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The Man Behind the Camera

Music-video visionary Phil Harder makes the leap from MTV to the silver screen—and takes his eye-catching style with him

The Man Behind the Camera
Photo by David Ellis
To view Phil Harder's music videos, click here and then select directors, followed by his name.

PHIL HARDER IS AN EXPERT at making something out of nothing. He lives with his wife and son in an 1890s house he remodeled himself, an amalgam of retro styles and one of the last private residences fronting the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. He helps organize impromptu movie screenings on a nearby island, motoring friends out to watch old footage salvaged from dustbins. He’s also gone from shooting music videos with a Super 8 and pocket change to becoming one of the country’s most in-demand video directors, making spots for Prince and the Foo Fighters in addition to iPod commercials. So what can we expect now that Harder is set to direct his first full-length feature film, with a $3.4 million budget and Thora Birch (American Beauty) eager to play the lead? Tuscaloosa may well be one of the most original movies to emerge from Minnesota.

It is not uncommon for directors of music videos or television advertisements to leap into feature films. Hollywood is forever on the lookout for new talent, and there is nothing better than these stylized shorts to help studios recognize an emerging star. Michael Gondry (The Science of Sleep), David Fincher (Zodiac), and Spike Jonze (Adaptation) are among those who have transitioned from videos to film. “Producers look at videos and say, ‘At least I know they won’t screw it up,’” Harder explains.

Harder didn’t have much to trade on, though, when he began shooting in the mid-1980s. He would follow punk-rock bands around the Twin Cities, begging to shoot videos for free. He was a fixture at First Avenue and 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis. In 1987, he upgraded his equipment—slightly. He acquired an old news camera, a CP-16, that was shoulder-held and had sound-recording capability—making it ideal for a solo filmmaker. Harder spent $250 on it and became, as he puts it, “a one-man shooting machine.”

Though he’s working with million-dollar budgets now, Harder’s affection for such inexpensive visual effects as layered imagery and the herky-jerky look of hundreds of vintage still photos being screened in quick succession hasn’t waned. Like many directors known for their storytelling, from Hitchcock to the Coen brothers, Harder carefully thinks through each scene, storyboarding every shot with intricate drawings of how it should play out. He long ago learned not to waste film.

In the late ’80s, MTV launched 120 Minutes, which featured videos from the alternative music scene. Harder soon was in demand. The need (and means) to produce sharper images led him to collaborate with Pixel Farm, a Minneapolis post-production studio. He would shoot and edit the videos, leaving Pixel Farm to create the visual effects.

HP commercial Stills cinema

In 2004, Prince approached Harder to direct the video for “Cinnamon Girl,” a controversial song about a would-be suicide bomber, written in response to the 9/11 attacks. Harder was able to work with Oscar-nominated actress Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) and, encouraged by Prince, develop his unique visual style. With Pixel Farm, he created an effect that transposed grainy black-and-white images—almost like animated Xerox copies—over still-life watercolors. The result is striking but unsettling—a dream-like world of washed-out colors clashing with harsh monochrome scenes. Prince adored the look—and so did Harder. So much so that the style will make its big-screen debut in Tuscaloosa.

Harder has wanted to make Tuscaloosa ever since the late 1990s, when he read Glasgow Phillips’s novel. Set in the 1970s, it is a strange story about a young man who takes a summer job at the insane asylum owned by his father in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and whose mother abandons the family (for another woman). He falls in love with a female inmate and questions whether she is insane—or if the rest of the world, torn apart by civil-rights demonstrations and the Vietnam War (among other turmoils), are the crazy ones. Despite great reviews, the novel never gained traction and went out of print. The writer became so disillusioned that he wrote a memoir about how its lack of success drove him from writing fiction.

Harder approached Pixel Farm, which had recently begun producing films, with the idea of a screen adaptation. They were enthusiastic. “He’s a visionary,” says Pixel Farm founder and president Mohsen Sadeghi, a producer of Tuscaloosa.

The film will borrow much from Harder’s past work. The main character’s house and the asylum will feature large, plantation-style rooms like those seen in many of Harder’s videos. The costumes will undoubtedly benefit from Harder’s retro sensibilities. And the innovative watercolor sequences will be used for moments when the protagonist slips in and out of daydreams, illustrating memories of his mother from when he was too young to actually recall any details.

Tuscaloosa also appealed to Harder’s love of rivers. A number of his music videos have been shot near the Mississippi River, which also has been the subject of smaller projects made for his own enjoyment. Perhaps the most pivotal and touching moment in Tuscaloosa takes place when the two young lovers—confused, battered by society—float down the Black Warrior River in the deep fog of early morning.

Christine Walker, the Minneapolis-based producer of American Splendor and Factotum, has spent the past several years working with Harder on rewrites, financing, and casting. Not that finding actors has been especially difficult. “Phil’s visual style is so impressive it brings them in,” says Walker. “His ability to work with the actors keeps them on board.”

Harder’s best selling point may be his scrappiness—his ability to pull off imaginative scenes using very little money. Nevertheless, while Tuscaloosa has more than a Super 8–size budget, he and his producers still are daunted by financial concerns. They’re reluctant to set a timeline beyond “soon” for shooting while they continue to court backers. Harder hopes to begin in Louisiana, outside of New Orleans.
Meanwhile, he is shooting one or two more “no-budget” videos for bands that he considers friends, including the Dutch pop-act Bettie Serveert, and screening some 30-year-old offbeat films. No matter the form, it’s the creative act, the challenge of invention, that propels him.

To view Phil Harder's music videos, click here and then select directors, followed by his name.

Peter Schilling is freelance writer based in St. Louis Park.

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