Behind the Scenes

09.13.13

How Nirvana Shot the ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ Video

On the 20th anniversary of ‘In Utero,’ Andrew Romano talks to director Anton Corbijn about shooting Nirvana’s iconic ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ video, what Kurt Cobain was really like—and how one cast member almost died on set.

Here’s a fact that will make you feel old: it’s been two decades since Nirvana released In Utero.

In the history books, In Utero has been obscured by what came before it (the blockbuster Nevermind) and what came after it (Kurt Cobain's suicide). Even its release was a bit foggy; back in September 1993, the songs on Nirvana’s third LP had to compete for attention with the album’s controversial artwork, controversial language (“Rape Me”), and Geffen’s controversial rejection of the initial “unreleasable” mixes by producer Steve Albini.

But if anniversaries are good for anything, it is to remember, revisit, and perhaps even reevaluate the thing we’re commemorating. In this case, that means the music of In Utero--and the man who created it, Kurt Cobain.

On September 24, Geffen will release a deluxe edition of In Utero, which includes remastered and remixed versions of the original LP, as well as “more than 40 tracks of unreleased demos, rehearsals, live performances, B-sides, and a recently unearthed, never-before-heard Nirvana instrumental.”

It’s a remarkable document of a remarkable record: abrasive and melodic at the same time, with gnarled, intimate lyrics and a sound much closer to Nirvana’s own than to the bubblegum metal gloss of Nevermind.

The highlight for me—now as then—is “Heart-Shaped Box,” which is as close as Cobain ever got to a perfect song. And it had a perfect music video to match. The old man on the cross, the fat woman in the anatomical bodysuit, the young Ku Klux Klan girl, the field of poppies, the mechanical birds and butterflies—these images are seared, in vivid hypercolor, on the cerebral cortexes of anyone who happened to tune into MTV back in 1993. Or 1994. Or 1995.

To help dissect and celebrate “Heart-Shaped Box,” I called Anton Corbijn, the legendary Dutch rock photographer (Joy Division, U2) who directed the iconic clip. Corbijn revealed how it all came together, what Cobain was really like—and how one cast member almost died on set. Excerpts:

THE DAILY BEAST: How did you get involved with the "Heart-Shaped Box" video?
ANTON CORBIJN: It started at a photoshoot I was doing with Nirvana in Seattle. That’s how I got to know them.

Do you remember first hearing “Heart-Shaped Box?" What was your first impression? This was Nirvana's big followup to Nevermind.
I can’t be precise, but I must have been very enthusiastic, because I really liked Nirvana. I was not a full-time video maker. I was a photographer. I was quite selective in what songs I would work on or who I would work for. So I’m sure I was over-the-moon to make this work, with this song.

When was this?
It was in 1993. I think it was August for the photo shoot and September for the video. Before In Utero was released. Kurt heard from Courtney about videos I did for Echo and the Bunnymen, because Courtney had lived in Liverpool for awhile. Then Kurt asked me to send those videos to him, and I guess he liked them enough, because he sent his ideas for this new video back to me.

What form did those ideas take?
Writing, drawings, both. Kurt drew out images for the video. He would fax them to me. But of course, fax paper… anything written on it disappears after a few years, so I have nothing left.

That's not how a video usually takes shape, is it--with the artist storyboarding the entire thing?
Generally, the ideas for videos are mine, with sometimes an idea from a singer or a band worked into it. But usually the ideas are sparked off by me listening to a song. I tend to need a long time. I need to play the song 20 or 30 times in a row while I do exercise or sit in the bath; these are places where I always get ideas. But Kurt's ideas came fully formed, along with the song. Kurt was so incredibly detailed in his ideas, and they were so good, that of course I went with those. I would say that I contributed, idea-wise, maybe 15 percent.

Video screenshot

What were your contributions?
The big woman, for instance, was my idea. For me that was Mother Earth. There were a few other things, like the mechanical birds and the fake butterflies and stuff. But the whole concept is Kurt’s.

Were you surprised by the completeness of Kurt’s vision?
Oh, absolutely. He was a totally unique figure. He was visionary. For somebody to write a song and have a detailed vision for the video, or anything connected to it, that’s really rare. I have not encountered it to that level elsewhere. For example, I know that he told me he was very interested in shooting it in--the word just slipped my mind…

Technicolor?
Yes, Technicolor. Somehow it was not possible; maybe the whole system had been sold to China or something. But my producer and I devised an idea to shoot it in color, then transfer it to black and white, so the black and white would match the colors in gray tone, and then hand-tint every single frame. That took weeks. It was a very long process. But it gave the video a particular look—a particular brightness for the colors.

