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Arcade Fire’s Disastrous Video Project

30/06/17 by Samantha Waters
Arcade Fire’s Disastrous Video Project
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The band are massively in debt because of an unfinished film.

On June 4th, director Terry Gilliam posted on Facebook some astounding news: “After 17 years, we have completed the shoot of THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE.” That legendary project had been so delayed—by derailed shoots, defecting financiers, and creative skirmishes—that Gilliam had been dubbed “Captain Chaos” by his crew. 2002 even saw the release of Lost in La Mancha, a documentary chronicling the film’s delays. Now it turns out that Gilliam’s Quixote collaborators aren’t the only ones to have gone down the rabbit hole with him. The Canadian band Arcade Fire, indie-rock’s top grossing act, are lost in a Gilliam project, too.

According to sources within the band, who agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity, it all began in 2005, when their acclaimed debut album, Funeral, caught the ear of the British director. During an interview at the Cannes Film Festival, Gilliam praised the emotional intensity and dreamlike qualities of their music, which he called “palpably hand-made.” Arcade Fire singer-songwriter Win Butler detected a kindred spirit. A lifelong fan of darkly satiric Gilliam fantasias such as 1985's Brazil, Butler convinced his bandmates that Gilliam's surreal yet detailed atmospheres were the visual counterpart to the psychic unrest in the Arcade Fire song “Une année sans lumière.”

That year, Gilliam met with three band members during a stop on their European tour. They exchanged ideas and scheduled shoots at concerts and at a soundstage outside London. As the original concept expanded, a music video grew into a half-hour musical short. Location shoots were added in Iceland, Norway, and Denmark.
A larger project came into focus. The song's chilly meditation on mortality and transcendence would merge with Gilliam’s trademark visual marriage of the antique and modern. Gilliam’s longtime collaborator, Tony Grisoni, worked on the screenplay; a film crew worthy of a major studio production was flown to the band’s tour stops and vacation sites. Over long conversations with Gilliam—between the director’s shooting of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and the band’s recording of their second album, Neon Bible—Butler privately came to redefine Arcade Fire: no longer a producer of rock songs, it would create a musical-cinematic-philosophical update to Wagner's ideal artistic synthesis, or Gesumtskunstwerk. Its Das Rheingold would be a 140-minute rock-opera film odyssey into the hereafter, "Une année sans lumière."

Richard McCloskey, a former attorney for Arcade Fire’s production company Canteloupe, calls a 2006 deal structured to finance this vision “every bit as ambitious and ill-defined.” While it drew some funding from Gilliam's investors, analysts speculate that the deal leveraged an additional $12-15 million from future band earnings through music sales, licensing, touring revenue, and "Arcade Fire-related product." A source at Billions, the band's tour management film, says its 2017-18 schedule includes slots for reshooting and editing "Une année sans lumière.” To fund those additional shoots, the band has reportedly inked a new 360 deal. Despite Arcade Fire’s reported net worth of $30 million in 2015, each member's legal and financial future is tied to finishing “Une année sans lumière” and recouping its costs.

“None of them ever discuss it,” says someone close to the band. “But I know Win feels horrible about the whole thing. I mean, he was 23 when they recorded the song. Now everyone's lives are sunk into this project and there’s no choice but to see it through.”

The good news? Gilliam just finishing shooting The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. If “Une année sans lumière” makes similar progress, it could hit Amazon, Netflix, or another platform sometime before the end of the world.

Check out more Arcade Fire coverage here.