Taylor Swift unveiled the world premiere of "Safe & Sound," her melancholy new video, on Monday night (Feb. 13) during an MTV News special. The cinematic clip features the Grammy-winning duo the Civil Wars and is inspired by the upcoming film, The Hunger Games.
"I'm so excited about this. This is probably my favorite video I've ever gotten to do," Swift told MTV News' Sway Calloway in the moments prior to the premiere. "My absolute favorite."
As MTV News describes it, the moody, emotional clip features Swift walking barefoot through the woods. Her hair and makeup are noticeably undone. As she makes her way through the cloudy, damp forest in a long white gown, parts of the wooded area burn behind her.
The video was directed by Philip Andelman. Swift shot one of the scenes on a tombstone from the 1800s, lending the scene an eerie vibe.
"It's one of my favorite moments in the video. There's this wide shot where I'm just kind of crumpled up sitting on a gravestone, like a tomb, and it's actually the gravesite of a couple who lived and died in 1853," Swift recalled. "I was just freaked out, and I'm such a history freak. I'm sitting there thinking, 'What were their lives like?' And now here we are, hundreds of years later, filming a music video on their grave. This is insane. ... It's really eerie, considering what the movie is about and how it deals with life and death. It just absolutely blew my mind."
Directed by Gary Ross, the futuristic film centers around a boy and girl selected from 12 districts to fight to the death on live television. The cast includes Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci and Donald Sutherland, among others.
A few days prior to the music video premiere, the Civil Wars' Joy Williams and John Paul White chatted with CMT.com about the video, which was filmed in Watertown, Tenn.
"We thought it was beautiful. We've never been a part of a video production like that -- with a budget," White said. "We've always been DIY. Everything we've done is single-camera-in-a-single-afternoon kind of thing, so it was fun to watch all the mechanics of it. It was surprisingly smooth. Everybody knew what they were doing. It got put together so quickly that it was amazing to see it go down as smoothly as it did."
Although the Civil Wars and Swift are upbeat in person, they draw upon the sadder side of music on "Safe & Sound."
Speaking about Swift, White said, "I think it's very brave of her to step slightly away from what she normally does. There's probably more of a melancholic vibe than she typically pulls off. It makes perfect sense in the trajectory of what she's doing. She's growing and maturing and reaching out. I think the sky's the limits for the types of things that she can do in the future. We were more than happy to maybe darken the world up for her."
"We're the Civil Wars. We specialize in sad," Williams noted with a laugh.
Speaking about the songwriting process, Swift told Calloway, "I knew I wanted it to deal with the empathy and the more sensitive, sad, bittersweet side of the story -- never imagining that this would be picked for a single because it's a lullaby."
Swift, White and Williams are all fans of The Hunger Games books. They insisted on making a video that hinted at the story yet didn't become so literal that casual listeners would be confused by the imagery.
For example, Swift clutches a circular piece of metal in the video. Avid readers will immediately recognize it as the Mockingjay. Others will simply see it as an evocative, fleeting moment.
"We wanted to make what could seem to be a standalone piece of art, that it could stand on its own but it also made definite parallels to the movies as well," Williams said. "If you've known the books, then you'd recognize that [imagery], but if you didn't, it would pique your interest."
Swift, White, Williams and producer T Bone Burnett wrote the song in one day. All three parties happened to be in the Los Angeles area, so they composed it and recorded their vocal tracks just before the duo had to leave for a gig.
Even though it was written quickly, the brooding song elegantly captures the mood of the movie. Yet the Civil Wars emphasize the song isn't sung from the perspective of the lead character, Katniss, or any other character for that matter.
"We tried to make sure that we kept things vague enough that you wouldn't know specifically who was singing to whom," White said. "It's something you could just step into, imagine your own relationship: father/daughter or significant other, however you wanted to look at it.
"It definitely parallels three maybe four different relationships in the book where someone's either comforting or helping or aiding and abetting. We definitely didn't want to set out to write a song that everyone says, 'OK, this is Katniss and her point of view.' Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. We wanted to leave it open-ended," he added.
Swift and the Civil Wars released the single to iTunes on Dec. 23, 2011. The Hunger Games soundtrack will be released on March 20 and the film will open on March 23.