I’m mostly known for black and white work, so what was really interesting from my end was that I’d already had so many annoying experiences with MTV, because of censorship, where I'd previously had videos that they considered too dark, with a message that was incorrect for them. Whereas with this video, because it is so incredibly colorful, they never flinched. Nobody at MTV blinked an eye when they saw a child dressed as Ku Klux Klan member, jumping up to grab a fetus hanging from a tree.

Amazing.
I couldn’t believe it. They obviously looked at the happiness of the colors and didn’t realize the message underneath.

What was the message, in your mind, of the song and the video? What was Kurt trying to convey?
I’m not totally sure. I think there was a very personal thing in there. I never got to the bottom of that. Some idea about cancer in society, as well as proper cancer, but I never … It was not really clear to me, to be honest, what Kurt personally had in there. And there were absolutely personal things in there: maybe to deal with drugs, maybe to deal with Courtney.

Did you get the sense that it wasn’t something he thought out in terms of “I’m going to create these symbols to deliver this message” and more that he went with his instincts, like any good artist does?
Oh, I doubt it. I think there was real stuff in that video for him.

So you think it was very deliberate—this means this, that means that?
Absolutely. Kurt found visuals that worked for his message. Absolutely.

Tell me about the casting process.
The most difficult thing was finding the cast. The bigger woman and the child were not so difficult, although it was difficult sometimes I think for the child to act because there was blood coming out of her blouse at some point. But to find an old man who looked like an old man in L.A. was not so easy.

[Laughs]
In the end we found this fantastic man who had a jazz club or a jazz station on the radio, something like that. Quite into culture. Consequently, he looked fantastic, and not Hollywood-like. But there was a really eerie moment where he fell down while walking, on the set. He had some kind of bowel cancer, which he didn’t know. Something broke open. There was blood everywhere. We had to get the ambulance, and he had to go to the hospital straight off. It was really severe.

How did everyone react?
Everybody was very quiet for an hour or so. We didn’t work, because it was not only very sad for this man who we were so happy to work with, but also very close to some elements of the song.

With all the cancer imagery.
Yeah. I’m sure the ambulance that arrived thought we were making a snuff movie or something.

You’ve got a cross and a bleeding old man.
Exactly. [Laughs] It was beyond surreal.

When did you realize the video was going to be iconic?
I think when I saw it on MTV. And Kurt was so happy with it that a few months later he asked me to do another video for them for a song called “Pennyroyal Tea.” But I said, “Kurt, I don’t think I can do it. I’m going to disappoint you. I don’t think I can make another video as good at ‘Heart-Shaped Box.’ I’m not going to live up to your expectations. Then he said, “Well, if you don’t do it, I’ll never do another video again with anybody.” And he never did. “Heart-Shaped Box” became the last video.

Did you have ideas for “Pennyroyal Tea?” Did Kurt?
We never got that far. I didn’t want to make a video that was not as good as “Heart-Shaped Box,” and I was anticipating that was how it would be. Of course, if you look back, in hindsight, I should have done it. I really enjoyed the whole process with him.

How would describe Kurt’s personality? What was he like?
Kurt was very alert. Smart boy. Very intelligent. He did everything I asked him to do. Great, you know?

Do you remember anything specific from the shoot—a story that might illustrate how Kurt worked?
I remember once when we were in the process of hand-tinting, I sent him some clips, and it became clear how it was going to look. And he realized that the shirt he was wearing could be a different color in the next scene, because you can hand-tint any color you want. I had to say, “Kurt, it’s going to take months if you change the color of your shirt in every scene.” But I think if you look closely, the color of his shirt is different, in just one scene.

It's sad to think how little time Kurt had left: the "Heart-Shaped Box" video came out in the fall of 1993, and he was dead six months later.
You always think, well, we could do another video later. But that wouldn’t have been possible. I should have taken that challenge.

But your memories of working with Nirvana are good.
Only good memories. When you have a great song, you can put any kind of visuals with it, to be honest. Music videos have no rules. But to have a great song and then to make visuals that go with it that are memorable, and then to have a great shoot with the artist—it was just fantastic. That’s how it should be.