BLACK LIPS VIDEO SHOOT: “FAMILY TREE”
At a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, preparations are being made for the most ambitious and blasphemous Black Lips video to date. Director Kyle Safieh has drawn inspiration from the 1960’s Viennese Actionists, whose performance art led to public outrage, numerous arrests and eventual deportation. How perfect for the Black Lips, a band whose musical endeavors have been intermingled with arrests, self-imposed deportation from India and shenanigans on par with performance art.
At 2pm on June 26, 2011, the warehouse where the filming is to take place is an empty canvas. One huge curved wall and specialized camera equipment dominate the space. A crew of approximately fifteen people scurry around in preparation. At a quarter to three, the crew awaits the band, as well as the video’s featured star, a pig carcass. Art director Ann Hadlock, uses this down-time to show me the costumes: four white T-shirts and black executioners’ hoods that look like they would be perfect for a Grand Wizard at Guantanamo Bay.
By 3pm, some props have arrived: two crucifixes. The first is simple and large, about eight feet tall. The second is a smaller Pagan Wreath Cross which will be carried by one of the naked girls during the procession to a crucified Cole Alexander, the Black Lips’ frontman. Next in: the pig. An entire, fresh pig carcass from a local Korean supermarket and fifty pounds of additional intestines held in a separate trunk. Everyone in the warehouse becomes very excited. The pig is placed in a jumbo trash bin on ice. It’s head pokes out, covered in plastic, like a Dahmer victim ready for the freezer.
“Where should the blood go?” cries a crew member from the front door. Sixteen gallons of fake blood: a mixture of corn syrup, pancake syrup, red dye, and coco, are carried in and set aside. The buckets of blood smell sweet but look disturbingly real. Finally, the Black Lips arrive with an enormous bag of loot from Goodwill, $160 worth of potential costume-wear and one small stuffed doll. At the front of the warehouse, Hadlock directs her crew on how she wants the pig hung. Ropes are thrown over the ceiling-beams high above our heads and then tied to the pig’s hind legs. The eviscerated piggy is pulled upward as its legs are pulled apart. The gash down its center draws attention to the perfectly hollowed out body. Meanwhile, less than ten feet away, Joe Bradley sets up his drums.
“Nothing can go to waste…every bit of plastic drop-cloth will be needed later in the shoot,” says Hadlock. Outside the warehouse, the art crew hoses down the large plastic sheeting in which the pig was delivered. The freshly washed plastic is laid out in the parking lot to dry in the sun. Less than ten feet away, Ian St. Pe practices operating the chainsaw he will use later in the day to saw his guitar in half.
Back inside, Cole is lip-syncing the Black Lips’ song “Family Tree” against a black backdrop. Three cameras take tight footage of his head. Bassist Jarred Swilley walks around and takes in everything around him. He says, “I didn’t even know we were shooting a video until yesterday. I thought we were just going to somebody’s house…” In the corner of the warehouse, he flips through pictures of Nitsch’s “Origin Mysteries Theater,” which picture Nitsch naked and bloody upon the cross with an enormous, gutted lamb behind him. Swilley looks up at the real pig dangling at the other end of the warehouse, then back at the pictures of Nitsch crucified. “This is going to be Cole?! PETA is not going to like this.”
During the next scene, pig kidneys and intestines, along with Spanish moss and confetti fly across the camera’s view while the Black Lips mimic a performance to “Family Tree.” By the time the band leaves the stage area, the floor resembles a horror movie. The small stuffed doll from the Goodwill is lying on the ground, half covered in bloody Spanish moss. Pig organs line the area like a morbid game of “Connect The Dots.” Hadlock sends a crew member on a mission for brooms and dust pans. “We also need AS MANY TOWELS AS WE CAN AFFORD and plastic drops…LOTS OF PLASTIC DROPS!” From here on out the scenes are going to get progressively messier.
“This is when shit starts getting weird,” says video editor Ryan Andrus around 8pm. At the other end of the warehouse, two crew members prep the positioning of the cross for the next scene. They lift the eight foot crucifix off the ground, right below the dangling pig carcass. “Is that a REAL pig?!” asks the emergency repair man, at least half a dozen times. He was called in earlier in the day after the door got caught on the larger cross and derailed. Surely, the repair man had no idea what he was walking into
With the song cued, Cole lays upon the crucifix. It is lifted by two crew men holding the horizontal axis of the cross. Once upright, Joe and Ian enter from each side with a bucket of blood and pour it over the pig carcass behind Cole. Then Jarred enters and pours a bucket of blood over Cole’s head. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. A distracted repairman looks on from a few feet away.
