Photo: OWEN HOFFMANN/Patrick McMullan
Jared Leto lives in Los Angeles, but at the Toronto Film Festival premiere of his documentary Artifact, about his band 30 Seconds to Mars’s legal battle with their record label, EMI, last week, he was definitely on home field. Nearly everyone in attendance seemed to be a megafan; we spotted several women with pyramid tattoos symbolizing their devotion to an elite “family” of 30 Seconds to Mars fans known as the Echelon. When the frontman and sometimes-actor (Jordan Catalano!) told the crowd he would take questions from those who’d come from furthest afield, a woman next to us shouted, “I’m from Portugal!” Leto didn’t hear. Then he said he’d take questions from people from Toronto. “What about from Buffalo?!” shouted the same woman. By the end of the Q&A, after having not gotten picked, she had run to the stage and was throwing a scarf (a gift, presumably) at Leto and holding her hand over her heart telling him he didn’t know what he means to people. After that display, he probably does. And after Leto led the audience in a “Yes, we can” chant about voting for the film, it won the People’s Choice Award for best documentary, despite having debuted just three days before the end of the festival.
But the film, which Leto directed under his pseudonym Bartholomew Cubbins, has a lot for non-fans, too, using EMI’s $30 million suit against the band for breach of contract as a launching point for talking about the fucked-up state of the music industry. Despite selling 3 million copies of their second album, A Beautiful Lie, the band — Leto on vocals and rhythm guitar, his brother Shannon on drums, and Tomo Milicevic on lead guitar and keys — found themselves more than a million dollars in debt to EMI having, they claim, never made a dime off any of the sales of their album, and they wanted out. Then, just as they were starting to make a documentary chronicling the making of their third album, EMI sued them, turning it into a documentary about them making an album in the face of a massive legal battle that might prevent the album from getting released. They eventually renegotiated with EMI, deciding that it was the only option. Jada Yuan spoke to Leto at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto just before he flew back to L.A. [SPOILERS ahead, though this is a documentary, so if you know the band’s history, you probably know what happens in the movie.]
*I’m confused. You were the director of the movie as well as its subject?
I mean, yeah, I don’t know if I’m the star. Me or EMI. I can’t figure it out.
Does that make the movie less credible, in that you have the ability to control your own portrayal?
I think no. I think that it’s the equivalent of saying, you know, Is Anne Frank a less credible authority on the subject that she was writing about? I’m not comparing myself to Anne Frank or the challenges that we had to her tragic situation, but what I’m saying is that you can have a personal experience and have it be authentic and make a document of that, whether it’s painting, a book, or a film and still have it be credible and be an authority on the subject.
But I mean, you guys come off as very sympathetic.
You know, I don’t think that was talked about very much or addressed, the sympathetic stance of the film, nor was it a focus to vilify the record label. We told our story from our point of view, how we saw it. It’s not an objective film. It’s a subjective film.
As much as you say the film didn’t vilify EMI, the record label did come off pretty badly. There were some people from the Canadian branch of EMI in the audience. Did you talk to them afterward?
Yeah, a bit. But I think the people that actually do the work at these companies understand, and like I said last night, I’m not anti-record company. I’m anti-greed, and I’m pro-fairness. So the people that actually did the work, we interviewed a lot of them in the film, and we give everyone a fair shake. They did sue us for 30 million bucks, right? [Laughs.] If we can set aside our differences after that, then they should be able to accept that fact that we made a film about it.
I was amazed to find out that a lot of the EMI employees you interviewed had still been working for the company when you made the movie but had all lost their jobs or left them since.
Yeah. Some were actually working and either since had been fired or left. And there’s a lot of change in that industry. There always has been, ever since I’ve been signed, and there are probably more coming.
Well, so how do you feel about reattaching yourself to a company that’s in constant turmoil?
Um, it’s a whole new regime: The people that were in power at EMI have since left. Lost control of the company. Lost billions of dollars in the process. [Terra Firma, run by London mogul Guy Hands, had purchased the label for 4.2 billion pounds in August 2007 and sold to Citigroup in February 2011 after a loss of several billion pounds. During the Terra Firma ownership, the label sued Pink Floyd and saw Radiohead walk away.] So, you know, I don’t have a problem with a group of people around the world that are there to help artists realize their goals, their dreams, their ambitions.
