What struck us most while watching Jared Leto’s new documentary Artifact (which won best doc at TIFF last weekend), wasn’t how ruthlessly EMI treated his band, 30 seconds to Mars, over the course of their four year legal struggle. We already knew that most major labels are soulless wormholes dedicated to sucking the creative lifeforce that pumps through an artist’s veins. Instead, we were struck by how much we actually dug their music, which was used to great emotional effect throughout the film. (Takeaway equation: 30 Seconds to Mars = pretty good sometimes.)
Dealing with skeptics is nothing new for the now 40-year-old-actor/musician, whose been met with rolled eyes and raised eyebrows ever since ditching his film career five years ago to focus entirely on his duties as his band’s creative nucleus. But the film, which Leto directed under his go to pseudonym Bartholomew Cubbins, isn’t about their journey to legitimacy—5 million records sold will do that to a band—but the 30 million dollar lawsuit launched against them by their record label, and the album that emerged from all the angst and uncertainty that came with it. We sat down with an under-the-weather Leto in Toronto, to discuss the absurdity of being sued for $30 million, the upcoming election, and why his band was able to succeed despite him being, well, Jared Leto.
When you first embarked on a music career, did you have any idea of how suffocating the industry can be?
I had no idea! I’d heard people, things like, “Renegotiate when you’re successful.” They take that approach of like, “Ok you sign a very bad deal, and in success you beat each other up and try t o make it better.” Which is very strange. They could all make fair deals and have lots of success, you don’t have to do it that way.
Do you remember the moment when you first found out about the lawsuit? Was there a physical, guttural reaction?
We weren’t filming all the time, it’s a very DIY film made by just a handful of people. I filmed sometimes, my brother filmed, we had just a couple camera guys, most of the time just one camera. But there was that day that we got the information that we were being sued for thirty million dollars, and it was…CRAZY! It’s too much. It was just absurd, surreal, ridiculous.
You went into this band with such pure intentions. Did all of this legal wrangling ever poison the process?
Well, it certainly informed the process. This is an album that very much ruminates, discusses, and debates what was happening in our lives, it was very personal. I’m not sure if this is expressed in the film enough, because we’re pretty private people and didn’t let the cameras in all the way, but it was really brutal. The doubt, the fear, the anxiety that was caused by this battle, it was the most difficult, creative and business challenge that I’ve ever had in my life.
Did you ever view the executives as evil people?
Hmm there’s a couple, maybe, [laughs] but I think a lot of them are, well some might need therapy, some may be sociopaths, where they truly put the good of themselves against the good of the community. They don’t really have to do this, they do it because they can, but most of the people we dealt with from the record company are good people, they aren’t the enemy, we weren’t fighting them. Terra Firma is an organization that buys and sells companies, and I’m sure that emotions don’t go too much into their decision making process.
When you’re that big, I’m sure it’s not about hurting peoples feelings.
Yeah it’s really just about numbers, it’s not about feelings, art, or creating anything. I’m more about feelings and art. I don’t think that making art is like running a company, it’s not a profit-minded enterprise. A company doesn’t have to just be profit-minded. I don’t think a record company is a bad thing, I’m not anti-record company, I think that having a group of people around the world to help you realize your goals and dreams is great. There’s no problem with that, nobody has a problem with using Netflix to watch a movie, until they’ve raised their prices too much and pissed everybody off. I don’t have a problem going to Whole Foods to buy almond milk. There are good things about big companies, too.
How do you feel about the business model that Radiohead employed?
Well they only did that once, and they didn’t do it again. And they did put their album out at Starbucks, through Starbucks, which is kind of a record company.
Do you think they did that as a ploy?
No, I don’t think it was a ploy, I think they were genuinely experimenting and trying out something new. I think that it was really brave and interesting. I just don’t think that it was sustainable enough for them to do it again. Maybe they’ll come up with something else, maybe someone will.
Lets talk a little bit about the actual process of documentary filmmaking. How daunting was it when it’s like, holy shit we have three-thousand hours of footage?
