to old friends at university and dug up as much extra footage as she could.
I was contacted by Hannah a couple of times for footage, I believe she got some clips from our website. Sadly, my archive is a mess and it has been beyond difficult to sort everything and re-upload it to the site. I understand the difficulty of sorting through 20 years of footage so massive props to your team for that!
Yeah, of course, it’s almost a full-time job. I had never been through any of those tapes, I had forgotten what was on them. Some of them I gave to Miller but others went up to my Mum’s attic in old shoe boxes full of tapes. I don’t even know if I found them all to be honest because I only went up a couple of times and there’s footage I was convinced I’d shot but I couldn’t find anywhere. I can’t even remember what it would have been but I remember one time some of my friends came over from Argentina and stayed in my flat when I was a student. I remember them going to a Coldplay gig so I’m sure there’s a tape of us going to a Coldplay show and the band coming back to our house afterwards. It was probably not that interesting to most people, I think it was just everyone sitting around with guitars and having a laugh. But I couldn’t find it. You never know, some earlier footage may pop up some day or maybe I lost it, I have no idea!
Can we expect any extra footage in the DVD extras?
That is a really good question, I dont know actually. I know that we supplied quite a lot. As with Supersonic, we had a much longer cut of the film. Not all of it was necessarily better than what was in the film, there were a lot of scenes that I really loved though. For example, in that section that’s all about collaboration and inspiration, we had this footage of Michael Stipe and Chris with Apple when she was very young, she was just a toddler, on a piano, It was really beautiful. Obviously, we shot Glastonbury so we filmed Michael Eavis and Barry Gibb backstage rehearsing for their cameo appearances. It was all lovely. We also filmed Michael J. Fox rehearsing with the band onstage. One of the bits that I regret most that we cut was Merry Clayton in the studio with the band where she runs rings around them, it was very very funny. But it would’ve been a 10 hour film. I think some of that footage, possibly not all, was handed over to the guys that do the extras. I suppose there are certain issues there, things we’ve filmed ourselves belong to the band but other things, I’m not sure if they definitely belong to the band. I also went to a U2 gig to illustrate that they are a fan and students of music and they’d go out there and find inspiration from people they admire and that was part of the film aswell so there’s a lot of extra footage but I don’t know how all that stuff works. DVD extras used to be a really big thing and I used to really love watching them. In the last couple of films, we had hours and hours of stuff and I talked to whoever it is who makes the DVD’s and they were like to be honest, it’s not really a selling point for people anymore and I was really surprised.
I think people will be happy anyway!
Exactly, I said why don’t we just stick it all online. We did so many audio interviews for Supersonic for example and I was like, can’t we create a website and archive them so people can listen to them. And they were like, no we couldn’t be bothered. It’s a time-consuming thing, it’s the same reason that you’re struggling to go through your archive, someone has to actually do it and nobody is willing to pay for it.
People will be happy anyway. There was a year where we heard absolutely nothing. Now we have the Film, the Butterfly Package, Live in Sao Paulo etc. Everyone’s happy, but somewhat broke now!
Hahaha, that’s the other thing. I think the band are very good at sharing things. For example, if you’re a young kid and you’re a fan but maybe you’re saving up for the DVD. They started sharing some songs from Live in Sao Paulo so you can watch them anyway. I think hopefully people will have enough to be getting on with for the time being.
It was interesting that the film wasn’t about their accolades in terms of awards and sales, it was about their journey. Were there particular events you absolutely knew you had to include?
We definitely wanted to cover the first time they headlined Glastonbury because that was such a big event, that was a gamechanger. I knew I wanted to include Glastonbury anyway because it’s so important to them, they always talk about it being their spiritual home and where they are happiest on stage. We didn’t really know though, we had different versions. We had a version with Barry Gibb, Michael Eavis, we had some footage of the first time they ever turned up to Glastonbury and an anecdote when they were dropped off at the wrong gates and they ran through the festival. All that I really loved, but again maybe it was too much of a good thing. My instinct is always like, I love this stuff, I’m quite indulgent, let’s have a 10-hour film. And I think Phil and Chris’ instincts are, No, Leave people wanting more, let’s just get on with it. When I was interviewing Dave Holmes for example, because he’s the manager, he’s very conscious of all these amazing successes, the Grammys, that sort of thing. So we had moments where we mentioned some of those things in the film but it just felt like it was part of some slightly different film. I’m sure they’re proud of achieving all those things but it’s not really something they talk about amongst themselves. We’re telling a story about these five guys so let’s not get involved in the numerous successes that everyone knows about, they can go online if they’re interested in that kind of stuff. There are some other big events I knew were gonna be in the film. I knew those early gigs were important and I was very lucky to have been there and to have had a camera, so I knew they had to be in there. One thing I was hoping to put in was the first big thing I did with them once they were established. I was shooting a lot of footage of them with Brian Eno in the studio. We went in with three 60mm cameras and we filmed some really great stuff and then Phil was like, oh don’t worry about it we’ll stick it on the shelf. We never did anything with it and I always really regretted that so I was really hoping we’d get a chance to go through all that footage again, and we did, I mean there’s a ton of it. I remember we edited it back in the day, so maybe that will resurface one day too!
