Last October, when Green Day and director Samuel Bayer convened at a nondescript Los Angeles soundstage to shoot the video for "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," there was already, as Bayer puts it "something in the air." A few weeks earlier, the band had earned the first #1 debut of its 16-year career when American Idiot topped the Billboard albums chart, selling more than 266,000 copies right out of the gate. Critics had begun to heap praise on the album, calling it the first great rock record of the new millennium, and the title track was fast becoming staple on rock radio stations across the nation.
But nothing could prepare them for what happened next.
Thanks in part to the strength of the "Boulevard" video — which is nominated for seven Video Music Awards, including Video of the Year (see "Green Day, Gwen, Missy Nab Most Nominations For MTV Video Music Awards") — American Idiot would rocket its way back to the top spot on the Billboard charts, crack the double-platinum barrier, earn a boatload of Grammy noms and become not just a critical fave, but an absolute must-have for the "TRL" generation as well.
In short, it crossed over. Big time.
"The band hadn't blown up yet," Bayer said. "I don't remember 'American Idiot' being a real crossover hit. But 'Boulevard' exploded. It was the song that really blew up that record. When we made the video, I had no idea it was going to be as big as it was, or get nominated for Video Music Awards or anything like that. I just thought it was important to do it."
Crossing over certainly wasn't Bayer's intention. He wanted "Boulevard" to be a somber, desolate affair, one half of a two-part road trip through America's decline from joyous utopia to divided, disaffected nation-on-the-brink (though it was released first, it's thematically the second part, with the "Holiday" video — filmed on the same soundstage immediately following the "Boulevard" shoot — serving as sort of a prequel).
"With 'Boulevard,' I tried to make something that was empty and desolate and introspective," Bayer said. "If you think about our country and the specter of war and the problems we're having, then 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams' is the state of the union — and 'Holiday' is the wild trip that got us here. It was about living your life and partying as if there's no tomorrow. But 'Boulevard' is the tomorrow. And it's a really dark, gray, desolate landscape. It's a graveyard.
"It wasn't like it was a great linear story between the two videos, but 'Holiday' was brightly colored and you're driving 100 miles an hour and you don't care what happens, but then the car breaks down," he explained. "And then with 'Boulevard,' you start walking, and that journey goes on forever."
Green Day did a lot of walking during the "Boulevard" shoot — three days' worth, to be exact — all of it on a single treadmill, and all of it inside that hot L.A. soundstage. That's because Bayer wanted total control over every aspect of the video's bleak dreamscape, from the battered convertible the band rolls in on at the beginning of the clip ("I'm a car fanatic, but if I saw one more Bentley or Rolls-Royce in a video I was going to lose it. I wanted a real nasty car for them," he laughed) to the actual film he shot the video on. And like all things he does, he took a rather, um, hands-on approach to the whole process.
"A lot of people don't understand that on 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams,' every image was shot on a soundstage," Bayer said. "They're never outside. Even when they're walking, they're on treadmills on a soundstage, and everything's projected behind them from exterior footage I shot separately. A lot of videos I see now work so hard to make everything look seamless, and I wasn't going for that. I spent a week hand-scratching the negative with razor blades and cigarettes. I threw a couple rolls of it in my shower and left it for a few days."
Bayer's strange ways must have struck a chord with the band, because they worked with him again on the epic "Wake Me Up When September Ends" video, and plan to shoot one final clip with the director at the helm: a nine-minute mini-movie for "Jesus of Suburbia" (see " 'Teen Spirit' Director Calls Green Day Clip His Career Highlight").
Bayer claims he's finished with music videos completely and says he's ready to move on to feature films. The director explained that working with Green Day was the culmination of his 15-year career, and for a guy who's shot videos for artists including Nirvana, Metallica and the Rolling Stones, that's saying something.
And even when he's old and gray, Bayer said he will always have a soft spot in his heart for the "Boulevard" clip, his dark little look at the death of the American dream that somewhat inexplicably became a massive hit and launched Green Day back into the stratosphere.
"I can remember the day I did Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' " Bayer said. "It was the first thing I ever directed. I was 29 years old. I had no career. I remember that day like it was yesterday. And I look back on that video and I'm as proud of it now as I was then. And maybe that's the mark of a great piece of art: It's timeless."
"I think Green Day will look back on this song and it will be as important to them 10 years from now as it is now," he continued. "And the same thing goes for the video. One day, I'll look back at 'Boulevard' and think, 'This was the best thing I could've done.' "