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U2 Interviews

The Million Dollar Man
© Hot Press Vol. 25 No.4 12.03.2000

If it's Paris it must be Spring. Bono's been out roaming the city of light with Miles' 1957 opus  L'Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud on the headphones, feeling like . . . well, a million dollars suggests itself as an appropriate image, but although the singer's approaching 40 this May, he's not that green and crinkly just yet. 

Still, since the PopMart tour ground to a halt roughly this time two years ago, Bono's experienced some pretty out-there stuff, even by his standards. For a start, he fathered a third child, Elijah, lost a laptop containing lyrics for the new U2 album (a replay of when his notebooks were stolen before the October sessions), had a telephoto lens poked up his arse courtesy of the Irish tabloids and received the MTV Free Your Mind award last November. 

He also refereed Hume and Trimble live on stage in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement, lobbied the Clinton and Blair administrations on behalf of Jubilee 2000, debated Radiohead albums with hardline Republican House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich, blagged meetings with the secretary to the American treasury, the chairmen of Amex, American Express and the Federal reserve . . . and lost his sunglasses to The Pope. The only major player he hasn't crunched numbers with yet is God, but he's probably working on it. By the time you read this, U2 will have been granted the freedom of Dublin ­ allowed to graze their sheep on College Green forevermore. 

And now there's the film, The Million Dollar Hotel, adapted by Nicholas Klein from an original story by Bono (who also co-produced) and directed by Wim Wenders. It says a lot about Hollywood that the singer can get at least $100 billion worth of Third World debt written off in 18 months, but it took him 12 years to get this movie made (at one point in the early '90s, it looked like Winona Ryder and Gary Oldman might take the lead roles, but financing fell through). 

You've probably heard a rough synopsis of the film by now. The singer has called the story "a dark fable about the redemptive power of love", but there are also elements of murder mystery, art-farce and even hints of science fiction. The action (or, this being a Wenders film, absence of it) takes place in The Million Dollar Hotel, a rundown establishment in downtown Los Angeles which Bono first set eyes on at a photo shoot in 1987. 

The yarn follows FBI agent Skinner (Mel Gibson) and his attempts to investigate the possible murder of the hotel's rich kid benefactor Izzy. He sets about interrogating the clientele of misfits and misfortunates: the simple, smitten Tom Tom (Jeremy Davies); the damaged damned-sel Eloise (Milla Jovovich); native American artist Geronimo (Jimmy Smits); John Lennon obsessive Dixie, who claims to have written all the Beatles' tunes (Peter Stormare); Vivien (a reliably oddball Amanda Plummer) and Shorty (Bud Cort, star of cult classic Harold & Maude). These denizens all participate in a hoax which mythologises the deceased Izzy as a "painter saint", attracting the bright lights of the media to the hotel. And throughout all this, Skinner exploits Tom Tom's love for Eloise as a means of finding Izzy's killer. 

The Million Dollar Hotel won the Silver Eagle prize at the 50th Berlin Film Festival a few weeks ago, but like all Wenders' films of the last decade (excepting maybe Beyond The Clouds, the director's collaboration with Michaelangelo Antonioni), it has received a mixed response. Certainly, blockbuster fans lured by the U2 connection and Mel Gibson might well be bewildered by what is ostensibly an arthouse movie. Bono is frank and philosophical about this, but maintains that even hostile critics have asked to see it a second time, still haunted by Wenders' tone poem.

And when Bono describes his film maker friend as a "jazzman", an old hand at ­ to use the director's own phrase ­ "flying blind without instruments", he pinpoints what makes the German such a bewitching and bewildering artist.
The impact of his work is residual, not immediate. Even with his most confused work, the themes continue to resound in your inner ear after the film has ended, just as the characters take up residence in your head.

So, after all the hoo-ha generated by Bono's involvement has subsided, The Million Dollar Hotel should eventually find its own spirit level, perhaps somewhere between Jarmusch at his quirkiest and Lynch at his most benign. For his part, upon being congratulated on finally getting his creation onto the screen, Mr Vox quips, "Bono voyage!" then chews over the suggestion that the new movie constitutes a kind of lens through which to view U2's travelling asylum. After all, as long ago as December 1988, musing on the itinerant life in a Hot Press interview with Liam Mackey, he admitted that, "the demons follow you home to the padded cell of the hotel room." Familiar imagery, no? 