[There is a loud, chiming alarm going off in the hotel.] I’m sorry. What is this sound? Do we ignore it?
[Continuing on, ignoring the sound.] I don’t really have a problem with that. I have a problem with, you know, those companies not treating artists fairly. But I think it’s great that there are companies around the world that help people realize their dreams. Boots on the ground is a wonderful thing.
At the end of the movie, there’s a postscript that says that EMI still claims you’re $1.7 million in debt to them and that you’ve still never made any money from the sale of your albums. The film ends so triumphantly with them caving to your demands and you getting a great new contract. So, my question is: What happened? How is possible that they didn’t forgive the debt?
Exactly. That’s the question.
You have lawyers! You made it sound like you were starting over with a clean slate.
I thought so as well. I thought so as well. [Laughs.]
I have no idea. You know, it’s another chapter in a never-ending saga here.
Have you at least changed lawyers now?
That’s a great question. I’ll make sure to ask my lawyer after this. “Hey, I just did an interview with someone who thinks we should fire you, number one. Number two, why’s this happening?” I think it’s a good example of the insanity of the business. We’re still in debt, still never made any money and, you know, we’ve had a phenomenal amount of success. So therein lies the debate.
What was the deal you got? What made it better than the deal you had before?
Well, you can imagine how bad our deal was before … legally, there are some restraints as far as talking about specifics. So, uh, I’m not really allowed to talk about specifics.
Are you indentured to them for fewer albums?
We have one more album after the one we’re making now. So we’re in the middle of making another album right now. It’s a lot more fun to make an album without a $30 million lawsuit than it is with one.
Do you feel like being up against the wall like that while making your third album gave you creative fire?
It did. I’m certainly glad that we went through this, had this experience. I think it made us stronger. It inspired an album — I mean, it’s called This Is War for a reason. It will always be an important part of our story. We’re really glad that we chose to take this on. We chose to fight.
There is a slight sense of mythmaking in the movie. You very poetically describe how you and your brother “climbed out of the muddy banks of the Mississippi with our instruments in one hand and food stamps in the other.” And there are some conversations with your lawyers on speakerphone that seem too perfect to be true. Was anything staged?
No, all of those are real; 100 percent real. As soon as you make an edit, you manipulate. So in that way there’s a lot of creation. But it’s a document of what happened. There’s no crazier fiction than reality, right? And that’s certainly the case here: You don’t have to make this shit up. Irving Azoff [their manager] and Peter Paterno [their lawyer] and Bob Lefsetz [music writer] — these characters, these icons, these titans of the industry — they’re wonderful because they say everything they think because they don’t give a fuck. They’ve got nothing to fear, and they’re brave enough to kind of put it all out there. This is a different experience for me, too. I’ve been in front the camera a lot in my life and I’ve never revealed … I’ve never woken up with a camera in my face. Literally. And shared these moments. So it’s kind of strange. I’m a really private person, and, you know, I have my comfort level with what I do with my work and public life and all of that. And this certainly breaks new ground for me.
There’s a lot of talk in the movie about how you don’t care about money. But then there’s also a lot of talk about money, too.
Well, I don’t say we don’t care about money. I never say that. I said that we never worked for money. And I still have that philosophy. I don’t go to work for money. I’ve never chased money. Or else I’d have much different career. And I wouldn’t have made this film, that’s for sure — of where I’ll lose money.
Because it cost a lot of money.
An enormous amount of money! It did cost a lot of money over four years. You don’t make money on films like this. This isn’t a popcorn flick. It’s not going to have a big, wide distribution. You do it because you love it. You’re compelled to tell a story. That’s why I’ve done everything I’ve done: because I’ve been compelled to do it. But, I think, money is discussed as well because, you know, that’s value. And there’s an incredible amount of money generated, but that revenue is being held onto and not shared with, not only the artists, but the employees of the companies as well. I’m sure a lot of employees at EMI would watch this film and actually empathize with the band, because if they’re treating artists like this, you better believe they’re treating employees like this as well.
It’s funny that you’ve made this movie about the horrible time you’ve had with your record deal, and now you’re going to have to negotiate that same territory in the movie industry.
We don’t have to. We could Kickstarter the film. We may do that.
