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The Man Who Maketh Polly Jean’s Movies: An Talk with Seamus Murphy

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The Man Who Maketh Polly Jean’s Movies: An Talk with Seamus Murphy

Polly Jean Harvey likes to do things differently. So it’s no surprise that she enlisted a documentary photographer with little video skills and no musical experience to direct the music videos for all 12 tracks from her upcoming album, Let England Shake. Seamus Murphy, a British photographer known primarily for his work in war-torn countries like Afghanistan, filmed all of the clips in various areas of England using available light, combining still photos and documentary-like video footage. The shots are both quietly naturalistic and eerily incongruous—a skeleton on display in a museum, Harvey performing in a bare room, the ebb and flow of the ocean tide—and they serve to comment on Harvey’s own quietly eerie ode to her home country. They are also, like Harvey’s music, decidedly unlike anything else going on in pop music right now. The next video, for the title track, is set to be released on the same day as the album, February 14 (February 15 in the U.S.). I talked to Murphy about what it’s like to work with PJ, turning the camera on his homeland, his love of David Lynch, and the shot we should be looking for in “The Glorious Land.”

How did Polly approach you about doing this project?

It started out that she had seen my Afghan work at an exhibition in London, and then she got the book, and I think over time she thought that she might like to work with me in some way. So I got a call from her manager asking if I would be interested in doing something, and I said sure. This was quite a while ago, maybe two years ago. I went to see [her in concert], and she told me she was going to do this album and what it was going to be like. At that point we were talking about just still pictures for press, album artwork, and portraits. I did that last July, and then I’d actually just come back from being in Afghanistan shooting some video for a film I’m doing. It was my first real concentrated time shooting video. I think when I came back to shoot the Polly pictures, I must’ve been saying something about shooting video and how interesting I found it. And then we were talking about doing some kind of documentary, but it was all very vague and evolving. It dawned on me that it would be better if we did short films that went with the tracks. At the moment I’ve finished the 12 films, and the next thing we’re talking about is producing something that would be one unit—from that material and from some new material. So the whole thing is still evolving.

It sounds very improvisational.

I’m that kind of guy. My background is documentary still photography, reportage. A lot of that is reacting to things that are happening. You have ideas, but they’re not scripted. The whole thing is trying to capture the essence of what’s going on around you and interpret it. I could’ve done this a different way, but I thought the sound of the record—how eclectic it is, how experimental Polly is with lyrics and music—was suited to this. Also, you know, she tears everything up and does something completely different each time, which I love. And then because the album is called Let England Shake, and a lot of it’s extremely English and comes from a very English sensibility, the obvious thing would be to have a look at England.

You talk about how you’re a documentary photographer, and you incorporate a lot of still photography into the videos.

Originally I set out to do a lot more still photography and some video, which would connect the pieces. In fact, it’s turned out to be the complete opposite. What have you seen so far?

I’ve only seen “The Last Living Rose” and “The Words That Maketh Murder.”

“The Last Living Rose” has still pictures in there, quite a lot. “The Words That Maketh Murder” doesn’t, and out of the 12 films, there are really only three that have still pictures. The rest are all moving. I did set out to do still pictures, but I went off and shot some material and came back with it. The agreement was I would put together something, because you know, I have no track record in this, and this is a major album being released, and Polly is a big name who’s put many, many years into this album. So what might sound good on paper, what might be a good idea by a still photographer, might be an absolute pile of shit when I try to make it into a film. So I went off and did some work and came back, and they said, yes, we like what we see. After that initial foray of driving around England and doing work, I decided that the moving image was going to work better for this. I would still shoot some stills, but it would be much more limited. So it’s kind of reversed.

Do you think there’s a reason Polly went to you for this project?

What she said was that when she saw my work, it had an emotional impact. Although Afghanistan is obviously a troubled place, the book and the exhibition has very little of war in it, although most of the pictures are taken during wartime. But a lot of them are quiet pictures. I think it was that emotional storytelling that appealed to her. You know, I’m not a news photographer. I might cover things that are in the news, but I don’t do it with a news style or a news agenda. Although it looks, perhaps, on paper that I’m not suited to producing work for something like a music film, my previous work is not terribly hard-hitting or newsy. I tend to go for the more subtle interpretation of what I’m witnessing.