"Yeah, there was always a fire escape, though," he chuckles. "And I've taken full advantage of that. I think it is sad but true that I know a lot about hotels. And having spent most of my life in them, now, the final chapter in the Spinal Tap episode is owning one: the guy comes back from touring and actually builds his own Holiday Inn room! But my experience in hotels has for the large part been the plate glass window to separate you from the storms outside, whereas the experience of the people in the Million Dollar Hotel is rather the opposite. It's a real community. Milla Jovovich and Jeremy Davies became very friendly with a lot of the people still living in the hotel as it was still operational when we were shooting there on the weekends ­ in fact we'd have to drag her out of it.
And it's important not to caricature their lives.

"All cinema, all theatre is to a degree voyeurism," he continues. "You get to stare at people up close. But we tried to do it with some respect, and of course a lot of the lives in the hotel are not such archetypes as the ones that we cast for the movie ­ there's a lot of decent people just getting on about their day and people who arrived in LA looking for some reasonably priced accommodation." 

These hotel chronicles also incorporate allusions to other films such as Milos Forman's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Tod Browning's Freaks (Skinner himself is a genetic mishap, forced to wear a back brace as a result of a botched attempt to remove a third arm ­ "One of us!"). Shades of U2's origins in the Lypton Village construct here, the artistic collective as a dysfunctional family, misfits getting by in the straight world by commodifying their deviancy.

"That's interesting," Bono concedes. "Well, in the movie, I suppose everybody has a front of one sort or another, but with the scam they have a chance for the first time to come together and they develop a united front which brings them all out of each other. They all have to co-operate with a lie in order to discover their potential. And I suppose if you wanted to stretch the metaphor to The Village and Ballymun/Finglas 1976/77, that's certainly the way it worked for us then.

"But we, I suppose, in a very suburban way, were still dressing up," he continues. "It was a sort of Hallowe'en madness, and even though behind where Gavin lived there was, as it was known, 'The Mentaller', I think the urban experience of people who have fallen out of the sort of health insurance/social services loop is a very different experience, and I would not try to compare ours [to it]. It's a shock, but in the late 80s in America you could still starve. I mean, Reagan closed down a lot of these mental hospitals and hence some of the clientele at the Million Dollar Hotel were in fact outpatients from mental hospitals. That was the point that I discovered them in 1988." 

Several people have pointed out the similarities between Tom Tom and a young Gavin Friday, Dave-Id, Bono's own appetite for mischief . . .

"I can't really comment. You know, we all kinda resemble each other with a few drinks; Gavin, Dave-Id, myself, there's a few people, if you put them into the blender, you might get to Tom Tom. But the key is the rhythm." 

And also the tone. The Million Dollar Hotel is hardly existential slapstick, but it does contain more wry,
side-of-the-mouth moments than your average Wenders film. 

"It's true, it has a touch of comedy," the director himself testifies the next day, speaking from Munich. "Jon Hassell, the trumpet player on the soundtrack, when he saw it he found the right category for it, he called it a 'screwball tragedy'." 

Hassell also provides what Bono recently described as "the blue mood verging on purple", working alongside Greg Cohen, Bill Frisell, Brian Blade, Adam Dorn, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, under the auspices of maestro Hal Willner (himself no slouch at constructing elaborate dreamscapes). The result is an album where the songs proper are as rich in atmosphere as crafty Badalamenti-esque interludes like 'Funny Face' and 'Bathtub'. 

"I think it's the first time in a while where songs are used as score, where the scenes were actually cut with the songs in mind, as opposed to songs just coming in to provide music," Bono suggests, perhaps providing ammunition for those who've compared the film to a music video. "Recording the soundtrack was a piece of piss. We did it in ten days. It was effortless, we just put up the pictures, we got three giant monitors in the studio, and everyone just kind of responded to the picture. It was a thrill. And Jon Hassell is really the sort of keeper of the flame at the moment, there's no-one who plays trumpet like him. He doesn't like the words 'jazz' or 'new age', in fact, that's the reason why no-one can find his listing in the record shop ­ he just keeps refusing to come in under any heading. I don't blame him. But he's certainly a man who lives up to his name!" 

Let's play paradoxes awhile. Bono's uneasi-ness with the very myths and legends on which rock 'n' roll was founded is central to what makes U2 a great rock 'n' roll band. The quartet's querying of core rock 'n' roll fallacies such as the burn-out/fade-away clause ­ their essential contrariness ­ eventually qualified them for the iconic status they seemed to covet so zealously around about Rattle & Hum time.

Bono's distrust of the Jesus Cobain complex seems to manifest itself in The Million Dollar Hotel through a kind of implied antipathy towards the character of Izzy ­ to all intents and purposes a trust fund brat on the slum. Put this to the singer though, and he somewhat surprisingly turns the argument around by aligning himself with the death-tripper.