Why did you add Prospekt March, Animals, Rainy day and other songs that fans wouldn’t know to the film?
I love all those songs, Careful Where You Stand and a lot of those early songs are some of my favourites. I guess it’s because I have a personal connection to them. I often heard them being played within a few hours or days of them being written or sometimes I heard them literally being written. Prospekts March is right up there. If it’s not my favourite it’s one of my favourites. I’ve got to admit, they were very good at leaving me to make the film I wanted to make but Phil, every so often, would offer advice and he would so say the usual things like “You should make the film shorter” or “shouldn’t there be more of this rather than that”. Ultimately it was always up to me but he was there as an extra pair of eyes and ears but I don’t know what issue he and Chris had with Prospekt’s March. It has always been one of my favourite songs, they were like “it’s not one of our bests, do you really want to put it in the film”. I’ve always loved it and I actually said to them, would you be up for playing it on the c-stage for the fans then maybe we can use it as a way of comparing the two. I wanted to have Chris trying to remember it as he’s writing it on stage during a soundcheck and then we see them in Sao Paulo or Buenos Aires or Paris playing it on the c-stage because the c-stage represents the past and them in that room and so on. Chris was like “I really don’t want to waste anyone’s time playing that song, it’s not a good song” and I was like are you joking? So I think I connect with those songs and fans connect with those songs but maybe the band don’t anymore. They feel like they’ve evolved and written better songs now. There’s something really lovely about rediscovering versions of old songs that you’ve maybe never heard or b-sides. There’s another song that I really love, I Bloom Blaum, I’ve always loved that song. It’s a pretty obscure b-side. When Marc, the editor, found the clip of Chris singing it I thought, this has to go in. The band might not even remember what the song is called!
What about the unreleased songs like ‘Vitamins’ and ‘The Race’. Everyone’s obsessing over these two songs, especially The Race, fans are confused they didn’t release it!
It’s a great one, it’s so good. They recorded with Merry Clayton in the States, I wasn’t there for that but they are some of my favourite scenes. Chris did one session with Merry and she came in the next day. She had just suffered a terrible car accident so she’s in a wheelchair and he’s pushing her around, but she’s completely ruling the roost, it’s very funny. She’s very affectionately taking the piss out of them. She’s an amazing presence, a living legend. I loved all those sequences, they were originally in the film but then we realised we had Michael Stipe, Bono, Merry, Beyonce and then Noel. We kinda said hang on, this is taking over the film, I love all these scenes but it’s too much. We ended up cutting it down, Barry Gibb went in and out and in and out of the film. I was the one who said at the last minute, no, let’s just take it out, it’s too much. I really miss the Merry stuff. The Race is phenomenal, I remember hearing it for the first time, I was like this sounds like the Happy Mondays or something like that. It was almost like a dance track, it was so unusual. We put it in that sequence about the tensions within the band and the veto power that each of them has. I think it was Guy who didn’t like it or didn’t think it was their best tune and so they pulled the plug on it. We had a longer section where they talk about that song with Chris saying he loved the track but ultimately it’s not up to him it’s up to them. Whether that means it will never be released, I don’t know. I think Phil and Chris were keen for it to be the first single from the album but then decided it was not ready or it was not right. It’s a shame, I hope they release it one day. I was really surprised that Phil allowed us to put it in the film. Obviously, I’m making the film but it’s up to them what music they want in it but yeah it was very good of him to say yes.
How did it feel filming the band during tense moments such as X&Y?
