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The Spoooooooooooooky Issue

Virgen Blood

Talking to KK Barrett about the "psycho-opera" he just made with Karen O.

Undoubtedly one of the most influential production designers the world of cinema has ever known, KK Barrett is responsible for the overall look and feel of films like Being John Malkovich, Lost in Translation, I ♥ Huckabees and Where the Wild Things Are. Over the past five years or so, KK and Karen O have been working on a project called Stop the Virgens, which began as an idea to shoot videos for a set of corresponding songs before eventually morphing into a “psycho opera” that will make its debut run October 12-22 in Brooklyn as part of the Creators Project. It also inspired this month’s cover (those zombie-looking ladies crawling out of Karen O’s severed neck are the Virgens). It’s the type of creation that can’t be fully understood until it’s experienced in person, so we asked KK to explain things as best he could. We think he did a pretty good job. VICE: Stop the Virgens has been in development for years and gone through many permutations. What was the original kernel of inspiration?
KK Barrett: Karen’s original version was that she wanted to do separate little films for a series of songs she wrote. She had a lot of A-list creative directors that she wanted to work with, and I guess it was slow getting off the ground or something. In the meantime, I wrote a bunch of small, one-page short stories and thoughts and little great escapes. Around her songs?
No, they were separate things. I just showed them to her one day, and she said, “Why don’t you take a crack at writing the script for this?” You hadn’t heard the music by then?
She had played it for me a couple times and it was in my possession. I spent about six months writing the script while I was busy with other things and she was on the road. It was hard because I was writing the script, and then I’d come to the song and didn’t want it to stop because then it’d be more like a music video or vignettes within the stream of things. And so I tried to make a narrative structure. In the process, what we learned was that it didn’t really want a narrative structure, that would distract from the way you absorbed the songs. You didn’t want people talk-singing. When did it transition from a video-centric project to something closer to theatre or a musical?
We played around with the term opera, but we didn’t want to call it that because we were afraid it was going to be thought of as a “rock opera”. And knowing the press, we realised that you have to tell them what to think, or give them a buzzword. Then they go, “Oh, it’s that”. I read this article from the Times about the difference between a musical and an opera and sent it to Karen. Opera was defined by the music delivered emotionally, rather than through the voice or the melody of the music. So it was the purer form, we thought. And then we said, “OK, well, we have to call it an opera.” But, again, people would have by default called it a rock opera. Then we finally came up with the term psycho-opera and we knew that was it. So the songs act as the script. Sounds like an opera to me.
The other option was a song cycle, but we didn’t want there to be vignettes where each song stops, then a whole new idea, then another song starts and turns into another idea. We wanted it to have a continuous flow, so we decided to use visual interludes, not montages, that pushed the story forward visually, without dialogue. The song took over the force of what would normally be people interacting and talking back and forth. We didn’t realise this until after Karen looked at it. She got some things out of it, like characters and mythology. But she realised she didn’t want any other words in the play than the songs. It was a breakthrough, like “but of course”. A lot of films from the 60s – made by people like Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage – were visual poems that supplemented music without distracting from it. The Virgens are part of this mythology you mention. Where did they come from?
One of the little stories I wrote was about two twins, but they don’t look alike. They were jumping around, travelling to all these places, living on the moon and were married to twins in Austria. It’s basically a time-travelling journey of a life. So little abstract bits of this story came through into what we were doing. Karen and I sat down to discuss what we were doing, song by song, and we filmed it. She wasn’t even analysing it, she was like, “This is what I see”. We came up with things like there are these two girls in the backseat of a convertible and then they’re floating up above the road in their sleep, going down the road. This is all in the script; this is what she had told me. There’s one point where they wake up and realise they’re up there and start falling back to earth. So we took these girls and started weaving a story. Another interesting aspect to this performance is that you’re making people come to youat least initiallyinstead of touring around.