"Izzy, to my mind, represents our position," he says, "because with him comes the cameras, the TV anchor people, the journalists and the writers, which is exactly what we've done to that hotel by my writing the movie." 

Scratch that theory then. Let's try another angle. In the film, the friction between Skinner and Dixie the Beatles freak is quite timely, given not only recent disclosures about the FBI Lennon file, but also the imminent release of Mark Chapman. Has Bono ever suffered from crazies claiming to have written 'Pride' or 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'?

"Yeah, I've had some very direct experience of stalking," he admits. "I don't want to get into names or places because it can be an ongoing problem, but let's say I and the office of U2 have had experience of armed and dangerous stalkers at the time when this piece was written.

"There was an amusing incident in a hotel in Los Angeles around about that time, where the stalker had committed a date for revenge on not receiving his royalties. And so they had a load of FBI people around the place where I was staying, it was one of these bungalows you get in the grounds of the hotel. So anyway, midnight had passed and I wasn't dead ­ at least as far as I could make out ­ and I went asleep and I guess it was in the back of my mind. And I woke up to this 'Bang!', y'know, a very loud crack, and I was up firing telephones and lashing out in the dark with Cuban heels and anything I could find in the direction of the bang. But it was just my suitcase had fallen off the edge of the bed (laughs). Anyway, he went away eventually and I think he bothered somebody else."

How did Bono feel about making a cameo appearance in Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho, fixated on by the deranged Bateman? 

"Somebody showed me that . . . what was his first book?" 

Less Than Zero. 

"I read that, I didn't actually get onto American Psycho. In New York at the time, the bit I did read didn't feel like fiction. Somebody showed me the passage (but) it was a long time ago, so I can't really remember a response."

Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief ­ in The Million Dollar Hotel's art forgery sub-plot, Julian Sands' dealer character Terence Scopey appraises Izzy's paintings as garbage, "but important garbage". In this scene, he could almost be reiterating U2's celebration of precious detritus on the Zoo TV extravaganza. Remembering dramatis personae like The Mirrorball Man and The Fly, it's perhaps no surprise that U2's frontman identifies with the hypemeister.

"It's a great moment," he laughs. "Wim asked me to play a few of the parts in the movie and the last one I turned down was the part of Scopey the art dealer, and indeed Julian Sands was wearing a pair of my glasses. I have to say, it's one of my favourite scenes. There's a few scenes are worth going back to see a few times, that's certainly one of them (adopts Scopey's voice): "Large . . . dark . . . important .. . . erotic . . . I can sell it!' He's a really exceptional actor actually, I'm very glad he did it. The artist . . . as you know we got Julian Schnabel to actually paint the paintings, and of course he would stand by Scopey's scene. In so many ways the dealer has become the artist."

While we're on the art tack, let's freeze frame the scene where Eloise and Tom Tom, on the run from the police, lie side by side in a room in the hotel with hands clamped over each other's mouths, an image which could almost be a still from Achtung Baby. One of the trains of thought Bono was fond of joyriding around Zoo-time referenced their televisual-surrealist impressions of The Gulf War to Picasso's 'Guernica', the painter's howl of response to the bombardment of the small Spanish town in 1937. Similarly, Dali's 'Autumn Cannibalism', which depicts the Spanish civil war as lovers devouring each other with knives and forks, just might constitute the visual link between The Gulf's global theatre of hate (Zoo TV) and love's private kitchen stink (Achtung Baby). 

Bono: "Well, one of the lines of questioning that you're on is sharp in that the movie, though it was started in the '80s, with our kind of fan club relationship to America, has in its visuals that appreciation of Americana and the sort of Hopper-like pictures, and yet in its scenes, it's very much like where we went in the '90s, and I think it does bridge those two very well." 

Another invisible middleman here might be Sam Shepard, whose writings were a catalyst for Rattle & Hum's finest track 'Hawkmoon 269' and whose Motel Chronicles formed the basis for Wenders' Paris Texas. In that '984 movie, the director, often criticised for idealising women, painted Nastassja Kinski with just the right amount of innocence and experience. Eloise could almost be her character's kid sister, and one of the film's more fruitful contradictions stems from the rub between Wenders' tendency to worship and Bono's more torch-noir approach, evident in songs like 'With Or Without You' and 'Luminous Times (Hold On To Love)'.

