By Todd Gilchrist | Indiewire December 20, 2013 at 9:39AM
Given his overstuffed and eclectic list of projects – which includes Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkely, Beck, The Black Keys, Norah Jones, and U2 – it's hard to imagine that Danger Mouse has time to prioritize his favorite collaborators, much less choose them. But the songwriter and producer who catapulted mash-ups into the popular consciousness with "The Grey Album," his blend of Jay-Z's "Black Album" and The Beatles' "White Album," confesses that Broken Bells, his ongoing partnership with Shins front man James Mercer, ranks high on that extraordinary list.
"I’d been waiting a long time to do the second album," Danger Mouse, whose real name is Brian Burton, told Indiewire about "After the Disco," Broken Bells' sophomore release. "It's like my main gig, so I was kind of waiting to put myself creatively all of the way into it."
And now that ambition has attracted film talent as well. Burton and Mercer kicked off the launch of the album, due January 14, 2014, with a series of music videos, including "The Ghost Inside," starring Christina Hendricks, and "After the Disco," starring Kate Mara and Anton Yelchin. Burton indicated that the duo's collaboration on the follow-up took him by surprise. "When I'm producing, things are a little bit different, but this was just getting a bunch of stuff out musically," he said. "When it came down to doing the lyrics and everything, it wound up being more personal than I thought it was going to be.”
Burton hired filmmaker and former classmate Jacob Gentry (who co-directed the acclaimed indie horror film "The Signal") to help realize that vision for a video series to accompany the album. "I wrote it down and let James read it and James liked it, and I had been talking to Jacob about doing something else since James did so much on the last one," he remembered. "And the visuals were starting to come together on this one and they were kind of in line with where we were."
Although Burton and Gentry worked together on "The Ghost Inside," Gentry said that the two of them fell quickly into creative lockstep on "After the Disco."
"I pitched them this idea of this science-fiction mini thing I had in my head, and we had a great time working together," Gentry said. "We were trying to create a whole universe for the band and the album – the concept, the artwork, it's all kind of one big universe that's outside of just music and movies."
Gentry built on Burton's original idea. "Brian came to me with this story he came up with, and I really thought it was great and it articulated a lot of the themes of the album," Gentry said. "So I just really did the work of trying to flesh it out to a narrative script and go from there."
Although the music video primarily features music from the Broken Bells’ "Holding on for Life," Gentry said that he approached the song as if it was the score to a movie, rather than trying to synchronize imagery to its rhythm or lyrics. "I listened to the record about a million times, but then I ended up writing it out just like a script," he said. "When we were shooting, I just wanted to shoot the movie, and then I would revisit the music in the editing room."
The end result wasn't entirely planned: "I had ideas for certain scenes, and the way that certain scenes came out -- the colors and the styles and the performances and everything came out of certain pieces of music -- but that didn’t necessarily end up being the piece of music for that scene."
"It wasn't necessarily choreographed to the music – we weren't playing the music on the set and trying to hit certain beats," Gentry admitted. "We basically wanted to make the movie and then score it with the album. Broken Bells is kind of like soundtrack music anyway, so I just tried to make the album accompany us as a soundtrack, but then when I was editing, I kind of went back the other direction and tried to figure out which pieces went with which movements the best."
Burton said that he offered Gentry what is no doubt a unique opportunity for a music video director: He gave the filmmaker the individual components of the song so that he could arrange them in order to best suit the narrative. "I gave the album to Jacob, and I gave him stems so he could take any part from any song he wanted to, to score the piece," Burton said. "So Jacob was the one who scored it – he took the pieces that he wanted and placed them and everything."
Actress Kate Mara said that despite the specificity of their ideas, she found plenty of opportunities to improvise, and that even in carefully mapping the emotional trajectory of her character's relationship with Yelchin, there was much spontaneity. "I loved the look of it, and they told me it was a love story that was sort of sad, and a lot of it was going to take place sort of in space," Mara explained. "There was definitely a very strong story there, but when we actually shot it, it was very free floating, and Jacob would give us the scenario and he would just sort of say, 'Go for it, just make sure you do the following few things.'"
"Holding on for Life" was the first music video that Mara ever appeared in, but she welcomed the new challenge. "I don't know that every actor would respond to the director calling out emotions, but I sort of love that, I crave that," she said. "I think it's challenging in that you really have to stay in the moment, but also be aware of what’s going on outside of you.”
The video mirrors the dreamlike themes of the album as a whole, which for Burton offers a meditation on the process of growing up. "You can spend this whole time when you're younger dreaming what it will be like when you're older and you fall in love or get married and have kids," he said. "And then you get to a place and you're there and it's not disappointment, but it's just that things are different, and that's all fine – but now what are you supposed to dream about?"