You basically would use it as a platform to presell your movie, whether it is DVDs or tickets to a screening or, uh, anything else.
Why is your whole acting career sort of almost not mentioned in the movie?
I don’t think there was really much thought about it. I don’t think we felt that we were missing anything.
Do you feel like having been an actor before you did 30 Seconds to Mars helped the band, at least initially?
Absolutely not. No, I think it hurt us.
But didn’t it give you recognition, of not just being any old band starting out?
No, no. It was the opposite of recognition. You know that.
How do I know that?
I think having been an actor and then making music — do you know anybody that’s ever gotten an easy time from that?
I don’t know. Did Kris Kristofferson sing first or act first?
You tell me. I think you start at a deficit.
How do you feel about acting now? Do you still want to be doing it?
There’s a lot about it that I love. I’ve always loved filmmaking. I started as a painter. I was studying to be an artist, at an art school. Then I switched to filmmaking, and I got interested in acting. I thought that would be an interesting thing to learn about, and then to continue with directing. I’d been making music since I was a kid. I had always made music. It became a bigger and bigger part of my life. Now that we’ve had some success, it’s really hard to find the time to make a film. It’s a great chunk of time that you have to be very committed to. So I haven’t made a movie in quite some time.
Do you still want to?
I think at some point, maybe, it would be interesting to try it again.
But it’s not a burning desire anymore? Was it ever?
Yeah, for sure. I think it has to be, at least for the things I was doing. I don’t think you would want to do it unless it was a burning desire.
Like Darren Aronofsky, being in Requiem for a Dream?
Yeah. That was a really intense journey. So I think if it’s not a burning desire, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. But, um, I do have a love of cinema. I like to make things and share them with people. That’s really all I do. Whether it’s music or its acting or its filmmaking — I like to create things and then share those things with people. That seems to be the common thing. It’s pretty simple at its core.
Is there a reason why you look like Kurt Cobain in parts of the —
— because there’s a whole section where you have dyed blonde hair and stubble and are doing a photo shoot thrashing around with Terry Richardson.
— No, no. Just coincidence. [Pause.]
Okay. Just curious. Was there anything weird to see of yourself on film?
Uh, it’s a weird experience to share my personal life. I think overall that’s a different thing for me. I’m not used to that.
Any part that you were, like “Ah, man I wish this wasn’t out there.”
I didn’t really love the argument with my brother and I.
When you were ragging on him for not getting the beat to a track right?
Yeah. I felt like the film had so much conflict in it already. I toyed with the idea of chopping that out of the movie. I thought, There’s so much conflict, and do you really need to see it in the band, too? Where we talk about conflict all the time? I left it in because [my editors] Shelby [Siegel] and Stefanie [Visser] liked the fact that you see the band affected by what was going on. And I agreed. It was a really stressful time. I mean, we’re all human.
I like the parts that were just the band goofing off.
Some levity and stuff, right?
Well, it gave sense of like why you would want to be in a band. It seems like a nice lifestyle.
It’s not always about that. I mean, from the band perspective. I think for me, I make music because I’m compelled to do it. And I have been since I was a kid. It’s not to goof off. I never had that approach. I mean, I can go on a hike. I don’t need to make music to have a good time. It’s like, I don’t know, why you write. Why do you write?
I don’t know, it’s what I know how to do.
There you go … these reasons why we do the things we do. They’re interesting questions. There’s another film there, to get into that deeper … uh … antagonistic questions here you ask.
[Surprised.] They are? How so?
I don’t know. You put a little spin on it. It’s interesting. What’s next? [Looks at my notebook.]
Well, I don’t know how this will sound, but whenever I’ve gone on a hike with an actor in L.A., and it hasn’t been that many times, for interviews, they always end up breathing really hard. I think it’s funny that I’m with people who are supposed to be working out all day long and walking up a canyon in L.A. just knocks them out.
I’ll take you on a hike. You wanna go on my hike? I’ll take you on a hike.
Well, you were breathing pretty hard on the hike in the movie.
Oh, I was very sick. So what’s your point? [Grinning.]
I just thought it might have been funny to see yourself on film, getting knocked out by a hike a little bit.
I didn’t think that. But I was very sick. I wasn’t even walking up a hill. It was a street, basically. It looks like a hike. But it was a paved little road, about 300 yards.
