By Jada Yuan
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.
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