Interview: Adam Smith on Directing the Chemical Brothers’ New Film

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Adam Smith is the director of Don’t Think, The Chemical Brothers’ stunningly trippy concert documentary, shot last summer at the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan.  If you missed its limited release last month, don’t hit the panic button, it’s coming out on DVD/CD and Blu-Ray/CD on March 27. Adam spoke with us from London about his work with the pioneering electronic duo.

Weeping Elvis: One of the first things that caught my eye in Don’t Think were the evil clowns featured in the film. What was the idea behind them?

Adam Smith: The clowning about, if you’ll excuse the pun, started quite a long time ago. We used to have clowns in the show that were stills. There was a sample that said: “You are all my children now.”  I thought it would be good to bring that sample to life, since The Chemical Brothers don’t have a frontman singing lyrics. I thought it would be good to have something to bring those visuals to life in the show. I got my dad to dress up as a clown.

WE: That’s your father?

AS: Yes, that’s a bit of meat for the bone for all you amateur psychologists out there. He’s not an actor, he was a journalist.  He’s retired now. He said: “I suppose you want me to do it a bit like Jack Nicholson in the Batman films?” I said, “Yeah, you could try that.” He was channeling his inner Nicholson.

WE: How did the idea for Don’t Think come about?

AS: I’ve been working with them for 18 years doing their visuals. About a year ago in Paris we’d spent three months programming the lights and cutting the visuals for the show, which was the most time we’d ever spent.  It was really looking the best it’s ever looked and after 18 years of doing this some would say: “Well it damn well should look good after all that time.” There was a lot of talk that we’ve got to film this, it’s madness that we haven’t got a record of what we’ve been doing for 18 years, and maybe this is the best record. There was talk of shooting in an amphitheater in the south of France, and that didn’t happen.  We talked about filming Glastonbury Festival, that didn’t happen.

We thought about the Fuji festival and we all decided that was a great idea. None of us speak any Japanese. We were going absolutely into the unknown. We were putting all our eggs into one basket of one gig, halfway up a mountain in Japan where there’d just been a really terrible earthquake, so we thought, “let’s do that.”

There’s a massive connection with The Chemical Brothers and the Fuji festival. They’ve played it since its early days. It’s one of the festivals they really love. I’m so glad it ended up being the Fuji festival because the audience is incredible; they have a sense of wonderment. They really let us in.  We asked them not to look into the camera lens when we were filming and they didn’t. It’s very real, the reactions to the show, and we hope when the cinema audience sees it that they get an emotional connection and this sense of what it’s like to feel like you’re really there.

WE: You went from doing other visuals to making a film chronicling all the work that you’ve done. Did you have any objectivity issues?

AS: No not really. I sometimes think the work I’m interested in really is subjective and personal and your own truth. That’s what’s been great about doing the work with The Chemical Brothers over the years. It’s like, ok we’re going to have an exploding teapot, and then clowns, a load of insects and then some figures floating through the sky. Who else would let you do that?

WE: How did your background play into making the film?

AS: I brought all my experience of working on things like directing Dickens adaptations for the BBC and Doctor Who and bringing that experiences of how do you hold an audience and tell a story of 90 minutes. That’s why we concentrated on members of the audience. You see the show through their eyes. We see what they see, and then you see a reaction shot. It’s classic drama story line technique. You wouldn’t know that watching it, hopefully you just connect with it and that it’s more than just an abstract spectacle.

There’s some great messages in the show: “don’t think,” “just fall in love.” It’s a unique experience to share with friends.

WE: Who would you like to work with next?

AS: I’m doing a film called Trespass Against Us next year hopefully and we want to get Daniel Day Lewis to play one of the characters in it.

WE: Do the Chemical Brothers have plans to tour the U.S. soon?

AS: I hope so. The nice thing about doing the film is that we can’t show those visuals again, so we have to create a whole new show. Hopefully it will be something a little bit different next time, like maybe characters jumping off the screen and into the crowd. Maybe be I’ll let my dad loose on the audience.

Thanks to Adam for chatting with us. Also note that a special Limited Edition 10″ Book format (DVD/CD) containing exclusive images is set for release on April 10th, 2012.

(Randy Scope assisted with this interview)

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Pat Ferrise grew up loving ”the punk rock” and “new wave.” His years at one of the nation’s top college radio stations ultimately led him to a 15-year run as music director of alternative music icon WHFS Washington/Baltimore. Rolling Stone magazine named him of the most influential programmers of the 90s. He’s recorded two albums under the moniker Trampoline for the now defunct SpinArt label. He lives in Baltimore and takes no credit for writing this bio.