VMA Lens Recap: The Story Behind Eminem’s ‘Without Me’

Originally pitched as a 'serious' video, clip portrays Mathers at his most monstrous.

It takes a visionary and a vision of scary to make a video like “Without Me.”

Eminem, along with director Joseph Kahn, created an action-packed comic book for your television to accompany the hilarious first single from The Eminem Show.

One of six nominees for Video of the Year at Thursday’s 2002 MTV Video Music Awards (click for the complete list of 2002 VMA Winners), the “Without Me” video gathers more troubled souls than a Mathers family picnic, among them über porn star Jenna Jameson, “Real World” outcast Puck and hunted terrorist Osama bin Laden.

With more witty vignettes and twisted parodies than “My Name Is” and “The Real Slim Shady” combined, the clip is Eminem at his best. When, dressed as “fat” Elvis, the Detroit rapper eats a sandwich from his toilet droppings, there’s no denying we’ve created a monster.

And this video was supposed to show Slim Shady’s mature side.

“It was first pitched to me as a more ‘serious’ Eminem video,” said Kahn, a prolific director who has done more than 200 videos. “We were initially going to make some sort of slick-looking video with movie-like production values. Eminem was going to just look cool, and in no way was he going to wear a silly costume or make a fool out of himself. Oops.”

Instead, Eminem is rarely seen not in costume. Aside from break-dancing as “fat” Elvis and bin Laden, we see him on a talk show as his infamous mom Debbie Mathers, doing yoga as Moby, competing in ‘Survivor,’ making out with a blow-up doll on ‘The Real World,’ and, of course, saving a young boy from the evil The Eminem Show as a superhero.

As the latter — the central story of many in the video — he is interrupted from a tryst with Jameson and actress/fitness guru Kiana Tom to save the day with his partner, Dr. Dre. While Eminem dressed up to look similar to Batman’s sidekick, Robin, for the role, the rapper’s mentor simply sported a pair of dark sunglasses.

“I don’t think I can see him in a Batman costume, it’s not very gangsta,” Eminem said on the set of the video in Los Angeles last spring. “Me, I’ll try anything.”

Shady did have one issue with his costume. “For people to just start noticing the bulge in my pants is a little weird,” he deadpanned. “I’ve always had it. Maybe it’s ’cause I was wearing skintight pants.”

Eminem came up with some of the concepts for the video, which also features fellow Detroit rappers D12 and Obie Trice, and Kahn put them on paper and made them happen for the cameras.

Writing the treatment, however, wasn’t easy. “I wasn’t allowed to hear the song at first for fears of Internet piracy,” Kahn said. “So I ended up listening to it in [Interscope Chairman] Jimmy Iovine’s office and writing the treatment there on my laptop with everyone waiting. I felt like a performing seal.”

At the time, Kahn had just signed on to direct the Ice Cube movie “Torque,” so he nearly had to pass on the job, but Eminem’s influence was able to make it work.

“We liked what he did on [D12's] ‘Purple Hills,’ ” Eminem said of Kahn. “If I’m not coming up with ideas on the set, I know he is.”

Interestingly, nearly every idea one of the two had involved some sort of special effects.

“Almost every shot is manipulated,” Kahn revealed. “But it wasn’t the wow-type of effects. This was the opposite, where I was trying to go for a cheesy, cheap quality in effects, lighting, costume and set design. I thought it was funnier that way, if things looked fake or not polished. The ‘Survivor’ ocean is pretty bad. You can see the comps through his hat.”

One idea that was definitely Eminem’s was to spoof Moby. Kahn, who directed the electronic music guru in his “South Side” and “We Are All Made of Stars” videos, hesitated at first. (Kahn has also worked with Eminem rivals Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and ‘NSYNC).

“I checked with Moby before I did the video, and he told me to do it,” Kahn said. “He wrote back after seeing it that he thought it was funny. I know Moby actually respects Em as an artist, and I told Em that. He seemed honestly taken aback. I’d like them to collaborate on a song and let me direct the video. Maybe we could make an ‘Ebony and Ivory’ for the 21st century.”

Kahn was also a bit uneasy about “Eminem wanting to play Osama as a dancing jackass.”

“Dre was really into the idea, too,” he recalled. “I thought the timing of it was pretty ballsy. You have got to respect an artist that is willing to press a button like that in lieu of his career. It was a brave move. I think because this image has been repeated so many times, it actually helped the world move on a little. We’re now desensitized to Osama’s image. He no longer looks so scary. He looks pathetic. Maybe some kids can go to sleep better now.”

Eminem said that was exactly his motivation.

“I’m just trying to make light of a bad situation,” he said. “If you can lighten the mood even a little bit, it helps all of us get past it. … And I couldn’t think of a worse punishment than Bizarre sitting on you.”

For a feature interview with Eminem, check out “Eminem: When The Music Stops.”

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