Perverting Catholic Devotion With Nergal’s Me and That Man
By now, you have most likely seen Zev Deans’ darkly majestic work on videos for Ghost, Behemoth, Portal and Chelsea Wolfe. He combines live action, practical effects and animation to pack a feature-length narrative into a four-minute rock video. Like many artists that reside in New York, Deans comes from somewhere else. Born in Norfolk, Va., he was immersed in art and music primarily under his parents' influence. Upon arriving in New York City, Deans worked with visionary artist / filmmaker Matthew Barney, which seems like the perfect launch point into his current position.
Deans’ latest masterpiece is “Magdalene” by Me and That Man, the new band featuring Behemoth frontman Nergal (read our recent interview) along with Warsaw-based, British transplant guitarist John Porter. The track appears on their album Songs of Love and Death. Shot in Poland, the video pushes all the right buttons to inspire controversy. It’s a deeply sexual narrative, with undertones of female empowerment, the male gaze and the fetishizing of Catholic devotion. The (EXTREMELY NSFW) video especially strikes a timely chord in respect to #czarnyprotest, a women-led reproductive rights effort in the face of the Polish government..
While out on the Me and That Man shoot in Warsaw, Poland, Deans also found time to trek out to rural Bialystock to shoot the video for “IV” by Polish black metal band Batushka, which is another story unto itself.
Do you approach making videos from the perspective of a filmmaker or a visual artist?
Visual art is definitely where my career began, but I was raised on film. My mother has excellent taste in all things visual, making for a culturally saturated childhood.
With music videos, I get to experiment. I always get to come up with new ideas, so it’s an excuse to explore new techniques and styles. Over time, I gravitated toward the act of storytelling, as opposed to visual gimmicks. I try to divine a song’s meaning, and work it into a full-fledged narrative arc.
Though my entire life before music videos was spent making visual art, I always looked up to filmmakers; those were my favorite people, and that’s what I loved to absorb. It wasn’t just going to museums or gallery shows — you do that to meet people and party. For me, I wasn’t interested in art exhibitions as much as going to see film premieres with director Q&As.
Music is the third heat; my dad is a musician. He was playing Devo, Björk and Bowie for me when I was a child. He gave me my musical bedrock.
What did you do when you worked for Matthew Barney?
I think I gravitated to him because his work straddles film and visual art. It was an internship in 2006 for half a year; he had just finished Drawing Restraint 9, with Björk. We were making sculptures for the Gladstone Gallery's "Drawing Restraint 13" opening, in tandem with the film; all of the sculptures were based on the themes explored in the film. It was like working at a metal gym. You’d go in there and there were 16 people chiseling and lifting shit, blasting Slayer or some obscure heavy stuff. It was really hard work — not much talking going on, just a lot of intensity. It was very much what you’d imagine: very masculine, but also very feminine. The crew has half men and half women. Everyone was tough, fast and strong. Once, at a reception, I brought a drunk friend and she found Björk’s asymmetrical jacket in a closet, and foolishly decided to wear it around the party. I was never called back to work after that. [Laughs]
Your material differs from a lot of other video work out there because there is a strong narrative, as opposed to just one visual gimmick and a few shots of the band riding around on motorcycles. Is that where the filmic aspects come from?
Its ironic because most people will watch 30 seconds to a minute of a video and move on. That’s the challenge: to see if we can get them to stay for the payoff at the end. People seem to be enjoying it, so maybe some are watching the whole thing. YouTube statistics are a sobering reality for content-makers. I guess it’s my response to the dire state of storytelling in modern films. Hollywood wont touch anything without a franchise-friendly gimmick. Even indie films like The Neon Demon and The Witch seem to be suffering from the inability to tell a story. I’m all for vivid anti-narrative films — I’m a huge Argento fan, for example — but you have to make the visual content worth looking at. Otherwise, don’t expect me to sit still for two hours. They say that a civilization nears its end once it loses the ability to tell a story. It is up to filmmakers and writers to keep us at a safe distance from total collapse.
A lot of the artists you work with are long-form-minded. Do you think you’ll be getting any two-and-half minute songs from any of them?
No, but I can’t wait until that happens. It’s a nightmare doing longer pieces! Metal is a unique genre; songs are often epic, and I try to mirror that in the video. There aren’t any “singles,” so it’s becoming okay for the songs to be longer. I just hope the budgets get a little bigger, because it’s hard keeping the video interesting for a long time with limited resources. EVERYBODY SHOULD PAY FOR MUSIC.
I love it and hate it. I love when a band comes to me with a lot of money and the song is three minutes; that’s fantastic from a business perspective, but let's face it — that’s not why I do this.
What artists or filmmakers have influenced your work?