Two female extras are now down to their underwear, ready to carry the fruit plate offerings to Cole’s feet. Preparations for the final procession scene begin. But there are supposed to be three girls in the procession. One never showed up. Hadlock spots a girl from her crew that would be perfect for the role. “Do you feel like getting bloody?” she asks Liz. “And how do you feel about being topless?” Liz accepts the role, sheds her clothing, and smoothly transitions from being production assistant to video extra. “Is my underwear alright?” Liz asks. “Yeah, they’re perfect,” Hadlock replies as she places the black hood over Liz’s head and hands her the Pagan Wreath Cross. The song is cued once again and Liz leads the procession of topless girls with executioners’ hoods towards the crucified Cole.
The next scene is the money shot: band and girls wrestle at the base of the cross as blood, guts, moss, fruit and jello are thrown upon them. The scenario has all the makings of a snuff film, but the band seems more nervous than the girls, whom are safely tucked away inside their executioners’ hoods. While everyone is holding their positions, waiting for the camera to roll, Jarred disturbs the peace and pleas for a shot of whiskey. Moments later the song begins playing and the simulated orgy erupts. Ian stands above, looking down upon it all, adding a note of comic relief as he holds the cross up with one hand, and eats grapes with the other. Blood and jello flows through the air, causing the floor to get more and more slippery as do the bodies that collectively contract and expand like a heaving lung. Individuals momentarily emerge, but overall the scene resembles a bloody tornado. When the filming stops, Hadlock hands robes to the ladies. “Sorry I can’t hose you off,” she apologizes. “The bathroom’s a little flooded.”
Across the warehouse, the next scene is being prepped. Lights are arranged around a large Lazy Susan and a tall ladder is off to the side. In comes Liz, moderately cleaned up, sans executioners’ mask. Wearing only her underwear, she sits on the Lazy Susan and spins slowly from side to side as Safieh discusses the next shot with his crew. Once everyone is on the same page, the camera rolls. Liz spins slowly around as blood is gradually poured onto her head from high above. Once she is thoroughly coated in blood, a drizzle of white feathers comes down, bit by bit. For a moment everyone is silent and captivated. The crew and band alike are mesmerized. The slowly spinning Lazy Susan creates a hypnotic effect and the feathers look like softly falling snow. Unfortunately, feathers don’t come off as easily as a light snow, and even less so when they are layered over syrup. After the shot, the girls clean off as best they can without using the hose. Feathers are carefully collected as to not clog the sink. One girl says to Liz, “Do you want to shower at my house so you don’t have to tell your boyfriend you were in the video?” Apparently, his last words to Liz as he dropped her off were, “Don’t do anything crazy.”
In the parking lot, the crew sets up the final shot of the evening: Ian sawing his guitar in half. It’s almost midnight, and the industrial surroundings feel especially desolate. One huge flood light illuminates Ian’s guitar from below. The guitar is suspended in the air with vice grips. Ian stands behind it with the chainsaw, simulating the downward motion he will use to saw the guitar in half. Once he decides where to strike the body, the camera will be ready to go. As Ian turns the chainsaw on, Safieh runs out yelling “Hold up, we can’t shoot here. The parking lot is not in our rental agreement.” Cinematographer Cooper Dunn defiantly retorts, “But this will only take a second. C’mon!” Safieh resists the temptation, “The guy JUST said we can’t shoot in the parking lot.” After a bit of back and forth, the crew relocates inside.
Once again the lights are situated around the suspended guitar. Ian stands behind, practicing his motion with an idle chainsaw. Safieh runs around the warehouse asking everyone if they’ve seen the warehouse owner. Once he confirms that the landlord is nowhere in sight he gives the green light for the final shot. The chainsaw is turned on as the guitar is dowsed in gasoline and then set on fire. Ian lifts the blade triumphantly above his head and brings it down forcefully upon the flaming guitar. The owner walks through the door to catch a final second of flames, his mouth is agape in horror, as if he’s about to hit the ceiling, but before he can utter a word, Safieh yells “CUT! That’s a picture wrap!” and everyone in the warehouse starts cheering. The crew throws flame retardant blankets over the guitar and it is clear that no harm has been done. The owner looks stunned. Ian puts down the chainsaw, walks over to him, and shakes his hand.