‘Go Outside’ Director Isaiah Seret on the Specter of Jonestown

on Thursday, Jul. 21st

The new video for “Go Outside”, the breakout hit for indie-turned-major label band Cults, is a technical and narrative marvel. Band members Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion are seamlessly inserted into archival footage of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple and its ill-fated commune in Guyana, known as Jonestown. It’s a striking video, whose power derives in part from the narrative tension between the innocuous imagery — happy church-goers dancing and singing — and the knowledge that Jonestown ended in a massacre.

The video was helmed by Isaiah Seret, an up-and-coming music video director with a knack for creating beautifully realized narratives at pop song length.  Before meeting with Seret in Echo Park on the patio of a coffee bar, I wasn’t sure who I was going to find. The video for “Go Outside” had set off warning bells. While his body of work hints at a passionate humanism, the subject of Jonestown is so charged that the use of camera wizardry to insert a pop band — even a very good pop band — into the historical record felt like director and band were playing with fire.

The song itself has always had the specter of Jim Jones haunting the track. The opening sample of Jones, drawn from his infamous “death tapes”, forms a sinisterly ironic counterpoint to the bright pop tones of the music. That sample raises the question: does the track reflect a sincere interest in the history here, or is it just a pose? The video raises the stakes even farther.

“When the idea [for the video] came about,” Seret tells me, “it came about in a spontaneous moment. And I really feel that afterwards I had to check it: Wait is this being exploitive? What is this going to be? That process of checking back in actually helped me shape the story.

“It became this sentiment that I want to put the band in this historic story, to take the audience back into that historical experience. So when I was building the band into it, at first I had this thought: ‘Oh I should do a narrative, like a sub-narrative of the band’s story. They should be in conflict whether to leave Jonestown because you read accounts and this was going on with a lot of people.’

Archival Footage of Jim Jones used in "Go Outside".

“But then when I got all those videos from Jonestown and I was studying the footage I realized there would never be a moment of sort of… basically everyone was so brainwashed when the camera was on. To put on the positive face and present Jonestown in a positive light to the world that the camera would never have captured a moment of uncertainty, conflict, any of those things. It’s just not in the records. Until the very end when everything is falling apart in the NBC clips.”

Rather than force the story, Seret shaped the work to the material at hand.

“When I realized that, I realized there’s no way I could manipulate this narrative and make it feel authentic; because this has to be stitched together with documentary footage like a real story,” says Seret. “I realized that at the same time I don’t want to fabricate the story. I want this to just be a very human story. A human narrative about these people and this experience.”

That instinct to tell the human side of the People’s Temple arises from Seret’s own background. Self-described as the child of New Age “hippies”, the director spent time after film school in the San Francisco Bay Area. There he studied Asian comparative philosophy, becoming interested in “living traditions of spirituality”, where the emphasis is not on holy texts, but teachers and gurus.

“The Bay Area has it all,” Seret says. “They have charlatans, and lots of authentic and humble teachers too.”

The alternate spirituality scene in the Bay Area also had cults.

“You’d have these friends who’d basically disappear into them. And the scariest cults are the ones that demand secrecy, which is definitely the core of [Jim] Jones. He demanded secrecy from everyone. He was having sex with everyone. He was just doing things that he knew if anyone found out he’d be shut down in a heartbeat.”

Seret addresses the charge that the video may be exploiting the tragedy of Jonestown by pointing to precedents set by other filmmakers.

“[Like] David Fincher or Spielberg. Like Schindler’s List. These sort of famous depictions of historical and tragic events; and they are never really questioned as exploitive. They’re always sort of respected as sort of… preserving history. You’re bringing this moment of time into the world and you’re doing it in a commercial enough way that people are going to watch it.

“There’s no way I get the 500,00 views on a documentary clip about Jonestown. Not that my intention was ‘I need to preserve the Jonestown records.’ Although I did meet people that that is their intention and they’re the ones I collaborated with to actually get this done. But that audience would never have been brought into this world without this video.”

Even so, the director acknowledges that the audience may not fully understand the context.

“It was a concern that we never say Jonestown. We don’t give people under 30 that may never have heard of it, we don’t give them enough to really know what happened. For them it’s just — I’m telling a story.”

For Seret, telling a story is the primary motivation. His videos for Raphael Saadiq and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are epic affairs that play like condensed feature films. In the case of “Go Outside”, the nature of the material may have changed — archival footage and effects instead of “30 locations in two days” shoots — but the goal remains the same.

“Story wise I feel like it was the same as my other videos. Creatively that’s the only struggle: can you find the right story, the right balance, not hit them over the head? Leave a question. Let things unfold in a super-compact amount of time.”

With “Go Outside” Seret has created an emotionally charged invitation to explore the history of Jonestown, which the song alone only references. By having the story of the video take on the paradox of the song head on — bittersweetness lyrics, light melody, cult leader samples — Seret took the creative risk of playing the material too “on the nose”. What could have been a disaster is, instead, a haunting ode to one of the bleakest moments in American history.

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