"My reasons for that are mostly, as a songwriter, practical, in that I don't wanna write a song that reddens my face when I hear it on the radio," he reckons. "And I have written some straight love songs only to have put them aside because they might elicit projectile vomiting from the great outdoors! So I like love songs that are bittersweet, and I like women to be more complex in songs because that's my experience of them in life. But I think everyone gets it in the neck, don't they? Not just women. I would think if anything I'm harder on the singer than the subject." 

True enough, the men often adopt subservient positions in U2 songs. They can even be quite feminine.

"Yeah, I think that's probably true. Well, when you're as macho as I am you can afford that kind of posture!" 

Nevertheless, without getting into S&M territory, there is the recurring idea of mutual smothering, of love as a sexually transmitted disease.

"Yeah, I think there's a lot of cannibalism in the U2 love songs," he admits, "but I think that comes out of the sort of hunger people can have for each other, and I think what's interesting about Tom Tom is that his is not a sexual hunger. He's the only one really in the hotel who's capable of unconditional love, and that is the only kind of love that can wake her up. And characters who've suffered a lot of abuse, like the character Eloise is based on, sex is just . . . they're kinda numb often times, sexually. 

"Again, it's that curse of a beautiful face," Bono elaborates, "because it brings out the ugliness in a lot of other people; in women in their resentment, in men in their desire to own or to unmask. And I think that having met, y'know, some of the most beautiful women in my travels, I'm often struck by how common courtesy and more old fashioned characteristics like Tom Tom has mean so much, it's kind of a shock. But you realise they've had the hard stares all their life. And Eloise is like that, in fact, her dominant characteristic is 'offer no resistance, suffer no pain'. She's like, 'If they want it, they can have it'. He's the first character who doesn't really want it, he actually wants her, and it's a real love story. And I think that's probably the saddest metaphor of all, that it takes a slightly retarded guy to be able to love with the kind of purity that she needs to purify her." 

Sad is right. And yet, there's something unnerving about another tender scene in The Million Dollar Hotel, where Eloise teases Tom Tom into playing up his retardation, reasoning that if she's going to play whore for him, he can play simpleton for her. Here, the film flaunts notions of correctness just as The Prunes did in their prime. On one hand, it confronts taboo subjects such as the sexuality of the infantile or infirm, on the other, it lays itself open to charges of fetishising Tom Tom's "slowness". It's a riddle which requires more time with Bono than this writer's got, yet refuses to resolve itself in the days after the interview. Again, the residue.

The Million Dollar Hotel begins and ends with a leap. Tom Tom launches himself off the roof of the hotel, and we hear these lines: "After I jumped, I discovered; life is perfect . . . life is the best." It's an outstanding scene and you can read it a few ways: as a reprise of the angels Cassiel and Damiel's fall to earth in Wings Of Desire and faraway So Close!; as the life-and-death leap Bono took from the Live Aid stage in 1985, the precise moment where U2 were transformed from successful rock band to global phenomenon; or the leap of faith taken by the free-blowing jazzer, trusting that the next note will be there. And of course, there's the step taken by newlyweds, from the altar into the abyss . . . 

"Y'know, I just think people loving each other is a kind of miracle," Bono reflects. "And I think it's against all odds and I think everything in the world conspires against that, from just the humdrum of paying the bills to desire ­ 'cos sex has been elevated to the ultimate commodity, the one that you can't live without ­ and I'm just amazed when I meet people like that. And this doesn't come from any disappointment myself, I just think it's a remarkable thing to see, and I don't think we should accept it as normal.

"It's like when you see people getting married because it's that time and you just kind of think, 'Oh no!' Marriage is this grand madness, and I think if people knew that, they would perhaps take it more seriously. The reason why there's operas and novels and pop tunes written about love is because it's such an extraordinary thing, not because it's commonplace, and yet that's what you're told, you grow up with this idea that it's the norm." 

'The Ground Beneath Her Feet' is at once an opera, a novel and a pop tune. The lyrics might come courtesy of Salman Rushdie's novel, but as the editor of this organ recently indicated, drop the 'The' from the song title and you get a typically ambivalent U2 title. But as well as stretching Bono's interpretive skills, the flagship song from the soundtrack also introduces a new shade to U2's sonic palate in the form of Daniel Lanois' cosmic pedal steel.

"I've got this kind of sci-fi country and western thing going," Bono laughs. "And when I say sci-fi I'm talking the Milky Way rather than the moon over the brow of the hill. I can't quite get everyone else onto this trip! I'm trying to talk Dan into doing an album of pedal steel, because his pedal steel has none of the sentimentality normally associated with the instrument, and he's added a couple of extra frets in order to get to these icy top notes."