When I was 15, I worked at a video store and discovered Alejandro Jodorowsky, Ken Russell and Kenneth Anger. Then I saw Polanski’s The Tenant, and I began searching for films that blended paranoia, surrealist fantasy and diabolical frenzy. Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession and On the Silver Globe are two massive inspirations, as well as Ken Russell’s The Devils. But I also derive inspiration from unlikely sources — anything from Technicolor musicals to Japanese exploitation to badly produced PSAs to contemporary video artists, like Jon Rafman.
From art, [I'm inspired by] a lot of the sinister old stuff, like Aubrey Beardsley and Albrecht Dürer. I’m an amateur archivist when it comes to propaganda and the use of symbols in advertising and media. H.R. Giger is an influence in just about every possible way. Not so much his later work, but his early pen-and-ink stuff — there’s nothing more sinister than that. His work on Alien is when it started speaking to the production side of what I do.
How did you come to work with Nergal?
He contacted me out of the blue; Inferno showed him the Portal video, and he liked it. That was how the video for [Behemoth's] “Messe Noire” came about. We kept in contact; we hang out when he tours the U.S., and he wanted me to work on his new project, Me and That Man, a very different band than Behemoth.
How big of a crew did you have? Did you work with local people?
I brought myself and a Super 8 camera to Warsaw. Nergal had Grupa 13 on set, who have produced most of Behemoth’s music videos; they’ve done great work. They shot the band footage with me. Back in NYC, the nun scenes starred the incredibly talented Nikki Delmonico. I was lucky enough to get Ryan Michael Kelly behind the camera. He is a visionary fashion photographer, and more collaborations are on the way from all of us.
I was nervous as fuck before I went to Poland. We hadn’t done much planning; I didn’t know any of the details. That’s not how I work — usually, I’m doing everything. I’m planning who’s going to be there, how it's going to work. The whole thing was so last-minute. But when Nergal said Grupa 13 would help, a wash of relief came over me.
I booked an Airbnb in Warsaw. Nergal said, "Meet me at this location at 10AM. It’s this outdoor breakfast coffee place." I walk over and there he is, sitting outside; he’s got espresso, orange juice — it was a really nice way to start the workday. We had coffee and breakfast. I asked him when we were going to get started, and he informed me that the crew has been working since 8AM! Then we jump in his black, Satanic chariot of a car and drove over to this big music hall that was ours for the day. I waltz in, high on champagne, and there’s like 15 guys at work already. Everybody is happy to see me, the set is already assembled — there’s even a fucking director’s chair — and I’m like, “Holy shit, this is the life!” It’s the most useless I’ve ever felt on set!
We got these beautiful shots of Nergal and John [Porter], a Dick Dale-style guitarist from England that’s been living in Poland for a while. He looks like a cross between Willem Dafoe and Dracula, just incredible. We shot the two of them in a black void mired in fog, wearing crucifixes and beckoning to [the] camera. I blasted these recordings of schema monks chanting; it was a very meditative and eerie vibe.
The NYC shoot was a little different. We booked two rooms at a certain hotel in Bushwick … I distracted the staff for 20 minutes while [the cast and crew] quickly ran our gear up the stairs. We set up very quickly, since we were paying by the hour. I would leave set between takes and you could hear the tortured moans of brutal fucking in every room, all down the hallway. If you leave your door open for more than 15 seconds, management immediately calls your room and orders you to close your door. Hilarious.
Did Nergal select the track or did he take your input into consideration?
It’s one of those things where they send you a couple of tracks, but they secretly know which one they want. We agreed on the song “Magdalene.” The song is from the perspective of Christ, asking Magdalene to follow him, love him or cast a stone at him. It’s ultimately a love song. I took those elements and ran with them. I ran very far away. I practically skipped town.
The first thing you see in the video is a woman masturbating. Her character is obsessed with Jesus beyond her duties as a nun. In the end, I wanted to present an inversion of the Catholic Polish government's myopic vision of the perfect woman. She is incapable of ever needing an abortion, as she is celibate, so she exists outside of the modern conflict at the core of Poland’s struggle with reproductive rights. She is devout and strictly sworn to serve the church for life. She is a nun, and lives under the veil of sexual repression, but what about HER needs? She is human, after all. This video explores undeniable sexual truths in the one place that would be safest from them: the bedroom of a nun.
I hope to pervert Catholic devotion in a way that will upset the Polish government. Reproductive rights currently hang in the balance in Poland, and women are organizing against the right-wing attempts to illegalize abortion; #czarnyprotest is the movement. One of their slogans is “Get your rosary beads out of my uterus.” This video is very timely, and Nergal supports the protest; anything to ruffle the feathers of the archaic Catholic government! Every time Behemoth plays in Poland, there are hundreds of Catholics at the venue, trying to shut the show down. I hope this gives them something to chew on! Poland’s current leadership is fucked up, but Poland’s young people are fantastic, and they’re ready for change.