Around the time of X&Y, I was still great friends with the band, we would meet from time to time but I was off making films, I must’ve been filming Road To Guantanamo. I was experiencing it all from quite far away. Luckily, Miller was still around and was keen to be filming, the band encouraged him. He shot almost all the stuff from X&Y so I missed out on it. It was weird for me because I had heard all the stories from them firsthand but I was in a different country a lot of the time, I didn’t experience it. It was really interesting to see that stuff because it was completely new to me, I didn’t realise anyone had even documented it. They were going through some difficult times for obvious reasons so I just wanted to put an arm around them and say it’s gonna be alright, you’re gonna write a great song in a minute. I think the intention was to do a ‘Making of X&Y’ film which is why Miller started shooting it so there’s an insane amount of footage from that period.
There was one moment where my friends looked at me shocked during a scene where Chris is arguing with someone over the mic stand hitting him in the face. Later on, there’s a moment where Chris is writing a letter to his 17-year-old self, it really ties the film together. You do kind of want to say to them ‘it’s gonna be ok’ because it is very tense at that point.
It is, I think anyone in his position would have acted the same way. It was very good of him and Phil to trust us with telling the story, we were trying to be true to what happened. I can’t think of many bands that would allow you to open up about the bad times as much as we did. It’s difficult because I think I’m in a privileged position as I’ve known the band for a long time so they trust me enough that they know my intentions are decent. I was very lucky that in Supersonic and in this film that both bands were like look, you’re the filmmaker just get on with it. It was an amazing working relationship, they just trusted me to do my thing.
Was there any point in making the film that something almost stopped you from putting it out?
Yes, every single point since I’ve picked up a camera over 20 years ago there has been points where we were like no we’re not doing this anymore. Just after they had been signed by Parlophone I said look, I’ve got all this footage can I turn it into some kind of film. They entertained the idea but Jonny said look, we don’t really have a story yet, I don’t think we’ve really figured out who we are yet or what we want to be and I was like don’t worry about it it’s fine. I started writing a fictional story about these four guys and I asked if I could hang their music off the back of it. They talked about it a few times but decided that they didn’t want to do it. Similarly, after Viva La Vida, they shot a lot on that tour and in the studio, I asked the question again, and again after Mylo Xyloto. After Ghost Stories I was quite busy, my wife and I just had kids. I was in the middle of finishing Supersonic when I got a call from Phil and Chris to see if I wanted to come and do the Rose Bowl live stream to China and the Philippines. So I came out for the weekend and while I was editing backstage, they were kinda peering over my shoulder and asking me questions.
They allowed us to show the film to them even though it was unfinished so we did a screening in LA. One of the producers was like I’ll bring my mate Paul along, it will make it less tense. And he walked in with Paul Thomas Anderson and I was like oh fuck, it added 20 times the pressure! Anyway, they really loved it and at the end Phil was like maybe it’s time to talk to the band again about making a film. It was ironically the moment where I felt like I had just done a music documentary, I’m exhausted, I’m going to try to do something else. On the other hand, I really wanted to make the film and I felt like this is our opportunity let’s just go for it. We started making it and initially we didn’t know what film we were making, were we making a documentary, is it 20 years, is it just the A Head Full of Dreams tour, what is it? I said I’ve got all this amazing footage, I’d love to make a film about your entire career and lives together and Phil said, can you leave it with me. He said to send him some of the worst clips of the band that they might get a little self-conscious about. I don’t think he had seen some of the older stuff. But he said to send him the worst, where they were their geekiest and spottiest and if they were happy with those then I think we should just give it the green light. So I sent him a couple of clips, I’m sure one of them was Chris talking to the camera talking about the four years and the phone rang as soon as I hit send. He was like oh my god, this footage is horrendous, please burn it or bury or it something, this is horrific, we can’t allow anyone to see this. He was laughing about it but there was a part of him thinking I need to protect the band, this stuff is really embarrassing. I said that’s ok, the footage belongs to you, you can do whatever you want with it. Apparently about a week later, they were backstage in the production office and Phil was looking back over the footage and Chris caught a glimpse of it as he was walking past. He said what’s this? Phil started showing him clips. He imagined Chris would be mortified but Chris was like, this is great, have you got any more of it. So I guess they finally got to a point in their lives where they’re grown up now, they have kids, they’re a million miles away from those people in the footage. So Phil was like we can finally do this and we started cutting it together.
