How Panic! at the Disco's "The Ballad of Mona Lisa" Was Steampunked
You may or may not have heard of alt-rock band Panic! at the Disco, but a year and a half ago they released a single called "The Ballad of Mona Lisa", which had an accompanying music video that was Steampunk-themed. In fact, here's the video:
Well, I'm going to give you a peek behind the scenes into how this video was, ahem, steampunked. Unfortunately, I don't have any behind-the-scenes pictures, as photographing a set during filming is explicitly forbidden, but since I was actually in the video, I can recount the story of how it came together for you!
They did release a behind-the-scenes, which you can watch below. There's also a shorter one that you can check out on MTV.
Essentially what they say is that the video in many ways pays homage to their earlier video, I Write Sins Not Tragedies. If you watch the two videos, you'll see many similarities, including not just themes, but even specific shots. Mona Lisa is a wake, while Tragedies was a wedding. The rules that appear on the screen during Mona Lisa are the observances for an Irish wake. You can read about all of that on Wikipedia, though. That's not the interesting stuff!
Before I go any further, you probably want to see me in the video. Considering that I was one of several dark-haired, mustachioed men, I probably didn't stand out to you. In the picture below, I'm the gentleman in the brown flat cap to the right of the gorgeous young woman in the center, who happens to be my wife. Yes, I am a lucky man. In this picture, it looks like I'm staring out the window, but I'm actually standing across from someone else, and we're debating the merits of the snacks that were on the table between us.
I apologize for the relatively poor quality of the photo, but it's just a screenshot from the YouTube video. Alas, they did not give us high-quality copies of the video just because we were in it. However, now that you know what I looked like on that day, I'm sure you can watch it again and pick me out from time to time.
So, how did this video achieve its Steampunk look? Who brought it all together, and where did all of the props come from? In a word, Nicholas Baumann and the rest of the crew from The League of STEAM.
Photo of Nicholas Baumann by Greg DeStephano
Nick practically moved his entire garage into this house for the filming, and nearly all of the props on display belong to him, including the pictures on the walls. Interestingly, the house in which this video was filmed was the same house used as Sheriff Seth Bullock's home in the HBO television show Deadwood. As a personal fan of Deadwood, it was sort of a 'squee' moment when I realized that. The house itself is located in a "Wild West"-themed lot in California, at which many westerns are filmed. I was saddened to learn that there was no real Deadwood set, and that the various buildings were located all over the place and were cut together to look close to each other.
When Nick Baumann was contacted to help create this video it was only a few days before the actual filming would take place, so believe it or not, everything for this video came together in the space of about a week.
For those who don't know, the way that music videos work is often that the band or musician has their own personal wardrobe person and stylist, so especially for big budget videos the main act is frequently dressed by a different person than the extras or backups. That was also the case for this video. Nearly everyone you see is wearing their own personal clothes, with the few exceptions of a couple of non-Steampunk professional actors who took part in the video.
Photo of Brendon Urie using the League of STEAM's props by Panic! at the Disco
The clothes that Brendon, the lead singer, is wearing were put on him by his wardrobe person, but his props were custom made in only two days by somewhat-legendary Hollywood blacksmith Tony Swatton, who you may know as having made Blade's sword in Blade, Jack Sparrow's sword in Pirates of the Caribbean, and Captain Hook's hook in Hook (that was fun to say), among many, many others.
I had the rare opportunity to tour his workshop while I was in California, and it was a thing of beauty. There were giant machines that served mysterious purposes, and the entire area had clearly been lovingly and carefully assembled. What's especially impressive is that Brendon's props for this video were the first Steampunk things that Tony had ever made, and since he's a blacksmith, Brendon's arm and goggles were machined from raw metal rather than assembled from pre-made pieces. That means all the gears and decoration on Brendon's arm piece were made by hand in only two days. The producers considered ordering something from a specifically Steampunk maker, but due to time constraints, were unable to.
Photo of Brendon Urie with more League of STEAM props by Panic! at the Disco
The other props, including Brendon's microphone, were largely assembled from sculpted or found objects and were made by one or more members of the League of STEAM. I even had the chance to work side-by-side with Nick in his workshop in the days before the video, and I helped put together a small amp that sits on the floor next to the microphone stand.
Another fun fact about the video is that the net gun featured near the end, which is used to trap "Mary" (aka the woman who killed her husband/fiancé), is actually a fully-functional prop used by the League of STEAM! They're based in California, but if you attend any of their shows, you might even get shot by it. In fact, I seem to recall Nick telling a story about someone who worked for a zoo approaching him about potentially copying his design. Anyway, we did two or three takes of shooting the gun, but Nick had impeccable aim and got Mary (played by actress Misty Rose) each time. It was a pretty impressive sight!
Photo of Misty Rose (aka "Mary") by Panic! at the Disco
So that's how the video was steampunked! It was a combination of the creative talents of Nicholas Baumann, Tony Swatton, and the rest of the League to greater or lesser degrees. Panic! at the Disco liked working with them so much that they later went on to commission the League to make large-scale, custom-made props that they would take with them on their tour around the country. Here's a picture of the majority of the League posing with two fans at Wild Wild West Con. If you look closely, you can probably recognize nearly all of these people from the music video.
Photo by xr440dude
While the League of STEAM was largely responsible for the decor and props in the video, it was, of course, the band itself that came up with the idea of using Steampunk in the first place. While we mostly kept to ourselves during the shoot (as is appropriate... extras shouldn't bother the talent), the band was really friendly, and Brendon even went out of his way to try to remember our names.
All the band members seemed really impressed by our work and our outfits, and I could tell that they're genuinely fans of the aesthetic. That, ultimately, is what made this video look as good as it did—the band's willingness to approach real Steampunks for creative design rather than just using their own Hollywood costume people. That's a rare attitude, and we should all appreciate it!