No judgment. The hikes kill me in L.A. too.
There are some fun hikes out there. I’ll take you on one sometime if you want.
Not trying to be antagonistic. I just don’t want to repeat what was in the movie.
Sure, sure. I’m game .
You said in the Q&A that you’re going to keep editing the movie?
The movie’s not done yet. For us it’s a chance to take what we learned here, make it better, and, you know, hopefully we can do that. Tighten it up. Make it more succinct. Cut out the shot of me breathing too heavily while I’m hiking because I’m not in shape enough.
I’m gonna bring you on a hike next time in L.A.
No, I’ll die! I’m not saying I’m in shape —
I’m the one who’s going to die. We’ll see. No complaining though, when we go up there.
Promise. You show some funny encounters with fans in the movie. What’s been your weirdest fan encounter in Toronto?
Oh! I just went to a screening to introduce the film and I’m about to go back for Q&A — but I had this guy yell my name from across the street and he started running towards us and the people I was with started getting concerned, because he was very animated and excited. And he ran across the street. And he started taking his shirt off, “I’ve gotta show you something, what I did, what you inspired me to do!” And he ripped his shirt off and he had a tattoo with lyrics from This Is War … and he ended up being really cool. He was a kid in art school here, like a real creative young kid.
Oh, that’s cool.
So I hope that the film creates some conversation beyond “Jared’s so out of shape.”
Walking up this mountain …
I wasn’t saying that!
And what else were some of these questions here? [Looks at my notepad.] Why does he look like Kurt Cobain?
You did look like Kurt Cobain. You can’t deny it! And then there’s that whole Terry Richardson thing —
— and Terry Richardson. What else? What else? Keep pickin’ on me. Come on. What else you got?
You did look a lot like Kurt Cobain and —
— Sorry, I don’t know. I have blonde hair and a scruffy beard.
What’s next for you?
We’re about 80 percent done with new album, and we are focusing on that mostly.
You’ll tour again when?
Next year. We did two years, four months, 311 shows.
I loved the moment at the end of the movie when you asked the audience at a concert, “How many of you stole the album off the Internet?” And everybody was like, “Me!”
Yeah, right, wasn’t that crazy? And I must have said that, like, 50 times.
It’s like they don’t even get it, right?
No. No. And you know its not entirely their fault, you know? I’m not so sure that the way people feel about record companies doesn’t play into the fact that, the justification that people actually use when they actually do steal music. There’s not a lot of love there for record companies from audiences out there. And they should change that. I mean, if I had a company and people felt as negatively as consumers seem to feel about record companies, I’d wanna change that, you know? I wouldn’t want to feel that way? Would you want to work at a company that people hated? That would make me feel really bad. And I feel badly for the people that work at the company. There’s a lot of great people there that work really, really, really hard — and they deserve better. I hope that it continues to change.
I think you’re supposed to go. [His business partner, Emma Ludbrick, is motioning that he needs to go to the Q&A.]
Can’t wait to read this. Are you going to be nice to me?
Yeah! It’s a just a Q&A. It’s your own words.
Is it? But you know. Oh, but come on. You know! You’re too smart.
Do I know what?
What did you study in school?
History? Hmmm. I thought maybe you were a psychology major.
I love history, though. I could have easily studied history. I love to read about history. And I don’t read enough about it. But that’s always my favorite thing, historical things. What’s the best book on history I should read, besides A People’s History of the United States?
Oh, I mean. I’ve been out of school for so long, but I liked American Slavery, American Freedom.
There are some biographies that are pretty good, right? What about the guy who wrote the Steve Jobs book? Have you read his other books?
Walter Isaacson? No. I mean, what I liked about studying history was going through primary sources, not reading history books.
How long have you been at your job now?
Like twelve years. Forever.
You’re too young for that.
No, I’m 34.
You don’t look 40. How does it feel?
I can’t wait to get you on that hill. When you come to L.A., I am going to take you on that hike.
And I will die.
And I am going to pound you. I’m going to tell Emma. [To Emma] Emma, she made fun of me for breathing hard in the film. Like “’Every time I go on a hike with an actor they’re always breathing hard.’ She’s like, ‘They’re all out of shape. Is there anything in the film that you’re embarrassed by?’”
*This post has been edited since it was first published.