They still hadn’t really said what they wanted and I hadn’t decided what I wanted to do. I said to Phil, I would like to make a documentary, what do you want? He still wanted it to be a live film. I said if you’re not going to use this footage for anything else then maybe we should do a live film but for the moments in between songs we could use a little bit of archive to contrast past and present. So I did that but the more I did it, the more I liked it. I knew they were working on the Kaleidoscope EP because I had seen them backstage. Taking that as a cue I said I’m gonna call this film Kaleidoscope and it’s going to be very fragmented and dreamlike and you’ll move from one scene to the next without much explanation. So you’ll have a section on bad times and difficulties such as Will being kicked out, X&Y, and Ghost Stories. Me and Marc started working on that for a while. Phil and his wife were about to have their baby and said if we are going to do this film we should have it out before Christmas, this being last Christmas. I sent them a cut and said this is very rough, it’s really an experiment, I don’t know if it’s right or not I just want to try something out, let’s start a discussion. Phil called me the next day and was like, this is terrible, maybe we shouldn’t make this film after all. I had to convince him that it was worth making the film. I said it was an experiment and it didn’t work, can you just leave me and the team get on with it and we will have another go at it. Bless Chris and Phil, they had a chat and rang me the next day saying that the Christmas deadline was too much pressure and to postpone it. The three of us had spoken about if money and time were no object, where would we begin and end the film. All of us immediately said that we wanted it to be South America. There’s something about those gigs that’s wild and celebratory. Coldplay fans all over the world are amazing but there’s some kind of connection with Latin America which is often why they start and end their time there. So we thought, screw money, screw Christmas, let’s begin and end the film the way the tour begins and ends. Without that pressure, it immediately became clear what kind of film we were making. I was talking to Marc about it and to my producers Hannah and Fiona, this is a film about friendship and childhood friendship and how it grows and changes and the ups and downs through the process of time. It then became much easier to make and it became relatively straightforward from that point. So that was the closest we got to having the plug being pulled. We are all friends so there wouldn’t have been any hard feelings but it was pretty scary!
How does it feel to know you’ve just contributed something so significant to Coldplay’s legacy and so important to fans?
Aw, that’s very sweet. I feel like one of the things that I really connected with in terms of the message of the recent concerts was this sense of ‘One Big Band’ and that everyone is a part of a family. There’s something very moving about seeing that when you’re in a stadium with 60,000 people or you’re in Glastonbury, with however many hundred thousand people and millions more watching worldwide. Having someone on stage not saying “look at me, look how amazing I am” but rather saying ‘look at us, look what we can achieve together’. When I saw Chris singing that on stage, it was in the middle of the whole Brexit shambles all kicking off, everyone felt pretty despondent and somehow it felt like everything was going to be ok. There’s a lot more that connects us than divides us so there’s something lovely about that and so I think with this film, it’s very sweet that someone says that. I feel like more than any other film I’ve ever worked on, it’s the most personal, it’s my life, growing up with these five people, but it’s also the most collaborative. I have directed the film, I’ve chosen the path of the story but it’s actually a story of Coldplay, it’s a story of Phil, it’s a story of the fans. Miller has shot it, Marcus Haney shot it, Chris shot it, Guy shot it and they’ve contributed so much and the fans have been there as part of it. I feel like it’s a very communal thing so it’s very sweet for you to say it’s part of Coldplay’s legacy but I feel like we’ve all made the film together so I hope in that sense it gives people a sense of what they’ve achieved in 20 years.
How did you feel about the fan’s reactions to the film and the #AHFODFilmParty? You seemed to reply to pretty much everyone!
Mate, I’ve got to say, it was the most wonderful thing. You make films for people to enjoy and to have that response is great. I think Twitter gets a lot of bad press, everyone talks about all the spats people have with each other. For me, it was very moving and energising to see how people were connecting with the film. It was a lovely thing, almost like New Years. I woke up in the morning and immediately people were like “we are just queueing up to go see the film”. Being an idiot I hadn’t really thought about how there were people in Sydney, Auckland, then Singapore, then Tokyo. The film was gradually spreading across the world as the time zones changed and the sun moved across the planet. The only thing I can compare it to is New Years when you see people celebrating the fireworks going off. It was really overwhelming. I remember growing up I would write letters to people that I loved, often people in film, and never really heard back and I always thought, it’s a nice thing to connect with people if you can do it. I just think Coldplay fans are the best people on the planet, I never experienced anything like that with the euphoria, you see it at the gigs but it was lovely to see it online. It was a real privilege to be able to connect with people that way.