We started talking about a way to have a performance that was more of a residency, where you could go for a week someplace. Then, of course, what came up was the model of theatre. They go into a place and have people come night after night. Then they pack up and go to the next place. It’s still a tour, but it’s a more humane type of tour. So let’s go back to why you got involved. I knew that you and Karen were friends, but I don’t really know how that happened.
I met her through Spike [Jonze], after a show at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles where the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were opening for the White Stripes. So it was at that early point in their career. I met a couple directors with Karen. And again, I’m supporting her on the ride, but it’s still her ride, for the most part. It’s her baby. But I was there to say, “What do we do now?” and keep things going. It was kind of amazing how when we chose Adam [Rapp, director], Mark [Subias, executive producer] picked up the ball. I didn’t know that he was also a producer.Or that he was, you know, a machine. I didn’t know he was a machine either. I thought he was Adam’s manager and that’s it.
He already had the kind of thought process that we were already in: “Oh, this is something Adam’s never done before.” It’s not narratively driven by words, and especially not by words he wrote himself. So you’re pulling the legs out from under the guy, you know? He’s used to being in complete control.
Yes, and to take the words out – OK, here’s something I’m asking you to direct, that you haven’t written and as a matter of fact, there are no words. Except for touchstones, and they won’t be enunciated in any way other than when they’re naturally expressed in the song. And here’s the abstract art, what happens and where it goes. And then for the manager to go, “This is something you should do”. Or Adam may have said, “This is something I want to do,” or “I don’t know what we’re going to do with this.” And Mark saying, “Yeah, this is great!” Well, after five or six years of incubating it, or waiting, I think you guys have amazing people around you right now that make it feel like
Things happen when they’re ready to happen. That’s something I learned from the theatre world. These people just make stuff happen. You know in the film world nothing happens on schedule. And you meet these theatre types who are like, “We could just do this. We’ve got a space, we got some cash. All we need is a bunch of people.” It would be interesting, the energy of the theatre world affecting filmmakers, which doesn’t really happen often at all.
Actually, the theatre world is a better place to tackle low-budget projects because they already have a system in place that’s not as laden as the filmmaking system. And on top of that they’re obsessed with preparation, which is amazing because it leads to a discipline, which is what you need in order to pull something off live, where people are there, right there and you can touch them. You can’t edit your way out of that situation.
That’s exactly what I was going to say. In film you don’t rehearse as much because you have the recourse of choosing moments to paste together a performance. Which is unfair to an actor, because they want to build a realistic performance in realtime. But what happens is you pick their performance apart and you decide, you’re good here, and you’re good there and you’re good over here. It’s like a Frankenstein of their performance. Hasn’t that ruined acting? Maybe it’s why we have actors who are like Muppets?
You don’t have the playhouse 90s where you had live performance of a theatre piece that’s filmed all the way through. When you’re on, there’s no going out until it’s done. But I think actors have also learned from it, and they have learned to give you different options. Let me do one more, let me try this, or do that. So it hasn’t ruined it, it’s just a different way to go. For someone to rise to the occasion – for all those little pieces that get glued together – that’s pretty amazing too. The cover you did for us isn’t a literal scene from Stop the Virgens, it’s just inspired by the story. How did you come up with it?
I’ve got a really good friend in LA who came from Mark’s little family. Sonny [Gerasimowicz, art director] is kind of my go-to collaborator when I want to visualise something. When we planned for the cover, Karen and I had some ideas, and I went to Sonny and just sketched them out. Sonny is smart enough to take your idea and go, “Let me just play with it, let me just absorb what you said. Rather than just being a literal tool and drawing out exactly what you told me, let me get the feeling of what you told me, and I’ll play with some other ideas too.” Karen and I had all different kinds of ideas, where she was only on one side of the page and then you flip it over and it folds out a certain way. But then Sonny came up with the “Slit the neck, open it, and they’ll be crawling out.”

Interview by Eddy Moretti, Photo Illustration by KK Barrett and Asger Carlsen