Awards season meteorologists (should we say astrologists?) are abuzz with predictions of possible gold in Jared Leto’s future for “Dallas Buyers’ Club:” the Matthew McConaughey star vehicle also features Leto’s much-lauded performance of Rayon, a transgendered AIDS patient. It’s Leto’s first film role in four years (his last was the 2009 sci-fi drama “Mr. Nobody”), and in the meantime, Leto has spent nearly every waking hour of his life with Thirty Seconds to Mars, the rock band he leads along with his brother Shannon and Tomo Miličević, recording music and touring the world.
Leto’s directorial debut, the documentary “Artifact,” hits iTunes today—originally planned as a making-of chronicle of the band’s third album, “This Is War,” it transformed into a music industry war documentary about Leto and Thirty Seconds to Mars’s marathon contractual fight with their record label, EMI. Indiewire caught up with Leto on the road in the United Kingdom as he traveled between shows in London and Manchester.
You’re having a great year—your role in “Dallas Buyers’ Club” has received critical acclaim and lots of award buzz, and you have “Artifact” coming out, which is something totally different. I wanted to start with that title. Why did you call the film “Artifact?
When I was making the film, I thought about gathering and collecting all of the elements of this period of our lives, capturing everything that was necessary to tell the story as an artifact of our lives.
Was that a title that you had in mind when you set out to make the film? Or did it come over the course of making it?
It was actually in place well before I finished the film—I had started calling it that early on. And it was also about the death of the traditional music business, the burial process of looking back at another time and a way things used to work. That played into the title in a way I liked quite a bit
Tell me a little more about Bartholomew Cubbins. Why’d you decide to direct this and why did you go for that particular Dr. Seuss pseudonym.
It’s something I started doing about ten years ago when I started directing. I wanted to have anonymity working freely without any kind of preconceived notions or constraints. It was just some privacy. So instead of putting my own name on projects I was directing, I used the name Bartholomew Cubbins.
Is that just something you do just for the title itself, or is that part of a bigger philosophy of how you look at yourself as a director—especially in a project like this where you’re also the subject?
I’ve used the title for so long now, it just became kind of a fun thing. It also became the worst-kept secret in town. The latest project that I directed is called “City of Angels”—it’s a short documentary about life and dreams and creativity and the wonderful place that is Los Angeles, California. But I actually put my own name on that one. It was the first time I’d ever done that. I’d used several different names, but it was just such a personal thing. I thought it was appropriate to put my name on that piece.
Let’s switch gears for a little bit. One of the really interesting arguments your film makes is this idea that the music industry has changed because more and more labels are owned by corporations now, so there are business types at the top calling the shots instead of creatives. Many people would make the same argument about the film industry. As someone who’s worked—and found success—in both industries, what are your thoughts on that corporatization element of the music business vs. the movie business?
They share quite a bit and they have their own completely different worlds. I’m a believer in the idea that you should disrupt yourself because someone else will come along and do it for you. I think the movie industry has been slow to adapt and I think the music industry has been the canary in the coal mine. It suffered casualties before the movie business quite simply because of one technical fact: the size of the file. If movie files were small and as easy to share and download illegally as music is, the movie business would have been hit hard simultaneously. But what happened is the music business was hit first, and as we can see in hindsight, it was absolutely blind-sided. It was full of all kinds of bureaucracy, corporatization and its fair share of corruption. They weren’t really in a position to adapt quickly—it became a great case study and an example for the ‘innovator’s dilemma.’
Had they been listening and had they been spending some of that profit on research and development, maybe they could have developed their own systems and platforms that could have helped them with the transition. I think that that’s a big difference between the two [industries].
So when you use the phrase ‘canary in the coal mine’—and obviously as technology continues and movie files become easier to download—do you think the movie business is headed down the same track as the music business? Or have they seen the warning signs and started shifting gears.
Fortunately, the movie business has a part of the record stream that the record business doesn’t, and that is the live experience. You can make a comparison of someone wanting to see their favorite band at the Staples Center and someone wanting to see “Gravity” in 3D at the IMAX. There’s a live component of that where record companies don’t participate in that part of the revenue stream and movie studios do. The live [music] business is fairly healthy and has weathered the storm, but the problem in the live business is that it’s over-saturated because people spend too much time on the road. So many artists aren’t able to make money off the road. It used to be that artists toured a couple months out of the year; now they’re at home for a couple of months of the year and they’re on the road the rest of the time.
I want to make it clear that I’m not anti-record company and I’m not anti-corporation—I’m anti-greed and pro-fairness. I think it’s wonderful around the world that artists are putting their vision to light. A lot of artists are great businessmen and a lot of businessmen are great artists. There’s always going to be an uneasy relationship between art and commerce. Sometimes that relationship can be wonderful, and it is possible for record companies and movie studios to treat artists and audiences fairly and make a transparent, clear deals with artists that leave both parties in a really great place. And there’s tons of profit to go around. We had more success that we ever dreamed of when we made an album called “A Beautiful Lie.” We sold millions and millions of copies around the world, we came back to Los Angeles to make a follow-up album and we found that not only would we never be paid a single penny, we were actually millions and millions of dollars in debt. We decided to look into it and were shocked by what we found. And we decided that we were going to contest our contract. We used a California labor law that says you can’t be held by a contract for more than seven years, and we cited that, we walked away, and they sued us for $30 million. We fought them for years and we filmed every single second of it. “Artifact” is the story of that battle.
How would you describe your relationship with EMI now?
There is no EMI—it’s changed. We were at EMI when it was owned by a billionaire who was more experienced buying and selling gas stations that he was dealing with creative people. His big idea was to put artists on salary like he did his accountants and marketing executives. He ended up losing control of the company and personally lost around a billion dollars. He lost the company, Citi took control of it, and they sold it to Universal; Universal now owns what used to be called EMI. It’s called the Capital Group, and it has Capital, Virgin and a bunch of other labels in it and completely different people. The EMI that sued us for $30 million is no longer in business.
It was an interesting film to make. At one point, the film became a part of the battle—the film became a part of the film—and ultimately, we got the film into festivals, we won the people’s choice award at Toronto and at Gotham. We had offers of people wanting to buy the movie, and we decided to release it ourselves on a new platform called VyRT, which is really a new technology platform and a way of broadcasting something live and sharing that experience with people all over the world. And we had massive success with it. We were able to do better than any of the ideas that we had been offered, and we retained our copyright and ownership of the film. And now it comes out wide on iTunes in a couple of weeks. And I don’t think we would have taken that approach had we not had the battles with the record company and learned the lessons that we had learned. It’s important to fight for what you believe in, and it’s important to fight to be treated fairly.
Let’s zoom out past “Artifact.” I wanted to ask why you decided to return to acting in “Dallas Buyers’ Club.” Was it that you wanted to move into acting more regularly or was it this film particularly?
I didn’t have any plans to make another film. We were touring the world with 30 Seconds to Mars, playing in front of twenty, thirty, sometimes a hundred thousand people a night, and it was incredible. We were having the tour of a lifetime, and I got this script. I hadn’t read a script in a couple of years, but I read it and I fell in love. I thought, what an incredible opportunity. And though I hadn’t made a film in six years, I had been close to film since I was making a lot of content, doing a lot of editing and directing and producing. But I decided that it would be really interesting to make a film again, and this seemed like an incredible group of people that were all coming together to tell a really special and important story. So I dug in deep and I made this film, and I’m really proud to be a part of it. It was the role of a lifetime.
So does that mean we won’t see you in front of the camera for a while?
I don’t know. If something as seductive came along, I would jump at the chance to have that opportunity. But movies like this don’t come along that often. So we’ll see.