I am working on another film at the moment so it did kind of take me out of commision! Every 5 mins I would sit down and try do a bit more editing and all of a sudden I would hear another ping on my phone. I need to be a bit more disciplined! It’s intoxicating, it was really lovely to see that and see people get different things from it. We had a screening in Soho the night before and a Q&A with Edith but on the night of the film, my wife and my mother in law organised a bunch of friends to come. They are Iranian so they brought all their friends, so like a hundred Iranians showed up at North Finchley Vue and we had a bit of a party! As I was leaving, a guy came up to me and said is it alright if I get a picture? We had a chat and it turned out he is a musician and I asked what kind of music and If I can follow him, so I followed him on Twitter. He said he was feeling a bit lost and wasn’t sure what he was doing with his new album and so he saw the film and got inspired by the band and it made him feel like he knew what he wanted to do. His name is Jordan MacKampa and he’s great. The next morning I said I’d have a listen to some of his music and I listened to it. The guy’s a fucking genius. I thought, how amazing to have connected with their story. The message that Chris tells you at the end ‘don’t ever give up’, I get to see people following that across the world. Often when people see a big band like U2, the Stones or Coldplay, they assume they’re always like that and they see them on stage and they look like these titans or gods and the fireworks and confetti is going off and you think, these guys are superhuman. To be able to rewind 20 years and see that they were a bunch of spotty kids who didn’t really know what they were doing or if they’d ever make it but they just had that drive and determination and passion for music.
It’s amazing because I’m sure anyone can connect with that whether you want to be an astronaut or a footballer or a film star. You’ll meet a lot of people along the way who’ll tell you it’s impossible, but anything is possible. I remember when I was in school, you had an obligatory session with a career’s advisor and I told him I wanted to be a film director, he just laughed and said you can’t. Rather than doing something else I just thought, fuck you! I think Chris has had some of that, whether it comes from his Dad saying ‘don’t ever give up’, he had this thought that he was going to make it happen. It’s a very important message that you shouldn’t let anyone ever tell you what you can’t do, you can do anything if you set your mind to it. We had a whole back to the future section in the film where Chris was talking about that and then talking about Jonny and Johnny B. Goode and then it went to this whole thing about you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it and then we meet Michael J. Fox who’s backstage. There are some really lovely moments but nevermind, in an alternative universe there’s a very different film that exists.
I know everyone is going to be asking you this question and I feel kind of bad for asking. The main reason why I haven’t written an article about it yet is that we haven’t got solid proof yet. Do you know if they are working on new material?
I understand, it’s for the band to talk about, it’s their future. The A Head Full of Dreams tour was so huge and all-encompassing, it took them away from their families for quite a long time so they decided to take some time off, they had never really done it in a proper way before. Chris is certainly in the studio every single day, he’s writing new songs all the time. Right now they are taking a whole year sabbatical and see what they want to do at the end of it. I know that at the end of every single album, since the first one, Chris, in particular, has felt so depleted and exhausted by it and felt like he has given everything into the project that there’s nothing left to say. So often when he does the interviews, he says this is the last thing they are doing. Because the lyrics are his, Chris often thinks about the themes and what they are trying to say with each album. For him, A Head Full of Dreams was a culmination of something he has set out to do since they began as a band so I asked him does that mean it’s the end? At the beginning, he felt like it was because that’s how he always feels. Towards the end of the tour, I asked him the same question and he was slightly more dismissive so they’re certainly getting back together to do something. He says in the film that it’s their last conventional album and I think you have to read into that yourself. Does that mean they will never do another album? There’s a lot of bands that find other ways to get their music out there in the form of singles or EP’s. Whatever they end up doing each time, every album seems like a progression from the last, surprising and experimental in a way. People often talk about Radiohead as being the only big experimental band but I would say that Coldplay is. They’re not experimental in a traditional way but as Guy says in the film, if you look at Parachutes and then look at A Head Full of Dreams, they’re many universes away from each other but also in the same place emotionally. I think whatever they do next is going to be different and surprising but what that is, I don’t know. They’re definitely hatching something but you’ll have to talk to them about that!
Finally, what are you working on at the moment?
A lot of stuff, specifically I am doing a documentary for the BBC about the Bauhaus Movement, the art and design school that existed in Germany between the two World Wars. It’s a beautiful project. They asked me to do a film about Basquiat last year which I really wanted to do so I said yes but then the Coldplay thing went on for so long that I ended up ruling myself out of it but luckily they came back and asked me to do this which I’m really enjoying. Then we’ve got the usual thing of 10 potential projects lined up and one of them might happen or none of them might happen and it might end up being something completely different so you never know!