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Emmett Malloy on His White Stripes Documentary, Under Great White Northern Lights, and the Mystery of Jack and Meg

In the summer of 2007, the White Stripes embarked on an ambitious tenth-anniversary tour of every Canadian province and territory. Video director Emmett Malloy accompanied the garage-rock duo, and out of that experience came the documentary Under Great White Northern Lights, now out on DVD. Combining concert footage with intimate backstage moments, the film offers a glimpse into the mysteries of Jack and Meg White’s private, personal dynamics. Malloy, who has known the band since shooting their 2005 “My Doorbell” video, spoke to us about the story behind the film’s most emotional scene, and why he prefers not knowing all the White Stripes’ secrets.

When you traveled with the White Stripes on this tour, were you always planning on making a documentary out of it?
I think the reason why the film’s as personal and intimate as it is, is because there was no thought of making a film. Jack was telling me about the tour — these parts of the world that were really interesting, the fact that it was their tenth anniversary — and I told him, “You guys should have somebody film that. That’s too good to pass up.” But once we started, I felt right away, “Wow, this is a real special trip to be on.”

Was it hard getting them to feel comfortable with you filming?
The first show ended and we headed backstage with the cameras, and the door got shut in my face. I was like, “Well, okay, that’s just the way it is, I guess.” But then the next night, I stuck my foot in the door and kicked it open a bit. Next thing you know, I was in there. Jack’s a filmmaker himself, and he knew that whatever he didn’t like he could edit out, and that allowed me to film everything. But everything that I felt to be interesting — every personal moment — was allowed to be part of this film.

The most emotional moment has to be of them sitting alone at a piano offstage. Jack’s playing the ballad “White Moon” and Meg’s crying.
That was after their tenth-anniversary show, the longest show of their career — a very emotional night. I didn’t know it was going to turn out the way it did, but I wanted to have a scene after that show, and that piano ended up being there. It was just a beautiful happenstance — it took on a whole different shape and color. There was nothing sad about that moment, but it was an intense moment. These two have been through a lot — every deep relationship, whether it be brother and sister or husband and wife.

Did either of them resist including that scene?
Everybody thought about it long and hard. Jack looked at this film several times and would ask, “Am I coming off all right? Am I coming off as mean?” And I understood where he was coming from. Their relationship is about genuine, but tough love. Everybody still perpetuates this thing: “Are they brother and sister? Are they husband and wife?” Watching this film, I think people are going to understand more about this band and get more than they ever have on the White Stripes and still get nothing at all. And I think that’s the beauty of it.

Was it hard to capture their chemistry, since Meg’s so quiet?
Jack is such an awesome interview, so the first cuts were very, very Jack-heavy. Then I thought, “This is one version of the film, but I know there’s more.” And as the cuts went on, we found a lot more of Meg’s personality — it was subtle, it was hiding, it wasn’t jumping out at us. And now, what I’m most proud of is when people watch this film, they comment on Meg’s presence as much as Jack’s. And I think Meg goes toe-to-toe with Jack. This film really is a relationship story.

After making this film, do you feel you have a better understanding of their relationship?
I know them good as people and friends, but it certainly doesn’t give me anything more about the mysteries that everybody wants answers to. But, really, nobody wants to know. Everybody loves the myth of who the White Stripes are — I feel the same way. I don’t think I’ve ever said, like, “Okay, Jack, tell me straight — what’s the deal with … ?” I don’t even give a shit — I just like their music.

Photo: Matt Carr/Getty Images