If you look at a lot of videos today, especially in this YouTube age, they tend to be reliant on concepts and gimmicks and heavy editing. Very heavy editing. There’s something much more naturalistic about these videos. Especially in Polly’s performance scenes; it’s natural lighting, and she’s just sitting in this room playing her autoharp, which I thought was very different from what you normally see.

Naturalistic is absolutely the word. It’s not realism as such, although the situations are real. There’s no lighting whatsoever in any of the videos. I’ve used available light, which is the way I always work. And I didn’t want any effects whatsoever. I didn’t want any slow motion. There’s a couple of things where I’ve reversed the motion from forward or backward, but that’s a thing of convenience. So I was very much adamant when I started working with this editor, whom I haven’t worked with before. Very early on, he was trying out some ideas, because he works in Berlin on music videos, and I didn’t like anything like clouds racing across the sky—I didn’t want any of that. Nature is interesting enough. You haven’t seen this yet, but there’s a shot in “The Glorious Land” where it’s literally just the clouds scuttling across the sky and covering the sun. It’s a landscape shot of a field with crops and a house at the end. It’s in sunshine, and then suddenly there’s a line that goes all the way through it. It’s almost like a wipe, like a black wipe. And that’s just out there. Anyone walking through the field is going to see it. Polly being who she is, and what she writes about in this album—it’s a lot to do with the land, it’s a lot to do with nature. Polly is from Dorset, in the countryside, so she’s very connected with that, and I think to have her in some synthetic studio situation didn’t seem like anything I would do, if given the choice.

Even though they’re real situations, there’s something a little unnerving about some of the shots. The ballroom scene in “The Words That Maketh Murder” reminded me of a David Lynch movie. There’s something a little creepy about it.

I love David Lynch’s stuff, but I wasn’t thinking of that. The thing is, her lyrics are very descriptive of savage things, and yet the music is all these hands clapping, like some kind of temptation song. Very little of the work I did on this film was pre-planned, but this ballroom idea was something I had in mind. In fact, when I went there, I was going to shoot stills on a fast shutter speed and have the staccato movement of these old couples dancing, and I thought there would be a jerky, ’50s type of look. And I did that, and I left. I was driving away, and I thought, well, actually, maybe I should just shoot the moving.

You’re used to doing this sort of exploratory shooting in other countries. Was it strange to do it in your own country?

Yeah. I wouldn’t say unnerving, but it was definitely different. In 2005, I started doing a project that I’m still doing on America. When I started doing that, I thought, I don’t know if I can do this, because I’m so used to getting on a plane and going somewhere and shooting around people who don’t speak my language, so if they’re saying to each other, “Who the fuck does this guy think he is walking into our barbershop and taking pictures?,” I don’t even know what they’re saying, so there’s a certain protection with that. There was a thought about whether I would be able to pull this off. But then doing England, after I’d suggested it to Polly, she said, that’s a great idea. And I thought, shit, this is really familiar. I mean, I live here.

Now you have to do it.

Yeah, now I’ve got to do it. Seriously. In a way, it’s interesting to throw those challenges at yourself. Sometime you have to be up in the middle of the night saying to yourself, what the hell have I taken on? I find that if that’s happening, it pushes you, and that’s a good thing.

What’s it like working with Polly?

It’s great. She has an extremely artistic sensibility and temperament. I don’t have to explain anything to her. If I’m showing her work, she either likes it or she doesn’t. I absolutely love the album. I’ve been working with this material for a while. I heard the very first demo about a year and a half ago. It was very raw. She just recorded it on a four-track playing a guitar and an autoharp. So I’ve been living with this material for a long time. Even editing in Berlin, listening to the same song over and over, it hasn’t wearied. That’s important.

Were you familiar with her music before working with her?

No. I had obviously heard of PJ Harvey. I think I might’ve seen her on some music program on television once. I have to admit, I don’t know why the hell I hadn’t. There must be some reason why I missed Polly, because it’s certainly music I would’ve liked. Sometimes there’s a movie you missed, or there’s a book everyone’s talked about that you haven’t gotten to read. It’s almost a bit like that. I’m a late arriver, but I’m a great appreciator.

A late arriver, but a faithful one?