But are there any other real clues in the The Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack as to where U2 are heading next? Hard to say just yet. Bono's "nixers" have put an undoubted strain on the group (and its handlers!), but U2 sidebar projects often gain currency with the benefit of hindsight. Edge's collaborations with Holger Czukay and Jah Wobble ­ not to mention the Captive soundtrack ­ ran in tandem with the delicately woven soundscapes of The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, the steel pulses of the Clockwork Orange stage project predicted the polyrhythmic turmoil of 'The Fly' and even 'Mofo', and Passengers' intricate logarithms plotted a course for Pop music.

Given that Bono's been bandying words like "fire", "spunk" and "ecstatic" around, one suspects that the new record will be another bold statement. Perversely though, this time out U2 might eschew the importance of being earnest and ironic in favour of Not Being There at all. If Bono's remarks to Sean O'Hagan in The Guardian are anything to go by, he's getting ready to not just discard the masks, but to take his face off:  

"It's all written from a certain point of view, and if there is a governing idea it comes from something the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly once said ­ that the best way to write was to imagine you're dead. You lose all vanity then . . ..
I suppose what I'm saying is that you should treat every album as if it's your last, as if your life depended on it."

To this writer, Bono simply says, "It's getting very exciting down there at the moment ­ they're real songs." And if he seems wary of giving too much away, perhaps it's because in the past he has prematurely prophesied speed-skiffle Ukranian folk albums (or sci-fi country for that matter!) and lived to regret it. 

In conclusion, I ask the singer if he has any questions for Wim Wenders, whom your reporter is scheduled to interview the next day.

"You should ask him why he made me do a cameo," he decides, after a long pause. "Because I objected to it at the time and I object to it even more now because I think it breaks the spell, it looks like Rock Star Appears In His Own Movie. If you could ask him that, I'd like a good reason why he wanted me in it. To me, it's a kind of a fable, and you don't want to wake up out of the spell of it, and when you see me, you go, 'Oh there's yer man! That's right, he did the music!'" 

The Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack is out now on Island/Universal. The film is released on April 28th. There will be a full length interview with Wim Wenders in the next issue of Hot Press. 

Auteur Auteur - Wim Wenders Checks In 

PM: First, a question from Bono: Why did you put him in the film?!! He still seems very uncomfortable with it. 

Wim Wenders: Ah, yeah (sighs). See, that's a tough one. I really wanted to convince him to play a longer part, I really wanted him to be Joe the concierge, and I think that would've been less self-conscious than his short appearance now. So maybe the short appearance now is a strange leftover from a much bigger desire that just didn't work out. I think Bono would've had the guts to do it, but when we shot in March last year the band had just started to lay down the first tracks for the new album and I think they really didn't want to let Bono go at that time. Joe was a part that would have to be present during the whole shoot, so we had to renounce on Bono.
And then as he was present on the set for a week in between, I just shoved him into the scene, and he's joined by an old combatant ­ you see maybe that Anton Corbijn is taking a picture of him as the camera passes. 

The story for The Million Dollar Hotel had been kicking around for a few years ­ what drew you to it?

What drew me to it instantly, first reading I must say, was the characters. Beautiful characters in it, incredible people that I felt had no precedent in movies. And I read that first script that Bono had given me not thinking I would be the director but thinking Bono needed good advice from me. And I made lots of notes still thinking only in terms of advice, and then Bono and I talked for a couple of days. And the more advice I gave the more I was hooked. And at the very end when the only question left (was), "Well, who could I suggest as a director?", he just looked at me and smiled and I knew that had been his strategy. 

Was Nicholas Klein involved at that stage?

Yeah, Nicholas had written that first draft, and then the three of us started to go to work, and we worked for several years on improving the script. 

I barely recognised Peter Stormare as Dixie . . . 

You must have seen him in Fargo and The Big Liebowski ­ I don't recognise him from one movie to another, and he really did something incredible in slipping into John Lennon's skin here in this film. 

You've been criticised for idealising women in your films, whereas Bono is harder on his heroines . . . 

She (Eloise) comes out alright, actually. I think the one love song in the film sung by Bono that really defines the movie is 'The Ground Beneath Your Feet'. I first listened to it when Bono played a very rough version to me and I didn't really know anything about it yet, and I thought he had so perfectly grasped the spirit of the film I couldn't believe it. I fought hard to get it in the film because I thought it was just too good to be true for us. That song really defines the attitude of the film towards Eloise. 

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