Forty-thousand. It’s totally impossible. We barely managed to do it, that was the best part of getting accepted to TIFF, was having a deadline. You cut, cut, cut, and you know you have a film about something. Documentaries are interesting because you shoot and then you write the script, not the other way around. I wanted to make a film about art and commerce, and tell the story of this crazy business. But it involved a lot of trial and error.
One of my favorite sequences in the film is of you growing up amongst all of these artists. How much did that upbringing influence your creative process?
A lot, that informed us an incredible amount. We grew up in a communal, artistic, creative environment. That informed a lot of who and what we’re about, and still does to this day. Creativity was a really important thing, it was the holy grail for us, for my family, and we were encouraged. Like how other people may have been encouraged to be athletes, lawyers, or other things, we were encouraged to express ourselves creatively.
When you transitioned from being a movie actor to a musician, was it a conscious decision to go from one to another, or did it just happen?
It was organic. I’d always made music, and it just became a bigger part of my life. I was doing more and more of it. I went to film school, originally I actually studied to be a painter, and then I switched to film, and then I thought, I should try and act, maybe I’ll get a job directing that way! Weird, I know. But the whole time I was making music, it just became a bigger and bigger part of my life, and eventually the music became so successful, that it was hard to find time to make films, and it’s been that way for about five years.
Were you aware of the skepticism that comes with an actor transitioning into a music career?
I wasn’t aware when I first started acting, or maybe I would have never acted. That was really confusing. I would have thought, If that’s the kiss of death I’m not going to do it! I didn’t really follow things like that, but of course I quickly became aware of it. I think that there are a lot of dilettantes, bad , bad case studies, so of course if there’s a certain car and every time you drive it, it breaks down, people are going to start saying, “Oh that’s a piece of shit.” So if there are a lot of bad precedences before you, then it’s easy to assume, and so you become an easy target. I think that we were able to succeed because of a couple of things: we refused to give up, even though people would strangely suggest that we not follow our dreams, which was a really bizarre thing to tell other people. “Don’t follow your dreams if it’s silly!”
So this is on a completely different note, but I just saw photos of you at the DNC. What was that experience like for you?
Inspiring, it was great. I’ve been working with the campaign and helping to make sure that the right person gets re-elected, and not a guy who thinks that running a country is like running a business. It’s not. Running a family isn’t like running a business, there a lot of things that aren’t like running a business, and just because you’re successful in one area doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful in another. So I’ve been doing my part to help, because I believe in the president, and I think that he’s the right choice.
Was there a great sense of hope for you when Obama was elected?
I think that there was a little bit of hope, but what’s hard, and we kind of didn’t look back on this in the film because we weren’t doing a good job of making it clear, the economic crisis did impact our negotiations. It was such a dark time, there’s so much uncertainty, and EMI used that to try and leverage, and they did a great job of it. They put a lot of fear into us, it was an evil thing to do, but they did it well.
You say in the film that New York feels more like your city than L.A. What is it about New York that attracts you?
New York was the place you went to make your dreams come true. It wasn’t, “Go west young man.” It was, “Get your fucking ass to New York City, and be an artist!” That’s what I always thought I’d do. I remember I moved around every couple years of my life, but it was always New York. New York was in my mind.
So why move to L.A.? Do you have any desire to go back to the east coast?
Well it was when I got into film, and then you want to make cars go to Detroit, that sort of thing, and I thought that was where the opportunities were going to be for me. But that’s it, the film business, it wasn’t anything else. I’m not a surfer.
Do you ever think about going back into film?
I haven’t made a movie in five years, and it’s really that I’ve just been too busy. It takes a lot of time and the films that I generally make are very difficult to make, difficult to finance, difficult to get made, difficult to get people to see them.
Alright well, Jared, thanks for taking the time.
There’s something that Kurt Vonnegut says in his Rules for Writing, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this? I read it a few years ago. Look this up because I think you’ll like it, it’s sarcastic, written in his voice, who knows if he even wrote it. It’s ‘never let people feel like you’ve wasted their time.’ So I hope you don’t feel like I’ve wasted your time. I always try and keep that in mind when I’m making something.